Durham County

A father overcomes his addictions, finds God, and wins his way back into his daughters’ hearts

Juan Nelson, center, has a daughter on each arm — Lionetta Pope, left, and Nichelle Harmon, right — in recognition of Father’s Day.
Juan Nelson, center, has a daughter on each arm — Lionetta Pope, left, and Nichelle Harmon, right — in recognition of Father’s Day. The Herald-Sun

The story of the relationship between Juan Nelson and his daughter Nichelle Harmon and stepdaughter Lionetta Pope, is a story of redemption.

Nelson came into Pope’s life when he married her mother in 1995.

Harmon and Pope are both 28 now, but it was only midway through their high school years that Nelson, a drug addict, found sobriety. The girls spent much of their early childhoods as witnesses to Nelson’s self-destructive ways.

“My dad was a full blown alcoholic until I was 16. He beat my mom, my brother and myself for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Nelson said, recalling his own troubled upbringing. “That was the only picture I had of how to be a dad. I didn’t know how to be a father, how to be a husband.”

Downhill path

The problems accelerated in Nelson’s life when he dropped out of Hillside High School during his sophomore year and moved into a North Duke Street apartment with around 1988.

“I just really took it to the street, so to speak,” Nelson said. “Life went real rocky.”

Nelson, then 17, started dating a 27-year-old woman who lived next door with her two kids and she introduced him to drugs — the “whole gambit” of using and selling cocaine.

Nelson fell in love with cocaine almost instantly and he fell out of touch with his family and friends.

From the late 1980s to 1994, Nelson was caught in a downward spiral of drug abuse without having and without giving much thought to changing his life’s path.

But one night in 1994 while hanging out in an apartment on South Saunders Street in Raleigh, five men broke into the apartment to rob Nelson and his friends. His friends fled.

“There were five men and myself, fighting,” Nelson said. “They were trying to take the money that I had been hustling for all week in the street, to take to [Harmon].”

The men jumped on Nelson and started beating him until he passed out.

“When I came to,” Nelson said, “they were still beating me.”

Nelson was picked up, thrown out of a front window, landed on porch and rolled into the street. He yelled and pleaded for bystanders to help him. But no one did.

“Finally one guy said to the others guys ‘We can’t let him live. If we let him live, then he’s going to come back and he’s gonna get us,’” Nelson said. “I had somewhat of a reputation at the time and they knew there would be repercussions.”

‘Lord, help me’

Nelson prepared to die on South Saunders Street. He closed his eyes and whispered a final prayer, “Lord, help me,” he said.

“After having been beat as bad as I was beat — even bleeding as bad as I was bleeding — energy came into my body and I jumped straight up in the air,” Nelson said.

The men froze wide-eyed in amazement and Nelson took off running the wrong way down the one-way street.

A white Chevrolet Caprice Classic was cruising toward him and Nelson jumped on the hood. The Chevy’s driver saw that five men were sprinting toward the car to “get” Nelson and kept driving — escaping.

“As I was looking through his windshield, down into his car,” Nelson said, “I realized this had to be an undercover cop.”

Nelson went from Wake Medical Center’s trauma unit to the Raleigh Rescue Mission where he stayed for six months and fell in love with a church shuttle bus driver whom he married in 1995 —Pope’s mother, Marilyn.

Nelson tried to change for Marilyn, his stepdaughter, Harmon and himself.

Nelson said his addiction was there but “my desire to be a father” was there, too.

Troubles continue

He had relapses. In 2001, he jumped out of a moving 26-foot box truck which crashed and partially landed on him.

Pope said she’ll never forget that night. She was staying at her best friend’s house.

“My mom called ‘I’m coming to get you. I’m coming to get you,’” Pope recounted. “’Just get your stuff.’”

Her mom told her, “’Your daddy’s in the hospital.’”

“I knew why. There was no guessing ‘What in the world made him do that?’” Pope said. “Nooo. I knew the cause of why: My daddy thought he could fly.”

Between the ages of 5 and 14, Harmon never saw her father. She first lived with her mother until her mother became addicted to crack cocaine. Then, she moved into her great-grandmother’s home until she finished high school.

But, again, this is a story of redemption and it does have a happy ending.

In the early 2000s with the help of men he met at the Jesus Christ Abundant Life church in Charlotte, Nelson was able to beat his addictions.

During his daughters’ high school years, Nelson was sober, supported them, showered them with attention and they looked past his faults. Nelson started his own ministry, Peacekeeper United Community Church in Durham about four years ago.

With the “power of the Lord,” Nelson is now a man of God, he said.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks