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Songs from the Heart

Edward Agurs, slain by police, is recalled for his good spirit despite a troubled life.

The Lawrenceville Correctional Center, recalls former inmate Paulus Turner, was riven by divisions: guards and inmates, different cliques. But Edward Agurs had everyone’s respect. “When he walked into the chow hall, you recognized him.” Turner had arrived in prison in 1998 and heard that Agurs was looking for a man with his special skills. The two men used to walk the yard together, their conversations consumed by the one subject that was always on Agurs’ mind: music.

Agurs had been Lawrenceville’s director of music during a lengthy stay in the 1990’s. Turner said the music room was always packed with inmates and guards during Agurs’ practices. “This is a guy who actually sings from his heart, not just for show, not just to the man. He’s actually singing to the glory of God.” After being released, the two men combined Agurs’ voice and Turner’s keyboard skills to form a gospel band: Delivered.

But on Dec. 20, at the Alleyne A.M.E. Zion Church in Old Town, Turner was recalling Agurs after performing at his funeral. One week earlier, Agurs had been shot to death by a Fairfax County detective after he robbed a Wachovia bank, according to police.

Delivered performed in churches, nursing homes, hospitals and prisons. Two days before his death, Agurs called Turner to confirm he’d be singing with the band on Dec. 31. “I can say he touched a lot of lives, in the system and out of the system,” Turner said. Reflecting to Agurs’ passion, music formed the backbone of the two and half hour funeral. It swelled from melancholy piano solos into smashing drum staccatos, upraised voices and joyful clapping.

QUANTIFIED IN COURT RECORDS, Agurs’ life was bleak: PCP as a teenager, crack as an adult. Beginning in his teens, he’d had charges filed against him in Arlington, Fairfax County, Alexandria and D.C. They ranged from altering a price tag to dealing crack, robbery and assault. When Agurs was 24, his father insisted on prosecuting his son after he was caught forging a check in his father’s name.

A year after the check incident, when Agurs had already violated parole and failed several treatment programs, he was found guilty of a robbery: pressing his hand into the back of a taxi driver’s neck to simulate a knife, then fleeing with the money the driver handed over. Agurs was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and he served most of them. The driver had given him $17.

In Agurs’ lifetime, many judgments were imposed upon him, but at his funeral, mourners were asked to judge themselves. “Who art thou that judges another man’s servant?” read the quotation from Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye,” read the scripture from Luke.

“If your theology is self-righteous, it says he going to Hell,” said Ray Perez, a chaplain at the Prince William County Adult Detention Center, where Agurs arrived in 2004. “But if your theology is pure, it says, ‘If he’s going to Hell, I’m going to Hell too.’”

“The problem with Eddie was he didn’t know how to live free,” said Perez. He praised Agurs for prioritizing his family and spending as much time as possible with his young son after being released from prison in 2005. But religion and family were not enough. “He was in a desperate moment in his death,” Perez said, “so much so that he did not want to live.”

“Accepting God in my life has given me a future,” Agurs wrote in a Nov. 13 letter that was read at the funeral. He said his faith had revealed that God had sent him to heal the pain of others. But he stressed that his top priority was to his family. “I just want my son to be proud to acknowledge me as a father.”

“The man was a good man,” said Shelby Thaggard, the mother of Agurs’ child. “He loved Jesus. He loved his son. He loved to work. He loved church.”

During the service she said that her first kiss with Agurs had been on Dec. 13, 1987. Although he was in trouble with the law or incarcerated for most of the 19 years that followed, Thaggard said she stayed loyal to his good character. She said Agurs could not stay out of trouble because he was impatient to become a man who could provide for his family. “He wanted everything already. He wanted his son to have right now.”

AFTER BEING RELEASED from Lawrenceville, according to his sister Brenda Agurs, Edward Agurs had found a job and fathered his son with Thaggard. He was shopping at a Woodbridge grocery store in 2004 when he was approached by a police officer because he matched the description of a man who had robbed a taxi driver. Charged with two robberies in October and November of 2004, Agurs was incarcerated until the charges were dropped in August of 2005.

On Thanksgiving this year, Turner said he spoke to Agurs about the struggle to find work after prison. He encouraged Agurs to relocate and get a new start. But less than a month later, police say, Agurs robbed three banks on Richmond Highway in two weeks. After robbing the third, he fled from the police and was shot in a hiding place under an apartment staircase.

Turner and Hector Williams, another Lawrenceville inmate who attended the funeral, said they now own their own businesses because of the difficulty of finding work after prison. Williams built up his auto-detailing business and now owns two acres in Sterling and four limousines. He employed Agurs briefly in 2003, before Agurs was arrested on the robbery charges that were dropped.

“I gave it my all and people didn’t want to respect me,” William's said of his time trying to find work.

“They’re not even focused on your skills and what you have to offer,” Turner said. “They’re focused on your past.”

In his eulogy Chaplain Perez addressed thus theme, referring to the “the desperate need that we have to help men when they get out of a facility.” He called for the mourners to encourage businesses to hire ex-convicts. “When we start taking that commitment, Eddie’s life is not in vain.”

“Don’t forget those that are in prison,” Perez told the mourners. “And don’t forget one day they’re coming home.”