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Karey Lee Woolsey: A million miles away
Karey Lee Woolsey: A million miles away: On July 9, Karey Lee Woolsey, from Cape Coral, will release his second album. The twist is that this album will be released while the performer is currently serving time in a federal prison. Story by Jackie Winchester and video by Guy Tubbs.
Kodey Woolsey would fill in on drums when his brother Karey would play music. / Guy Tubbs/The News-Press
Woolsey's mother, Linda Foster, gave him a guitar when he was 13 and copyrights the songs he sends. / Guy Tubbs/The News-Press

Karey Lee Woolsey

• Age: 36 (37 on Friday)
• Born: Houston, Texas.; moved to Cape Coral in 1986
• Resides: Federal Correctional Institution — Low, in Yazoo City, Miss.
• Family: Father, Richard, 71; mother, Linda, 70; brothers Kasey, 41, and Kodey, 33; daughters Logan, 20, and Miracle, 15.
Background: Cape Coral Class of ‘95, where he was prom king and Mr. Seahawk; delivered pizzas to pay for college; was called “Musico” by the Mexicans he received marijuana from; played at a New Year’s Eve party at the Versace mansion on Miami Beach.

About the album

Title: “A Million Miles Away”
Available: Tuesday on iTunes and cdbaby.com
Track listing:
“These Walls Around Me”, “Big Mouth B----”, “Fall in You”, “Get Up and Drive”, “309”, “God”, “Only in My Dreams”, “I Am”, “Chains”, “Evils Creepin”, “Sweet Talkin Lover”, “Busted”, “Freedom”
His favorite song: “Fall in You” – I was writing that song about someone who had just let God into their life at about the same time I fell in love with someone very special.”

The album cover for the upcoming release 'A Million Miles Away' by Karey Lee. / Special to the News-Press
Karey Lee Woolsey at age 36. / Special to The News-Press

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Album takes aim at marijuana laws

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Find Karey Lee Woolsey's album “A Million Miles Away” (available July 9) on ITunes and Amazon.com

Find Woolsey on Facebook, Twitter and website

In the middle of a scorching Mississippi summer, he sits outside, pencil in hand.

Across the yard, there is a basketball game going on. The thump, thump, thump of the ball hitting blistering pavement doesn’t distract him. He’s in his bliss.

Words flow, coming from a deep well of despair that overflowed and turned into acceptance, and then into hope.

These songs of redemption, with titles such as “These Walls Around Me” and “Busted,” make up the album “A Million Miles Away,” to be released Tuesday even though their writer and singer, Karey Lee Woolsey, sits in a federal prison.

Dreams on hold

It was July 19, 2007. Woolsey was happy. He had just turned 31 and was engaged to the girl of his dreams. He was running the popular Martini’s Rock Club in downtown Cape Coral. He was preparing to write new songs and get serious about his first love — music.

Then came the phone call from an ex-girlfriend. A call that changed his life and put everything on hold.

She was hysterical. Something about agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency. Lots of questions.

“I’m in trouble,” he thought.

He drove to meet her at a Publix parking lot near Plantation Road in south Fort Myers.

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They sat in her car, but it wasn’t to talk about what might have been or even to catch up like old friends. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She was terrified, visibly shaking. She handed him a piece of paper.

She would testify against him in court, it read.

Woolsey was sick to his stomach. “There isn’t a feeling like it in the world. It’s like being told you have a certain amount of time to live.”

From there, it seemed to spiral out of control. She started asking him questions that he felt were none of her business. Each question got a vague answer, but it was enough.

“You need to tell them you don’t know anything…”

“You can’t say I did anything wrong…”

“You don’t know that I laundered money…”

What he didn’t know at the time was that she was wearing a wire, a pawn in the Drug Enforcement Agency’s game to nab their suspect.

They got their guy, and because of his exchange with her, were able to add witness tampering to a long list of offenses, 16 counts in all.

Woolsey was no longer selling at this point, those days long behind him, he said. The federal indictment states that he committed the crimes from August 2002 through January 2006.

But the past caught up to him, and a little more than a year later, his journey of repentance and self-renewal began.

Adjusting to a new life

Yazoo City Low sits in the Mississippi Delta, about 36 miles north of Jackson.

It’s part of the three-facility Federal Correctional Institution complex that houses minimum to medium security male offenders. The Haley Barbour Parkway runs to its east and one of the city’s many rivers snakes around to its west.

When Woolsey arrived in early August 2009, he went through the mandatory orientation and eventually joined more than 1,800 other inmates. His name came with a number: 34411-018.

Gone were the jeans and tees, replaced by a khaki prison uniform. He was a 13-year victim of his “dumb mistake.”

The federal justice system has “truth in sentencing,” which means inmates serve nearly all the time to which they are sentenced, and there is no parole.

(Page 3 of 6)

Thirteen of the 16 counts he faced were dropped. He took a plea deal on the remaining charges: conspiracy to sell marijuana, witness tampering and money laundering.

On Aug. 4, 2008, in front of a packed courtroom at the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Myers, Judge John E. Steele sentenced him to nearly 13 years. Projected release: July 17, 2019.

Does he feel he got a harsh deal? “Sure I do, but that’s life, right? Sometimes it’s harsh, but when you get knocked down, you dust yourself off and you get back up, learn from your mistake and try again.”

He thinks three years in prison and some healthy fines would have been more fitting for the crime, and said that spending one day in the Lee County Jail — which he calls “rough” — was enough to make him decide to never break the law again.

Woolsey said the federal conviction rate is high, which is why he and his attorney chose to take a plea deal.

