Flint, MI—Eric Woodyard sat alone on the Flint-bound train from Chicago, listening to music while looking out the window, gently rocking in sync with the train’s wobble. Though he had made the same trip many times, this felt different.
While in Chicago, Woodyard, a Flint native and sports journalist, had been offered a job by ESPN to cover the Detroit Lions. He had just accepted and was still wondering if he’d made the right choice.
Woodyard had made a name for himself covering basketball for teams like the Utah Jazz and later the NBA’s midwestern teams like the Bulls, Bucks, Pacers, and Pistons. The decision to shift to football was daunting.
He again measured the pros and cons of the new position in his head as music continued to blast through his air pods and into his ears.
As if on cue, the music stopped, now replaced by a ringtone. Woodyard looked down and saw an unknown number. Most people wouldn’t answer what could potentially be a spam call, but he didn’t hesitate. He knew exactly who was calling.
He was greeted by a familiar voice, one he knew he needed to hear right about then—it was a voice that had offered untold amounts of wisdom and guidance through the years. His grandfather, Horace Peterson, was calling just to say hi.
“I got offered this new role within ESPN,” Woodyard told Peterson as they got to talking. “I’m moving back to Michigan to cover the Detroit Lions. I’m nervous…hopefully I’m making the right decision.”
Like any grandfather made wise by time and experience, Horace told Woodyard exactly what he needed to hear.
“You are making the right decision. Make sure you study the team, do your homework. You’re more than well fit for the job,” Horace said. “Don’t question yourself.”
He went on, telling Woodyard to remember all the reasons he took the job. He’d be traveling less, he’d be closer to his son, he’d be branching out and showing the world that he could do much more than cover just basketball.
Woodyard felt relief. His grandfather was one of the people he most confided in.
Woodyard grew up with a large and loving family filled with relatives ready to give advice when he needed it, and he’d always been grateful. But few people had the type of perspective or spoke as sound words as his grandfather.
As they continued talking, Horace, like any grandfather might, asked Woodyard about his great-grandson, Ethan, who had just turned seven. The two talked about how different family members were doing and filled each other in on how life had been.
The conversation continued while Woodyard watched Michigan’s flat landscape whiz past him as he got closer to Flint.
Though he was headed to the city where he and the rest of his family had been born and raised, Woodyard would not be seeing his grandfather any time soon.
No train, no car, no plane would ever be fast or powerful enough to close the physical gap between him and his grandfather imposed upon them by Michigan’s court and correctional system.
No matter the urgency of the topic, Woodyard’s conversations with his grandfather would always be through the phone or in closely monitored situations.
Horace, unlike most grandfathers, has spent the last 48 years in prison, serving a life sentence for a murder someone else committed.
One Gun. One Shot. One Death.
On Sunday, March 12, 1973, after a night of partying and taking drugs, a 20-year-old Horace along with his friend Nathaniel Porter (who legally changed his name in 1994 to Nathaniel Kalonji Owusu) visited the House of Music on 1659 N. Saginaw in Flint.
There, the two men carried out an armed robbery.
According to Horace’s testimony during his trial, the mixture of marijuana, LSD, and mescaline he was on led to him being in “a state of shock.” For this reason, he said, he passively went along with the robbery, not knowing it was going to happen until Owusu pulled out a pistol inside the store.
Owusu told the manager to empty the register and left Horace there to watch the manager and keep an eye on the entrance.
Owusu meanwhile went behind the counter and into a back room, where he held 22-year-old Lorrie Snyder at gunpoint and ordered her to empty the store’s safe.
The next thing Horace heard was a deafening noise from the backroom that reverberated through the store. Owusu ran out with nearly $300 in cash and they sped back to Horace’s house on Bonbright Street.
As Horace would later find out, the boom he heard coming from the shop’s backroom was that of a .38 snubnosed revolver going off. Owusu had shot and killed Lorrie Snyder.
One Gun. One Shot. One Death.
Hours later, both Horace and Owusu would be apprehended by Flint City Police at the Peterson household. Before the end of 1973, the two men would be convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Owusu later testified that the story Horace told was true—the robbery had been his idea, and Horace had never even held the gun, let alone killed anyone. He said it again in 1996 to a Detroit News reporter, and later again in a letter he wrote to Horace.
“From the time of our arrest,” Owusu wrote in the letter, “without wavering, my initial statement to the police and my trial testimony was that 1) Horace and I didn’t plan the robbery beforehand, 2) he didn’t know I had a gun, 3) he didn’t know I was going to commit a robbery when we entered the store (it happened spontaneously), and 4) the killing was accidental.”
By all accounts—even the store manager’s—Horace was unarmed before, during, and after the killing. But at the time, it didn’t matter.
In 1973, courts in Michigan followed what is known as the felony murder rule, a doctrine adapted from British Common Law. The rule states in the case of a murder resulting from a felonious act, like an armed robbery, the offender as well as any accomplices may be found guilty of murder.
Seven years into Horace’s life sentence, the Michigan Supreme Court, through the People v. Aaron, abolished the felony murder doctrine in the state of Michigan. The rule that put Horace in prison for life had been deemed unfit and unjust for prosecutors to use.
But that decision was not retroactively applied to Horace’s case. He would still be required to serve out a life sentence, the result of a conviction based on an abolished rule, applied to a murder he did not commit.
Becoming a family man
Like many of the 200,000 U.S inmates currently serving a life sentence in the U.S, the story could have ended there. Horace could have spent his years in prison wallowing in self-pity, agonizing over the life he would never have. He could have retreated into himself, abandoning any semblance of who he was before going in.
But Horace, fueled by his love for his family, especially his 2-year-old daughter Onquette, decided he would live his life in the best way possible. While in prison, he continued to be a loving father, brother, nephew, grandfather, and friend. In the years he’s been in prison, not one person has reported hearing Horace complain about his situation.
Now, 48 years later, Horace is known in the Peterson clan as just another member of the family. There is no shame, no mixed opinions or emotions on who he is. His family held on to him as he did to them.
According to Woodyard, growing up with such a tight-knit family affected the way he viewed his grandfather.
“Even to this day, 50 years later, all my family and my relatives, we’ve still got hope…The family never treated him like he was away. His parents didn’t treat him like that, his brothers and sisters didn’t treat him like that. It was always ‘hope, hope, hope’ that he would come home and I think that translated into me. I never felt in my life that my grandad wasn’t coming home,” Woodyard said.
This strong family bond didn’t extend to just Woodyard. Every generation of Peterson grew up being taught the same love for Horace.
That love exists among all his family becomes more impressive considering he grew up with 11 siblings who made him an uncle 38 times over, a great uncle 81 times over and a great-great-uncle 25 times over…and counting.
Raheen Peterson, Horace’s nephew, better known in some circles as Shoestring, rose to fame and success in the early ’90s as a rapper along with his group, The Dayton Family.
Growing up with Horace as his uncle felt normal, Raheen said. It wasn’t until he got older that he began to understand his uncle’s situation.
During The Dayton Family’s peak in success after the release of their album “F.B.I,” the group struggled to make music due to legal troubles two of the bandmates were facing. It was then, Raheen said, that he realized how growing up around his uncle had been both a positive experience for him as well as a cautionary tale.
“My other group members, they couldn’t stay out of jail,” Raheen said. Raheen, meanwhile, had managed to stay out of trouble due in large part to the advice he’d get from Horace.
“I would talk to Horace at least once every week. I learned a lot of stuff from him. He’d tell me about his life. We were taught what not to do. He made it his job to call his nephews and make sure to tell them not to end up in prison…He definitely gave me knowledge,” Raheen said.
According to Raheen, the socially conscious lyrics touching on topics like crime, poverty, and corruption The Dayton Family came to be known for, originated in part from stories Raheen would hear from Horace and the injustice he experienced.
Though many lives were changed by Horace’s incarceration, it hit Onquette Woodyard, Horace’s daughter, particularly hard.
Onquette was only two years old when her father went away to prison for life.
She was raised by her mother and step-father, Liz and John Burnett, who she said she’ll always be grateful for. But she often felt frustrated at the thought of all the experiences she never got to share with Horace.
“I got married and he wasn’t there to walk me down the aisle. I lost a child. I had a child,” Onquette said.
She said thoughts like that aren’t common, but when they come up, she feels a pit in her stomach, an emptiness in her heart where she knows memories of her father should be. She’s had a lifetime to come to terms with her father’s situation. Still, from time to time she said, the sadness gets the best of her.
When this happens though, she’s quickly reminded of the memories she had shared with her father. She remembers conversations with him about the news and what she was learning in school. He may not have been with her at the hospital when Eric was born, but she remembers telling him when she was pregnant and the first time he brought Eric to meet his grandfather.
Onquette even recalls a time when her father gave her a pair of prison boots he’d made for her. She laughed at the thought of Horace being a cobbler.
“I remember once he made me these boots that he’d make every day to make money. They had these red bottoms and even though usually they were just glued to the boot, my daddy would sew them. They were prison boots, but they looked just like normal boots the way he made them.”
Those memories are the ones Onquette chooses to carry with her. Her father, she said, played as big a role in her life as anyone else.
“That’s one thing I can say about my father. Even from prison he parented me. It wasn’t like he wasn’t in my life. The only thing missing was that he wasn’t physically there,” Onquette said.
As strong as the bond has been between him and his family, one thing family members like Woodyard, Raheen and Onquette never got to experience was Horace out of prison. Even family members like Jackie and Jimmie Peterson, Horace’s siblings, have not experienced daily life with Horace for nearly 50 years.
The Petersons had always held out hope for Horace. Over the years, attempts were made, especially by Woodyard, to bring Horace’s case to light in the hopes of raising awareness and somehow getting the attention of someone like a Michigan Governor who would be able to commutate or pardon Horace.
In 2009 as Woodyard’s journalism career was just taking off, he began an internship at ABC 12 News in Flint. On his very first day as an intern, he pitched a story about his family going to protest Horace’s sentence in front of Michigan Capitol.
In the years that followed, progress was slow. Woodyard used his influence as a journalist to continue advocating for his grandfather’s commutation, but much of what he said seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Horace’s parents, the late David and Ollie Peterson spent half of their lifetime yearning, praying every day that that day would be the day their son walked free.
Though they lived a long and beautiful life, filled with family and surrounded by the same type of love Horace received, their children, like Jimmie and Jackie, always knew that not a day passed where their parent’s heart didn’t ache at what essentially became the loss of a child.
Toward the beginning of 2020 as both David and Ollie approached their 95th and 93rd birthdays respectively, they realized their lives were nearing an end. The couple of 72 years decided to dedicate the remainder of their life savings, approximately $10,000, toward hiring a lawyer who could dedicate more time and offer expertise to Horace’s case.
The family is is hoping that now is the right time to make the case for Horace’s commutation. With the topics of police brutality and the over-sentencing of Black Americans taking center stage in the last year, the Peterson family isn’t just hoping anymore. They think there is a real chance Horace might one day soon come back home.
Those who have experienced prison with Horace say they were cared for and mentored by him. Inmates, many of whom committed crimes much more serious than Horace, became like family to him and in some cases went on to become close friends with other Petersons after their release.
Rodney Porter (no relation to Nathaniel Porter) was 17 when he was sentenced to 24 years in prison for second-degree murder. He said there was only one person during the time he served that he wanted to see be released.
His praise and respect for Horace seemed to have no end as he looked back on the eight years he spent with him at prisons in Jackson, Carson City, and Newberry.
“I went to prison for second degree murder. I was supposed to be there,” Rodney said. “I met a handful of people that I was like ‘you know they ain’t got no business being here.’ His intelligence, it just blew me away.”
Horace is well read and known for being eloquent in his verbiage. Having earned his GED while in prison as well as taking courses in legal writing, building maintenance, custodial management, and business management, Horace has most spent much of his sentence buried in a book.
Rodney acknowledges he was just a boy when he went into prison. He’d always had a short temper and when he first got there, he was constantly expecting things to get violent.
“It was crazy. I was 17 years old and I’m looking at everybody like, ‘Okay, well I guess everyone must be a killer, the scum of the earth.’ Then you had someone who went like, ‘Hey young brother, let me talk to you. Look, if you keep doing this and doing that, you’re gonna get into trouble,” he said, remembering when Horace approached him.
Porter’s original sentence was 15 years. After getting into an altercation while in prison he was given more time. Porter looks back on that time and remembers how the anger within him caused him to self-sabotage.
“HP (Horace Peterson) and some other people, they started waking us up, telling us how there is no reason you should hit a person. It doesn’t matter what it is. Walk away, you can do something other than that,” Porter said.
This stood in contrast to what Porter believed was the only truth for him. “I was always like, ‘We’re supposed to be gangsters,’ you know what I mean?’”
Over the years they spent in prison together, Porter said he developed what he could best describe as a brotherhood with Horace. “He was an OG, I respected what he did and when he was around, we all just acted different. We would be like ‘Hey, man, here comes HP, chill out,” Rodney said.
Rodney recalls a time in the late ’90s when the two men were incarcerated at the Newberry Correctional Facility in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was during that time that Porter understood the power that came with not always engaging with bad situations.
“In Jackson, we were taught if the police was having a bad day, you’d step off to the side with them and tell them ‘I would appreciate it if you didn’t come down here and take out whatever you got going on out there, on me in here ,’” Rodney said. “Most of them that you’d cut into like that, they’d go like, ‘Yeah yeah, we get it.”
He learned from Horace that many problems could be solved like that.
When they got to Newberry however, things changed.
One of the first times he tried confronting a guard about being overly aggressive, all he got, he said, was a “fuck you, nigger.”
“You see what they’re trying to pull on you. If you go and whack a guard for saying that, they put you in solitary. He (Horace) taught us, sometimes it’s not worth it,” Porter said.
Horace, through his mentoring of others and aversion to aggression, became friendly with the majority of his fellow inmates. According to Rodney, Horace wasn’t a gang leader or anything of the like, but he had many people loyal to him.
“HP had respect. Even the guards would always be like ‘Hey, Mr. Peterson,’” Rodney said.
As a free man, Rodney reflected on what it was, ultimately, that Horace was doing by taking young men like himself and educating them. With his life relegated long ago to being spent between four walls, it was hard for Rodney at first to understand where Horace’s drive came from to do good.
“He was just like one of those cerebral type people. He didn’t have no shame in saying ‘I’m gonna be in here for the rest of his life. I’m just trying to make sure you get out and when you get home you do this, you do that with your family. You know. Take care of them, raise them right, blah blah blah…because I might not ever get to do that,’” Rodney said.
A Gentle Giant
Even during his childhood, Horace was known for being of strong conviction. He was always big for his age growing up. He liked to wrestle and box and would often spend his childhood doing both with his friends and older brothers.
Jimmie Peterson, Horace’s older brother, remembers growing up with him and how it felt to see him go. According to Jimmie, Horace was always by his side. He’d follow Jimmie wherever he went and tried making friends with all of his friends despite the fact he was just a kid while Jimmie and his friends were teenagers.
Upon his return from the Navy, where he had worked on the USS Princeton and taken part in the Apollo 10 retrieval mission in the Pacific Ocean, Jimmie Recounts getting into a fight with Horace.
Jimmie smiled at the memory as he told it. He emphasized the fact that his little brother had grown strong in the years he’d been off to the Navy. He hesitated to admit it but chuckled when he recalled being pinned to the ground by his brother.
“I’ll never get over losing him as long as he’s incarcerated. I don’t want to get over it. We were close. He was my little brother. He was tough. There were a lot of older guys he could whoop ’cause he was tough,” Jimmie said.
Jimmie remembers the day Horace was arrested. He’d been working a shift at the General Motors Fisher Body plant. Upon returning home, he was greeted by his parents who delivered the news. Jimmie remembers feeling “heartbroken and sick,” when he found out.
“It was hard to accept what had happened,” Jimmie said.
Much like Rodney, Jackie Peterson, Horace’s younger sister, remembers a side of him that sought to educate and protect. Jackie mentioned wanting to be around Horace as a young child and feeling safe in his presence.
“He loved family, he was very protective, he sure was,” Jackie said. “My friends and I would have encounters with other kids around the neighborhood and you didn’t know it but he’d be there around the corner listening to make sure didn’t nobody hurt you.”
According to Jackie, Horace was always looking out for his family. If Jackie ever needed lunch money or wanted something to eat, she knew coming to Horace, who is nine years older than her, would always lead to getting something to eat.
This love for family extended to animals as well, Jackie said. “He would always have Dobermans or German shepherds and he’d train them to fetch and sit and follow him around,” she said.
Jackie said Horace was curious almost to a fault. He was known for being fearless and diving headfirst into situations that would get him in trouble. He liked to learn and was always mature for his age. Like his brother Jimmie said, he generally preferred the company of older people.
According to her, Horace’s mind was always somewhere else. He took conversations and relationships to heart. He carried an intensity about him that made it hard to hang out with kids his age. Even as a boy, Horace was already becoming a leader, someone to be respected.
What could have been
Throughout his years in prison, all his family and all his friends, the children he’s helped raise and the men he’s mentored, they all say the same thing: Horace Peterson has done more good for the world through the people he’s helped than the average person can ever hope to do. His love and commitment to his family and the belief, the knowledge, the certainty in his heart that he must be bigger than the sentence he was given and the life he was submitted to has led him to become a staple in many people’s lives.
