Rebuilding from the ashes


With emotion, Toby Dorr recounts her choices of helping an inmate escape in 2006 from the Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas in a scenario similar to Joyce Mitchell, who recently helped New York inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt. Dorr is writing a book that will help “broken” women make better life choices.

At times the memories are painful for Dorr; while speaking about her experiences on Wednesday, Dorr’s husband, Chris Dorr, reaches out to take her hand. “We love Sedalia,” Toby Dorr said. “We’ve been welcomed here with open arms. No one has rejected us.”

Finding strength in each other, Toby and Chris Dorr began a ministry called “With Conviction.” They hope to help both men and women who have been released from prison “rebuild” their lives through the faith-based program

Toby Dorr, of Sedalia, has an eerily similar story as Joyce Mitchell, the woman who recently helped New York inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt escape. Dorr wants to speak out and offer help and redemption to other “broken” women so they will not make the same mistake.

Dorr said in 2006 she began a prison dog program at Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas. The venture lead her down a “slippery slope.” Dorr made national news when she fell in love with convicted killer John Manard and helped him escape in a dog crate. The two eluded law enforcement for 14 days before being captured in a high speed chase in Tennessee.

Dorr, who had never had a traffic ticket, received a 21-month state sentence and a 27-month federal sentence.

“I was just going to create my own rescue group,” she said of the dog program. “Then the prison approached me and asked if I would consider having a dog program in the prison.

“The inmates would train the dogs and then I’d take them out to dog adoptions,” Dorr added. “In 18 months I saved about 1,000 dogs. After 18 months, I helped one of my dog handlers escape from prison.”

Dorr added that at the time she was at a low point in her life, she cared for Manard and felt sorry for him.

“I was kind of broken,” she said. “My dad was dying of cancer and I was working 17 hour days; I just worked non-stop.”

Many circumstances lead up to Dorr making the wrong choice. She recently recovered from cancer herself and had too many pressures in her life; she began to unravel, becoming vulnerable.

As soon as she drove through the prison gate with Manard she knew she had stepped over the line and said eventually “your house of cards just falls.”

“I didn’t think it was going to work,” she said. “I’m sure Joyce (Mitchell) didn’t think it was going to work either; she was already panicked.”

Several prison employees lost their jobs in connection with the Clinton Correctional Facility escape of Sweat and Matt. In comparison, when Dorr helped Manard escape only one other person lost their job. She stated that human inattention and error happens in prison facilities just as they do in other jobs.

“The people who work at the prison are just human too, they make mistakes and they get lazy and they get complacent,” she said. “I’m sure that probably in any escape there’s a lot of places where that could have been stopped.”

Dorr was interviewed by several news sources last week, including the New York Daily newspaper, Anderson Cooper of CNN, Inside Edition and KCTV5 about the incident because it mirrored Mitchell’s situation.

“That’s why I talked to all the news stations …,” Dorr said. “I wanted to put the message out there, that there are so many broken women in this country. There are so many pressures on them to perform and raise families and work at the same time, and rise up and create the American Dream. For me anyway, at some point I just broke. I just couldn’t hold any more weight.”

She added that by speaking with the reporters about what happened in her situation she hopes to make a difference in the lives of other women.

“I wanted women out there to know if they need to make changes in their life, they need to do it from a position of courage and strength,” she noted. “They need to have options as to what they can do, because change is going to come one way or another if you’re not happy. Either, you’re going to choose the right path or a path you didn’t want to choose will be forced on you. I wanted to open women’s eyes so they will take a look at their lives.”

She said women such as Joyce Mitchell who have already committed a “desperate act” may feel like their life is finished and contemplate suicide.

“I want my story to be a testimony to them that you can rebuild from a pile of ash,” Dorr said.

Dorr slowly pulled herself back from the edge. After considering killing herself and being placed on suicide watch several times, she took time while in prison to analyze and re-evaluate her life. After being released, she remarried in 2009, moved to Sedalia with husband Chris Dorr, started two businesses and recently received a Master’s Degree in Internet Marketing.

“What I learned in prison was that I had to fix myself,” she added. “I can’t fix anything if I’m broken, so I had to fix me first.”

The Dorrs, who own Easel Street art gallery in downtown Sedalia, have begun a faith-based program for former inmates called “With Conviction.”

“It mentors people getting out of prison,” Dorr said. “People come through our door and we’ll take an hour or two and sit and talk to them. We might take them out to (State Fair Community College) and get them enrolled in school or take them to some other organization here in town that can help them. We have hopes to expand and have classes and teach them some basic life skills.”

She would also like to have a book club for women.

“So many women in prison can’t read well or write,” Dorr said. “… You can’t break out of the poverty level if you can’t read or write.”

When asked if she feels like she is healed or whole now, Dorr said “it’s a progression.”

“I feel like I’m so much more healed than I used to be,” she added. “I don’t want to ever want to say that I’m totally healed because that would mean I could quit working at it and I think it’s a work in progress. You have to keep moving forward.”

“People need to know that just because something has really fallen apart in your life … you can own it, you can heal from it, you can learn from it,” Chris Dorr added. “Toby has in just the last couple of weeks, since Mitchell’s problem in New York, grown exponentially in the thought that she owns this; her story, her life and everything that she is.”

“This was such a hard lesson and such a high price, what a waste it would be if I didn’t use what I’ve learned to help other women,” Toby Dorr said. “I feel strongly that God has called me to speak out.”

She is currently writing a book to help women and she has a message of hope for Mitchell.

“The one thing that I say is I believe in second chances, and I believe in redemption,” Toby Dorr said. “I believe in rebuilding and what I wanted to say to Joyce Mitchell was ‘don’t listen to what the world is saying about you. Find who you really are and don’t pay attention to people.’”

Sedalia Democrat
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