Caron Butler calls retired sergeant ‘guardian angel’ for decision in 1998 drug raid

RACINE — Before the NBA, before the accolades and many donations to his hometown, Caron Butler was a kid with a criminal record and, on one January day, 15.3 grams of crack cocaine in the garage.

And Detective Rick Geller held his future in his hands.

Butler was a 17-year-old emerging basketball player at Park High School when the Bluff Avenue house where he was living was the target of a drug raid on Jan. 22, 1998.

He could have been charged with possession with intent to deliver. Since the amount of crack cocaine in the garage exceeded the threshold of 15 grams and since it was 1,000 feet from a school (Bluff Avenue is one block east of Park), Butler could have been looking at a sentence of 10 years.

It would have been so easy, so routine, for Geller to dismiss Butler’s story, charge him with drug possession and throw him into the scrapyard of lost souls.

Instead, Geller chose to notice the burns on Butler’s hands, which he injured while making a modest wage at an area Burger King restaurant. Drug dealers aren’t going to bother with menial employment when they can make countless times that much money working in the shadows of streets.

Geller noticed tears of such conviction welling in Butler’s eyes, which Geller read as a frustrated kid whom no one would believe was desperately trying to leave behind his troubled past.

And Geller sensed the depth of Butler’s heart, a heart that would give so much back to his community when Butler would go on to make millions of dollars as an NBA All-Star forward. It’s a career that might never have been realized had Geller chosen to go by the book rather than by his heart.

“He made a decision that really changed the complexion of my life,” said the 35-year-old Butler, who agreed to a two-year contract worth $3.5 million per season Friday with the Sacramento Kings. “It’s well-documented what I was going through at the time, there was a huge raid and he had a choice to make.

“He could have easily said, ‘I’m going to charge this kid. I’ve got enough evidence.’ But he made a sound judgment on the situation and when you look at all that’s going on in America right now, you don’t see a lot of officers doing stuff like that.”

Not a typical dealer

Geller, 55, who retired from the Racine Police Department as a sergeant in June 2012, worked 14 years in a drug unit as a detective and more than 10 on a SWAT team.

Geller, who graduated from Horlick in 1978 — 20 years before Butler would achieve basketball greatness at Park — wrote the search warrant that so easily could have irrevocably altered a promising kid’s life.

On that January afternoon, Geller was positioned on the southeast corner of the house at 1206 Bluff Ave. when the SWAT entry team burst into the house. In Geller’s long experience in this line of work, he has heard everything from pit bulls being sent after SWAT team members to gunfire.

On that day, he heard nothing but silence. The team would find Butler not desperately trying to escape through a window, but rather cowering under the blankets of his second-story bedroom, so afraid of being booked for something he didn’t do. In Butler’s pocket were $11, hardly the sum drug dealers carry.

And then Geller got to know Butler, really know him.

"One of the questions I asked him was, 'Are you working right now?' and he said, 'Yes sir, I am – I'm at Burger King,' " Geller said. "And I'm thinking to myself, 'This kid's got $11 in his pocket, he's got burns on his hands from making French fries ... that is not my typical dope dealer.

"I ended up saying to him, 'You know, we found dope in the garage.' He said, 'No sir, I did not know that.' I asked, 'Did you know about the dope in the garage?' and he said, 'No sir, I did not.' Then he said, 'I haven't been involved in that game in over a year, probably close to a year and a half.' "

Geller chose to believe Butler and did not charge him. And Butler would never disappoint Geller.

"I caught some heat from some of my colleagues once I left that warrant because the attitude was, 'He's going to be back to selling dope tomorrow,' " Geller said. "And I said, 'Well, you know what? Then why don't one of you catch him? Because it's just not matching up for me.'

'Touched my life'

On Feb. 12, 2014, Fox Sports aired a profile on this relationship between Geller and Butler. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who was president of the National Mayors Conference, was so impressed by the documentary that he arranged for it to be aired at the conference.

Side by side, they stood in a San Francisco Hilton convention room during the National Mayors Conference the night of June 22, representing the heights that can be reached with support.

Why show the film? Because it projected possibilities. And through it all, Geller stood with Butler, a young man who would grow into a productive, charitable citizen because someone believed in him.

"I mean this in all seriousness," Butler said. "He is nothing short of a guardian angel. He was someone who touched my life in a way that I've been able to do all these special things, to provide for my family, my city and other cities, as well."

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