His friends, family, those me mentored—all say that every day that passes with him behind bars is a day the world loses an opportunity to be a better place.
Family members and friends who got together in April all talked about Horace’s candor in conversation and his charisma with his many great-great nieces and nephews. They younger ones have never met him in person but he makes them laugh over the phone and as they get older they ask to speak to him more.
Onquette remembers raising Woodyard and taking him to see his grandfather. From a young age, the two were kindred spirits. The fact that now as an adult, Woodyard comes to his grandfather for advice is no coincidence.
Horace admits to his role in the crime that led to Lorrie A. Snyder’s death, and feels remorse for his actions. He also feels that he has served his fair share of time and has suffered for what he did.
‘I’m getting tired’
David Peterson passed away on November 6, 2020. A month later on December 14, many say from heartbreak, Ollie followed. Though David and Ollie would never get to see their son again, they left behind an expansive family instilled with the same wish to see Horace walk as a free man.
According to Woodyard, who spoke to Horace about his parent’s passing, that conversation was one of the first times in his life where Horace sounded defeated. After 48 years of prison, Woodyard heard his grandfather for the first time say, “I’m getting tired.”
In the months that followed, Woodyard created a petition on Change.Org that would quickly garner over 80,000 signatures.
The website itself eventually stepped in upon noticing the massive traction on Horace’s petition. Staff members at Change.Org started working with Woodyard on creating a mixed media campaign that would include digital ads targeted at the Lansing area where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer might be.
These were accompanied by a social media campaign as well as a digital billboard ad parked outside the state’s Capitol everyday during the last week.
The Peterson’s lawyer has advised the family to not divulge detailed information of what is happening on the legal end of this movement. Despite this, members of the family like Eric, Onquette, and Raheen among others, have expressed a genuine feeling in their hearts that something good is coming soon.
Just one month ago a member of the Peterson clan living in Cincinnati claimed to have dreamt about Horace being free.
Whether Horace is freed or not is yet to be determined. What is for certain is that he has tens of thousands of individuals now rooting for him. Many are spending their days rallying the troops and spreading their message: Horace Peterson is a good man.
Fighting the good fight
On April 18, Woodyard and the Change.Org team put together an itinerary for filming the digital ad that would soon be playing at the Capitol.
At 1 a.m., Woodyard emailed anyone who knew Horace, asking them to meet up at the house on Bonbright to carpool to Carson City prison, where the crew would film everyone talking about Horace.
By 3 o’clock a group of over 25 people made up of Horace’s family and friends had filled the entire first floor of the house and spilled into the lawn.
They ordered tacos and ate as the house was filled with conversations about Horace. Some were about the last piece of advice Horace had given. Ohers reminisced about when he used to box and how well he used to sew and repair boots.
Suddenly, Onquette’s voice broke through the noise as she exclaimed “He’s calling! He’s calling!”
The living room fell to a dead silence. Even those who shuffled in from outside or from different rooms came in silently. Everyone there wanted only to hear what Horace had to say.
“I’m hanging in there,” Horace said to his audience. “It can be a good day or a bad day but I’m taking it in stride.”
“You’re a legend, do you know that?” someone shouted at the phone. “We all here fighting for you.”
Horace chuckled and said, “No, I didn’t know that but I can take all the help I can get with this situation I’m in. It’s what I need to be fulfilled because I miss everyone tremendously.”
The phone was passed around the room as people took turns saying hello. Without fail, Horace would immediately recognize each person by their voice.
About 5 people in, the prison’s operator system butted in to say the call would be coming to an end.
“You’ve got a lot of people in your corner man,” someone shouted.
Horace responded wearily. “Sooner or later this nightmare has to end, and I hope it ends soon.”
“We got you in our prayers,” someone said.
“God gon’ take care of you,” said another.
Jimmie had the last word.
“Well, I know you’re the strongest person I know. I mean, you’ve been through a lot. All this time and you’re still here, I take my hat off to you. We’re with you, man. 100 percent.”
Before Horace could respond, the operator cut the call. The room fell into a heavy silence, one only made heavier by sniffling noses and bracelets jangling along an arm raised to wipe away a stray tear.
A moment passed as everyone in the room came down from the palpable rush of feeling like Horace had just been in the room with them.
“We love you, Horace!” someone yelled as Jimmie put the phone down, and the silence was broken.