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John Jeffrey Frates carried a frayed red Bible as he walked last Wednesday toward the entrance of the Sonoma County Main Jail, a trip he takes every week.

His visits to the facility are part of his work with the Redwood Gospel Mission’s jail ministries program, which connects volunteers with inmates for one-on-one meetings to study the Bible, talk about their lives or just to pray.

He credits studying the Bible and discovering God as the catalyst for turning his life around more than a decade ago, a change that happened while serving a prison sentence stemming from a felony stalking case that involved a woman he had dated.

He was addicted to drugs and alcohol at the time of his 2001 arrest and had reached a breaking point, he said.

“I was hopeless,” Frates said. “I said, ‘If I keep doing the same thing, I’ll end up with the same results, so let’s try something new.’ ”

Frates, a 48-year-old Santa Rosa resident, was selected last month as one of 143 people pardoned by Gov. Jerry Brown, a rare act of forgiveness granted to former inmates who show remarkably good behavior since their release from jail. The pardon, signed by the governor on Christmas Eve, noted Frates’ decadelong commitment as a volunteer with the Redwood Gospel Mission and said the victim in the 2001 case vouched for his good behavior in a written letter of support.

Frates received the news of the pardon last Monday when he returned a missed call from the Governor’s Office. It was the second in less than 24 hours, with an employee there calling him the night before to ask about his life following his 2004 release from prison.

Frates was at his desk at the Santa Rosa Couch Shop Furniture Warehouse, where he works as a manager, when he got the second call.

“It was a Christmas miracle,” Frates said.

“I’m just in awe that this happened. In this moment, there’s a lot to be thankful for.”

Brown has issued a total of 1,332 pardons and 283 commutations, which waive or reduce sentences for inmates in custody, since he returned as governor in 2011, the Governor’s Office said.

Frates wasn’t seeking a pardon when he first applied to get his criminal record expunged back in November 2016, he said. His faith and a suspicion that his criminal record was holding him back from landing better jobs were what motivated him to bring the case to a Sonoma County Superior Court judge.

“I felt like God was impressing on me to apply for an expungement,” Frates said. “I wanted to get a better job and to move forward with my life.”

Frates was arrested in Santa Rosa in May 2001 for making threats to harm his on-again-off-again girlfriend at the time, said Evan Zelig, a criminal defense attorney who represented Frates. The pair were using drugs and alcohol at the time and the woman reported Frates to police after receiving multiple menacing phone calls from him, Zelig said.

Prosecutors charged Frates for both stalking and making threats of great bodily injury, though he was only convicted of the stalking charge, online court records show.

Frates was initially sentenced to a year in jail in August 2001, according to the court records, but he was later sent to state prison for parole violations related to continued drug use, according to the Sonoma County Superior Court website.

He was released from the Avenal State Prison in Kings County in May 2004 and he began attending church services at Santa Rosa’s Calvary Chapel soon after his release. He got a job as a warehouse worker at a since-closed furniture store in Santa Rosa later that year, and was eventually hired at the Couch Shop Furniture Warehouse in 2008.

He began volunteering at the Redwood Gospel Mission at about the same time and was cleared to meet with inmates on a regular basis two years later, Frates said. He was paroled until March 2007.

Fast-forward to December 2016, when court records show Frates’ expungement petition was denied by a Sonoma County Superior Court judge because his stay in state prison made him ineligible. Frates then applied for a certificate of rehabilitation, a court order that declares a person has successfully reintegrated into society following a criminal conviction. Though the certificate would not erase his criminal record, it could be used to show prospective employers proof of his good conduct.

The process required Frates to show he had not broken any laws and that he had exhibited good behavior since his 2004 release from prison.

The application included letters of support from people who knew Frates, including the victim in the 2001 stalking case and James Santana, the coordinator for the Redwood Gospel Mission’s jail ministries program.

Santana wrote about Frates’ volunteer work, describing him as a committed volunteer who speaks to inmates from a place of understanding.

“When somebody shares about deep personal changes in their lives, and how it happens, the one who’s listening wants that,” Santana said. “They’re willing to take a risk and open their lives up.”

The order was approved by a Sonoma County judge on May 2017, and was then automatically forwarded to the Governor’s Office to be considered for a pardon, Zelig said.

While the pardon restores some of the rights stripped from people with criminal convictions, such as serving on a jury trial or owning firearms, it does not seal or erase a person’s criminal record. The FBI and the California Department of Justice are both notified of the pardon, and the pardon itself is a public record.

Frates said, however, that it will help him continue to transform his life.

He is now married and is preparing to take over early this year as sole owner of the furniture warehouse where he has worked for a decade.

“(This is) to help others and say, ‘Look at this,’ ” Frates said. “There’s a way to turn your life around.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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