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Hi, friends. I'm excited to share that we are hard at work on a new season of True or Crime. To hold you over, enjoy this early season two episode, A taste of what's to come. If you want an ad-free listening experience, subscribe to Tenderfoot+ at tenderfootplus. Com or on Apple Podcasts. Please be aware that today's episode discusses incarceration, solitary confinement, severe mental illness, suicide, and self-harm. Please take care while listening. Picture an entirely gray room. Not calming or soothing. Think cement and everywhere. Well, almost everywhere, because where there isn't gray, there's metal. In the corner, cold to the touch, there's a silver-colored toilet that distorts your face before reflecting it back to you. Did I mention how small the room is? So small. The size of a four door Sedan, if you're lucky. Everything is awash and the light beaming down from the fluorescent fixture overhead. Picture high school. Except this light, it never goes out. You're fed, of course, and your meals are delivered through a tray size slot in the wall. It's not that there isn't a door, there is, but it's only opened on the five days a week you're let out.


Let out? Not to be confused with let free. No, lead out, really, to another tiny, all-grey room. But this one is different. This one has a bar bolted to the wall. You can grab onto the bar and pull yourself off the ground if you want. You can do this over and over and over again. You have an hour. You can do this as many times as you like. It's your recreation, after all. The other 23 hours in your day are spent back in gray room number one, alone. But then again, you're always alone. Sometimes, though, it doesn't feel like it, or rather doesn't sound like it. The cacophony of noise is constant. There's the screams and the crying, the chattering from people who seem to be responding to voices you yourself don't actually hear. But really, it's not all American horror story. There's your friend you talk through through the wall, the man next door who sits in his own tiny gray room, identical to yours. You feel like you know him. But how well could you really know someone whose face you've never actually seen? Do you want to leave? Are you sick of picturing this?


God, can you imagine staying here for a week, for years, for decades? Personally, I can't even imagine staying here for a day. But according to Valerie Kildala and Sal Rodriguez writing for Solitary Watch, this is the reality for the 80,000 people held in solitary confinement each day in this country. On Second Thought, maybe this is an American horror story, or at least it's one. Because this is the story of Sam Mandis. I'm Silesia Stanton, and you're listening to True a Crime. When I started researching this story, one name in particular kept jumping to the front of my mind, Jacob Mondragon. I'm not entirely sure why, though I'd guess it's because Jacob and I are nearly the same age. Less than a year apart, we are both born on that thin line that seems to exist between the millennial and Gen Z generations. Personally, I like claiming that I belong to whichever cohort feels most advantageous at the moment. Is that a toxic trait? I'm getting sidetracked. Anyway, so Jacob Mondrag and I are nearly the same age. It means we entered the world in this common era, the mid-1990s. The rise of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle seemed to be born alongside us.


The mid-1990s seemed rife with newsworthy moment ready to enrapture the nation. The Oklahoma City bombing, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the death of Princess Di. We couldn't possibly forget the O. J. Simpson trial. And yet, like always, amidst the madness, and the sadness was typical monotony of life, everyday people doing everyday things. Like me, Jacob had a relatively normal childhood. He'd played baseball. He went to his high school prom. Jacob felt and still feels like someone I could know. In many ways, he is. We all deal with hard things. For Jacob, one of those hard things meant living his life and all the important milestones that come with growing up without his dad. Like the case for over five million children in the United States, Jacob had to grow up without his dad because for the last 25 years, Jacob's dad's been in prison. But to really understand how everything ended up this way, how Jacob became one of five million, we'll need to turn back the clock to go back to 1991, just a few years prior to Jacob's birth, when his dad, Sam Mandez, was growing up in a town called Greilly, Colorado. Before researching this story, I'd never heard of Greely, Colorado.


I'd assumed it was a smaller, rural community, but with just over 100,000 residents, Greely isn't exactly what you'd call tiny. But a solid hours drive from Denver, it's not the place out of town we're stuck to. But tourism isn't really Greely's claim to fame anyway. Farming is. It's what brought folks to Greely initially, and it's still a booming industry today. It's the immigrant population, mainly Latinx, that keeps the community's vital meat packing industry running. I wasn't all that surprised to learn that if you live in Greilly, there's a 90 % chance that you're either white or Latinx. Really, the Greilly of 1991 looked remarkably similar to the Greilly of today, if only considerably smaller. In '91, its population sat at just over 60,000. At some point during my research, I decided to top the words, Greilly Colorado into my Google Maps search bar. The city I'd found is organized in a neat grid system. Most of the streets have numbered names. I zoomed in to a road called Fifth Street and searched for the Salvation Army. When I found it, I wondered which of the homes around it was the tiny yellow house a woman named Freda Winter had once owned.


