From bank robber to Christian
BY PAUL WARWICK
MARY Kay Beard was once one of the F.B.I’s most wanted fugitives, for crimes including cracking safes and armed robberies of banks. The Mafia had also put a contract on her life as she’d ripped them off in a diamond heist.
In 1972 at the age of 27, Mary was sentenced to 21 years in prison. And during five months in solitary confinement she began to remember bible scriptures she’d learned as a child in Sunday school, and she began to attend a Sunday school class in Tutwiler prison in Alabama at 7 Am. It was the only time she was allowed out of her cell.
In prison Mary began to wonder if God would save her or was it too late, then whilst reading a Gideon bible, God led her to the passage Ezekiel 36 v 26, which states, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’
That scripture was a wake up call for Mary and she returned to the faith of her childhood.
Mary hadn’t started out in life bad. She was one of nine children, growing up on a farm with a godly mother and an abusive alcoholic father, so she saw her early life as being a bit schizophrenic. Her mother was taking her and her brothers and sisters to church, but her fathers influence was bad and Mary was very bitter and angry and felt resentment towards him.
Mary graduated from high school at the age of 15, and completed training to be a nurse at 18. Then her life took a bizarre and unexpected turn when she met Paul on a blind date, fell head over heels in love, and married Paul nine days later.
Paul was a music producer, which was fairly respectable, but he was also a bank robber, a master safe-cracker and a gambling addict.
Mary had been married before, but it had only lasted a short time and had ended in divorce. Mary had two children from this first marriage.
Her second marriage to Paul though had brought her into a completely different world. Within a short time she was assisting Paul in his life of crime. First in minor gambling cheats, then safe-cracking, and then in armed robberies of banks. And at one point she even staged a prison break to free Paul.
Paul left Mary though when she was hospitalized with an operable cancer tumour, and Mary felt very hurt, bitter and angry about this and she teamed up with a couple of Pauls old partners in crime, and continued committing serious crimes which led to her being hunted by the F.B.I, who eventually arrested her. She was charged with 11 federal and 35 state counts of grand larceny and armed robbery.
Mary was surprisingly paroled after serving just six years of her 21 year sentence. And because of her success with educational classes in the prison, she won a scholarship to Auburn university and gained a BA and a Masters degree in counselling.
In 1982 Mary was recruited by Chuck Colson, who’d set up the ministry Prison Fellowship and she was asked to set up a Christmas project for inmates. In the six Christmases she’d been behind bars, she’d seen that when the women inmates had been given small gifts of things like toiletries by visiting Christians, the inmates would then pass these small gifts to their children. These women ranged from shoplifters, to prostitutes, to murderers, but they all still had a heart and love for their children, and they would give their children the only presents they could.
So Mary was then inspired to set up the Christian charity Angel Tree. This meant that people could buy presents for the inmates children, so that they would receive presents from their incarcerated parents on Christmas Day. And they were presents the children wanted and were bought from the children’s wish list. The whole aim was to make the children feel loved by their parents at Christmas. And from the Christian point of view it helped the children and parents feel the love of Christ during the Christmas period.
The first year that Angel Tree was set up, it was piloted in just one state, and 556 children received gifts that year. The following year it expanded to 12 states and by 2012, 364,198 children had received gifts from Angel Tree in the USA, but also due to Angel Tree spreading globally, more than 6.3 Million children around the world have now received Christmas gifts through the charity.
Mary met a former prisoner, Don Beard, and married him on January 29th, 1984, exchanging vows in a chapel at Tutwiler prison, where she’d previously been locked up.
Mary and Don also founded several other ministries, then Don died in 2006, and Mary died in April 2016. Her legacy though continues. Angel Tree is still thriving and serving inmates children around the world, helping them feel loved by their parents, and helping them feel loved by the saviour Christ.