August 18, 2013

Steve Solloway: Wiechman making great second effort

The former Bonny Eagle and Southern Connecticut State University standout is putting his life back together after serving time for theft.

SOUTH PORTLAND - The woman inside the Walmart was staring at John Wiechman, or so he thought. "I could see her eyes widen, like she recognized me. She looked like she wanted to vomit. She turned and walked away very fast."

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Maine Sabers running back John Wiechman, a former Bonny Eagle and Southern Connecticut State University standout, served time in prison for theft and now is aiming to be a comeback player in the far more important game of life itself.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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John Wiechman

She must see the scarlet F for felon on his forehead, Wiechman said to himself. She must know he was the 2005 Fitzpatrick Award winner, which goes to the best Maine schoolboy football player. She must know he left Buxton for New Haven and Southern Connecticut State University, where he was a very good running back on a very competitive NCAA Division II team.

She must know he was sentenced to five years in a Connecticut prison after pleading guilty to three counts of credit card theft and various other counts of larceny and identity theft. He was accused of lifting wallets and car keys from lockers in health clubs and helping himself to items in the cars whose doors were unlocked by the keys.

He was arrested in August 2011. He walked into prison in January 2012. Everyone, he thought, was watching.

"I am a felon. These are the consequences that are part of my punishment." He picks the hours when stores might be least crowded to shop. He pulls a baseball cap down to his eyes.

Friday evening, he looked around the South Portland grill where we met and saw tables full of people.

"I was hoping we'd meet at a place more out of the way," said Wiechman. He was told no one was paying attention to him except me.

Wiechman was released from prison this winter after serving nearly a year. Twice he did time in a segregated unit after proving his toughness to other inmates. "You're in a 6-by-9 cell. You have none of your personal belongings. No books, no television, no magazines. Your food is brought to you. Someone has to take you to the bathroom."

When he was with the general population, which included sex offenders, he felt he was in isolation. "I couldn't have an intelligent conversation with anyone."

He stopped trying. "I just wanted to do my punishment and get out. There were one or two times I thought I was going crazy."

He didn't want visitors. He was hurt by the pain he caused his mother, Susan, who works in Maine's probational system. He hurt his father, Ted, a former administrator with the culinary arts program at Southern Maine Community College.

His girlfriend, a fellow student, took the money she saved for a spring break cruise to pay his bail. "She should have let me sit in jail," said Wiechman. "I can never pay her back."

They still talk regularly but no longer have a relationship. "It's better this way. What can I offer her? I've disappointed a lot of people."

Or confirmed the expectations of some Mainers who followed Wiechman's exciting career on championship Bonny Eagle High football teams but knew of his transgressions away from the game. Intelligent and articulate, Wiechman made mistakes in choosing his older friends who found trouble.

Only one familiar face, other than his attorney, was present at his sentencing. Carol Cavanaugh, whose husband, Rich, is the longtime Southern Connecticut football coach, drove Wiechman to court and was given some of his personal effects before he was led away.

"It was heartbreaking," said Cavanaugh, 60. "I saw how his family loved and supported him. I told John I didn't for a second believe this is who you are. He kept saying 'This is my punishment. I have to do this.' It was pretty harsh for me to hear that."

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