I wonder if the home is still standing at all. I adjusted the map. Now I was looking at another house lined road, Sixth Street. This time, I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I just knew that in 1991, just two blocks from Freda Winter's tiny yellow house was another home on Sixth Street, which had belonged to a man named Victor Mandez. This was Sam Mandez's grandfather's home. Back in 1991, Frida Winter was in her early 70s. Based on what I'd read from Moffett, Frida had been the quintessential grandmother figure. She'd quilted and gardened. She diligently attended church. She'd regularly donated food from her garden to the Salvation Army shelter, the one that had been right next door. Frida Winter was a community fixture of sorts, the person whose reputation precedes her. Neighborhood kids had even nicknamed her the Church Lady. In some ways, Victor Mandas wasn't so different from Frida, a grandfather who deeply loved his grandchildren. Victor worked hard for his family and picked up odd jobs when he cut fracture income. And then one day, Frida and Victor's paths crossed. According to The Denver Post, Frida had a reputation for hiring neighborhood folks for household jobs.


And that summer, money had been tight for the Mandas family. So when Frida asked Victor if he'd be willing to paint her house, he agreed. He'd even end up recruiting his 13-year-old grandson, Sam, to help out. By all accounts, Sam Mandas deeply respected and truly adored his grandfather. He was happy to spend time helping him out. There they spent the summer of '91, grandfather and grandson together on Fifth Street, painting Frida Winter's tiny yellow house. When they'd finished their work, Frida paid them. According to The Denver Post, she'd even handed Sam his own check for $35. It came with a note for painting with grandpa, it read. It was a simple interaction, a sweet moment even, a reminder of a summer spent tagging along with grandpa and making some extra cash. When I picture this summer, it's nearly impossible to accept how horrifying it would all become. That's the cruel thing I think, about those moments where our lives irrevocably changed course. They always seem to come expertly disguised, unthreatening, benign, sweet even. In some ways, the summer spent painting with grandpa, it would become one of those moments for all of them because none of them could have possibly predicted what was to come.


Perhaps Sam Mandez, least of all. The picture in my mind of Victor's grandson, Sam Mandez, is a mosaic, a makeshift tapestry built from little pieces shared by those who loved him most. The friends and family who knew him as a child, who'd watched him grow into young adulthood. I studied a photo of Sam from 1992. In it, a teenage Sam sports a white T-shirt. His hair, dark, nearly black, brings my attention straight to his smile. Wide, objectively friendly. I closed my eyes and try to imagine him walking straight out of the photo and into his life. I picture the personality his friends and family described in the ACLU Colorado documentary, Out of sight, Out of Mind. Always happy, full of energy, they'd said. Respectful, extremely polite. I imagined him living the life they remembered. Babysitting the neighbor kids, putting away money for college, playing football and baseball, hitting the game winning home run. I picture the smaller, more tender moments, helping his grandparents, dancing with his little sister. Of course, I have to picture the less shiny things too. Sam had been a teenager after all, one who sometimes got into a bit of trouble.


Forensic psychologist Mark Diamond wrote that Sam used some drugs and alcohol as a kid, that he had school attendance problems and got into a few fights. At 15, he got caught taking a stolen car for a joy ride. The truth was that like all of us, Sam was a nuanced person with a nuanced life. But by all accounts, he was a genuinely respectful and happy kid. And by 1996, the now 18-year-old Sam was looking forward to his future. Until that is, he gets a call that changes everything. Sam Mandas had just received a heroine call from Greely Police. They wanted to ask him some questions about the murder of Frida Winter. Frida's murder wasn't exactly breaking news in Greely, not because it wasn't horrifying for her family and for her community. It was, but because it had happened four years earlier. According to The Denver Post, one day in late July of 1992, Frida didn't show up for church. And this, well, it was extremely out of character for Frida. Remember, this was the woman that neighborhood kids had called the Church Lady. Church service just wasn't something Frida Winter missed, ever. In fact, Freda's absence worried her fellow churchgoers so profoundly that a group of them decided to stop by her house to check in on her.


Once they'd arrived, unable to get in through the front entrance, they found an unlocked window and decided to crawl through. If crawling through a window is indicative of their anxiety, then I imagine the group was extremely worried about what they had waited them. But what they'd find, it had to have been worse than even their greatest fears. There in her bedroom, they found her. Frida Winter, the doting 78-year-old woman who lived in the tiny yellow house on Fifth Street was dead. How impossible to comprehend it must have felt that Frida, this woman who passed out scriptures with her Hallowe'en candy, who tended to her garden with the same steadfast diligence she showed her community was gone. And in this way? And what I mean is that the scene made it clear that Frida had not died peacefully. She'd been murdered. And by now you might know that I don't go into gory details on this show, so I won't now. But instead, I'll tell you what you need to know. That Frida had been attacked, badly beaten, that she had been left for dead beside her own bed. The investigation began immediately. According to Miles Moffett of the Denver Post, while detectives didn't find anything obviously missing from the house, they did find a shattered window in the basement.


