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Former 'Uptown Burglar' finds the 'coffee bean' inmate who saved his life

"Here we are years after his earthly being," Vanessa Baker said of her brother, "and we're still learning from him because that's what God put in him to share."

DALLAS — The trajectory of Damon West is already a pretty compelling tale of redemption. But the formerly meth-addicted burglar-turned reformed prison inmate was still on a journey to officer public redemption for someone else: the man responsible for the "coffee bean" change of direction in his life.

We've introduced you to Damon West before. He was a star quarterback for UNT in Denton. But a knee injury led to pain medication. Pain medication led to addictions. Addictions led to a life of crime to support those addictions. And that life of crime ended with a 65-year prison sentence for the man dubbed the "Uptown Burglar" in a Dallas County Courtroom in 2009.

"I was a bad guy. I was a scumbag," he told me when we first met in 2020. He was released on parole by TDCJ after serving just seven years in the Stiles Unit in Beaumont because he'd found a way to completely turn his life around.

"This is like the place where I was reborn," he told me pointing to an upper level window outside the Dallas County Jail. "If rock bottom was the day I got sentenced to life in prison, the rest of my life began in that cell up there."

Because that was where an older inmate offered him some friendly advice. That inmate, a man he only knew as "Mr. Jackson", told him he was now in a pot of boiling water. And, that prison could turn him soft and weak like a carrot thrown into that boiling water. Or, the turmoil of prison could harden him like boiled egg: make him emotionally distant, vacant, cutoff from life. Or, that inmate told him, he could choose to be a coffee bean instead. Boiling water doesn't necessarily change a coffee bean.  A boiling coffee bean changes the water to coffee. Mr. Jackson was telling him that his experience in prison would all be up to him. Change the world, the environment, around you instead he was told.

"I changed the water. I became a pot of coffee," West said.

In prison he says he became a force for good. He got treatment for his addictions. The parole board took notice and released him. And in his search to find a way to share this new coffee bean advice, he became a public speaker, a successful author, in demand by corporations and college sports programs. He has even returned to TDCJ prisons to offer a course based on his books, creating more "coffee beans" among prisoners who hope to be just like him.

But there was still something missing: the redemption that "Mr. Jackson" deserved.

West hired a private investigator and he found that the inmate who gave him that advice in 2009, was actually named James Lynn Baker II, a man with a long criminal record and a history of drug offenses. But, a man from a noted family in southern Dallas.

Baker's mother, Bertha Baker Hilburn, worked at Parkland Hospital as a nurse, opened Dallas' first licensed African American Nursery called Mason's Lullaby in 1948, and purchased the South Dallas Good Samaritan Hospital in 1951 to establish housing for African Americans who migrated to Dallas for better employment. Once known as the Baker Residential Hotel it still stands as a Dallas city landmark.

Two of James Lynn Baker II's sisters were some of the very first Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Three sisters worked for Southwest Airlines. One still does as a flight attendant.

And Damon West, hoping to offer the redemption their brother deserved, reached out to them and offered to meet.

"I realized that James Baker II and Damon West are very much alike," West said. "And I truly believe it's one of the reasons he found me, because he found me in the Dallas County Jail. The only difference is that I got into a program of recovery where he didn't. James and I are both addicts. I just found a recovery, he didn't."

"That character was his character," Vanessa Baker said when told of the advice he offered Damon West. "And that was my brother."

Vanessa Baker and Vetia Smith are two of James Baker's surviving sisters.

"Something positive has come out of his troubled life," Vetia Smith said.

Because years after James Lynn Baker II died of an opioid overdose in 2017, drugs his family said were prescribed to him after a cancer diagnosis, Damon West finally found the Baker family and told them the story of the simple advice James offered that changed his life.

"He did not meet a stranger," Vanessa said of her brother who was an outgoing and successful student in school.

"He probably knew that he could not help himself, but he could help others," Vanessa Baker said. "He saw Damon, he saw the fear, and he wanted to ease that. And he would have done that."

"Pay it forward," Vetia Smith added.

And paying it forward is what Damon promised the Baker family he would do next.

"Integrity requires me to go do something to honor this guy," Damon West told a group of students last month at Dallas' Lincoln High School. James Lynn Baker II was a 1968 graduate of Lincoln.  So West announced a scholarship at Lincoln: the James Lynn Baker II Coffee Bean Scholarship. The $10,000 scholarship will be awarded to a worthy Lincoln graduate every year. The Baker family will choose from the applicants.

"The last words he ever spoke to me in person," West told the students, "he said 'West, be a coffee bean.'"

"Somebody in this room is gonna get a better chance at life through education because these two guys had a chance encounter in the Dallas County Jail in the summer of 2009," he said.

"I want Damon to know that I really appreciate the love that you are showing to my brother," Vetia Smith said. "We are ecstatic. Oh, we are so grateful and thankful for the world to know that even though he may have had a few missteps in life, he had more correct steps in life, and those correct steps are going to help other people make the best and correct steps in their lives."

"Here we are years after his earthly being," Vanessa Baker said of her brother, "and we're still learning from him because that's what God put in him to share."

"It will bring a whole different chapter, not only in my brother's life because his is closed, but a new chapter into his kids' lives and to their kids' lives, and for generations to come," Vetia Smith said.

And the Baker family appreciates Damon West's efforts so much that they had a surprise for him as well.

"We've talked about inviting Damon to one of our family dinners and making him an honorary Baker," Vetia Smith said after the Lincoln High School presentation.

"Oh my God. Are you serious," Damon said seated next to her. "Are you serious? I would love to be an honorary Baker. I would be so grateful to be an honorary Baker. I mean I would wear that like a badge of honor."

James Lynn Baker II, whose family says was a brilliant man with addictions that led to bad choices, was never able to follow his own advice - that coffee bean advice.

But now, with Damon as his voice, he's speaking to people all around the world.  Damon's latest book 'How to be a Coffee Bean' includes a dedication that says "in loving memory of the man who taught me about the coffee bean, James Lynn Baker II, the real Mr. Jackson."

"I admire him a lot," Vetia Smith said of Damon West. "I think what he is doing is a blessing. Not only to our family but those who will receive the scholarship."

"I truly believe this is just the beginning of a lot of other very good things to come from the interaction that these two men had in the Dallas County Jail in the summer of 2009," West said. "He saw a person in need. And the kindness of one human being to another human being has become a movement spreading all over the world."

"It gives me a sense of additional pride to know that this legacy is going to continue," Vetia Smith said of her brother.

A legacy, and that long-sought-after redemption, one coffee bean at a time.

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