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Commentary Bob Lutz: Former college hero Raphael Toney tries to outscore personal demons

  • Published Saturday, April 5, 2014, at 6:21 p.m.

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This is a story about $2,000 that drove a wedge between a mother and her son. It’s a tale about a man who at first meandered down the wrong path, then sprinted toward a life of addiction, crime and confinement. It’s about seeking redemption, too. The old mother speaks in a sweet tone about her son, now close to 60. She’s happy she was around long enough to see a turn. She trusts he won’t go back.

Raphael Toney e-mailed me almost two months ago after a column I had written about Friends senior basketball standout Joe Mitchell, who set the Falcons’ single-season scoring record this season. That record had previously belonged to Toney, a 1973 North graduate and exceptional City League athlete in those days.

“I would rank him as one of the better athletes at North,” said Dennis Brunner, Toney’s basketball coach with the Redskins. “Probably not in Barry Sanders’ category, but Raphael was a good athlete. And he was a great kid with high character. He was easy to coach.”

Toney told me he appreciated mention of his time at Friends and asked me to congratulate Mitchell, a fellow former City Leaguer from Southeast.

Somehow, through our e-mail exchanges, Toney’s story came out – a story about a good guy swept under by the allure of drugs. You’ve heard it before, but usually it’s told with reluctance.

Toney is anything but reluctant to share the lurid details about his past. He’s living and now even working at the 180 Zone in Davenport, Iowa, a residential complex for people whose demons live with them. He’s been there for a little more than two years.

Rusty Boruff is the executive director of the 180 Zone, a faith-based, non-profit organization whose stated mission is to bring love, hope and harmony to those in crisis situations. Boruff first met Toney in the stark conditions of a prison, where Toney was looking at a life term.

“He was – I don’t know if ‘notorious’ is the right word – but people around the Quad Cities knew who he was,” said Boruff, who spent time in jail when he was younger. “I remember reading his name in the newspaper and hearing stories about him.”

•  •  • 

It started innocently.

Toney, whose father had a lawn service in Wichita, grew up working outdoors. After he left Friends in 1977, he took a job with a finance company and eventually was transferred to Houston. He and his wife, whom he had known in elementary school and attended Friends with, lived there for 14 years and had two daughters.

He made good money and had a beautiful family. It wasn’t enough.

Toney was always drawn to a party and the parties in Houston were like none he had ever seen. He partied straight through his marriage, throwing it away for the allure of night life and stray women. He continued to do well in the finance world, though, and took a job with a company that relocated him to Atlanta.

“Offices in four states,” Toney said. “I had 150 employees. Financially, that was the best time of my life. I was earning well over $100,000 a year.”

But there was a drawback. To make that kind of money, Toney was engaging in some illicit financing schemes. The competitive nature of the business thrilled him. He rationalized that doing the wrong things for money was doing the right thing.

“My drinking at the time was pretty much out of control,” Toney said. “This escalated into cocaine, even crack cocaine. This would have been from about 1994 to 1997 in Atlanta. I finally had to resign my position because I was out of control with my drug and alcohol abuse.”

Toney said his employers got him into rehab twice. It didn’t work.

Toney came home to Wichita, to the welcoming arms of family and friends who remembered a fun, bright, articulate guy.

But not even the pull of those who loved him was strong enough to jolt Toney from his life of booze and drugs.

“I don’t understand it,” Toney said. “I come from a home where I had both of my parents. They weren’t real educated parents, but they did the best they could. I had everything I needed. I had one brother, three sisters and one half-sister. I went to church every Sunday, the New Hope Baptist Church off of Murdock Street. I had good morals instilled in me.

“But there was that element of wanting to fit in and be recognized. I was a smart guy, but not like a geek. But I stuck out like a sore thumb. I really didn’t fit in with any of the groups I wanted to fit in with.”

Toney prided himself on being an outstanding athlete. He was a football standout at North, too.

But the thing he looked forward to the most in high school and college weren’t the games. It was what happened after the games.

“The partying,” he said. “It was an obsession. It had more pull on my life than academics or athletics. To sum it up, I guess I was a pleasure seeker.”

•  •  • 

Toney knew how to use his charm and good looks. But with that $100,000 a year job gone, he had to figure out other ways to pay for his pleasures.

And with the help of the wrong crowd, as he calls them now, he started planning and executing petty burglaries in Wichita. His first arrest, he said, came after he stole some items from a semi trailer. He said he was released a week or so later and placed on probation.

“Then the very next month I got arrested again for burglary,” Toney said. “This was of a storage shed and I was sentenced to 20 months in jail. That was my first incarceration.”

Toney said he didn’t have the nerve to rob people. He preferred breaking into places where there were none.

