Star-Bulletin Sports

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Fomer Pearl City Charger Mike DeKneef is serving a three-year sentence for drug charges.

Drugs put DeKneef
a long way from home

The former island baseball star
and coach is spending this Father's
Day in federal prison, while he and
his family wait to be together again

By Dave Reardon

He pictured razor wire, guards in towers with rifles, and noisy, violent inmates.

But incarceration is different than what Mike DeKneef imagined.

The federal prison camp, a low-security facility in Sheridan, Ore., is "not like the movies or OCCC," says DeKneef, a former baseball star and Kamehameha assistant coach from Pearl City.

Not that his home for the next three years is a playground.

"We're not in cells, and it's pretty mellow because if you get in a fight you go to the medium security prison, and no one wants that," DeKneef, 33, said. "But it's still prison."

Even if it was a five-star hotel, it's still prison to DeKneef. As long as he is separated from his wife, Wendy, and sons, Matthew and Jordan, DeKneef is being punished in the worst way possible for him.

"I had a good life," DeKneef says. "A good job and a great family. The best."

DeKneef speaks to a reporter while out on bail in January, days before he puts himself on an airplane and flies off to prison.

"I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me. I want people to know about my story so they don't make the same mistake," he says. "I lost a lot."

He lost it in a way he never thought possible. But that's how drug addiction works; what you started to do for fun can creep up on you slowly and then strangle you.

What starts as a party enhancer becomes a bad habit.

Then a nasty little secret.

Then a parasite sucking at your income and health.

Then a federal prison term.

In 1996, Mike DeKneef read a news item about Butch Hobson, his manager when he played for the Pawtucket Red Sox, one step away from the major leagues.

He shook his head in disbelief as he read. Hobson was busted for cocaine.

DeKneef recalls thinking at the time that there had to be a mistake. He remembered Hobson as someone who would drink once in awhile, but never use illegal drugs.

"How could he do that? Why would he be involved in something like that?" DeKneef wondered as he realized the report was true.

Today, he asks the same questions of himself, about himself.

DeKneef says he drank often while playing college and minor league baseball in the early 1990s, but didn't start using cocaine regularly until his baseball playing days ended in 1997.

"I was drinking more and more, and the coke was a way to keep it going," he says. "My wife didn't know anything. I was able to hide it."

His habit became increasingly expensive, to the point that DeKneef began to deal crystal methamphetamine, or "ice," to pay for the cocaine he used.

That's how he got caught.

In March 2001, DeKneef and 10 others were arrested and indicted as part of a drug ring. When he was arrested, DeKneef had 20 bags of cocaine, along with some prescription drugs, in his pockets.

According to a Star-Bulletin article on March 31, DeKneef then admitted to a serious drug problem. A Kamehameha spokesman said DeKneef had a "clean record," or he would not have been allowed to coach.

He was denied bail at first and was incarcerated at Oahu Community Correctional Center. Later, DeKneef was released and allowed to stay with his family until turning himself in to start his prison term in Oregon.

Many who knew DeKneef were shocked by the events.

"That was tremendously out of character," said Ed Cheff, who was DeKneef's baseball coach at Lewis-Clark State. "You think of Mike DeKneef and you think of a great husband, a family guy. He just made one big mistake. He's tough enough where he'll learn from this and come back very strong."

While DeKneef lost his job at United Parcel Service and his coaching position at Kamehameha, he says he didn't lose his friends. In addition to Cheff, his coach at Pearl City High, John Matias, and Kamehameha head coach Vern Ramie were supportive.

"We all know I made big mistakes," DeKneef says. "But they were still there for me and my family."

YESTERDAY, Wendy DeKneef watched her 13-year-old son Jordan play baseball. It's too early to tell if Jordan will make it as far as his dad did in pro baseball -- and if he will have the talent and luck to advance to the only level that eluded Mike, the major leagues.

But Jordan definitely loves the game. Yesterday, he was one of the better players on the field, helping his team win 4-2 by reaching on a bunt single. Wendy says Jordan's stature and style is like his dad's -- "He's a runt with a passion for the game."

Matthew, 14, "hasn't played baseball in a couple years," says Wendy, but is an outstanding student who loves to read and work on computers. He misses his father as much as Jordan does.

Both boys talk to their dad three times a week. They know where he is and why.

"We didn't think it would be right to hide anything about this from them," Wendy says.

Jordan and Matthew are both dealing with the situation well.

"I feel very lucky, especially because of the ages they are," Wendy says. "It can be hard enough for teenagers as it is."

Today, the boys will spend time with their grandfathers and other family and friends. It helps, but it's not the same.

"We miss (Mike) a lot whether it's Father's Day or not," Wendy said.

After Jordan's game, it was off to the eye doctor, then another appointment.

"The boys keep me busy and so does work, so the time has actually gone by pretty fast," she says.

"I think it's going by slower for Michael."

A year ago he lived with the three people he loves most.

"Now I'm surrounded by 1,200 convicted felons," DeKneef says.

"It's uneasy at times. You feel like you have to look over your shoulder all the time. There's not a lot to do, when I'm not working in the kitchen. There are a few guys from Hawaii, but I stick to myself. My hope is to do my time and get out," he says. "Of course the toughest part is being away from my family. I'm thinking more about coaching and stuff like that now since baseball season is here and my kid's playing ball now."

They live in rooms, not cells.

It's not Alcatraz or Devil's Island or any other Big House you've seen in the movies.

Still, though, "It's prison." That's according to the man who lives there.

And for a loving husband and father of two, it might as well be hell. Especially today.

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