Theorizing that this window was how the intruder must have made their entrance, they decided to pull fingerprints from there, alongside other locations they deem significant. Then just three days later, a deeper investigation of the area around the crime scene yielded new evidence. One detective came across a nearby culvert, a fancy word for what's essentially just a small drainage tunnel. But it's not the covert they were interested in, it's what was inside it. A matchbook, a large flashlight, a claw hammer, and a baseball bat, all stained with blood. Further analysis would confirm it was Freitas. This collection of items ultimately led investigators to a theory of what had occurred that awful night on Fifth Street. The baseball bat, flashlight, and claw hammer all appeared to have been taken from Frida's house after being used as makeshift weapons. And so detectives decided it was a group of people who'd planned to burglarize Frida's home that evening. But at some point, they theorized the plan had gone awry. Maybe Frida had woken up. In the panic, they'd killed her using items they picked up from around the house, and then they'd made their escape, abandoning their makeshift weapons in the nearby culvert before disappearing into the night.


But still, a theory isn't handy without any suspects, and the fingerprints pulled from the scene were their most substantial lead. But a run through the system came back without a match. Lucky for detectives, there were still avenues worth investigating. That's because after the news of Freda's murder broke, the tips and finger pointing started flowing immediately. But according to The Denver Post, calling the police investigation messy? Well, it would have been an understatement. Poor crime scene documentation, inadequate alibi vetting, and a lack of proper follow-up with suspects meant that leads went cold as quickly as they'd heated up. And that's how it stayed. As fall turned to winter and winter to spring, years passed with Freda's family no closer to answers. And then suddenly, in February of 1996, nearly four years after that harrowing night in July of 1991, Greilly Police got a call from state officials. Some kid had just been busted for stealing a car. They had booked him, put his prints in the system, and as it turned out, those fingerprints that Greilly Police had pulled from Frida Winter's crime scene all those years ago, while state officials said they finally had a match.


According to journalist Andrew Cohen writing for The Atlantic, when Greenley Police pulled Sam's record, there wasn't much to find. He did a few interactions with law enforcement, including that stolen car, but nothing violent, nothing that would seem to indicate that he was capable of the heinous crime that they now suspected him of. The Denver Post gave a detailed description of Sam's police interview. I wondered if Sam was nervous as he sat opposite Detective Brad Goldschman in the police interrogation room that February day. Sam, who'd worn a baseball cap, sat opposite the officer. Detective Goldschman clearly hadn't planned on holding back from accusations. Tell me the truth. I've always heard you were the one who went in there and killed this lady, he'd said. Sam's response was incredulous. Why are these questions coming against me? The only time I went to that house was in '92 or whenever when I painted it with my grandpa. He seemed baffled as to how life could have possibly taken this turn. Investigators, on the other hand, were less surprised. Reporter Miles Moffett writes that when Sam requests a lawyer, he's handcuffed to a metal rail and left by himself instead.


I wonder if the combination of handcuffs and solitude brought reality into focus. I shouldn't be here, Sam cried out. With Sam now in their custody, they believed they knew exactly what happened to Frida Winter. Not only did the fingerprints from the broken window match Sam's, but what's more, they have a matchbook they found in the culvert alongside the other items from the early investigation. According to Andrew Cohen writing for The Atlantic, the matchbook was one of the items from the culvert that they didn't think came from Frida's house. Instead, they believed it was Sam's. You see, the matchbook had the name of a business located in the seemingly random town of Henderson, Nevada. Except, as police would claim, Henderson wasn't so random after all because Sam had a family there. Between the matchbook and the window print, police thought it was a done deal. They were going to pursue Sam Mandas for the murder of Frida Winter. And if you're anything like me, this all might feel a bit confusing. I was stumbled. Seriously? A fingerprint and a tenuous matchbook connection? It just didn't feel like nearly enough evidence to accuse someone of murder, much less to actually secure a conviction.


