Life after prison for Oregon killer Kenneth Janowski: 'I don't want to forget what I did'
PORTLAND (The Oregonian) — Every morning at 5:15, Kenneth Janowski wakes up to the beeping of his black travel alarm clock.
He sits with his wife as she prepares for the day. He feeds the family's six cats, and he watches the news on TV. He drives the 25 miles from his home outside of Stayton to Albany, where he works as a janitor and parts runner at a truck-repair shop.
For much of the past 10 years, the same alarm clock rousted Janowski in a different place: the prison cell where he served the remaining time of a 27-year sentence for killing his parents.
Janowski, 47, is the first of 11 aggravated-murder convicts to be released from prison so far under a 2010 Oregon Supreme Court decision that allowed them to be considered for parole after serving 20 years instead of 30. Three others are scheduled to be released next year.
The ruling capped an appeal filed by Janowski and another inmate. The Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision determined that Janowski and the other released men no longer constitute a danger to society.
Nine more men have parole hearings coming up under the Supreme Court ruling, and six remain in prison after psychological examinations and lengthy interviews with the parole board.
Earlier this month, Janowski was discharged from parole. He is now a completely free man. He agreed to talk to The Oregonian in an attempt to convince people they don't need to be afraid of him or the other men who are knitting their lives back together on the outside, he said. Many have families and are settling in at workplaces.
In prison, everything is like Groundhog Day, he said. You're locked with a group of people who don't want to be there. Everything is gray, made out of concrete and steel.
Outside, each day may come with challenges such as getting used to crowds or even navigating your new house, but it's always a good day.
"People can't understand," he said. "You can live under a bridge and be happy."
Yet he has chosen to start every good day outside with a noise that reminds him of life inside. That's why he brought his alarm clock with him.
"I don't want to forget this place," he told the board of parole in November 2011, when he was still an inmate, "and I don't want to forget what I did."
Janowski started his prison term in 1985.
In February that year, he had borrowed a rifle from a friend and promised insurance money to another friend, 17-year-old Steve Wilson, to shoot his parents.
Wilson shot Arlene and Dickson Janowski as they lay in their bed at their Cedar Mill home. But Dickson Janowski didn't die, so his son repeatedly shot him in the head while Wilson was out crying in the yard.
Janowski called police the next day and told them he had just discovered the bodies after being out the night before. He and Wilson were arrested three months later.
Janowski said that at the time he believed people were evil, didn't care about one another "and whatever you did to them was no big deal."
He hadn't interacted much with his parents growing up. A family friend told The Oregonian after the crime that Dickson Janowski was drinking heavily, had difficulties communicating with his children and had told others he was disappointed in his son.
The closest to Janowski was his sister, Katy, who was two years older. Katy taught him how to tell time and tie his shoelaces, and allowed him to hang out with her and her friends.
Then she died in 1980. "It was like some part of me was gone," he said.
For a while, Janowski thought her death was caused by abuse from their father. He later learned Katy's ruptured spleen was a complication from mononucleosis.
Janowski pleaded guilty to aggravated murder. He and Wilson were sentenced to life terms with minimum 30-year sentences.
He was "scared, hostile, angry," said psychologist Rex Newton, who met Janowski shortly after the teenager entered the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem. "He was just a kid who had to grow up."
Janowski recalls feeling guilt and regret instantaneously. But it took about a year and a half for his anger to subside and remorse to sink in as he realized he was responsible for his actions, he said.
"I always try to think of something to fix it," he said. "It was the same mentality: What can I do now that you can't bring them back to life? I can't change how the end of their life went; it's overwhelming to realize how much damage it caused. It came to a point where I figured, what do you do? You kill yourself? Do you chalk it all up and be an animal, because basically what else are you if you can do that? It was like, I want to try and do right."
His "big moment," as Janowski calls it, was when he decided he would live to honor his parents' memory. He started signing up for all the available in-prison rehabilitation classes. Among the first he took was Newton's cognitive class.
The class taught inmates to question their beliefs and build a value system, Newton said. Usually, people build value systems in their early teens as they observe and interact with adults. If they lack positive role models, they might skip the "lessons" of sensibility and empathy, and become vulnerable to criminal behavior, he said.
