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Family celebrates Christmas, freedom

TERI VANCE
Rick Gunn/Nevada Appeal Tony Woodman opens a Christmas present from his mother, Elaine Voigt and stepfather Nelton Voigt Wednesday at their home in Reno. Tony and Nelton met in the Nevada State Prison and are spending their first holiday season together on the outside.
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Last year, Elaine Voigt didn’t catch much of the Christmas spirit.

“I didn’t even put up a tree,” she said.

But this year, lights glowed on a tree in the corner of the living room with gifts piled beneath. Stockings hung over a crackling fire.

She had reason to celebrate.

Her son, Tony Woodman, 25, was home for the first time since being sent to prison nine years ago. And she’s found happiness in a marriage to Nelton Voigt, who was released from Nevada State Prison little more than a year ago after being locked up for 16 years.

“I’m excited, but I don’t want to get too excited about it,” she explained. “I don’t want to overwhelm them. It’s their first Christmas in a long time, and I just want them to enjoy it.”

Woodman was 16 when he and a friend escaped from the China Springs detention facility. They beat up an elderly man then took his car and wallet. They were caught in Ohio and given two sentences that carried 31Ú2 years to 10 years in prison each.

While Woodman was serving time in Lovelock then in Carson City at Warm Springs Correctional Center and Nevada State Prison, his mom came to visit him every weekend.

“Just because they made some bad decisions, you can’t throw them away,” she said. “And I’m glad I didn’t. He’s turned out to be a wonderful young man.”

Her loyalty didn’t surprise Woodman.

“I know my mom, that’s just how she is,” he said. “It’s not in her to give up on something. It actually amazed me more that some people’s families didn’t want to have anything to do with them in the joint.”

While in the Nevada State Prison, Woodman met Nelton , who headed up Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups. He’s been clean and sober for 10 years.

The two became friends and when Nelton Voigt was released in November 2002, Woodman asked his mom to invite him over for dinner.

Nelton accepted, but not before testing out his freedom.

“I walked down Highway 395 from one end of Carson to the other just because I could,” he said.

After the first dinner, Nelton and Elaine Voigt started dating and were married in April. She had no reservations about his record.

“I trust people who’ve been on the inside more than I trust people who’ve never been to prison,” she said. “All they have is their integrity and honesty. A lot of other people don’t have that.”

On the outside, Voigt has remained a mentor to his new stepson.

“Everything’s real new to me on the outside. I didn’t even have a driver’s license before,” he explained. “But he’s gone through everything I’m going through now so that helps.”

The family participates in a program called The Forum, in which former inmates talk to at-risk youths to discourage them from continuing behavior that could lead to incarceration.

Two years ago, Elaine Voigt also organized Friends and Family of Prison Inmates to help people cope with having a family member in prison.

Nelton Voigt is organizing a support group, Easy Does It, to help released inmates integrate back into society.

He’s still adjusting to all the changes.

“I wake up and I don’t have to wait for the door to open to go to chow or to go to a communal shower,” he said. “Every morning I wake up with her, and every night I go to bed with her. I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful to be free.

“It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Well, the greatest thing was getting to know God, but this is second.”

On his first Christmas back home, Woodman was also grateful for the little things.

“I miss my friends in the joint. I wish they could be here,” he said. “But where my family is is where I belong.”

Contact Teri Vance at tvance@nevadaappeal.com or at 881-1272.