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Robber-turned-minister feels God's hands on him

Wed, Apr 22, 2015 @ 5:59 pm | updated Thu, Apr 23, 2015 @ 10:29 am

Ken Cooper wants to live until he’s 99 years old. The number 99 has special significance to him.


Last year, it appeared he might fall short of that goal. In the spring, he noticed a small nodule on the front of his shoulder. By July, when he was diagnosed with squamous non-small cell lung cancer, the nodule had grown to the size of a softball.


His hematologist oncologist Troy H. Guthrie Jr., of Baptist Oncology Specialists tried treating Cooper with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. But Guthrie told Cooper on Oct. 30, the chemo and radiation weren’t working.


But Cooper had another option. Guthrie was enrolling patients in an international immunotherapy clinical trial using Nivolumab, which previously proved effective on melanoma, to treat squamous non-small cell lung cancer.


He enrolled Cooper in the trial and Cooper began receiving infusions of Nivolumab twice a month. Now, five months later, Cooper’s cancer is in remission. The softball has shrunk to the size of a golf ball.


“This drug enables the body’s immune system to recognize the cancer as foreign and attack it,” Guthrie said. “This is a major development.”


Based on results like Cooper’s, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of Nivolumab to treat patients with metastatic squamous non-small cell lung cancer in cases where chemotherapy has proved ineffective.

Cooper, who is 77, lost his hair and about 20 pounds while going through chemotherapy. He was tired all the time and said his energy level was about 30 percent of what it had been before he got sick.


But he’s feeling better.










“I feel amazingly good compared to how I felt two months ago,” he said, putting his energy level today at 70 percent of what it was before he got sick.


“I probably feel like what a typical 77 year old does,” he said. “Before I felt like a 49-year-old.”


This is not Cooper’s first great escape. In 1982, Cooper was shot in the chest by a police officer during the course of a bank robbery in Tampa. He had been robbing banks at gunpoint for 13 years, not because he needed the money but because he was addicted to the adrenaline rush he felt while committing a crime, he wrote in “Held Hostage: A Serial Bank Robber’s Road to Redemption,” a memoir of his experience as a bank robber and a prisoner.


He survived the gunshot and stood trial on state charges. Because he’d taken hostages while robbing banks the judge sentenced him to 99 years in prison, a number which he said became his nickname during his stay in the notorious housing unit known as the Rock at the Union Correctional Institute in Raiford. 

The Rock was closed by order of a federal judge in 1985, while Cooper was still housed there, leading to his transfer to the Baker County Correctional Institute. In June 1985, Cooper, who had an exemplary record while in prison and had gained the support of several powerful sponsors including Jim Whyte, then the publisher of The Florida Times-Union, was paroled. Sent to work release facility in Jacksonville, he has remained here since.


Cooper had undergone a religious awakening while awaiting sentencing and despite the difficulty of life in prison, his religious faith deepened during 3½ years of incarceration. One of the promises he made to himself while in prison was to found a mission to work with former convicts in their transition back into civilian life.


Cooper and his wife June, who he met when she visited her son at the Baker Correctional Institute, founded Prisoners of Christ in Jacksonville. The program had about a 90 percent success rate in keeping former offenders from returning to prison, Cooper said.


Cooper left Prisoners of Christ in 2001, saying he wanted to spend more time preaching. But later that year, he and his wife founded Ken Cooper Prison Ministry, which provides long-term transition services, including housing on the Cooper’s five acre property, to men who have spent more than 25 years in prison. None of the 25 men who have come through that program have committed another crime.


Cooper believes God played an important role in his recovery from cancer and he believes he knows why.


“I think God wants me to still be ministering when I’m 99,” Cooper said.


Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413

Photos by Bruce Lipsky

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