Life in Prison, Life in Christ

Billy Chad, 45, has spent three years on San Quentin's death row, convicted of murder, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. Today he evangelizes inmates in the California State Prison in Calipatria, where he is serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The San Diego native described his conversion from criminal to Christian in telephone interviews with the Register. An edited version follows:

“In 1974, I lost my job as a machinist with a San Diego shipbuilding company. I was 19 and desperate for money to support my pregnant wife. I robbed a young woman of $50 in her home, got scared she would turn me in, and strangled her to death.

“I ran from the scene and continued to rob in San Diego, where I stabbed another woman to death. In Las Vegas, I robbed and stabbed a homosexual man to death after he made advances at me.

“I was caught in 1978, pleaded guilty to all the charges, and was sent to San Quentin's death row. For two years I was in solitary confinement in a 5-by-9-foot cell. Those on death row put on an ‘I'm-not-afraid’ facade. I expected to be executed and was afraid of dying. I felt empty, like I had lost everything.

“In 1981 my sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without parole because I was considered suicidal. …

“I was then extradited to Nevada. A plea bargain there reduced my charge from first- to second-degree murder, and I received another life sentence without parole.

“In the Las Vegas County Jail, a Christian woman visited me and later brought along two Catholic women, who were clerks in the county court. They could have lost their jobs for visiting me, so I discouraged them from returning. Vivean responded, “God can always get me another job, but he can't get me another Billy.”

“I realized they were living their faith and were sent by God. Before, I didn't know if God was real. Joanne told me to talk to God, so that night I got down on my knees and prayed. God touched me, and for the first time I sensed that God was real and cared for me. I cried like a baby. He would take who I was and make someone he could use.

“I started to read the Bible and pray. I began to tell other prisoners about God and convinced one inmate to attend chapel services instead of following gang members' orders to stab an inmate.

“In 1989, I was transferred to state prisons in Sacramento, Calif., where I attended Mass. I have been in Calipatria since 1994 and was the Catholic chaplain's clerk for two years. Now I lead music for Protestant services.

“As for my crimes, I am very remorseful. What bothers me the most is that I killed three people and wonder if they knew God. My victims' pain stopped at death, but their family's pain continues. I deserve to be locked up the rest of my life.

“I don't believe in the death penalty because it doesn't prevent crime. Those who murder don't think they'll get