Janowski would come to one-on-one meetings with a list of questions about what a young man might ask a parent figure, Newton said. He paid attention and took feedback well. Newton noticed Janowski was going through a process common among inmates who begin to define who they are, adopt values and live up to those values.
Janowski also attended an awareness group organized by inmates that would bring in crime victims and their advocates to talk to men convicted of murder or robbery.
He recalled a woman who told the prisoners how she waited for hours outside her father's store in Canby for police to finish investigating his killing.
"You just feel bad for the person who's talking because you can relate to them," he said. "And then later on, that's when it hits you that you did that, too."
Janowski said hearing people's stories helped him develop empathy. Sometimes, people who commit crimes, because of their own pain, don't have the ability to see how someone else would feel, he said.
"I think crime is a choice, but I don't think everybody sees that they do have choices," he said. "They feel like there's no way out."
By the early 2000s, Janowski appeared at peace and in control, said Mike Meehan, another aggravated murder convict released on parole after the 2010 under the Supreme Court decision. The two men became friends in prison, where Meehan was serving time for the beating death of a Hermiston man.
"It almost seemed like he didn't belong in prison," Meehan said. "He had done a lot of work on himself."
Janowski surrounded himself with people who wouldn't get him in trouble, said Scott Cannon, a former cellmate who met Janowski in the mid-2000s.
Janowski helped Cannon deal with his successful fight to vacate a triple-murder conviction.
"I thought he was a very calm spot in the middle of a very chaotic place," Cannon said.
Supreme Court case
Janowski started writing letters to another inmate's sister in the late 1980s. They met face to face and started a relationship in 1992. They married in 1995.
She declined to be interviewed to avoid potential backlash from friends and colleagues.
She visited him in prison twice a week for almost 20 years while she was raising two children from a previous marriage. They would meet in the visiting room, where they would be allowed to hold hands. They played cards and board games and became friends with other long-term visitors.
She also supported him in his effort to become free.
In 2005, after 20 years in prison, Janowski requested a meeting with the parole board. The board members agreed he was capable of rehabilitation and set an exit interview for 2015, at his 30-year mark.
Janowski lost a bid for an administrative review of the board's decision, then filed an appeal, which ended up before the Oregon Supreme Court.
The court ruled that even though Janowski hadn't served 30 years, the board's finding that he was "likely of rehabilitation" overrode his minimum sentence and he could be considered for parole after 20 years.
Janowski met with the parole board on Nov. 30, 2011. His wife, Dianna, stepdaughter and 12 other friends, including prison employees, came to support him. No one was there to speak against his release except for Washington County prosecutor Roger Hanlon.
The board asked detailed questions about the murder, the events leading to it, Janowski's state of mind before and after the crime, his rehabilitation in prison and his release plan.
He talked about the moment he changed: "I started to think about was there anything ever good about me, and I tried to remember anything I'd ever done for anybody but myself. It was hard to even think about anything. That night I cried for my mom and dad."
He talked more about his parents: "As soon as I agreed to testify (against Steve Wilson), that's where I knew that they didn't deserve what they got."
"What should they have gotten?" a board member asked.
"They should have had a better son," Janowski said.
He talked about the future: "I honestly believe there's no way in the world that I can ever pick up a gun and shoot another human being in my life."
When Hanlon's turn came, the deputy district attorney presented three main arguments for why Janowski should be kept in prison:
Janowski tried to convince several other people to kill his parents and then tried to get away with the murder; the most recent psychological evaluations had diagnosed him with "antisocial personality disorder in partial remission"; and the crime wasn't caused by circumstances, but "by something deep in Mr. Janowski" that was still there, Hanlon said.
After that, it was Janowski's wife turn. She said her husband had done a lot of work to prepare for his release. They had already discussed the house rules, including a ban on alcohol. During the 20 years they were married, she said, he had helped her deal with disappointments, death and illness in her family.
The board reached a split decision; two members voted for and one against Janowski's release. They set his parole date in March 2012.
In the first few weeks after his release, he and his wife traveled to central Oregon and to the coast, which used to be one of his favorite places as a child. His family owned a cabin together with two other families. Janowski remembered spending summers there.
