After serving time in Arizona for murder, he wanted a second chance. Then time started running out

Lane Sainty, Tucson, Arizona Republic

As the sun set over the city on an ordinary Thursday in December, Jon Sperberg shuffled out his apartment door. His destination was a white metal chair at the end of the open air corridor, looking east toward the Rincon Mountains.

The chair wasn’t far, perhaps 4 yards. But for Sperberg, sapped of energy and under siege from acid reflux, the walk was arduous. Terminal stomach cancer had robbed him of easy movement, of a gastrointestinal tract that could handle the vagaries of digestion, and of time.

He sat down with effort, the sharp angles of his body discernible even under thick black sweatpants and a hoodie. A cluster of silver hoops pierced his left earlobe. From behind wire-rimmed glasses, his watery blue eyes cast an intense and wary gaze.

There were good days and bad days, Sperberg said. This particular Thursday was the latter.

Still, he was looking ahead. A schedule clash loomed Monday: a doctor’s appointment at the same time as his allocated slot for a phone interview to get on Social Security disability.

“They timed it just right,” Sperberg said wryly. He had come up with a plan: put his doctor on the line.

“Hey, this is what you should need for your red tape,” he would tell the interviewer. “You have the medical man right here talking to you.”

He hoped it would work.

“Any advantage I can get to things that are going to help me out,” he said. “Because I’ve got three months left. Three or four months left.”

And in those months, he had something he wanted to do.

Sperberg wanted to get his absolute discharge, an order that would end his parole.

He had been under the supervision of the Arizona Department of Corrections for the last 29 years, serving out a sentence for first-degree murder.

Now 49, Sperberg had been out on parole for two years, four months and three days. He wanted to formally complete his sentence before he died.

“I’m not going to be seeing anything else,” he said. “I just want to be free.”

The murder in Casa Grande

Sperberg was imprisoned for his role in the murder of a man named Walter Weise, who was killed at 1:10 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1994, behind a strip mall in Casa Grande.

“That night was just a horrible, horrible mistake,” Sperberg said. “On all of our parts.”

He was the oldest of a group of six — three young adults and three teenagers — who were out in the central Arizona city that night. As Sperberg tells it, the gathering was a recruiting effort for a new gang, and he was one of the leaders.

There was partying, cruising around, petty theft, a lot of stupid stuff, as he remembered it.

And then someone suggested they go “bum rolling,” an ugly phrase for robbing and assaulting homeless people. It wasn’t his idea, Sperberg said.

They went to the strip mall knowing transients camped there, and came across Weise, who was, according to a news report at the time, 32 years old. A few brief words flew back and forth.

And then one of the six, a man named Jamie Young, fired two shots at Weise, killing him.

“That’s when we all split up,” Sperberg said, “and we all got busted.”

He fell silent as he contemplated how he felt about his actions that night.

“Pain,” he said eventually, his voice so faint it was difficult to hear him. “I hate myself for that night. Thinking maybe I could have done something different. Said something different.”

He was charged with first-degree murder that occurred during the commission of a robbery under the felony murder rule. Put simply, the rule means that if someone dies during the commission of certain felonies, anyone who participated in the felony can be charged with murder, regardless of whether they killed or intended to kill the person.

He initially planned to fight the charge, but said he didn’t want to put his grandparents through the stress of a trial. He also faced the death penalty if convicted.

In March 1995, he took a plea deal, life with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

His story? 'It's like John Wick'

“My story?” Sperberg said. There was a slight slur to his voice, which he attributed to his advanced disease. “It’s like John Wick.”

He paused, letting the comparison sink in.

In the eponymous film series, Wick — portrayed by Keanu Reeves — is a retired hitman grieving the loss of his wife, who gifted him a puppy as a means of healing right before she died. When attackers steal his car and kill the dog, Wick is drawn back into the underworld, with astoundingly bloody results.

So what do they have in common?

“I’ve been fighting all my life,” Sperberg said. “I’ve got to fight every single day and level. I get out of prison, I’ve got all kinds of fights there.”

He gestured down at his body. “I get this now. It is one thing after another.”

“And I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to cry about myself,” he added, careful to head any sympathy off at the pass.

Until that irreparable moment behind the strip mall, Sperberg’s life had been characterized by rejection and abuse.

Originally from El Paso, Sperberg was abandoned by his birth mother as a 6-month-old, and as a child and teenager bounced between foster homes, institutions — Sperberg said he spent time in juvenile prison, but letters from relatives tendered to the court in 1995 described the same stints as psychiatric care — and the care of his father, who went on to marry twice more.

He became a ward of the state of Michigan in his late teens, and struggled to establish a stable life as a young adult, describing himself as a “nomad.” He wound up in Casa Grande because his mom had some family there, he said.

Then it was prison, for just shy of 26 and a half years.

I hate myself for that night. Thinking maybe I could have done something different. Said something different.

He did his time at the state prison in Florence, occasionally moving between units.

“There was always a war in there every single day of some nature,” Sperberg said. He tried to stay out of it, but didn’t always succeed. His disciplinary record lists 19 infractions; the most recent, a major citation for fighting, was in 2007.

“Didn’t care for most of the people in there,” he said. “I’ve never been much for caring for most people.”

He passed the time by training in welding, carpentry and building maintenance. He read anything in the library that caught his interest. And he observed people.

“I can read them like books,” he said. “It’s another thing you learn in there.”

Life after prison

Sperberg was released on parole in July 2020. After so long inside, he had a complicated relationship with freedom.

“There is nothing easy about coming out that door every day,” he said, nodding at his apartment. “I would much rather spend my time in there.”

Inside were his two cats, a tabby called Boo and a tuxedo minx called Charles Emerson Winchester III, after the “M*A*S*H” character, Charlie, for short.

“They’re my world,” Sperberg said.

Humans were harder. When he first came out of prison, Sperberg felt like people were afraid of him, that they saw him as an alien, as the “gum at the bottom of the shoe.”

Even if people were friendly, Sperberg said, he often felt out of place. He described one experience where a man he knew invited him out to a topless bar.

“It drove me nuts,” he said. “I felt completely isolated.”

His parole conditions meant he had to disclose his murder conviction to certain people at certain times. “Then other people hear, and …” he trailed off.

He had to figure out a way to square his past with the fact other people often could not look past it.

After a murder sentence, trying to make amends

As he reintegrated into society, he spoke regularly to Tansha Harrell, the director of social work at the Arizona Justice Project.

Harrell spends her days helping people exiting prison build a life on the outside, people who need to find housing, secure a job, reconnect with loved ones, find health insurance and mental health support. She works with people who were wrongfully convicted as well as those who committed the crimes they were incarcerated for.

Sperberg, she said, was not someone she had to worry about.

Harrell described him as a parole success story, someone who came out of prison with skills in welding and construction that helped him hold down a job and a place to live.

“My conversations were him just catching me up on the little nuances of his job, or he had gone on a date and was telling me how that had gone or, you know, just talking about his cats,” she said.

He would let her know about any housing or job opportunities he came across, wanting other people in his position to find stability, Harrell said.

And he would ask about her day, how things were going at work or with her family. “And, you know, not everyone does that,” she said.

Most people Harrell works with have been incarcerated for a long time. She described Sperberg’s 26.5 years as “pretty standard”.

Her work is, on a practical level, about recidivism rates. It’s also about convincing people, her clients and the rest of society alike, of one message: “There is room for all of us in this world.”

“I am not a judge, I’m not a jury. They’ve paid their debt,” she said. “My job is to help them successfully re-enter society and to help them to thrive. My job is to get them to understand that they are deserving of a second chance.”

She paused as she thought about what it means to try to restart life after prison with a conviction as profound and destructive as first-degree murder next to your name.

“Not being a convicted murderer myself, I don’t know that I can truly answer that,” she said. “I think that for each individual it would be different. The most obvious thing that I’ve noticed is remorse.”

“You can never bring a person back, so you can’t fix it. But how do I atone for that? How do I honor someone’s memory? How do I try and make amends for the things I’ve done?”

Harrell sees her clients grappling with those questions.

“It’s not that they get out of prison and they’re just like, ‘Oh, okay, you know, I did my time and that was then and this is now’,” she said. “It’s never like that.”

“From what I can see, it never leaves them.”

In July 2022, Sperberg hit two years on parole, making him eligible to apply for absolute discharge.

His second chance was going well.

Then came the diagnosis.

'No words for it'

It was peaceful outside Sperberg’s apartment, on the second-floor corner of a squat complex painted entirely in shades of mint green. In the center of the units, a small pool was surrounded by cactuses and gravel.

Residents came and went, some of them checking in on Sperberg as he sat by the second-floor railing.

“Hanging in there?” called up a woman, one of his downstairs neighbors.

“Yes ma’am,” Sperberg replied.

“Need anything?”

“No, I’m good for right now.”

She promised to check in on him in a few days.

As the sun dipped under the horizon, the sky over the Rincons turned a faint pink.

“I like it out here,” Sperberg said, as he cast an eye over the evening glow. It was a good place, he added with a grin, to smoke joints with his neighbors.

“They just found out who I really am,” he said. “People don’t take enough time in this world to find out who somebody else is anymore.”

“You know, a lot of things get overlooked, because a lot of people just don’t want to look.”

He took a long drag from a cannabis oil vape, explaining that it helped with his pain. He could feel his body fading more with every day.

“There’s no real words for it,” he said. “It just hits you. You have stage four cancer. You have three or four months left to live. And that’s all you get.”

“I’m just gonna ride the train,” he said. “You know, forget it. Just ride the train.”

He wanted to talk about his childhood, how he felt failed by his parents and shaped by the abuse he had suffered.

He wanted to talk about Jamie Young, the man who shot Walter Weise, who is still in prison, and who Sperberg thinks deserves a second chance too.

He wanted to talk about getting his absolute discharge.

And then he was too tired to keep talking.

One last project

Sperberg died the following Monday. He thought he had a few months more, but his time was up.

He didn’t make it to his medical appointment, never found out if his plan to get the doctor talking directly with social security would work.

He was still on parole.

And there was one other project he wasn’t able to see through.

Harrell said Sperberg had promised to make her and Lindsay Herf, the executive director at the Arizona Justice Project, custom rocking chairs.

“He talked about that for a long time,” she told The Republic. “And he was just so sorry that he was not able to do that.”

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