But as I'd learned, the little-known Colorado felony murder rule took care of that. You see, under Colorado's felony murder rule, prosecutors can charge you with first-degree murder without needing to actually prove that you killed anyone. And if you're thinking, Hold up, I'm going to need you to back up. Well, yeah, same. So I dug a little deeper. No, prosecutors couldn't go around just charging whoever they wanted with murder. But if you committed another felony, say, burglary, and in the process of committing that crime, someone died, well, then you are liable for murder in the first degree. It doesn't matter if the victim died accidentally, and it doesn't matter if you yourself had actually killed the person. And while it may seem a bit convoluted, it's actually pretty straightforward. Were you committing a felony and did someone die while that felony was being committed? If yes, prosecutors could hold you liable for first degree murder. So how does this all link back to Sam? Simple. If prosecutors could successfully convince jurors that Sam took part in a scheme to burglarize Frida Winter's house, they'd have him for her murder too. And the automatic penalty for those convicted of first degree murder in the state of Colorado, life without the possibility of parole.


At just 18 years old, Sam's entire future suddenly hung in the balance. At the time of Freda Winter's murder, Sam had been 14 years old. It meant if they'd wanted, prosecutors could have tried him as a juvenile, but they didn't. They seemed single mindedly focused on Sam and eager to win a conviction on a years old case. The district attorney, Al Domingez, reserved little sympathy for the teen. According to The Denver Post, Domingez was straightforward. He'd said, There's just some crimes where society says, I don't care if you're a kid or not. This is the ultimate in unacceptable. Sam, unable to hire his own lawyers, was appointed two public defenders, Tammy braided and Michael Zwebel. Both, with time, would become deeply invested in Sam and his case. The trial was brutal, rife with questionable twists and turns. But Sam's defense was consistent. He had nothing to do with Frida Winter's murder, and the fingerprints on the broken basement window had an easy explanation. The year before the murder, he painted Frida Winter's house with his grandfather. The prosecution felt differently. According to The Denver Post, their star witness was an agent from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.


He testified that Sam's fingerprints were found on both sides of a shard of window glass. It was definitive proof the prosecution asserted. If Sam's fingerprints were on the window solely because he painted the home the year prior, they'd only be on the outside of the glass. Never mind, of course, that Sam's prints hadn't been found anywhere else inside the house. According to journalist Andrew Cohen, at another point when one state witness suddenly changed his testimony during trial, the defense was outraged. It was a clear braided violation, they'd said. The braided Rule, which came out of the landmark, braided versus Maryland case in 1963, requires the prosecution to hand over any evidence that may be considered favorable to the defense. A state witness had changed his testimony. Surely this was a braided violation, Sam's defense argued. The judge agreed, but ultimately felt the harm caused was not significant. Another win for the prosecution, Sam's lawyers were barred from fully questioning the police about alternative suspects for Frida's murder. The judge felt that those lines of questioning just weren't relevant. Lucky for the defense, they had a witness of their own they hoped could bolster their points about alternative suspects.


According to court records, they'd intended to call a witness who stated that one of these other police suspects had known about Frida's murder before her body was discovered. The same suspect the witness claimed, had even asked him to lie and provide an alibi for the night of her murder. It was, for Sam, a dream witness, or could have been. When it came time for them to testify, the witness just didn't show up. In any hope the defense may have had was dashed when the judge failed to grant the defense's request for continueance, essentially a pause on proceedings. There was no guarantee they'd ever show up, the judge asserted. When it came time for closing arguments, the prosecutor was definitive. Society says we don't burglarize homes, he told the jury. And if you decide to burglarize a home and somebody dies, you will suffer the consequences. What we are asking you to do is find the defendant guilty of that crime. It's almost five years. It's time for consequences. It was clever phrasing. You might remember from earlier that Sam was tried under Colorado's felony murder rule. It meant jurors weren't tasked with determining whether or not Sam Mandas had killed Frida Winter.


Instead, their job was to decide whether they believed Sam had intended to participate in burglarizing Frida's home the night she was killed. To that end, it's worth noting that the prosecution never provided direct evidence that Sam or anyone else had entered Frida's home intending to steal. Nothing of value had actually been taken from the home. Instead, the prosecutors seemed to rely on a subtle but critical leap in logic. If Sam was at Freda's house that night, burglary was the obvious purpose. And ready or not, it was time for deliberation. At first, it seemed the jurors were divided. The preliminary jury vote came back an even split, six to six. Their discussions continued until finally they came to a determination. Sam Mandas, they decided, was guilty. A choice that solidified Sam's fate, life in prison. The verdict brought heavy and unanimous grief to the courtroom. According to The Denver Post, while Sam's lawyer, Tammy braided, responded by bursting into tears, Sam himself appeared much more subdued, had tilted downward, eyes fixed to the floor. But that night, Sam's mom, Rosella, cried enough tears for the both of them. She'd tell The Denver Post that when arrived home, her daughter sat on the floor and laid out tarot cards.