On the trip last year, he walked off the sand and into the ocean. He dove in "and it felt like a cleansing almost," he said. "And when I popped out I saw two big eyes looking at me. I was right in the middle of a bunch of seals."
But while he relished his newfound freedom, he also ran up against the reality of his record.
He was crushed when his 10 years working as a certified car mechanic in prison didn't land him interviews at the places he applied. He got his first job, at a tow-truck company, through a friend and former inmate.
He arrived to find out that the management had told the employees about his crime. The husband of a woman who worked at the business complained that his wife was no longer safe with Janowski around. Other employees said they would stop bringing their children over.
Eventually his colleagues became friendly, he said. But at his current job, he decided not to tell everyone about his past.
On an afternoon in August, a woman who was pushing a shopping cart full of groceries in a parking lot in Albany dropped a six-pack of beer bottles. Janowski jumped to help her clean up the shards of glass.
He joked, trying to make her feel less embarrassed: "It's under warranty, isn't it?" He left her smiling, but later thought: What she would have said if she'd known he was a convicted murderer?
Janowski can't help wondering, and worrying, about what people think. He doesn't blame them for being afraid of him and sees it as a consequence of his actions.
"I was screwed up in the head, and I regret it. Every day I regret it," he said. But he doesn't try to convince people to trust him. He leaves it up to them, he said.
Yet if you ask, he'll tell you that he's changed. He gained empathy, values and friends in prison. And then he gained freedom.
Shortly after he got out, his godparents wanted to meet Janowski and his wife for dinner. He felt overwhelmed with shame because he realized they had known and loved his parents. It was difficult for them, too, to see him, he said. He thinks they won't meet again.
That night, his godparents offered him a gift: a mug that belonged to his mother from college and his father's wedding band.
He took them home.
Supreme Court case
Under state law, aggravated murder convicts who have committed their crimes before June 30, 1995, can request an initial meeting with the board of parole -- known as a "murder review hearing" -- after serving 20 years. (The period goes up to 25 years for murders committed between June 30, 1995, and Oct. 22, 1999, and to 30 years for murders committed after Oct. 23, 1999.)
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in the Kenneth Janowski case that if the board decides during review hearings that inmates can be rehabilitated, they can be released before their minimum sentence is up.
Then the board sets a projected release date. Three to six months before that date, the parole board holds an "exit interview hearing," where members discuss the inmate's recent psychological examination and conduct an interview.
Janowski became the first of 20 aggravated murder convicts so far to go through exit interview hearings over the past two years. The parole board deferred the release of six inmates, but approved the release of 11, with other three inmates scheduled for release next year.
Inmates affected by the Oregon Supreme Court decision and their status:
Kenneth F. Janowski: March 9, 2012
Delbert K. Rothermel: April 4, 2012
Melvin R. Norris: April 5, 2012
Ricky L. Douglas: April 24, 2012
Robert P. DeWaal: May 4, 2012
Michael Meehan: Sept. 19, 2012
Steven R. Wilson: Dec. 12, 2012
Bryan L. Mikesell: Jan. 15, 2013
Troy L. Stewart: Feb. 4, 2013
Thomas C. Jones: May 16, 2013
Jimmy L. Walton: Sept. 2, 2013
Scheduled to be released
Douglas R. Miller: March 11, 2014
Charles A. Potter: March 29, 2014
DePaul E. Jackson: April 28, 2014
Parole delayed after hearing, with new release date set:
Michael D. Lissy: April 12, 2014
Scott Wickee: April 16, 2014
David L. Lahnala: April 29, 2014
Pepe G. Rivas: June 3, 2014
David L. Atkinson: June 28, 2015
Kevin A. Roper: Feb. 14, 2016
(Every new release date requires another hearing. Parole can be delayed again.)
Awaiting hearing for release date:
Charles S. Pope: July 21, 2014
Brian S. Madison: Aug. 27, 2014
Terry R. Zion: June 29, 2015
Ridge W. Fleming: April 30, 2016
Tyrone Washington: July 22, 2016
Gerald L. Byrns: Oct. 20, 2017
Alden L. Walker: Sept. 26, 2018
Donald M. Severy: Feb. 3, 2022
Victor R. Kazor, Jan. 24, 2030
-- Oregon Board of Parole & Post-Prison Supervision