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From the jailhouse to building houses: One local man tells his story of overcoming past struggles to build new life, family

Levi Gray had a rough time for a while when he was younger that he admits now was one in which he made a lot of bad choices.

“My brother and I were always in and out of trouble, and the things we’d do kept getting worse and worse,” Gray said.

Gray’s now living a stable life with a good job, a fiancé and two children. He’s on the security team at his church, has a stable group of men to help him through life’s temptations and trials and he feels like he’s on a positive path with an upward trajectory for his life.

But that change in direction didn’t come suddenly, and it didn’t come without hitting rock bottom inside a cell in a state penitentiary facility while serving a couple of years behind bars.

About a month ago, he addressed that publicly when he did something that he does every so often: He entered his name into a Google search.

“I do it every now and then when I can’t sleep at night or if I wake up early for seemingly no reason,” Gray said. “And on this day, I woke up about 2 a.m., couldn’t go back to sleep and decided to get up and Google myself.”

While it may seem strange to some, Gray said it’s a solid reminder of the life he once lived – the man he once was and how he has no plans of returning to that life.

This time it was different because after finding a post from September of 2014 on the Facebook page for The Jackson Sun with a link to a story about his and his brother’s arrest, Gray decided to comment on the post with an update on his life.

“I’m just here to say that after almost 10 years, I learned from my mistakes and so has my brother. This is the first time I have ever seen this post and I am not ashamed. My parents didn’t raise us this way, what we did was wrong and nobody else made that decision to make the poor choices other than ourselves. I appreciate the ones that stood up for us, but at the end of the day, we were wrong. This was one of the lowest times of my life but the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I straightened up. We straightened up and sometimes it takes everything coming down around you for someone to be able to rebuild. I don’t shy from my past, I embrace it. This is what helped me be the father that I am today, the best future husband that I can be, and a role model for some.

“After almost 10 years, I have my rights back, I have my family, and I have my freedom. I deserved the judgment that was given to me and I still accept it if it comes but I promise, my life is better for it. I am sorry for each and every person that I hurt, I am thankful for the ones that stuck by our side, and I am thankful for the ones that casted judgment. Without any of you, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I hope all has been well for every single person in here, and I wish you the best of luck in life. As for my family and I, we are doing great now. Thank you.”

The story was about Levi and his brother having gotten into a fight outside their apartment, and someone apparently heard it and called Jackson Police. They were in a fight because they and a couple others had been involved in a string of car burglaries, and they got into a fight over what to do with a gun they’d stolen.

“He had a child, and they were threatening to take his child away from him,” Levi said. “So I told him that even though I got brass knuckles and he got a knife and went after each other to put everything on me to get off as easy as he could.”

They appeared before Judge Don Allen and all received six years’ probation.

Levi said his brother experienced his “wake-up call” after that incident and stopped involving himself in illegal activities.

“It took me a little longer,” Levi said.

During the time that he was in jail waiting to appear in Allen’s court, Levi found out he was a father. After being released, his main goal in life was to make sure his son was taken care of.

He worked two jobs to make sure of that, even if one of them wasn’t the most law-following job.

“I was a felon at this point, so my job options were limited for the most part,” Levi said. “I got a job doing landscaping, and I did that in the day to pay for me.

“I got a job as a bouncer for a club at night, and I got paid under the table each night. And every night or morning when I got off work and got my money, I’d run by her house – my child’s mother – and leave the money in her mailbox.”

That arrangement worked until the spring of 2016. Levi’s presence at a bar that served alcohol violated his parole, and he was arrested when his parole officer found him working as a bouncer.

He sat in Madison County’s jail for a couple of months before being shipped off to the state penitentiary in Pikeville (East Tennessee) for a few months before being shipped to Middle Tennessee and the facility in Trousdale County just on the other side of Nashville.

After a few months there, he had a parole hearing and was granted some leniency for time already served and going through their residential drug and alcohol program (RDAP).

“That time in jail was great for me because it gave me a chance to sit down and shut up and think about everything in my life that had gone wrong,” Levi said. “And the RDAP was good for me even though I didn’t think I needed it when I started going through it.

“It made me see my role in it and all the effects my choices had on me and everyone around me. It also taught me how important it was to keep my mind busy by being focused on an end goal, reading books, going to the church in there and just changing my entire perspective on life.”

Levi was released on Jan. 18, 2018, and he said that was great except for one thing. That was the day a second wave of inclement weather moved through West Tennessee. With the region already severely affected by snow and ice over most roads, Levi and his parents, who’d come to Trousdale County to bring him home, were part of the traffic jam that formed in Henderson, Carroll and Benton counties on Interstate 40 when the road was closed for icy conditions and some people had to spend the night in their cars on the highway.

