A former wrestler finds the resolve to stop his life’s downward spiral. His best moves come.
By Jim Beseda
Sports offers much more than a venue for competition. It offers many athletes a way to prove themselves, develop character, even redefine their lives. The story of Richard Jensen is the first of an occasional series looking at athletes who credit sports with helping them start over. As he stood on the wrestling mat recently at the Portland State Open, waiting for his match to resume, Richard Jensen knew his life had taken a turn. Jensen had been wrestling for many years. Wrestling with personal demons, and losing.
He had done and sold drugs, he had served time, he had abused alcohol, and he seemed destined to behind bars for the rest of his adult life. And the way he was going, the chances of him liming long enough to have gray hair and middle-aged memories were slim, whether the cause of death was drugs or perhaps a homemade knife wielded in a federal prison yard. He didn’t have time to think about all of that as he waited for the referee’s signal to begin wrestling in the third round of his 197-pound match. Jensen was one point ahead, pondering what he might do in the final two minutes.
Suddenly, he also thought about his mother, Marie. He wished she were alive to see this. The last time Jensen talked to his mom, in the fall of 2003, she was terminally sick with cancer and he was in prison, serving time for manufacturing methamphetamine. He is 36 now, and he has gone a little more than three years without drugs or alcohol. And here he was, standing on the mat at PSU and poised for his first wrestling victory as a freshman at Clackamas Community College.
After graduating from Tigard high School, where he had been a state wrestling tournament qualifier in 1989, Jensen and a friend went to Seattle, hoping to find work in commercial fishing. Jensen got a job with Icicle Seafoods and spent a year living on a fishing boat and working at the company’s processing plant in Petersburg, Alaska.
The next year, he worked on a crabbing boat in the Bering Sea. Cocaine and marijuana were readily available at $150 a gram and $150 an eighth-ounce, respectively. The crew was at sea for two to three weeks at a time, and the deck boss made sure everybody was taken care of, Jensen said. Back ashore in the various villages and towns, Jensen said, “It was as if the dealers would almost wait for the ships to come in. I sunk in real deep, real fast.” In October 1993, with $8,000 in of his own wages, Jensen and three other men went to California to buy methamphetamine. Jensen said the money was enough to cover about half of what the men intended to buy. The dealer had the meth in Los Angeles and the plan was to meet in Yreka.
The group coming from Los Angeles included an informant. Police raided the motel where the deal took place, and Jensen said they found an estimated 2 ½ ounces of methamphetamine in an empty room. They also caught Jensen trying to fee, charged him with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, and sent him to Shasta County Main Jail in Redding, where he spent the next four months.
Jensen’s life continued to spiral. He was hanging out with career criminals, and jail was past of the lifestyle, he said. He bounced in and out of jails on the West Coast – from “Pierce County to LA County,” he said – and was convicted on felony charges of drug possession and robbery.
“I wanted to be part of the crew, and being a drug addict… that was who I was,” he said. “So I settled like that for a long time, where I found a place where I was OK with going back and forth to jail.”
As Jensen’s criminal record lengthened, so did his sentences. Four times after he was released from jail in Multnomah County, he was cord-ordered to enroll in ChangePoint – a substance abuse and mental health treatment program in Southeast Portland – as a condition of his probation. But he never followed through with the program inevitably ended up drinking doing drugs and committing more crime.
In July 2002, he was sentenced for two years in jail for possession of a controlled substance. He served one year, and the second year was suspended with the warning that if he messed up again, he would served the rest of the time. Three months after his release, he messed up again.
At the time, Jensen remembers, he was two months behind his rent, the utilities at his house had been shut off, he was unemployed, and his days revolved around gathering the necessary ingredients to manufacture methamphetamine. “That was my full-time job,” he said. “I was using every day at time, and I was pretty much out of my van.”