He said all of his Yazoo friends are in on drug charges. His former cellmate, Johnathan Kohrs, 27, served six years for trafficking in marijuana. He was released last year and lives in Missouri, where he sells real estate.

Kohrs said Woolsey was the first one to talk to him and make sure he had everything he needed. “It was such a blessing to have met him and become as close to him and his family the way I did.”

Woolsey said his family is closer than ever, the heartbreak having tightened their bond.

Linda Foster, his mother, still puts presents for her son under the Christmas tree, so on his first Christmas at home, he’ll have them to open.

“Christmas has always been a special time for our family, gathering around the tree and everyone exchanging gifts,” Foster said. The first Christmas without her son was one of the hardest times her family has ever faced. She also includes gifts for Daniel Sweep, Woolsey’s co-conspirator whom the family remains close to.

Woolsey also has two daughters. His oldest, Logan, 20, lives in South Carolina. Miracle, 15, lives in Cape Coral with her mother.

He said he misses privacy the most. He misses having a nice bed. The bunk beds they sleep on in their dorm-style units are about as hard as the floor. He has one blanket and a pillow the size of a small towel.

(Page 4 of 6)

He misses his recording studio and its equipment.

Making music, peace

Foster said Woolsey started writing songs when he was little. He would make up silly songs and teach them to his brothers and then perform for his parents.

She gave him a guitar when he was 13. He taught himself to play it, locking himself in his bedroom for hours as he learned the chords.

“I hated how it was hard for me to play in front of people,” he said.

Foster discovered her son’s talent in a startling way. She could hear the Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels” coming from his bedroom and went to tell him to turn the radio down.

Embarrassed and surprised, he threw his guitar down when she entered.

“Was that you?” she asked, nearly in tears.

She asked him to play it for her again. It was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever heard.

From then on, he was free to play his music as loud as he wanted.

At 13, Woolsey wrote “The Silence” and “Might Die.” He assembled a band he called Sweet Madhouse. They put down “The Silence” on an old 4-track recorder, then sent the tape to radio station 96K-Rock. The deejay, Mike Holiday, liked it so much he played it on air, sending Sweet Madhouse into hysterics.

“I kept thinking about what kind of house I was going to buy my mom,” he said.

After that, he wanted to record a real rock album — at age 14.

His parents loaned him money to rent the Firemen’s Hall in Cape Coral to put on a show. It sold out — about 500 people were there to hear Woolsey perform original songs. He paid his parents back by selling soda and made about $2,000, which he used to buy new recording equipment so his band could make their first demo.

“After that gig, I knew that playing music was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Songwriting made adjusting to prison life easier.

“I know that if it wasn’t for my music, I would not mentally be where I am at now.”

Woolsey has realized he was put on earth to write music. He has written more than 100 songs while incarcerated. He transcribes the songs note by note and then sends them home to Foster, who copyrights them with the Library of Congress.

(Page 5 of 6)

“The worse the day, the better the song,” he said.

Then there are the prison concerts. Woolsey plays the drug-program graduations and the annual hip-hop show, where the inmates get together and rap. Woolsey opens the show — the lone non-rapper.

“You see this crazy white boy singing his heart out in front of a thousand or so hard-core rappers, it’s awesome.”

He said playing for inmates can be emotional because they’re lonely and miss the outside world.

“The vibe is so heartfelt and poignant. It’s like nothing you have ever felt before. It’s one of the most surreal feelings.”

Most of the songs on “A Million Miles Away” were written while he was on bond, awaiting sentencing.

“I had about nine months until I had to go to court and from there, I was going to prison.”

Former 99X radio personality Jeff Zito said Woolsey is talented and very driven, and despite being in prison, he could make it. He referenced Woolsey’s former band, Simply Smut, which opened for some big acts, including Creed and 3 Doors Down. “If he could do it then, he can do it now,” Zito said.

He thinks that Woolsey is marketable because he has a good story to tell. And he doesn’t think being imprisoned will hurt Woolsey’s reputation. “When it’s rock and roll, these things tend to be forgiven a little easier,” Zito said.

Woolsey said his new album takes the listener on a journey into the mind of a man who’s about to go to prison and trying to make peace with himself.

“At one point of my life, it did seem like I was a million miles away from everyone and everything. I’m over halfway done with my journey now and I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

What lies ahead

Woolsey may be released in 2017, if he successfully completes the drug treatment program that is a requirement of his sentence. The 10-month intensive program teaches inmates how to cope with life without using or selling drugs. Only inmates 36 months from release are allowed to participate, and those inmates get a year shaved off their sentence.

(Page 6 of 6)

“They say the last year in prison is the hardest … I bet when you are finally on that last year, the seconds turn into hours and months probably seem like years,” he said.

He’s looking forward to the unknown of a new life.

He doesn’t think he’ll have trouble getting a job after prison. “I have a very good business sense. I love creating ideas and then bringing them to life and seeing them operate … I’m ready to get out there and work.”

While he hopes his music career will take off, he isn’t opposed to writing songs for or producing other artists.

He said he’ll never try to forget about life in prison. “Part of where you’re going is remembering where you’re coming from.”

“This is a place I will never come back to, and the memories will always help remind me to make the right decisions in my life. Better decisions. Decisions that continue to make me a better person. Sure, I have a lot to prove, but I also have a lot of life left to prove it. I am so ready.”

The day he’s released will be one of the happiest days of his life. It gives him chills to think about.

“I am such a different person now. It’s funny. Everyone said to me before I left to never change, and I really was trying not to. But if they liked the person I was, they will love who I’ve become.”

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