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On his last day in office, Jan. 20, 2001, former President Bill Clinton signed a piece of paper that finally put closure to a troubling time in the life of Hodgenville resident Woodie Handley.
The paper was a presidential pardon, granting forgiveness to Handley for a crime he committed as a young man more than 40 years earlier. It was one of 140 pardons – many of them controversial – issued by Clinton his last day in office.
Handley and three other friends from Hodgenville were working at the Post Exchange at Fort Knox in 1959 when they began their misdeeds.
“I was making 75 cents an hour working as a stock boy,” Handley said. “I started getting stuff without paying for it mainly so that my kids could have something for Christmas.”
His other friends were also stealing from the exchange. One thing led to another and soon at least one of the group was pilfering watches and other items, then fencing them to another person in Hodgenville who sold them.
Their crimes seemed to go unnoticed until an undercover officer caught one of them pocketing some change at a cash register he was attending.
“The one that was arrested told on the rest of us, and soon all four of us were charged,” Handley said.
The federal charge required them to appear in federal court in Louisville. Handley wasn’t prepared for what would happen to him and his co-defendants by court officers at their first appearance.
“They shackled us with chains around our wrists and ankles,” he said. After that initial hearing, the men were on their own recognizance to return for more court dates – four in all. He was charged with conspiracy to steal government property.
The words of Handley’s mother still ring in his ears when he recalls what she said about their misdeeds.
Mom told us, “You all got into this trouble by yourselves, and you’re going to have to get out of it by yourselves,” Handley said.
He said that Shelby Howard, the late local attorney, spoke on their behalf to the judge who handed each man a two-year probated sentence for conspiracy to steal government property.
Handley, who never got into trouble again with the law, went to work at a paper mill on post and later was employed by the LaRue County School District for many years.
“I was sorry for what I had done,” he said. “I asked the Lord to forgive me and he did.”
He joined First Baptist Church in Hodgenville where he became a trustee and thought that the darkest part of his past had been closed, never to haunt him again.
It was not to be, however, for in 2000, when he applied for a pistol at a local gun shop, the background check came back showing that he still had a felony conviction on record and would be ineligible to purchase the gun.
“I didn’t know that we had been guilty of a felony or that it was still on my record,” Handley said.
He phoned an office in Frankfort to see what could be done to clear the record and was told the only remedy was to have a local official write a letter to the President requesting the pardon and hope he would grant it.
“I got a hold of Merle Edlin, who was sheriff, and Tommy Turner (judge-executive), asking for their help.”
“It was a long shot, very long actually, but I told him I would see what I could find out,” Turner said.
The judge contacted some folks he knew in D.C. and inquired about the process and what could be done. He received a return call from a staff person at the White House.
“I told the story as Woodie had explained it to me to the staffer and he said they would be back in touch,” Turner said.
The Office of the President sent a form that required letters of reference from the chief elected officer (Turner) and a law enforcement agency head (Edlin).
Both men included in their letters statements that Handley was an outstanding citizen and trustworthy.
“Several weeks later I received a visit from an FBI agent and we discussed Woodie’s situation,” the judge-executive said. “The FBI Agent said he would be writing a report and submitting it to the White House.”
After that visit, Turner never heard anything for months and thought the effort had failed.
After those months of anxious waiting, however, Handley felt relief when he went to the mailbox and found a large envelope with the return address marked Washington, D.C.
Inside, he found the full and unconditional pardon and a letter explaining that all his civil rights had been reinstated.
“I was so happy, so proud to have something wrong that I had done early in my life and which I regretted finally written off.”