On the afternoon of October 11, 2003, Jensen was driving alone Gresham to Sandy along Highway 26. He said he had about a half pound of ephedra, a pound of red phosphorous and everything else he needed to produce about a half pound of meth when the police pulled him over. He knew it wasn’t a routine traffic stop when he looked in the side mirror and saw that the officer approaching the van was wearing latex gloves. “They sealed the van, they took the van away, and then they took me away,” Jensen said.
Instead of going to jail, Jensen was sent to Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem to begin a one-year sentence.
He had time to dry out, clean up and reflect, and when he looked at some of the other inmates, he didn’t like what he saw. He was sick, he said, and he remembers saying to himself, “These guys are 40 and 50 years old, still going to hail, doing the same things that I’m doing right now. Oh, no, no, no, no. If I keep doing this, I’m making a decision to be that guy right there.'”
Jensen uses Oct. 11, 2003 as his sobriety date, and he credits the patrolman who pulled him over for saving his life. “I had a chance to change,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly how to do it, but I knew that there was a way out. I just knew it.”
About six months after his release from prison, in spring 2005, Jensen got a call from Randy Sorvisto, one of the founders of Central City Concern’s mentoring program. Sorvisto wanted Jensen to go with him for a ride to downtown Portland. Jensen, a mechanic in training, said he thought Sorvisto wanted him to look at a car.
They ended up at the Recovery Association Project Center, then at Southeast 19th Avenue and Ankeny Street. Sorvisto said he just needed to run inside for a minute to grab something.
“So, I’m just standing around on the porch, and this beautiful girl comes out, like an angel,” Jensen said. “I didn’t know it, but it was really an angel.” Her name was Brenna Bedsaul – or Bre to her friends. Jensen asked her, “Have I met you before at a meeting?” “No, my name is Brenna, and I’m from Vancouver,” she said. “And I’m your sister.”
The siblings, who have the same father but different mothers, had never met but had corresponded briefly in the late 1990’s. Bedault’s mother had told her about her half brother, nine years her senior, and Bedsaul found an address for Jensen, who was in a series of jail terms.
When they met, Jensen had about 15 months of sobriety, but Bedsaul was struggling with her own drug addiction.
Jensen gave her a positive example to follow. “He’s a big reason why I’m clean today,” Bedsaul said. “He showed me the way. He showed me that it was OK to be the person that I am.”
Jensen also tries to be an example to those he meets through the Loyola Group of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the city’s oldest 12-step recovery men’s groups. Bob B., a long time Loyola member, hasn’t had a drink since 1970 – the year Jensen was born. He has seen hundreds of men come through the doors of AA. Some stay, others don’t.
“I can tell you what a guy’s chances are of being successful within two percentage points,” Bob said. “The two percentage points are zero or 100, because it’s all or nothing. “What we have with Richard is a test of time. No, Richard is not cured. And Richard could relapse tomorrow. But isn’t it interesting that he continues to do all the things today that he did yesterday that have him a chance to have a today?” Bob said he doesn’t envision Jensen slipping.
“Richard has too much to lose now,” he said. “He feels good about himself. I won’t say he’s over the hump, but he now sees that he’s becoming the man that he always wanted to be.” Bedsaul never knew Jensen as a man who got into bar fights, stole from other drug dealers and often spent days on end strung out on alcohol and drugs. And often spent days on end strung out on alcohol and drugs.
She knows only the brother whose life revolves for the most part around his family and friends, a daughter in Myrtle Point, another daughter in Florida, school cars, AA meetings and wrestling. She is impressed by his dedication to morning runs and he has lost 24 pounds since enrolling at Clackamas. Jensen has gone without soda drinks, milk, pizza, bread and ice cream since the fall. He has replaced those foods with fruits, vegetables, protein drinks and lost of water. He won’t eat anything after 7 pm. “Just the fact that he’s out here wrestling at his age shows what kind of a person her is,” Bedsaul said. “He’s got a lot of drive.”
“My brother is so serious about it, so I know that the team means a lot to him. Yeah, it’s a little crazy, but when he told me he was going to wrestle and he was going to try out for the team … you know, anything he puts his mind to, he’s going to do.”
Margie Gultry of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report. Photographs by Bruce Ely