By PHILLIP BANTZ
Gilsum resident Steve Bernstein was running that center, Compassionate Connections in Manchester, and said he saw hope in Addison.
Addison was in his early 20s and had the rap sheet and rough upbringing that was ubiquitous among the young people Bernstein knew.
What set Addison apart from some of the others, Bernstein said, was his optimism and drive to succeed. He said Addison wanted an education and to learn a trade.
“He had a rapid realization that there was hope. A lot of people would be doubtful and skeptical and cynical in his situation,” Bernstein said. “This is a young man, at that time, with all the baggage he was carrying around, who really wanted to change his life.”
Addison came to Bernstein’s center in 2001 with a group of acquaintances with gang ties and significant criminal backgrounds, Bernstein said.
He said he saw many new faces come through the center’s doors, but they often failed to return or their visits were sporadic at best.
“Michael came in one day and more or less never left for a good year or so,” he said. “If people would come and show up and show up and show up I knew they were more serious than not. And he kept showing up.
“This is a guy who would wake up every day and have to weigh out if he was going to go out and do drugs and sell drugs or if he was going to come down to my teen center and not make any money.”
What Bernstein had to offer Addison and others like him was a career opportunity through his connections with various employers in the community. He would determine what they enjoyed, whether it was carpentry or tattoo artistry, and hook them up with a professional in that field.
“Michael was looking at me and my work as a way to better himself,” Bernstein said. “My sense is that he never got that kind of one-on-one attention before and he never got that kind of interest in him as a person before.”
Growing up in the crime-infested South Bronx “jungle” of New York City gave Bernstein firsthand knowledge of the allure and negative consequences tied to the street life.
Bernstein said he began committing petty crimes when he was young and eventually landed in jail.
“They fortunately had a wonderful mentoring program where I was able to do jail alternatively and I was taught a trade,” said Bernstein, now a master plumber. “My mentor was a guy who was in my shoes when he was younger. My work now is largely related to my experience with him.”
Under Bernstein’s guidance, Addison obtained his driver’s license, sought counseling for his behavioral problems and began pursuing his GED. Addison also expressed interest in becoming an electrician, and Bernstein said he was working on setting him up with an internship.
“I saw a sociability developing,” Bernstein said. “I would say he was getting more comfortable with his surroundings, and that was largely based on him developing a sense of hope for his future. That was certainly not in the cards for him before.”
Domestic violence, drug addiction, alcoholism and neglect shaped Addison’s upbringing, according to Bernstein and court testimony in Addison’s capital murder trial.
“Here was a young man who showed up to change his destiny,” Bernstein said. “He was as good if not better than most that I’ve ever met.”
Addison never left the center. The center left him. After working with Addison for about a year and a half, Bernstein said the grant money that was the lifeblood of his center dried up and he was forced to close its doors.
The next time he saw Addison’s face it was on the news.
Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs was trying to stop Addison in October 2006 in an inner city alley when Addison turned on him and fired a bullet into his head. Briggs later died at a nearby hospital, leaving behind his wife and their two sons.
“This was a good guy, a great cop and a great person,” Bernstein said.
Briggs may have been among the dozens of police officers who visited the center to interact on neutral ground with the city’s troubled youths, he added.
Bernstein now sees Addison, 28, through prison glass. The two visited before and during the trial.
They talked about sports and current events, especially the presidential election. Addison enjoyed seeing Barack Obama elected, Bernstein said.
“He was excited about an African American becoming our president. Not with respect to him (Obama) maybe cutting him some slack,” he said. “He was just very articulate about politics. It wasn’t racially motivated. If this guy had gone to school I think he would have been a very eloquent speaker.”
They talked about the murder mystery and detective novels Addison likes to read. They even talked a little about what was happening in the courtroom, but were restricted from discussing details of the shooting or the case because of the ongoing trial.
“Michael never talked about his guilt or innocence, the goodness or badness of his deeds. It was more like, ‘I’m here.’ I got the impression that the last thing he wanted to talk about is what he did,” Bernstein said. “He talked around it. He told me what he didn’t do, that he didn’t premeditate the murder.”
A member of Addison’s team of public defenders, Richard C. Guerriero of Concord, said Addison and Bernstein have a close relationship. He said Addison feels he can depend on Bernstein.
“Steve has been very supportive and a trustworthy and reliable friend to Michael and it’s very much appreciated,” Guerriero said. “He’s in a fairly desperate situation and regardless of what you think of the case it’s good to have people support you.”
Bernstein recently received authorization to visit Addison for the first time since he was sentenced to death. He said he expects they’ll pick up where they left off, which is exactly what happened during their first prison visit when they’d been apart for more than four years.
As Addison’s attorneys appeal his sentence, Bernstein is still fighting to change lives.
He oversees the AIM High apprenticeship, internship and mentorship program in Keene, which is similar to his first program in Manchester.
Fifteen youths are enrolled at Bernstein’s center. Many of them are high school dropouts. Some have substance abuse problems. Others come from broken homes.
Bernstein is determined to give them all an opportunity at a better life.
“The doors don’t open for the Michael Addisons of the world,” he said, “that’s why my work exists.”