April 9, 2015, is a day Roland Thompson will never forget. It’s the day the convicted bank robber and ex-heroin addict was released from prison. Thompson is a Utah native. He comes from a decent family. But like many of us, decided to walk down the wrong path. He started smoking and drinking at a young age, then an injury lead him to prescription pain pills and things spiraled from there.
In the early 2000s, he became desperate for cash and began robbing banks to fund his heroin habit. And he wasn’t bad at it. In a ski mask, with a loaded gun, he would quickly slip into financial institutions he’d cased and take whatever was available in the till. He never actually got caught. But his partners did. And in 2007, their testimony ended up sending him away for 10 years (his sentence was eventually shortened to just under nine years thanks to good behavior).
I found his story on the excellent podcast, The Dirtbag Diaries. The recent interview he did with the outlet was revealing and raw, a view into the mind of a former criminal, how addiction can push us over the edge and how good can still be found in most people. These days, Thompson has been able to rely on one thing above all else in his return to society: the snowboarding and climbing communities of his home in Sandy, Utah, near the mouths of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. I called the 33-year-old to dig a little deeper and talk about the life of freedom he’s now enjoying.
So what are you up to?
I’m currently putting together some speaking stuff at local high schools here. I’m doing a speaking event at Utah Valley University, a crime and punishment series, and I’m working on a book. Most of my time, unfortunately, is devoted to a construction job to pay bills. I get to my real passions when I have time. My girlfriend and I still manage to get out three to four times a week climbing and snowboarding.
What is it about snowboarding and climbing that have helped you so much?
First and foremost, it’s the people. It’s been such a good way for me to meet good, kind-hearted people with the same kinds of values I want to have and never had before. The climbing community is awesome, the snowboarding community is awesome, and I’ve developed a solid group of friends and support system through those communities. If you climb or snowboard, they’re such pure sports: you get out climbing and camping, you hike to a crag, the whole environment is so pure. It’s filled a part of my life I never knew I needed to fill.
Did you have anyone in prison you bonded with over the outdoors?
So, one of my closest friends I met in prison (there wasn’t many) I’m still in touch with. He’s out now, too. He heard I was from Utah. We were in federal prison in Kentucky and he came up to me one day and was like, ‘You’re from Utah, you like all that outdoor shit?’ We created a bond over that, snowboarding and backpacking, he wanted to see pictures from home.
So you started snowboarding young? Most would associate that with a good family life? Were things rough?
Ironically, all my relatives are Mormon. I started snowboarding with my brother. He took me my first couple of times when I was really young and I used to snowboard and skate but once I got caught up in hardcore drugs and the lifestyle, all the healthy hobbies I had went out the window. My family wasn’t perfect. I used to have a bad relationship with everyone and I blamed them. Now that I’m older I don’t blame them anymore. I was hanging out with the wrong kind of people and it all snowballed.
The Mormon religion has been known to be kind of rough on the non-conformist. How has it been getting back in touch with your family?
After a few years in prison, getting off drugs and alcohol, they really rallied behind me. I had family from New York and everywhere, really, sending me letters. My family was so glad I wasn’t out doing what I was doing, the judgment really wasn’t there. As good as this whole thing has been for me, it’s been just as good for my family. It’s so important to love your family, and enjoy your time with them, not wishing you were doing something else.
What are your goals with those outdoor pursuits you now love so much?
I really want to be a rad climber. There are so many areas around here, these gnarly climbs to do. I don’t necessarily want to have a goal to be a 5.12 or 5.13 climber. But I do want to be able to jump on any route and be able to flash it without any problems.
On your website, it says you have a message you want to share?
Hope. I just want anyone out there that needs it to have hope. I was a suicidal, bottom-of-the-barrel heroin addict. I didn’t think the world had anything to offer me. That’s just not true. You gotta’ hang in there. Life sucks sometimes. That’s the way it is. It’s not always gonna be like that. Find what you’re passionate about and make life worth living.