“Yeah that made a long day even longer, but the whole time I was thinking I’d rather be in that car with my parents waiting out a snow storm than sitting in jail looking at those same walls I’d been looking at for nearly two years,” Levi said. “Fortunately, we’d stopped at Logan’s Roadhouse on the Dixon exit, and I’d had my first steak and baked potato in over two years, so I wasn’t hungry.”

He and his parents eventually made it home. And the next day, Levi saw his son for the first time in more than two years. He’d talked to him a few times on the phone, and everyone did a good job of ensuring that he knew who his daddy is until he saw him.

“But of course it was different because he was 3 years old now,” Levi said. “But it felt great to hold him and kiss him and get a hug from him and hear ‘I love you daddy.’

“Seeing everybody in the family was weird because I wanted to hug everybody, but at the same time, I didn’t want anyone touching me. But I worked through that and just tried to start living again.”

His efforts at starting life over again started with a job at Chili’s restaurant as a cook, but he readily admits he wasn’t good at that. He moved over to 731 Sports Bar and Grille for about a year, and he said that worked better because that job essentially him grilling meat and frying French fries.

Levi got back into bouncing so he could get caught up on his child support from his time in prison. He eventually left his job and began working at TBDN and was doing both jobs.

He was also depending drugs – legal and otherwise – to keep up with the rough schedule and grind two physical jobs can do to a person.

Then the death of one of his friends was another tipping point that caused Levi to turn his life a little closer to the direction it needed to go in.

“He’d led a hard life, but he was a genuine person that I felt like could change if I could give him a hand in doing that, not knowing I myself was in no position to help someone else like that yet,” Levi said. “He had two sons – the youngest one being 2 months old when he died suddenly.”

That death affected Levi because he’d seen what prison could do to a person, which was bad enough in itself, but the closest person to him outside his family had been taken from him.

“There were nights I couldn’t handle it, and I seriously thought about reverting back to my old ways because that was what I knew,” Levi said. “But fortunately I had a great support system around me that I could depend on without going there.”

Levi had met his now-fiance, Anna, who was pregnant with their first child. He said she was the biggest reason for not reverting back to that old lifestyle. She provided the bulk of the support he needed to fight that urge and continue to build on his new life with her and their growing family. And while he was working himself constantly with very little downtime while he was awake, he saw that he was missing his older son’s life while trying to pay the bills.

That caused him to decide to drop the bouncing, find a higher-paying day job, stop drinking and drug use and straighten himself up so he could lead a family and support his older child.

He got a job selling roofs, and that worked well for a year as he moved more than $1 million in merchandise in his first year, but false claims by one of his supervisors made him decide to leave that job considering his past.

“I’d like to think the customers that worked with me trusted me, but I had a lot to get over, and the accusations – even though they were untrue – were hard for some people to get past,” Levi said. “So it was best just to remove myself from that situation and hopefully find a better one.”

In October of 2021, he began working at Elite Construction in Jackson. It’s a place with not many people working there getting jobs done all over the region. But Levi wasn’t sure if he could get a job there, but he knew he had to be honest up front in the interview process.

“I told them about my past life breaking the law, my time in prison and even the accusations I had against me at my previous job,” Levi said. “But it turns out when I interviewed with Richard Newman here at Elite, he was being hones when he said ‘we’re a Southern company of God-fearing men, and we’re a family.’

“That meant they were willing to be my support system in addition to my family, and having that here has made my life and keeping it the way it is now, so much easier.”

Levi has been with Elite for nearly two-and-a-half years now.

“I’ve gone from being a felon that came from prison with nothing to owning my own home, my own vehicles and I’m engaged to be married,” Levi said. “I saved up enough money to go to court and get my rights restored. I can vote again, and I can own a gun again.

“I’m in church every Sunday at Journey Church, and they’re a great church family I’m grateful to be a part of.”

Levi credits the men at Elite, his fiancé Anna, his parents, his brother and a few others like a mentor named Kenneth Ward Jr. for showing him how to avoid the mistakes that plagued the first part of his life.

“Things are going great now, but I never want to forget where I’ve come from and what I did to get there,” Levi said. “My Tennessee Department of Corrections number is the code I use now to get into my phone just so I have that reminder every day.

“I’m not one that deserves a comeback story. I made a ton of dumb decisions, and had no reason to ask to be released because I could’ve easily just went back to doing what got me in there in the first place. But fortunately my entire life has been changed. I never want to go back.”

Levi says he mostly stays away from his brother now. Not out of malice, but out of a need to do what he feels like he needs to do to make sure he and his brother never return to their old lives.

“We talk on the phone probably once a week, but we’re rarely together, and things are good that way,” Levi said. “We’re good now. He supports me and loves my family, and I support him and love his family.

“And now we’re both working to make sure our sons don’t follow us down the paths we started down to start with. We’re trying to be the men we want them to grow to be.”

Brandon Shields, brandon@jacksonpost.news

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