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DIGGING DEEPER: Man who spent 30 years behind bars is released

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FLORENCE AZ (KVOA) - A man who spent most of this adult life in prison is now a free man. News 4 Tucson's Digging Deeper Team first told you about Gary Shepherd when a judge ordered his release from prison last month.

News 4 Tucson was there when he walked out of the Arizona State Prison in Florence over the weekend.

"They let me out to spread love and cooperation to the world," were the words from Gary Shepherd on Valentine's Day, as he walked out from the East Unit.  

This Valentine's Day will be one that Shepherd will never forget.

For the last 30 years he's been in prison he was known as a lifer.  

On Sunday, he walked out with a new lease on life. He told News 4 Tucson, "The biggest thing I want to do is actually make my life count for something  and that's to do something positive with my life."

While Gary Shepherd was in prison, he spent most of his 30 years helping other inmates. Such as fellow lifer Joseph Chiappetta and Mukhtar Najee Ullah who became friends behind the prison walls. Each one helping each other and others to get their lives turned around and start an organization called Gold Canyon Heart and Home.

Ullah said, "You can either play prison or you can get ready for the rest of your life. Gary has spent his time getting ready for the rest of his life."

Ullah spent 40 years in prison he was released in 2017. Chiappetta spent 20 years and left prison in 2018. Both Army veterans and they, along with Gary, began programs such as mentoring and peer-to-peer support. 

It also caught the eye of Karen Smith, who retired after twenty years from the Arizona Department of Corrections. She said they were different from 95% of the inmates. "They were about giving back to their community, which was their yard. They were all about making their community a better place to live."

One of the programs was to prepare inmates to reenter the outside world and since 2010, when all of them were still behind bars, Chiappetta said they've helped 4,000 inmates.  "Our success rate right now is 91%  among those. Only among, in that number is predicated upon one fact they are doing community service on their own."

Shepherd's attorney, Louis Fidel represented him through the process. He was moved by his client's actions so much so that he's confident Shepherd will succeed on the outside. "The group of folks you see here on his behalf I think is a testament to the work he's done to help other people."

The folks he referred to are involved in the Gold Canyon Heart and Home program.

Shepherd was given a life sentence for shooting at his probation officer in the Tucson Mall in 1993.  

At that time, it was a mandatory sentence because he was on probation and used a gun. But that statue changed during his time in prison.

The victim, his probation officer, was among those who asked the judge to release him.

Shepherd apologized to him and said, "He found it in his heart to forgive me and give me a second chance for that I am greatly appreciative."

Shepherd will be in Phoenix for three months where he will get the help he needs to find a job, housing, and start a new program called New Freedom.