Last Step to Redemption

On Friday nights, the parking lot of an 18-unit apartment building in Pompano Beach fills with white plastic lawn chairs. The men who gather there seem, at first blush, to have nothing in common, displaying every look possible, from clean-cut preppy to gaunt heroin chic to sunburned construction worker to dreadlocked roughneck. It's the sort of commingling you might expect to glimpse if Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, and Ecko decided to shoot a fashion spread together.

But these men, of all ages, have lived a similar nightmare. An insatiable urge to drink alcohol, pop opiates, and maybe smoke some crack cocaine has landed most of them in jail. They're like tornadoes that once destroyed everything in their paths. Their substance abuse has tormented loved ones, terrorized innocents, and made them feel like the scum of the earth. At 1st Step Sober House, these guys have a chance to kick the habit. Make amends. Start fresh.

"This is frontline recovery," says Chris Doherty, a director at 1st Step. "This isn't some Gucci-ass, Kumbaya program."

On the night of last January 25, the men arranged their plastic chairs in a circle and Richard Entriken, 1st Step's 60-year-old founder, stepped into the center. He was tall and George Clooney-handsome, with a gray shadow of a beard and eyes that crinkled happily even when he wasn't smiling. Entriken had picked up a few cocaine charges in his wild days and carried on a long love affair with liquor. But that night in January, he was marking 16 years of sobriety — showing the newbies at the meeting that they too could lead a clean and contented life.

Entriken chose Mike Banas, a 39-year-old with spiky blond hair whom he had helped to put down the crack pipe ten years earlier, to present him with an Alcoholics Anonymous medallion in honor of the occasion. A teary-eyed Entriken accepted the token and launched into one of his motivational speeches. The men sat in rapt attention.

Entriken spoke in his booming baritone of how grateful he was to his wife of 24 years, Sandra, for once kicking his sorry behind to the curb. One of his favorite mottos was, "Tough love without compassion is just cruelty," and Sandra had given him the precise dose of tough love that he needed to straighten out. He spoke of how important it is to share the message of sobriety and to help others learn to navigate life safely. He employed another favorite saying, about how the elevator to success is broken and those guys would have to take the stairs. When he was done, the men cheered.

Richard Entriken personified the 12th and final step of Alcoholics Anonymous, the one that asks the reformed to carry the message of sobriety to others. In his copy of The Big Book, the Bible of Alcoholics Anonymous, Entriken had bookmarked the chapter devoted to "working with others" with a thin American flag. In the margins of one page, he had scrawled these words in black ink: GIVE ALL YOU HAVE. On another, he had highlighted in blue this passage: "Your job now is to be at the place where you may be of maximum helpfulness to others... You should not hesitate to visit the most sordid spot on earth on such an errand. Keep on the firing line of life with these motives, and God will keep you unharmed."

But even God couldn't help the effusive rehabilitation promoter that night.

Sobriety is a gift for those who check into the 180-bed 1st Step, but there are bills to pay. Rent is a fact of life, and becoming a responsible member of society is part of the recovery process. Newcomers to 1st Step get at least three weeks free before they are expected to pony up cash. Weekly rent of $150 is due on Fridays.

No one knows exactly how much money Entriken had collected from his charges that night, but even if only 100 men paid up, there would have been $15,000 on the premises. Entriken had a routine for taking the money offsite. Well after all the men cleared out of the meeting, the directors of 1st Step would stand lookout around the property while Entriken carried the cash to his car. Entriken served two tours as an airborne ranger in Vietnam, and his military training stayed with him. He was always vigilant, always looking over his shoulder.

But as he approached the driver's side of his truck with the rent money shortly after midnight that Friday night in January, he and his sentries were ambushed.

Chris Doherty was standing guard 20 feet away, on SW Second Street. Banas was positioned on the passenger side of Entriken's truck, just ten feet away. Banas saw three young black men wearing Rasta and ski hats jump out from a nearby hedge. The robbers didn't bother to cover their faces, and they were carrying guns.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie