A Sonora-area man received a special gift from outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Ed Clem, whose full name is Milton Edward Clem Jr., was one of 38 people granted a full and unconditional executive pardon for having paid their debt to society.

Clem served nearly two years behind bars from 2000 to 2002 for a pair of drug-related felonies. He has remained clean and sober for more than 16 years.

Now, the 53-year-old husband and father helps others overcome their addictions and seek a similar path to redemption as a transitional counselor at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.

“Just because I was a number at one time doesn’t make me a number now,” Clem said in an interview on Monday.

Most of the 38 people pardoned were, like Clem, convicted of drug-related or other nonviolent crimes. All completed their prison sentences years ago, according to a statement from Brown on Wednesday.

Gubernatorial pardons in California are only granted to people who have “demonstrated exemplary behavior and have lived productive and law-abiding lives following their conviction.”

Brown has granted more than 1,000 pardons since taking office in 2011. CALmatters reported that three governors between 1991 and 2010 granted a combined total of 28 pardons.

Clem was assisted by both the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office and Tuolumne County Public Defender’s Office in applying for the pardon, which requires a Certificate of Rehabilitation from the local superior court.

Deputy Public Defender Dana Gross, who worked on Clem’s case, said it’s a long process that requires the person to be crime-free for at least seven years. However, the office has had some successes in helping clients get cases dismissed or charges reduced.

“These smaller steps often are a big help for our clients looking to find jobs and become productive members of society.”

District Attorney Laura Krieg said the person applying for the pardon is interviewed by a DA investigator and fills out a lengthy questionnaire about their life, prior convictions, work history, educational achievements and what efforts they’ve made toward rehabilitation.

The full report is then submitted to the court.

Krieg said her office receives about six pardon applications each year, and many times her staff determines the person has done enough to turn his or her life around.

“These are wonderful cases, and we are honored to assist them in the process,” she said. “Mr. Clem’s story is an inspiration, and it is great to see him out helping others.”

Turning point

Clem’s transformational journey began on Nov. 16, 2000, when a SWAT team and federal narcotics agents raided his home in Contra Costa County.

He grew up the son of a pastor in the unincorporated Contra Costa County town of El Sobrante, near the hardscrabble streets of the Richmond area.

At 12, Clem started smoking marijuana and quickly moved onto harder drugs. He described himself as an “angry” boy who ran away from home at 15 and started selling drugs on the streets to feed his growing addiction.

Clem said he was about 30 when he started cooking methamphetamine, which was why the authorities raided his home.

“That was our lifestyle and who I was,” he said. “I knew deep down inside it was wrong, but I was hooked on the drugs and didn’t care.”

Clem spent more than a year in the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s West County Detention Facility while going through the court process.

During that time, Clem said he asked for God’s help to get clean from drugs after hearing about another man in jail who had changed through the power of faith.

The turning point came when Clem took drugs he obtained in jail and asked God to make him sick of it.

Clem said he got violently ill the next time he used and believes he felt God tell him, “Well, you told me to make you sick of it.”

He never did drugs again.

In March 2002, Clem accepted a plea deal for manufacturing a controlled substance and possession of substances to manufacture a controlled substance. He received a three-year sentence with time served and credit for good behavior after initially facing up to 15 years in prison.

Clem was sent to San Quentin State Prison, where he spent 30 days in reception.

“I talked to enough people and saw enough that I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Clem served the duration of his sentence at minimum-security California Correctional Center in Susanville. He was released in Sept. 27, 2002, to serve three years on parole.

Finding love

While living in San Pablo after being released, Clem said he devoted himself to church and studied the Bible in hopes of possibly becoming a pastor like his father.

“I dug into the source of the word, and that word was Jesus Christ,” he said. “It changed my life.”

Another major turn came when Clem got an unexpected knock on his door in 2004 from Heather, the woman who would become his wife.

The two had met before they were teenagers while attending the same church in El Sobrante. They remained good friends while growing up, but life took them in separate directions as adults.

It was Heather’s children from a previous marriage who happened to be friends with Clem’s nephews and encouraged her to reconnect with him.

“It was immediately like we were best friends again,” she said. “I knew him and he knew me, and we were able to share our life stories with each other.”

The two fell in love and dated for months from afar, because she had moved to Tuolumne County, where her parents lived. He proposed to her on Sept. 3, 2005, about three weeks before successfully completing parole.

Heather Clem said she never felt concern about her husband’s past while they were dating because she could tell he was a changed man.

“The way he shared his story was so passionate, and I could tell who he was now,” she said. “There’s never been a moment where I’ve been worried he’ll fall off the wagon, because he has so much integrity.”

They got married in December 2005 and had a son, Zack, five years later. Ed Clem has also been father to Heather’s children from her previous marriage, Jordan, Alexis and Damien.

Helping others

Ed Clem set out to become a truck driver after getting off parole and moving to Tuolumne County to be with his wife, but he struggled for years to find steady work because of his felonies.

The couple started going to Christian Heights Church in East Sonora, where people asked Clem what he wanted to do with his life.

One of Clem’s goals was to work at a prison and help others who were going through similar struggles.

Heather Clem said he would point out the window whenever they drove by Sierra Conservation Center and tell her, “One day I’m going to work there.”

Clem enrolled at Columbia College to earn his GED so that he could realize his goal.

“I think I was more afraid of going back to school than going to prison,” he said with a laugh.

After earning his GED, Clem got a job at Maynord’s Recovery Center in Tuolumne helping people with addiction.

A former supervisor at Maynard’s later told Clem about an opportunity with WestCare, a company that has a contract to run a treatment program for inmates at Sierra Conservation Center.

In order to be eligible for the job, Clem had to complete a six-month course through the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals Academy in Sacramento.

Clem has worked for WestCare since 2016 as a certified alcohol and drug counselor. He said his favorite part of the job is working with the inmates and watching their growth.

Some inmates have told Clem his story is an inspiration to them.

Clem said such programs were not as prominent when he was serving in prison. He believes the inmates today have a much better chance at becoming productive members of society when they’re released because of it.

“We’re teaching these guys how to be productive citizens,” he said. “Would you rather them get out without that and become your neighbor? Because they are going to get out.”

About two years ago, Clem started the process of seeking executive clemency for his past convictions after hearing from someone else who was doing the same.

Clem received a message on his phone from the Governor’s Office on Nov. 20, but he said he was too nervous to call right back. He spent that night praying and called back the next morning, when he was told his request was approved.

He described the feeling upon hearing the news as “closure from a past that was broken and in chains.” Getting the pardon also opens the door for Clem to become certified as a licensed marriage and family therapist.

The official signed pardon has yet to arrive in the mail, which could take up to two weeks.

When asked about what the pardon means to him, Clem responded: “That there is redemption … That people do change.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

This story has been edited to correct District Attorney Laura Krieg's statement about the review process. She said the reports her office sends to the court often say applicants have turned their lives around.