She tried to comfort her mother. Sam didn't do it, mom, she'd said. He'll be out in his 30s. They will find the ones who killed Frida Winter. That's what the cards say. The Mandows family wasn't alone in their sense of injustice. Frida Winter's son, Harry, later spoke with The Denver Post. My gut feeling is that he didn't do it. They never found the killers, he'd said decidedly. And Miles Moffett reported that later, at least three jurors admitted they didn't believe Sam had killed Frida. According to The Atlantic, one juror, Kim Wise said, We had to follow the law. We really wanted more information about who had looked at these fingerprints because we felt the cops had screwed up the investigation. How odd, I thought. How little it seemed to matter that no one involved felt a semblance of the very thing the system most boldly proclaims to do, serve justice. Apparently, I reasoned the criminal justice system was justice optional because none of their feelings could stop what was now inevitable. Sam's new promised future, a lifetime behind bars. Sam, now 19, was sent immediately to Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. Located 96 miles from the closest town, I imagine it's easy to forget the prison is even there at all.


And maybe, well, maybe that's the whole point. When I looked at a picture of the prison on the Department of Corrections website, it's the harsh juxtaposition I noticed first, the sterile gray prison against this bright blue midday sky. How strange, I thought, how something so bleak and cold could exist under the same sunny, brilliant sky that Sam had once played baseball under. But Sam's baseball days were over, a new painful reality taking its place. For Sam, the adjustment was less than smooth. According to the documentary, Out of sight, Out of mind, Sam finds himself nearly immediately in solitary confinement. It was the start of a vicious cycle. Sam commits a minor infraction, and then Sam is punished with solitary. There was the time Sam made an unauthorized reway phone call. Another time, he'd used a bathroom key when the bathroom was already closed for the night. Each violation earned him lockup within lockup. And well, prison is terrible, but solitary is much worse. According to Andrew Irvine, writing for Lateral Magazine, solitary confinement has existed for as long as prisons have existed, and its use is widespread. In fact, nearly every prison and jail across the United States have dedicated cells for holding prisoners in solitary, though they're often referred to by other names: segregation housing units, restricted of housing, corporate sounding monikers that, for me at least, seem to evoke a less visceral response.


But despite the name differences, what it means to be in solitary is remarkably similar across the nation. Cells, no larger than eight by 10 feet, are generally equipped with solid metal doors rather than stereotypical prison bars. It means the only connection to the rest of the world is a slot large enough to slide trays of food through. Most of the confined spend two days in complete isolation, followed by five days of 22 to 23 hours of isolation. Those remaining 1-2 hours are used for working out in a recreation room or showering. Depending on the prison, you'll have varying access to books, radios, art supplies, and clocks. And that last one is unexpectedly important. Since most folks lack access to natural sunlight, they're left instead with fluorescent light fixtures that never turn off, a recipe for circadian rhythm issues. Surprisingly, many in solitary struggle with sleep problems. But these issues may also stem from the never ending noise that many former prisoners describe, constant deluge of other prisoners' screams, whales, and conversations. I can only imagine how difficult it might have been for Sam to not just be in lockup, but in complete isolation, while life, perhaps cruelly, seems to just keep pushing forward without him.


The same month Sam landed his first day in solitary, his son, Jacob, made his entrance into the world. It would be the first of many life events Sam would miss behind bars. When Sam's dad's health takes a turn for the worse, he's allowed the opportunity to tape a message for his father. Really wish I could be there to support you and the family. Proud to be your son and I thank you for raising me and bringing me up and always being there for me. I'm trying to make myself better so I can overcome all this. Not only a fool doesn't learn from his mistakes, but I've learned from mine, so I'm trying to change. It's just a matter of time. I'm sure he'll be looking upon us and being proud of us, waiting for us to all be together again. I know for sure we will do so. It's a matter of waiting. But we don't have to wait too long. I know that for sure. Sam wasn't in solitary for long before he noticed something strange happening. He'd tell documentarians for out of sight, out of mind that one day he started hearing a woman's voice in his head.


When this first began, Sam was really taken off guard. He'd never experienced anything like this before. And none of Sam's medical records indicate any history of mental illness. But Sam's experience wasn't necessarily unusual. In fact, many people in solitary confinement struggle with mental health concerns. According to Solitary Watch, people in solitary confinement face a 33 times greater risk of suicide than the general prison population. It's a remarkable statistic considering that prisons themselves are the largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the US. Kibala and Rodriguez write that in 2012, there were 350,000 people with severe mental illness in prisons across the country. But the link between mental health concerns and prison seems to be even stronger in solitary. In 1993, a researcher named Dr. Stuart Gratian coined the term shoe syndrome to refer to the set of severe psychiatric issues he observed in prisoners at Pelican Bay Prison, a California Supermax facility made entirely of solitary confinement cells. But overall, research on the mental toll of solitary is limited and somewhat varied. According to Andrew Irvine, writing for Lateral Magazine, while current data certainly indicates that many prisoners in solitary confinement experience mental illness. The question of causation remains.


