From rap sheets to college transcripts

    UW-Eau Claire student is on a journey to shed his checkered past as he pursues his degree


    Photo by SUBMITTED

    Bryan poses in front of his brother’s mustang in May 2013 after graduating from CVTC. He is pursuing a degree in journalism this fall.

    Editor’s note: Bryan Hellios is a journalism student and has contributed work to The Spectator before.

    Is it nature or is it nurture?

    It’s an age-old question among sociologists, healthcare providers and armchair philosophers regarding the choices we make during our lives. What matters more? Is it our childhood influences and the people we surround ourselves with that push us one way or the other? Or is it something inherent within us, a part of our personality or a trait written in our DNA that guides our decisions?

    There are those who might say UW-Eau Claire student Bryan Hellios made his decision months prior to his April 24, 1995 arrest when he first tried marijuana or that it was ultimately his choice to bolt from a traffic stop outside of Neillsville that day because he knew he had a pot pipe in the car.

    As for his homelife, the Hellios family were upstanding members of the community who raised their son with Christian values, Hellios said. He ran from the police in part because he was afraid of his parent’s disappointment.

    Neither Hellios nor his family could afford a lawyer who could have pointed to a traumatic brain injury he suffered the summer before his sophomore year of high school as a factor in the case, Hellios said. Doctors initially gave the teenager a 10 percent chance of surviving, let alone functioning at a high level. And yet, after a month in the hospital and six months of rehabilitation, Hellios emerged relatively unscathed, although he wasn’t completely whole.

    Hellios said regaining his motor skills was a challenging process that took time. To this day he walks with a slight hitch in his gait. The injury left lingering effects on his faculties as well, including a propensity for impulsive behavior, Hellios said.

    However, brain trauma nor his young age had a bearing on his case, Hellios said. He was charged with a felony for evading an officer at the age of 17.

    “That was it, I was a felon,” Hellios said. “I didn’t realize (what that meant) at the time. I was young.”

    The 1990s represented some of the highest crime levels in the nation’s history. The justice system responded harshly to curtail crime and, in many cases, punished younger perpetrators who many believed had enjoyed too much leniency up to that time, said Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at UW-Eau Claire.

    There are multiple ways law enforcement can approach crime, whether that is to prevent the crime from happening in the first place, rehabilitating the criminal into a functional member of society or retribution for the crime. The latter wins more often than not in the justice system, Patchin said.

    “Revenge is the fundamental basis of all law,” Patchin said. “Is it right? Is it efficient? No. Is it effective? Probably not. Especially if you’re the victim, you want vengeance.”

    While this serves to protect the community, it also isolates and places criminals into toxic situations, Patchin said.

    “There’s evidence (being labeled a felon) can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Patchin said. “Not only as a felon or a criminal do we treat you differently but also you can’t get certain jobs. You can’t associate with certain people. Getting an education is difficult. So we force you on this trajectory or this path because of that stigma.”

    As a result, post-high school opportunities like attending college or a sustainable career were severely hampered, Hellios said. Other pursuits like the military denied him as a result of his status as a felon.

    What followed was an odyssey of criminality, a laundry list of 17 offenses that include possession of marijuana, manufacturing and delivery of cocaine, theft, disorderly conduct, taking and driving a vehicle without consent and felony feeling, among other charges, according to the Wisconsin Court System Circuit Court Access.

    At times, his past played out like a gritty hollywood script.

    In the late ‘90s, Hellios smoked a joint laced with an unknown substance at a rave party. He said he blacked out, lost control and punched a security officer which led to a violent altercation that left him badly beaten with no feeling in his hands for six months after the incident.

    In February 2004 Hellios stole a car at Johnson Creek and made a run for the Mexican border, where he knew friends on the other side, Hellios said. He got as far as Santa Rosa, New Mexico before the police caught up to him and he spent the next three weeks traveling shackled and handcuffed in a bus for days at a time with short stays at county jails in Randall County, Texas and Christian County, Kentucky where he witnessed riots at each prison, Hellios said.

    After he returned to Clark County, Wisconsin friends of his convinced him to utilize his contacts in Mexico to deal crack cocaine, Hellios said.

    This led to a period of selling drugs that culminated in an arrest on July 8, 2009 when Hellios was lured into a meeting with undercover authorities and attempted to sell a little over 10 grams of cocaine to an informant. He was promptly arrested by an officer at the scene and told he may serve close to two decades in prison.

    “I’m facing nineteen years for as much cocaine as can fit in the palm of your hand,” Hellios said.

    But, to Hellios’ surprise, authorities slapped him with five years probation instead of the prison sentence. The alternative punishment was given when the informant proved to be unreliable and any evidence connected to him wouldn’t hold up in court, Hellios said.

    In all, he served three stints in prison for his crimes, with stretches spent in solitary confinement and much of his life out of jail under community supervision, Hellios said.

    What prompted Hellios to pursue higher education is what prompted him to deal drugs: making ends meet. After he was released from prison in 2009, Hellios found himself living with his parents in a small rural town with few job opportunities. He was surrounded by people who threatened to pull him back into his former lifestyle, Hellios said.

    “I was (31) years old, I was making minimum wage (at my job),” Hellios said. “All the people that work there are still asking me for drugs. It’s not going to take long before I have a problem with my car. I’m not going to (starve) or I’m not going to be broke before I go back to what I know what to do.”

    The jump from convicted felon to nontraditional student, from rap sheets to college transcripts, can be a difficult one. Hellios said the academic side of college isn’t the hard part — he scored a perfect 4.0 GPA during his first semester of online classes at Chippewa Valley Technical College in the spring of 2011 and has appeared on the dean’s list at UW-Eau Claire. The challenge is finding housing.

    While under probation, moving from one jurisdiction to another proved impossible at first as the officers supervising his case were never satisfied with housing he could afford, Hellios said.

    This forced him to push the boundaries of his probation and move into questionable living arrangements in order to attend classes, Hellios said. While most college freshmen were adjusting to living with other kids fresh out of high school like them, Hellios had heroin addicts for housemates by the time he started his first semester at Eau Claire.

    Hellios graduated from CVTC with a degree in marketing in 2013 and is now entering his sixth semester at Eau Claire as he pursues a degree in journalism.

    He’s set a goal for himself to one day make $52-thousand a year as an advertiser, said Hellios, who doubted many employers would give him a chance, even with a bachelor’s degree. Hellios said he plans to start his own business.

    In the meantime, he’s working to improve his image for employers and among the community, Hellios said.

    “When you google my name, one of the first things that shows up is This isn’t something you can take back, you can’t take back the internet and say I didn’t do that,” he said. “I don’t want it all to be one-sided. If I wouldn’t have started to change and gone to school, it would have continued to haunt me where I wouldn’t be able to say this is what I’ve done, this is what I’m doing now.”