A Louisiana State Penitentiary inmate serving a life sentence for murder is making a name for himself for his self-taught achievement in the field of automotive mechanics.
Shelby J. Arabie, 49, was one of 12 people this year to qualify through the Institute of Automotive Service Excellence as a Triple Master in auto, truck and collision repair, with advanced certifications in gasoline and diesel engines.
About a dozen people each year qualify as Triple Masters, said Tony Molla, ASE vice president for communications.
The institute sets certification standards for automotive service technicians.
Arabie also is among 16 people worldwide who hold all 51 certifications the institute offers, Molla said.
Molla said Arabie qualified for world class technician status this year, and he will be honored in 2013 by ASE and the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association.
As part of that honor, his name will be listed in a book housed at the Automotive Hall of Fame.
“Shelby is a member of a very small and elite group of technicians whose achievement is impressive, to say the least,” Molla said.
“That man is worth a fortune to this prison,” Angola Warden Burl Cain said. “The dollars he’s saved us and will save us in the future will be in the millions.”
In June 2010, Arabie assisted prison officials in designing Angola’s re-entry program, which offers pre-release training to short-term prisoners sentenced in Orleans Parish. The program aims to offer prisoners job skills in auto repair, auto paint and body work and welding.
Carefully selected inmates serving longer sentences, including life terms, teach the courses.
Arabie got a machine shop up and running at Angola with the help of 20th Judicial District Court Judge Hal Ware. Also, Arabie and two other ASE master technicians, Dana Parker and Freddie Wilbert, are scheduled to start a school for industrial generator repair in the coming weeks, Cain said.
“He’s kind of like the school superintendent. He goes around to all the schools checking on things,” Cain said.
Arabie killed Bennie Posey, 29, of Meridian, Miss., in September 1984, after Arabie and a friend agreed to sell Posey and another man 10 pounds of marijuana at the Butte-LaRose Interstate 10 exit.
Posey and his friends, however, pulled a fake holdup and took the marijuana, leaving Arabie and his friend tied up on the side of the road.
Arabie and his partner got loose and chased Posey and his accomplices to Baton Rouge, where Arabie shot Posey when the victim’s van stalled and he jumped out of it on an exit ramp.
After a rocky start in the prison system, including an escape from the State Police Barracks, Arabie began using his skills to better himself.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he was transferred to New Orleans to help law enforcement officers maintain a local jail, and to repair generators, air conditioning and electrical systems and help Amtrak officials get a locomotive running.
In 2008, he helped restore electrical power to Angola and Avoyelles Correctional Center after Hurricane Gustav.
Last year, the state Pardon Board unanimously recommended commuting Arabie’s life sentence to 45 years, which would make him eligible for parole. The recommendation awaits action by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Posey’s daughter, Ashley Posey, appeared at the hearing to speak in favor of Arabie’s application for clemency.
“That was pretty generous of her,” Arabie said.
“I always felt bad about it. When I killed her father, I didn’t realize it back then — I was young myself, 21 years old — she was put in foster care and basically raised by the state of Mississippi. I don’t suspect she had a lot of real favorable experiences growing up, but she got through it anyway.
“When you think about it, somebody doing something like that, coming to testify on my behalf, after I did that to her father…” Arabie said, his voice trailing off.
Arabie said he now hopes the governor will consider his accomplishments when he acts on the Pardon Board’s recommendation.
Arabie said he was reluctant to get involved when Cain first approached him about the automotive school.
“Then, when I realized you can’t necessarily refuse Warden Cain, I warmed to the idea pretty quickly,” Arabie said with a smile.
“Then he told me I needed to legitimize the program by getting my certification. So it was required that I at least get my automotive master certification, which is successfully passing eight tests. I decided, as a personal challenge, I was going to continue on and take all of them. In one test cycle, I took 14 tests in four weeks. I saw the finish line coming, and I got a little anxious, a little ambitious,” he said.
Arabie said earning the 51 certificates required “two years of continual study, getting up at 2:30 or 3:30 every morning, studying until 5:30 a.m. before going to work full time with the students or other mentors.”
“The tests are really difficult and rigorous. You can’t fake it,” he said.
Arabie said he read everything he could get on automotive work, including some outdated training manuals that still had valuable information.
“I found that once you understood the concept, the operating principle, the rest of it was going to be relatively easy,” Arabie said.
Arabie turned over the automotive repair shop to John Sheehan, one of ten inmates who have earned master certification since the program began, but Arabie still teaches automotive electronic classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Sheehan said the shop has the latest diagnostic equipment, the kind its students will encounter when they return to the free world.
The students work on state vehicles and Angola employees’ cars and trucks to get the hands-on experience they need.
Although he has served 26 years of a life sentence, Sheehan said he doesn’t view his sentence negatively.
“I still can be productive and find meaning in life,” he said, adding that he is trying to protect the public by turning young criminals into “good neighbors” when they go back to society.”