Reversal of Misfortune

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DEHUNDRA CALDWELL, GEORGIA'S NOTORIOUS Ice Cream Bandit, is finally free and back in school. Of course, school is where he first got into trouble—and into the headlines. But still, that's where he wants to be. "Now I can go back to my usual self and continue my school-work," says the soft-spoken junior.

Caldwell's problems began on a swelteringly hot day in July. He and two 15-year-olds were arrested after they entered an unlocked door at a middle school in Thomaston, Ga., and stole a $20 box of Snickers ice-cream bars. The two younger boys were tried as juveniles; one was given probation and the other, who had a previous record, was sent to a detention center. Caldwell, who had just turned 17, was charged as an adult. Pleading guilty to burglary on the advice of his court-appointed attorney, he was sentenced to three years hard time never mind that this was his first criminal offense or that he was hoping to go on to college and a career in computer science. His mother, Teresa Caldwell, a single parent on disability, was simultaneously angry and frightened. "I'm not prejudiced," she says. "But I think a white kid might have been given a fine and probation."

She wasn't alone in her outrage. "Dehundra's plight was taken up by everyone in town, black and white," says Betsy Heuber, a lifelong Thomaston resident. In an editorial headlined "Ice Cream Bandit Goes to Jail," The Thomaston Times lit into Judge Andrew Whalen: "Three years for a juvenile prank. Give me a break! No wonder our prisons are overcrowded."

Judge Whalen responded angrily to the criticism. "We're not talking about ice cream here. We're talking about burglary," he told a reporter. Caldwell served 10 days in the local jail before the negative publicity prompted Whalen to release him on a $15,000 bond raised by relatives and turn the case over to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. On Sept. 20, citing reports that Caldwell was "a decent kid," the board reduced his sentence to two years probation. Caldwell now hopes his future includes a dorm room, not a cell. "I know I can get through this," he says. "I'm going to try my best to make it."

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