One April morning eight years ago, police in Thurston County showed up at the home of young Starcia Ague and her father.
The mobile home and shed were filled with evidence of a meth factory, court records say – propane tanks, harsh chemicals, needles, firearms, a video surveillance camera.
There were at least a few adults there that day. But who came out to challenge the officers, demand to see a search warrant and order them off the property? Thirteen-year-old Starcia Ague.
“She’s always been determined,” said her father, Daniel Ague-Masters, who was handed a 10-year sentence for a conviction stemming from that day. “That’s been her characteristic her whole life.”
But Starcia has been applying her audacity toward other ends lately, at least since her own felony conviction in 2003. Now 22, she’s nearing completion of a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Washington State University. She’s held an internship in the Spokane County public defender’s office, worked on research projects involving kids in trouble and, most recently, won the Governor’s Spirit of Youth award, an annual honor for a young person who overcame long odds.
Her story is a testament to the power of refusing to take no for an answer. When she first tried to enroll in an online college class as a juvenile offender, she had to write to a college vice president and plead for special consideration – promising to earn an A. When her ability to continue taking online classes was threatened, she snuck around to get access to e-mail – which was prohibited – and e-mailed the governor, complaining that the state paid for adult convicts to take online courses but not for juveniles.
“I wrote to Oprah, too,” she said. “But she never wrote me back.”
Susan Cairy, a volunteer coordinator with Spokane County Juvenile Court who has become a friend of Ague’s, said Ague is the rare young person who is able to leave behind a life of crime, poverty and neglect.
“She’s absolutely fearless,” said Cairy, who spoke as a friend and not a representative of the court. “She knows what she wants and she goes after it.”
Along the way, Ague’s picked up a lot of mentors and supporters. Her nomination for the governor’s award includes letters from a Tumwater police officer, counselors and employees from virtually every corner of the state’s juvenile justice system, college professors and court officials. She’s formed a close relationship with a Spokane Valley couple, Ernie and Kristi Hensley, whom she considers her godparents and who refer to her as a daughter.
Now Ague faces a new obstacle. She wants to help kids in the state’s juvenile justice system, but most jobs in that field aren’t open to someone with a felony record. Her crime was serious – she and three other girls broke into a home, held the residents at knifepoint and stole guns, drugs and money.
Ague is talking to legislators and others about the possibility of changing the law to allow a judge to seal or clear a juvenile record under certain circumstances. Washington law permits that for juvenile misdemeanors and low-level felonies but not for the most serious crimes, Class A felonies.
“I’ve talked to a lotta lotta lotta people, and everyone’s told me no,” she said. Later, she added, “Somebody’s going to have to budge somewhere.”
You get the feeling it’s not her.
‘Horrible’ home life
Ague was born in 1987 to teenage parents. She lived in Olympia with her mother until she was 11, although they rarely had an actual place of their own and her school attendance was abysmal, she said.
She said she was surrounded by drug use and crime, and she learned at a young age that she was not to talk about it. The message: “What happens at home stays at home.” She was taught to fear the involvement of child welfare officials.
“We moved from homeless shelter to homeless shelter to ‘safe place,’ ” she said. “We lived in our car at one point.”
Her mom, she said, “cared more about her addiction than taking care of me.”
Efforts to contact her mother were not successful.
When Ague was 11, she went to live with her father, where the situation wasn’t much better: people coming and going at all hours, drug use and sales. When her father was arrested in 2001, she went to live with an uncle.
At that time, Lt. Don Stevens of the Tumwater Police Department was working narcotics. He was familiar with her family history of crime, rootlessness and chaos and knew she was at a critical age.
“I knew she was at that point where she could be headed for trouble,” he said. “Her home life was horrible. … I handed her a business card and said, ‘Look, kid. When you get into trouble, call me.’ ”
At age 15, by which time she had started drinking and smoking pot, she did get into trouble, when she participated in the break-in and robbery. She was convicted of two counts of kidnapping and one of robbery, and sentenced to “juvenile life” – incarceration until her 21st birthday.
She called Stevens, and they began a relationship that continues to this day. He urged her not to focus on what she saw as unfairness in her case but to accept what she did and try to better herself.
“She got hammered pretty good for her part of” the crime, he said. “I told her if she would accept responsibility, I’d stand by her all the way through it.”
He’d had a difficult childhood himself and wanted her to know that change was possible.
“You don’t have to let that take you down the rest of your life,” he said. “You can do something about it.”
‘The uniqueness of Starcia’
In 2003, Ague entered the Naselle Youth Camp in southwestern Washington, where she had a couple of experiences that helped cement the idea that she wanted to change. A counselor took particular interest, and Ague began to trust her and believe she had her best interests at heart. And she had a religious awakening, sparked by hearing a woman who surmounted a similarly troubled background speak about her faith.
“I’ve never bawled my eyes out so much in my life,” she said.
She became devoted to earning a college degree. She worked toward a high school diploma – rather than a GED – and started taking college credits online before she was done.
At Naselle, she took two online college courses before she finished her high school diploma – including the course in which she promised to earn an A. She did. But when she was transferred to Echo Glen Children’s Center in Snoqualmie in 2005, she found that the rules didn’t allow her to take college courses.
The state’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration was focused on high school completion for kids, and it didn’t have funding or procedures for college courses.
“They didn’t really want it to happen,” she said. “It was kind of a pain in their butt.”
Ague began pushing to be allowed to do it, pressing her supervisors until she got permission.
“Starcia challenged us in some ways beyond our preparation,” one Echo Glen official said in a letter of support for the governor’s award. “Some of our clients will seek to get by with only the minimum; however, with Starcia, this proved to be quite the opposite, and she challenged us.”
She began taking one computer course at a time through Shoreline Community College. She paid the tuition with $1-an-hour jobs around Echo Glen. When that option expired, she wrote the letter to the governor that landed her in hot water once it came to light that she’d been sending e-mail.
She didn’t get the state to pay, but she was able to get help from church supporters to keep taking classes.
Officials at Echo Glen, in writing letters of support for Ague, note that her persistence and determination were not always appreciated by those in charge. Stevens said that she’s a fighter – even if she sometimes picks the wrong fight.
Ernie Hensley, her godfather, said with a smile, “They were learning how to handle the uniqueness of Starcia. They had a one-size-fits-all approach.”
‘Learned her lesson’
Kristi Hensley first met Ague at a women’s Bible study group through Eastpoint Church in Spokane Valley. Ague had been transferred here for the final year of her sentence and was living in a foster-home-type arrangement.
She worked at Lowe’s and attended courses at Spokane Community College. Each week at Bible study, Ague would open up to the others a little more.
“She was unfolding her story week by week,” Kristi Hensley said.
As Ague’s release date approached, the Hensleys knew she faced a tight deadline for enrolling at Washington State University. They started helping her get her applications and other things in order before her release date – her 21st birthday in July 2008. By the time that day came around, the Hensleys had made another decision: to have her move in with them.
“I kind of had that in my heart from the beginning,” Kristi Hensley said.
Now Ague’s on track to graduate in the next year. In addition to carrying a full credit load, she’s been involved in research projects through the criminal justice department at WSU and helped produce a video for juvenile officers with a University of Washington program. She also works part time in her dorm, Orton Hall.
“I think she must work 24 hours a day,” said George Caplan, who coordinates volunteers and interns for the Spokane County public defender’s office.
Caplan selected her for an internship last summer; she was the only intern who wasn’t a law student. Ague worked with kids who were charged in juvenile court.
“She was terrific,” Caplan said. “She’s been there. She knows what these kids are going through.”
Ague has kept up relationships with her parents and three younger sisters who live with her mom, although it has not always been easy. Her father, Daniel Ague-Masters, attended the ceremony for the governor’s award in October.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” he said.
He said that if she hadn’t been around the drug life in his home, she wouldn’t have gotten into trouble.
“She learned her lesson,” he said. “Not everybody does.”
When she graduates, though, she will face a problem finding a job. She may go on to graduate school, but if she wants to work in juvenile justice, her felony record will be an obstacle. She already encountered that when she was denied an internship with the Spokane County Juvenile Court system.
So Ague has met, through the Hensleys, Sen. Jim Hargrove, chairman of the state Senate committee that oversees corrections issues, and discussed some options with him. There’s nothing formal planned, but she’d like to see some legislation on the subject in the upcoming session.
Caplan, Cairy and others say it would be a shame if Ague’s record prevented her from working with kids in the juvenile justice system. The combination of her background and her efforts to succeed give her a unique perspective, they say.
“What she has to offer, in my opinion, is immeasurable,” Cairy said. “She’s demonstrated in so many ways she’s breaking the cycle she came from. … I don’t know of any other young person who has succeeded the way she has, given what she went through.”