Still, he spent a lot of time in jail from 2003-05, he said, including Lansing, Larned and Osawatomie.

When he was finally released, he met a woman and moved first to Columbia, Mo., where he worked in a factory, and then to Iowa late in 2006. He had previously spent time in Iowa doing finance work, so he knew the ins and outs of the drug culture there.

“Straight back to crack cocaine,” Toney said. “And I started gambling to try and recover a lot of the money I was spending on drugs. It was a losing combination.”

•  •  • 

When Toney was in Columbia, he asked his mother, Gwen, to loan him $2,000. He made up some story, probably one addicts have been using for decades. A voice in Gwen’s head told her to be wary, but this was her son. She couldn’t resist.

“I think he had the idea that he was going to get married and change his life,” said Gwen, who turned 84 in March. “And I was all for that. I wanted the change in him. I wanted him to get off of whatever he was using. Because whatever it was, it controlled him completely.”

Gwen borrowed the money from her bank. Raphael promised to repay her quickly.

He broke that promise and he didn’t have time to be remorseful. He was in too much of a hurry to find more drugs, to drink more alcohol.

“I was constantly trying to cover up the pain,” he said.

In 2008, Toney said, he received a worker’s compensation settlement from his time as a factory worker in Columbia. He promised himself he would pay his mother back out of that money.

He broke that promise, too.

“I squandered all of that money gambling and using drugs,” Toney said. “And by the time that money was gone, I found myself at another level of usage.”

If there had been any control at all, it was lost. In order to keep the drugs flowing, Toney had to keep the money flowing. And that meant more risky behavior, crimes that endangered not just property.

“I robbed a convenience store, two gas stations and a check-cashing center,” Toney said. “But I did it with a BB gun and a stocking cap over my head. Three of the robberies were in Iowa and one in Illinois. So now I was involved with felonies in two states.”

Finally, Toney said, he was arrested for armed robbery in Iowa on Aug. 17, 2008. Toney said his weapon was an unloaded BB gun. He was under the influence of drugs when he was put behind bars.

“When those handcuffs went on me, I was like, ‘Oh God, thank you,’ ” Toney said. “It was over. I felt so much relief that I had been stopped and that I hadn’t been killed.”

•  •  • 

It was while in the Scott County jail in Davenport that Toney had a revelation.

“I was in my cell and I asked God to come into my life,” he said. “I would sit at a table in that jail and read the Bible all day long.”

It was there that Toney met Boruff, who participated in those Bible sessions. Boruff spoke at Toney’s sentencing.

“I was looking at three charges with 25 years each and a 17-year minimum,” Toney said.

He ended up being sentenced to 10 years and served 38 months, from January 2009 until March 2012. Toney went straight from jail to the 180 Zone. And so far, Toney’s life has done a 180.

He’s started “We Clean It” and “We Cut It,” at the 180 Zone and spends his days and nights in a huge house on the 180 Zone grounds.

Toney is working on establishing relationships with his three daughters. One lives in Joliet, Ill., and the other two live in Wichita. And he’s working on getting to know a 40-year-old son he didn’t even know he had until two years ago

“My oldest daughter is 38 and lives in Joliet,” said Toney, who was not married to his daughter’s mother. “My two youngest daughters still have pain. They don’t communicate so I try to reach out to them and the grandkids. I missed out on their lives, but it was my own doing. I put it in the hands of God to allow them to have forgiveness in their hearts. I have forgiven myself for what I have done and now I can move forward.”

Toney is happy, content. He loves his involvement with the 180 Zone and considers Boruff a savior.

“Raphael is such an engaging guy,” Boruff said. “I haven’t met very many people like him. He has wisdom and knowledge and ability. He’s an employee here now and one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever met. He’s really just starting to live his life.”

Toney said he hasn’t taken a drink or engaged in any drugs since he left prison.

“On March 11, 2012, I was living in a 6-by-9 cell with my head resting by the toilet at night,” Toney said. “Right now, I’m living in a six-bedroom, four-bath house and I’m the only one here. The owners asked me to maintain a presence here so I maintain it and keep up the grounds until they get it on the market.”

Toney will never tell anyone he has resolved his issues. He’s an addict now, then and forever.

“I take my addictions very seriously,” he said. “I know how cunning it can be.”

As for that $2,000 loan from his mother … it was finally repaid last August — with $500 in interest.

“Being a mother and having such high hopes – it’s been hard,” Gwen Toney said. “He had the ability and the potential to do things with his life and to see it slide away the way it did … that’s very hard on a mother, hard on a parent.”

She had given up on seeing the money. But she never quite gave up on her son.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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