In the five years he was an assistant district attorney for Blount County, Judge Robert Headrick prosecuted her. In the decade Gail Taggart served as a chaplain at the Blount County Jail, she saw her come through 19 times.
Saturday, they were one of more than a dozen people who gathered at Cornerstone of Recovery to celebrate the miracle of Pam Spindel’s life: from homelessness and self-destruction brought about by addiction to a pardon from former Gov. Bill Haslam. It was, everyone agreed, a celebration of the potential for recovery as much as it was Spindel’s personal accomplishment. After all, she’ll be the first to tell you: She didn’t do it alone. Perhaps no one knows that more than Taggart, who served as Spindel’s de facto spiritual advisor after she finally got clean in 2007.
“She was in and out (of jail) so much that the other girls knew her and would say, ‘Here comes Pam again,’” Taggart said Saturday night. “But when she got clean, she would be in (the Bible). She was committed to the Lord, and she was a bulldog. She would call me for encouragement, for support, to ask me to pray for her. It took accountability and humility.”
Ten years ago, Spindel (formerly Pam McCaffrey) was the subject of a series of Daily Times articles by former reporter Mark Boxley. Titled “Lives Wasted,” it was a painstaking look at one woman’s recovery, two years in: The dereliction, destitution and degradation of addiction were all still fresh, but the hope of recovery was powerful. Spindel came to Blount County in early 2002 from North Carolina; by that point, her addiction was well on its way to the unmanageability that’s discussed in the tomes of recovery literature. Before that year was out, she had sold her body for drug money and been convicted of the felony that has remained on her record until last month. The text of the pardon, now framed and hanging in her office at Cornerstone of Recovery where she serves as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor for members of the Intensive Outpatient Program, details her crime: forging a check for $75 at a gas station.
In remarkably unique phrasing, it also details the reason for her pardon: “Since that time, she has helped similarly situated persons with recovery and, in 2016, became a licensed alcohol counselor and a nationally certified addiction counselor … numerous public officials and counselors attest to her personal transformation, community contributions, and dedication to others battling addiction.”
The pardon goes on to note that the Tennessee Board of Parole issued a unanimous, positive recommendation for the pardon, and such detail is something Headrick hasn’t seen before, he said. He added that he was honored to represent the Blount County legal system at Saturday’s “Pardon Party,” as Spindel affectionately termed it.
“On behalf of the entire Blount County Judiciary, we feel that no one is more deserving of this honor, and no one has worked harder for it,” he said. “She deserves our congratulations and best wishes.”
Spindel began to pursue the pardon when she applied for a job with the East Tennessee Human Resource Agency but was turned down because of the felony on her record. Since getting clean in 2007, she’s worked her way up — from a server at Gracie’s Restaurant in Alcoa to addiction counseling at English Mountain (a treatment facility in Sevierville), the Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg and Cornerstone. Her dedication to self-improvement opened those doors for her, and while her story may seem like a unique one, it doesn’t have to be, Headrick pointed out.
“They need to do the hard work,” he said. “There are plenty of resources available, and Pam is an example of an individual who took advantage of those resources, got on the other side and completely changed her life.” At a certain point, however, the hard work ends, and faith has to begin. Her faith has buoyed her throughout her recovery, and while she still struggles with very human foibles — impatience, self-centeredness, anger — faith and recovery, so inextricably intertwined, have been there to carry her through times of doubt and struggle, she said.
“I just decided to try (for the pardon), and printed out an application,” she said. “My dad died, my mom died, and that just made me pursue it faster. I got everything I needed and put the whole thing together, and I knew I had done the work — the rest was up to God.” Even though the meeting with the parole board went swimmingly … even though friends in the legal system who once had the responsibility of locking her up assured her that her chances were good … she still doubted it would ever happen. That it has is proof, she said, that all things are possible through recovery and faith.
“I was arrested 19 times in six years, and I probably spent half of that time in the Blount County Jail,” she said. “I was happy in jail, because I didn’t have to use. Now, I don’t have to use, and I don’t have to be in jail to not do it. And the way I got here? The Steps. Making amends, including making amends to Blount County, which I did by carrying the message (of recovery) into the place where I was once an inmate.”