FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, Ill. — It is hard for Dean Schardan to fully explain why he robbed four banks, the last one four days before he was to marry for a second time.
"I gave up on life. If I got caught, I was going to have a shootout with the cops. That's how dark it was for me."
He got caught in 1999. There was no shootout. But he was locked up for seven years.
On his last day in a North Carolina prison, the guard walking him to freedom asked Schardan where he was going.
"St. Louis," Schardan said.
"Wow. That's a long road home," the guard said.
The guard's words stuck in Schardan's head on the nearly 30-hour bus ride back to loved ones who could not understand what happened to the young man who was captain of the football and wrestling teams at Collinsville High School. The man who served in the Army. The father of two.
"I burned a lot of bridges," Schardan said.
He had little time to mend them.
Six months into his freedom, Schardan broke his probation by writing a bad check. He went back to prison for 18 months more.
"I came back home at 37, not a penny in the bank, wearing secondhand clothes. I was angry," Schardan said. It was 2008.
Court-ordered therapy helped. So did a woman who didn't run after Schardan told her he was a felon. But it was his return to the stage telling jokes that got him back on track.
Now the Caseyville native is seeking redemption through an unlikely medium in his long-shot bid to become a cable network reality show star.
Shooting for TV
It's just after dawn Tuesday morning and Schardan is chasing a llama. Or is it an alpaca? Schardan has trouble telling them apart.
He's on a llama and alpaca farm in Fairview Heights shooting a scene for a reality show pilot. He enlisted the help of fellow comics Dale Jones and Bill Kirchenbauer, who performed with him Wednesday night at Comedy Etc. II. The club is just a few miles from the farm, and it's where Schardan got his start at an open-mike night in 1995.
Three comedians shoveling llama waste, clipping nails and trying to harness one of the animals made good fodder for the camera crew following their every move. Schardan convinced farm owner Julie Wier that if they volunteered to work for her that morning, she would take some of her animals to the Mary E. Brown Community Center in East St. Louis that afternoon.
That's the premise of the reality show: a bit of comedy, a bit of giving back.
At the center, Schardan donated toys, games, school supplies and an electric keyboard, some of it purchased from a fundraiser held last month at the comedy club. He told the children and teens gathered for an assembly about the charitable aspect of his efforts and the reality show. He did not mention where he got the name for his show, "The Long Road Home."
But he did tell Vera Jones, who manages the youth program benefiting from Schardan's donations. He wanted to be transparent about his intentions when setting up the visit with cameras in tow.
"Our agency's mission and ministry is to see people for who they are now, not what they have been," said Jones, referring to the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, a social services agency that uses the Brown community center for various youth programs.
The show Schardan is pitching follows the life of a comedian rebuilding his life after it went horribly off track.
Schardan says a producer he met in Georgia took the idea to an executive with Paramount Pictures. Now, he said, three cable networks are interested. They want a six-minute pitch video first. The production crew also is assembling a full pilot episode from the 80 hours of footage.
Schardan said the show would serve as a way to prove over and over again that he has learned from his mistakes. That at age 40, he has finally grown up. He still wants to be known as the funny guy. But more importantly, the guy who helps others, doing good work in every city that he performs in, encouraging other comics on the bill to join in.
Turning to crime
That's a seismic shift from the man who grew up angry that he didn't get more attention from his family as the youngest of four children and that his parents focused their attention on a chronically ill sister, who died while Schardan was in prison. Who in 1997, three years after his stint in the Army ended alongside his marriage, followed a woman he had a crush on to Grand Rapids, Mich.
"When I got up there, I began hanging out with some real goofballs," Schardan said. "I went downhill."
He robbed one bank. Then another. A few minutes after his fourth heist Oct. 12, 1999, he was arrested. In all, Schardan got away with $35,000 during his crime spree. He told the woman he was to marry that he was living off an inheritance and worked as a stockbroker.
In March 2000, Schardan, 28 at the time, led investigators to a wooded field where he said he buried half the loot.
"Gentlemen, that's your spot," he told authorities. It was not. Schardan told agents that a mysterious accomplice probably found the money first.
An assistant U.S. attorney remarked at the time: "The last time that soil had been moved was by a glacier."
Today, Schardan sticks by the buried treasure story. As for the other half of the money, "it was blown on girls and goofiness," he said.
Schardan is off probation and focusing on a career as a comic, something he began before heading to Michigan. He also is in the third year of a relationship with Earlene Gotto. He met Gotto, who was divorced, at a Belleville bar a few months after leaving prison. Schardan made her laugh — something she said she sorely needed. A couple of weeks later, he told her he was a felon.
"Did you murder somebody?" Gotto, 43, asked. He told her no, then explained his past. Gotto didn't flinch.
"Let's see where it goes," she remembers thinking. Now, she describes him as "so much more than a bank robber."
Still, she admits, early on in their relationship, every time the TV news mentioned a bank robbery, she would look up to see if the police sketch or photo from surveillance video looked like Schardan.
Schardan has passed through several jobs — including a stint as a strip club security guard — on his way to comedy. Today, he and Gotto live together, along with his son, Kody, 17, and her son, Jory Frick, 26, in Fairview Heights.
Kody, a jokester much like Schardan, has forgiven his father.
"At first it was kind of awkward," Kody said of reuniting with the man who left when he was a young boy. But after a night at the stock car races, they clicked, Kody said.
Schardan's parents have forgiven him as well.
But he and his 21-year-old daughter have not spoken in two years.
"She said: 'Dad, why?'" Schardan said. "I can't tell you why, but I had to go through all that to be where I am today."
Back on stage
Reality shows are often heavily edited scripted programs made to look like candid moments. So nearly every minute of the three days a camera crew followed Schardan was planned.
Wednesday was supposed to be when 20 family members came to the comedy club to cheer him on in front of the cameras. But late Tuesday afternoon, the script changed.
Schardan's nephew, Jared Nevenner, 23, was killed in a traffic accident in Maryland Heights. Minutes before going on stage, Schardan was in tears. But he had to set aside his feelings. The club was filling up with people who paid $17.50 for laughs. Schardan delivered. He didn't mention his criminal background directly in the routine, referring to his extended time away as "summer camp."
Art Vieluf, owner of the comedy club and Schardan's manager, encouraged Schardan to try comedy again after running into him at a restaurant in 2009. "He said he hadn't done comedy in a while," Vieluf said. "He did one of his old bits."
Schardan then handed Vieluf a piece of paper and told him to read it when he got home.
It was a news clipping on banker robber Peter Schardan in Michigan.
Peter is Schardan's birth name. He changed it to Dean when he got out of prison, a nod to Dean Martin, whose songs Schardan sang as a child — and in prison. A name change felt appropriate, he said.
About 18 months ago, Vieluf and Schardan were talking about reality shows and decided there should be one about a comic. Now, the two hope to have a video ready for network review this summer.
"I think the show has a shot," Vieluf said. "It's a long shot. But it's a calculated long shot."
And what if the networks take a pass?
"If Hollywood looks at it and says it's a horrible idea, we'll continue to give back," Schardan said. "In my life, I have a lot to give back for."