It was the sound of the prison gates closing behind him that made Troy Ellis finally realize the gravity of his situation.
“When I got to Angola, that's when it hit me,” said the 55-year-old Ellis. “And it really hit me hard because I didn't know what to do.”
Ellis was convicted for his role in a small-time burglary, but a string of prior drug convictions made him a repeat offender. The district attorney's office decided to increase his sentence under the multiple offender law and then-Judge Julien Parker judge gave him the maximum: life without parole.
Ellis' sister, Venita LaCroix, could not accept that prison would be the final chapter in her brother's life. So when the legal remedies reached a dead end, she called WWL-TV.
An Eyewitness Investigation that aired in April 2014 revealed that Ellis’ co-defendant, Patrick Constantin, confessed to his role in the 2012 burglary, a break-in that netted a debit card and a baseball card collection that was later sold for $80.
Constantin, who had a similar rap sheet, pleaded guilty and was out of prison in less than three years.
Troubled by the disparity, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro agreed to meet with Ellis’ family. They made a strong impression.
“The family came to me and talked and said, ‘Look, we'd like you to reconsider this. We'd like you to look at this sentence,’ ” Cannizzaro said. “Sometimes the families do a very, very good job negotiating on behalf of their loved ones.”
In a rare move, Cannizzaro agreed to a reduced sentence. Ellis was granted parole and, two weeks ago, he was released to the hugs and smiles of his family.
“The lady at the prison called and she said Troy's about to be released,” LaCroix said. “I said, what time can I pick him up?”
Ellis said he was overcome by emotion to see his family waiting for him outside the gates of Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, La.
“Man, I wanted to cry but I was holding it in. Just coming out from all that long suffering I did in there,” Ellis said.
Ellis' release is not the most remarkable part of his turnaround story. That comes from what he has done with his new-found freedom.
Since his release, Ellis volunteers several days a week at the New Orleans Mission, one of the city's largest homeless shelters. In addition to feeding the homeless and hungry, Ellis counsels and prays with people battling the same drug demons he battled, even as he gets back on his own feet after eight years behind bars.
“I've been through that, so if I could talk to them about the things I've been through I probably could help them,” he said.
On other days, Ellis volunteers as part of a community outreach program. The rest of the time, he’s living with his sister in Slidell and attending church in Pearl River.
“He went straight from the jailhouse straight to Bible study,” LaCroix said.
Ellis said it's all part of a pact he made with God when he was locked up. He said that, eventually, he’d like to start his own ministry.
“I was just having a vision of the pastor teaching me the word how to go out and support others,” he said.