When an inmate in federal prison makes a phone call, the person on the other end can block your calls forever by just pressing “7.’’
“I had ‘7’ hit a couple of times,’’ Daniel Bull said.
He understands why. “The crime hurt pretty much everybody. Period.’’
Mr. Bull was sentenced in January 2012 to 21 months in prison for mail fraud after taking around $750,000 from investors, many of them friends and family, under false pretenses. When he found out the feds were on to him, the Beaver man threw his cell phone out his car window, got on Interstate 79 and drove clear to Miami.
After many dark nights of the soul in a hostel there, he returned to plead guilty and do his time. Released in July 2013, Mr. Bull, 31, is working in business development for a commercial construction firm. His employer was one of the biggest victims of his crime.
His wife, Nicole, who divorced him — “deservedly so,’’ he says — and had been “one of my 7s,’’ remarried him Sept. 28. She told me she became convinced through countless examples that the father of their two young daughters had repented fully.
That’s forgiveness with a capital “F.”
If anyone knows Failure with a capital F, it’s Mr. Bull. Part of his sentence requires repaying his victims more than $481,000. The first check he writes each month is 10 percent of his income to the federal court clerk. That’s distributed “proportionally to those I hurt,’’ he said.
He now lives in Washington, Pa. I sought him out because I’d heard something called “Failure: Lab” is coming to Pittsburgh and he’s the local organizer. The venture began in Michigan last year and has held events from Chicago to Chandigarh, India.
Speakers stand on a bare stage one by one to talk for around 10 minutes about a failure: divorce, bankruptcy, addiction, whatever. The cardinal rule is no moral to the story or talk of later success. The audience is invited to tweet and write about what they’ve heard, and thoughts that may be posted on failure-lab.com.
“There are hundreds of beautiful thoughts to one story versus one lesson to one story,’’ says Jonathan Williams, 33, a co-founder of Failure: Lab.
That made me think of “Rocky.’’ That movie was so much better than its sequels because it ended with the hero’s valiant loss that nobody needed to be told was a victory.
Mr. Bull says he liked the challenge “to share your failure and not get to say ‘but.’’’ There’s no justifying his crime, he said. But he doesn’t intend to speak at the local event in April, because he doesn’t want this to be “specifically about a criminal who has this undeserved great life now.’’
He’s found three speakers and would like three more. The current lineup includes two prominent entrepreneurs and a formerly wealthy man who will call the stage from federal prison. (No, it’s not Bernie Madoff.) Mr. Bull intends to book a theater that will seat 400 to 500. He hopes to break even with a $20 or $25 charge.
The bane of Mr. Bull’s life now is Google. Any online search of his name turns up his conviction, and that has cost his employer sales. But the same search will also turn up Mr. Bull’s other venture: Zero Six Eight, a business incubator to help released felons.
The name is derived from the last three digits of the identification number for any federal inmate from the Pittsburgh area. The inspiration came from the level of talent and intelligence Mr. Bull encountered in Elkton Prison near Lisbon, Ohio. He hopes he can direct more felons into honest work.
Zero Six Eight helped Jordan Baldrige, a former Arizona inmate living in Lancaster County, launch his invention: a straw that cools hot liquid before it reaches your lips. Mr. Baldrige said Friday he’s on the verge of a deal with a California investor. Mr. Bull’s partnership thus must end, because his conviction bars him from participating in any venture capital deals.
“I call it graduation,’’ he said.
He now sees personal relationships as his most treasured possessions. He’ll continue trying to repair his old friendships one call, one coffee, one meal at a time.
“I’m like the people people warn you about. Before I was caught, if someone came to me like me, I would have said, ‘Thank you, no thank you.’’’
More information on Failure: Lab can be found at zer068.com.
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.