LAKE FOREST, Calif. — Danny Duchene dropped to his knees as pastor Rick Warren led a prayer over him, the recently named pastor for Saddleback Church’s prison ministry.
“The greatest feeling in life is being used by God for something larger than yourself,” Warren said after announcing Duchene’s new job. “God can use anybody because of his mercy. Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.”
Duchene, 53, is a twice-convicted murderer.
He was serving double 25-year-to-life sentences at Sierra Conservation Center in Northern California for killing two men when, with the help of a letter Warren penned to the parole board guaranteeing him a job at Saddleback, he was released on Dec. 24, 2014.
‘Purpose driven’ prison
Nearly 20 years into his sentence, Duchene became familiar with Warren through his book “The Purpose Driven Life.” It inspired him to start a Purpose-Driven Church at the prison, to encourage inmates that their lives had a purpose.
Duchene finished reading Warren’s book in 2003 at the same time Saddleback Church was launching a National Day of Purpose campaign. Duchene wanted to be part of that, so he contacted Saddleback leaders and told them 20 inmates wanted to participate. Saddleback staff sent videos and workbooks to the prison.
“We had the support of the corrections director of substance abuse. He let us know if there were enough men, we could expand,” Duchene said. “We thought maybe 50 men would participate in the small groups, but as we went door to door asking if men in the prison were interested, more than 200 guys signed up. People joined up to be part of something that broke up their routine.”
At the end of 40 Days of Purpose, Saddleback Pastor Steve Rutenbar visited the prison. And Warren came to the prison and led a service in the yard, yellow caution tape separating him from the prisoners.
“When Rick spoke, more men came out of their cellblocks,” Duchene said. “When he gave an invitation to men to come across the yard and give their lives to God, as one came, more began coming and a very rowdy prison yard became still. Even men who didn’t come forward still respected the moment.”
A few months later, Saddleback Pastor John Baker returned to the prison and trained Duchene and others to lead Celebrate Recovery programs, aimed at helping them get their lives in order.
“There was something about Danny that was truly authentic,” said Baker, who oversees Duchene outside the prison walls. “You could see the pastor’s heart in him. He was doing everything he could to be a man of God. Rick turned to me and said, ‘We’ve got to hire Danny.'”
Within a year, prison officials dedicated an entire 200-man cellblock to prisoners participating in Celebrate Recovery.
“I think the normal prison environment teaches men to be isolated,” Duchene said. “They’re separated from their families. They have guilt and shame of their crimes. By hoping for a changed life and not coming back, they find support of other men who want the same thing compared to the normal environment of prison peer pressure to do the wrong thing — to become part of a gang, or take a racist or an anti-authority perspective.”
After his 2014 Christmas Eve release, Duchene worked as a drug and alcohol counselor at a San Francisco methadone clinic and got married before heading to Orange County. He and his wife, Susan, lead a small group in their Mission Viejo, Calif., home.
Drugs, alcohol and a double murder
Duchene grew up in Redding, in Northern California. By fourth grade, he was a latch-key kid spending summers with his siblings but with little, if any, adult supervision.
His parents had nice homes and cars, and he grew up thinking that was his goal in life. One day, he said, he came home and found his parents sitting with a friend with thousands of dollars in cash spread out on the kitchen table.
“I was told they were going on a business trip to Peru and that I’d see them at Christmas,” he said. “But my parents did not return from that trip. Instead, on Christmas Eve, 1979, I learned that my parents had been arrested in Mexico for smuggling cocaine.”
At age 16, Duchene began using drugs and committed crimes to support his habit. By 18, he was addicted to alcohol and drugs.
“I struggled to keep myself supplied,” he said. “I was reckless and never worried about getting caught for my crimes, and I certainly didn’t consider the consequences to others. All this came to a crisis when I was part of a crime in which two men were killed.”
Duchene was arrested in September 1982 in Yuba City, Calif., after a knife fight in which he and an accomplice killed two men.
Russell Duane Ruhl had been hired for $400 to kill someone, and he asked Duchene to assist him. They would split the money, according to court records.
Ruhl and Duchene found their target in a squash field, where he was with another worker. After a brief conversation, Ruhl and Duchene decided both men had to die, according to court records. After a struggle, the two men were knifed to death.
On Nov. 15, Ruhl and Duchene pleaded guilty to two counts each of first-degree murder.
Duchene said his sentence was just.
“I feel my crime was the most horrific it could have been because it seeks to value a human being’s life based on the lowly desire of alcohol and drugs,” he said. “At the time in my drug addiction, I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing.
“I took personal responsibility and pled guilty to two counts of murder, waived my rights and did not go to trial,” he added. “I was sentenced to two consecutive 25-to-life terms with eventual possibility of parole.”
Remorse, Mercy And Purpose
Shortly after Duchene’s arrest, members of a prison ministry visited the 18-year-old in Sutter County Jail and talked about purpose and redemption through Christ.
“It was the first time someone looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have to stop lying to yourself,’ ”he recalled.
Duchene spent the next 20 years in three Northern California prisons before being sent to Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.
Though Duchene pleaded guilty with a chance of parole, he said he never believed he would get out. Still, his behavior was exemplary. He passed 32 years of confinement with no disciplinary actions.
At his parole hearing in December 2013, he was recommended for release.
“I still expected the governor to reverse the decision,” Duchene said. “When he didn’t and I got the memo I was released, I felt a tremendous humility. I felt grace and mercy had been shown that I didn’t expect.”
Getting a recommendation from Warren helped, Duchene said.
“It meant to the parole board and the governor that I will not only be employed for life in my appointed vocation that I feel God called and prepared me for, but it also represented that I will never have to live life alone,” he said. “His letter also demonstrated that I must also be accountable morally and ethically to the elders, pastors, leaders and members of Saddleback Church. And that they have agreed to be my partners and accountability support team.”
Though free, the parole office will monitor Duchene’s sobriety, living location, work and other activities for up to five years.
“This isn’t a crime you get over and move on,” he said. “My life from now on is living out the amends by serving others. It’s not a duty; it’s a joy and a committed privilege.”
Read more at Murderer-turned-pastor welcomes new life sentence.