At over six feet tall and 200 pounds with large, rough hands and a few wrinkles on his weathered face, Frank "Chui" Fitzgerald looks intimidating in a black beanie. That is until he smiles.
With one warm grin lighting up his face, Fitzgerald, 69, is transformed from a hardened criminal into a kind-hearted spokesman for the recovery home that gave him a second chance at life.
After spending more than 40 years in various state prisons, Fitzgerald said Christianity turned his life around. He recently became the first inmate with a life sentence to be paroled from Mule Creek State Prison in Ione. For the last month, he has been living at Father's House, a re-entry home for Christian men coming out of prison, in rural Galt.
Long before he found God, Fitzgerald was a violent gang banger on the streets of San Francisco. He had moved to California from Chicago in his 20's to find the father he had never known growing up, and he did his first stint in jail for burglary.
Fitzgerald was sent to prison for life for killing a rival gang member after a drug deal gone sour. That was 30 years ago.
"It was rough in prison," said Fitzgerald, who bounced around 10 different prisons in California.
While in San Quentin State Prison, he met the notorious gang leader George Jackson and joined his Black Guerilla Family. It was Jackson who gave Fitzgerald his nickname "Chui," Swahili for panther.
"Most panthers in the wild are solitary," Fitzgerald said. "He named me Chui because I was just like a panther."
Fitzgerald was transferred to Salinas Valley State Prison near Solidad and he was soon leader of a gang that spanned across northern California prisons.
"With my personality, it wasn't too long before I was controlling the yard," he said. "We were a pretty violent gang. I was calling the shots. Everything had to come through me."
Fitzgerald said race riots were common in prison and guards would provoke the inmates to stir up trouble and collect hazard pay and overtime. He said he was full of anger in prison.
"I had so much hatred, mistrust and hurt that I carried with me from childhood on," he said. "I would pace the small cell all night long. It would be bubbling inside me. When they would rack the doors in the morning, the first person I'd see I'd knock out. I was hurting so much that I wanted other people to hurt."
After smashing a guard's face with a metal tray, Fitzgerald found himself in solitary confinement where he said he reevaluated his life.
"I was on my knees on the floor crying," he said. "I had no idea how I got there. It scared me."
He said there was a Gideon Bible in the cell and most of the pages had been torn out and rolled for smokes, but he read it anyway. After six months in the hole, he was released into the prison yard where he quit the gang.
He was later transferred to California Men's Colony near San Louis Obispo where he started attending prayer services.
"I dived straight into it head first," he said. "Before I knew it, I was giving bible services. I turned my life around and I haven't looked back since."
Fitzgerald was transferred to Mule Creek where he continued his prayer services. He also creates art using a heated metal rod to burn portraits into wood and he writes poetry. One of his poems, "Ain't that Making Love," was published in a poetry magazine and he received fan mail from all over the country. One of his female fans came to visit him in prison and he ended up marrying her.
Fitzgerald is most proud of the bachelor's degree in social science from San Jose State University that he earned in prison.
When Fitzgerald was released to Father's House last month, he became one of the rare lifers on parole. Jeff Shaw, Fitzgerald's parole officer, has only dealt with three lifers in his 21 years. He said Fitzgerald has been a model parolee and is on his way to turning his life around.
"He's been excellent," Shaw said. "He probably appreciates freedom more than anyone I have on my case load."
Fitzgerald said he loves living at Father's House and plans on staying in the area.
"I see myself becoming the head of a church," he said. "I'm putting roots down here. This is where I want to be."