Put simply, it's a chicken-egg debate. Does solitary confinement cause mental illness? Or is suffering from mental illness what gets you sent to solitary? But just because we don't have enough conclusive data to prove causation doesn't mean scientists are neutral on the issue. In fact, according to the documentary Out of sight, Out of Mind, many experts believe that solitary confinement exacerbates pre-existing mental illness and may even cause it in people with no prior history, people like Sam Mandas. And that's concerning because if it's true, then it's not the chicken or the egg. It's both. It's a cycle, an endless feedback loop. If you have an untreated mental illness in prison and your symptoms cause behaviors that are coded as acting out, you'll get punished with solitary. But then once you're there, the unrelenting experience of complete isolation only worsens your mental illness, leading to more behaviors that get you sent back to solitary and around and around and around it goes. It's a startling issue that doesn't impact all prisoners equally. Black, indigenous, and Latinx folks like Sam are overrepresented in prison generally. But according to Solitary Watch, this overrepresentation is even more significant in solitary confinement.


Unsurprisingly, black, indigenous, and Latinx folks actually receive longer stays in solitary for the exact same infractions as their white counterparts. The stakes are high. A visit to solitary may last a few days if you're lucky, or a few years or decades if you're not. Sam was not. And as the years passed, his mental illness deepened. According to Out of sight, Out of mind, and The Atlantic, Sam began creating an entire alternate reality. He'd tell prison officials that he was the father of eleven children, that he'd become a Green Beret at the age of 12, that his hands were fully contracted by the boxing associations, that he was married to the daughter of Dog, the bounty hunter. When he began asking for psychiatric help in 2006, he'd already spent a third of his life in near complete isolation. But it didn't matter. His first request for treatment was denied, as was his second, as was his third. By 2010, Sam had requested psychiatric treatment five separate times, and he'd been denied psychiatric treatment five separate times. All of this while Sam's mental illness continued to intensify. According to report by forensic psychologist Dr. Mark Damon, in addition to his delusions, Sam now had a history of running around his cell naked, of barking, of poor sleep.


He'd reported feelings of hopelessness and intense paranoia. On one occasion, when Sam began repeatedly running into the wall headfirst, prison staff responded by telling him they'd pepper spray him if he didn't stop. Wow, I'd thought when I'd read that. Let's stop someone from self-harming by threatening to harm them ourselves. Helpful. But what Sam was experiencing, untreated mental illness in prison, it's a story that's played out before, sometimes with unimaginably horrific outcomes. In an article from the Lincoln Journal Star, I read about Nico Jenkins, a man who, after being directly released from solitary confinement, murdered four people in just a few weeks. During his trial, Nico explained that Egyptian gods had ordered him to commit the murders. It's worth noting that while in solitary, each of Nico's 47 requests for psychiatric help had been denied. For Sam, too, the denial of treatment was becoming more and more inhumane. According to Dr. Mark Diamond, Sam attempted suicide in his cell on three separate occasions between 2010 and 2011. On the first attempt, Sam would say in the documentary Out of sight, Out of Mind, that he felt there was nothing left for him, that he had a better place to go now.


No. Sam was luckily saved that day, but not without consequence. He'd say that prison officials had reprimanded him, claiming that his suicide attempt was an abuse of medical treatment. They wrote him up and charged him over $10,000 in restitution for the hospital bills he'd incurred. By 2012, there didn't seem to be many options left for Sam. His appeal was denied in 1999, and with his life sentence intact, there just wasn't much hope for a life outside of prison walls. Until that is, a courtroom battle halfway across the country had the potential to change everything. The Supreme Court had a ruling in a case called Miller v. Alabama. The justices ruled that sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole was a violation of the constitution. In particular, they felt that a sentence of this type constituted cruel and unusual treatment. For Sam and folks like him, this was a significant development. But in many ways, it was just the very first step. Notably, the Supreme Court ruling didn't explicitly instruct states on whether or not this constitutional violation should apply retroactively. It meant that they didn't necessarily need to re-sentence those already serving their terms.


Instead, this question was left up to individual states. But other good things appeared to be on the horizon for Sam when the ACLU of Colorado decided to get involved in his case. According to their website, the ACLU of Colorado is the state's oldest and largest civil rights organization with a mission to protect, defend, and extend the civil rights of all people in Colorado through litigation, education, and advocacy. One of Sam's ACLU attorneys, Rebecca Wallace, described to Sajahinding of The Denver Post what it was like meeting Sam. He was broken when I met him, she said. His mind ruled by demons and delusions. It was hard to imagine him ever being able to put the pieces of his broken mind back together again. According to journalist Andrew Cohen, the ACLU immediately requested a psychiatric evaluation for Sam from Dr. Jeffrey L. Metzner. When Dr. Metzner eventually submitted his report, he took care to note Sam's long history of psychosis set off by his many years in solitary. As Andrew Cohen writes, between 2010 and 2013, eight separate psychiatrists diagnosed Sam with various forms of psychosis. Dr. Metzner concluded that Sam needed immediate, intensive, and ongoing care.


Ultimately, writing his recommendation that Sam be admitted to a psychiatric hospital and prescribed psychotropic drugs to control his symptoms. And then in November of 2012, Sam was finally moved out of traditional solitary confinement to a residential treatment unit for mentally ill prisoners. Now the promise of treatment was a real possibility. Yet even in the new unit, Sam remained completely isolated. In many ways, it was solitary by a new name. According to the documentary, Out of sight, Out of Mind, Sam should have received intensive mental health treatment in his new unit. Instead, he received, on average, only 12 minutes of individual therapy a week. And as time passed, the problems seemed to get worse, not better. As the ACLU writes in a letter to the Executive Director of Colorado Department of Corrections, also known as C-Doc, during his first 12 months in the residential treatment program, Sam never refused individual therapy and refused group therapy only twice. Yet during that same period, CDOT canceled Sam's scheduled therapy 31 times. And the longer Sam has been in the RTP program, the less time he has spent meeting with a mental health professional. Recent data shows that from May 28, 2013 through December 31st, 2013, Sam spent an average of four minutes each week meeting one on one with a mental health professional.


Many weeks and months, Sam had absolutely no individual mental health contacts. For years, Sam endured things like this, wins that, in practical terms, hardly seemed like wins at all. And then in 2016, after four years of setbacks, it finally happened. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the decision reached in the Landmark Miller versus Alabama case should be interpreted retroactively in the state of Colorado. In response, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill that directed judges to hold re-sentencing hearings for the 48 affected Coloradians. One of them was Sam Mandis. The law gave judges three options for re-sentencing: a new sentence of 30 years, a new sentence of 50 years, or the added ability for the convicted person to potentially obtain parole. The bill was passed with bipartisan support, but not everyone is happy. According to Alex Bernest, writing for the Colorado Independent, some folks felt the law was overly lenient. Republican DA George Brochler tweeted, The most violent offenders, 17-year-old murderers included, have earned prison, not a chance to be in our neighborhoods. Others, though, felt the law didn't go far enough. The ACLU of Colorado and Colorado Criminal Defense Bar pointing to cases like Sam's, argued that the guidelines should be more flexible and add resentencing options under 30 years.


But regardless of the specifics, all of it meant the same thing. Finally, after two decades, after half a life in solitary, Sam Mandes was getting a second chance at a life outside of prison. Things had just taken a dramatically good turn for Sam. He was getting his resentencing hearing. But still, three more years passed as legal red tape was worked through. And then finally, the big day came in September of 2019. According to reporter, Alex Bernest, the day Sam Mandis received his new sentence, he walked into the Wield County courtroom wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. His once thick, dark hair was entirely cropped off. I tried to imagine his courtroom entrance from the perspective of family and friends waiting inside. Amongst the group, sat Sam's 23 year old son, Jacob. For Jacob, this day marked more than just his father's resentencing. It was also the day he'd see his father in person for the very first time. When Sam was allowed to address the court, he apologized to Freda's family and discussed his experiences in solitary. It's worth noting here that somewhere along the way, Sam's story had shifted. He now claimed to have been there the night Freda Winter was murdered, that he had served as a look out for a group of boys that had planned to bogarize her home.


His involvement, he said, was limited to breaking the window and waiting outdoors for the group to return. According to journalist Andrew Cohen, it was a story supported by the evidence found at the scene. If you remember, Sam's fingerprints had matched the ones in the broken window, but they hadn't been discovered anywhere inside the house. I had trouble finding a clear explanation for the change of story. The best I could come up with on my own was that Sam had limited options when he initially faced trial in 1996. Because of the Colorado felony murder rule, Sam's only chance of avoiding life in prison would be to completely deny any participation in what happened that evening. On the other hand, if Sam truly hadn't been involved, perhaps it was a strategic decision to admit to participation in the crime he'd already been convicted of. It was his resentencing hearing, after all. Denying he played a role may read to a judge as a lack of remorse. And this judge held Sam's future in her hands. Sam wasn't the only person to speak. Jacob also had an opportunity to address the court. Jacob told the packed courtroom that the only thing he had of his father for two and a half decades were letters and old stories.


You have his eyes. You have his smile. He was really great at baseball just like you, Jacob recalled. He asked the judge to give his father a second chance. Eyes across the courtroom weld with tears. It wasn't just a second chance for Sam. It was one for Jacob too, an opportunity to truly know his father. Looking into Sam's eyes for the very first time, Jacob ended his speech by addressing his dad directly. Hi, Sam, he said. I'm your son, Jacob. No matter what happens, I will always be your son. When Judge Julie Hawkins announced her decision, she had difficulty holding back tears. According to the Colorado Independent, she composed herself, apologizing before giving her ruling. Sam's sentence of life without parole would be reduced to the most lenient sentence possible, 30 years. I can only imagine how palpable the energy in the courtroom must have been at that moment. Sam's lawyer, Nicole Mooney, would later say to the Colorado Independent, I think today represents justice for Sam. I think no 14-year-old should be sentenced to life without parole without any chance at redemption. I wondered how Frida Winter's family felt about the new sentence. In an article from The Denver Post, I'd ultimately discovered that while the family declined to give an official statement, they had been in agreement with the choice to provide a new sentence.


After the announcement, Sam's family and friends shared relief, happiness, and tears. Jacob told Colorado News about his excitement for the future, for chats with his dad about their mutual love of baseball, for family dinners, for the father-son relationship that had once seemed completely impossible. According to the Colorado Independent, Sam's mother, Rosella, had not seen her son in 15 years. She spoke softly, her eyes misty. I'm glad it's over, she said. He suffered a lot. Sam's aunt, Catalina Sanchez, seemed less assured. Will he ever really be out of prison after this? She said to the Colorado Independent, Look at the people that go to Iraq and come back. Are they ever back? He'll never be free. At the time of Sam's resentencing in September of 2019, he'd already served 23 and a half years of his now 30-year term. I put Sam's release sometime in early 2026. Though according to The Denver Post, Sam's lawyer believes he could be released any day now. It's an incredible conclusion to the type of story that seems so rarely to have a happy ending. But can Sam really just pick up where he left off? According to reporter, Alex Bernest, when the judge's resentencing decision was announced, Sam's reaction was unemotional.


I wondered what could have possibly been going through his head at that moment. I considered the many ways Sam had not been bettered by his time in prison, the many ways he'd been nearly destroyed by it. I found myself yet again reflecting on the inhumanity of solitary confinement. Some folks, of course, will die in solitary, but many more will not. And these people, people like Sam, are thrust again into the outside world, expected to make something new with their lives. And yet, according to Lateral Magazine, research suggests that former prisoners released directly from solitary often fared pretty poorly. In one Connecticut study, 92% of folks released from solitary were back in prison within three years time. It's the thing that leaves you wondering, how much is freedom truly worth when the system has already stolen nearly everything else? Okay, just wanted to check in. How are you? Due to the themes of today's episode, I want to make sure you're taking care of yourself and those around you. If you're in the United States and you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Or visit their website at suicidepreventionlifeline.


Org. If you want to learn more about solitary confinement and the movement to end its practice, I highly recommend checking out SolitaryWatch, a non-profit national watchdog group that investigates, documents, and disseminates information on the widespread use of solitary confinement in US prisons and jails. You can learn more and donate to support their important work at solitarywatch. Org. To keep up with True a crime and support our work, make sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter @trueacrimepod. You can also follow me on my Instagram and TikTok @slesiastanton. As always, you can find our resources, including the full list of sources for this episode and lots more on the show notes page on our website, truecrimepodcast. Com. Thanks for listening to this early season two episode of True Crime. If you want an ad-free version of this show and other great shows from Tenderfoot TV, you can subscribe to Tenderfoot+ at tenderfootplus. Com or on Apple Podcasts. True Crime is created, hosted and written by me, Silesia Stanton, and is a production of Tenderfoot TV. Additional writing and research by Olivia Husingfield. Executive producers are myself, Donald Albright, and Payne Lindsay. Additional production by Olivia Husingfield and Jamie Albright.


Editing by Sidney Evans. Our supervising producer is Tracy Kaplan. Artwork by Station 16. Original Music by J. Ragsdale. Mix by Dayton Cole. Thank you to Aaron Rosenbaum and the team at UTA, Beck Media and Marketing and the Nord Group. For more podcasts like True a crime, search Tenderfoot TV on your favorite podcast app or visit us at tenderfoot. Tv. Thanks for listening.