MICHIGAN CITY – Scott Highberger was in sixth grade when he drank his first beer at a party – and promptly passed out. You might say it took more than two decades before he finally woke up.
"I led a pretty crazy life until I connected with God," the now-42-year-old said.
And when he did, things got even crazier, until the Michigan City native eventually went from "career criminal" to prison pastor, and on the way became the subject of a book and soon, a major motion picture in which he will be portrayed by actor Joey Lawrence.
"My first arrest was around age 12, and after that I was arrested 35 times and sent to jail or prison five times," Highberger said. "I'd been in and out of juvenile detention and juvenile prisons, then adult jails and prisons, mostly for drugs – marijuana, cocaine, meth – and alcohol and fighting with police."
A Chesterton High School student at the time, he said, "My parents didn't know what to do with me. I was a violent kid and would not listen to anybody. I had few boundaries to begin with, and then when I started with the drugs, I had none at all.
"I was in that cycle for 22 years before I surrendered to Christ."
From there, he met Pastor Dave and Vanessa Gargano of Road To Life Church, and started a complete about-face.
"I got invited to Road To Life and met Pastor Dave and his wife. They treated me like family and I started to get involved with the church, first in the prison ministry," he said.
The Garganos had started the "portable church" in 2011 in Chesterton when they met Highberger.
"Scott came to us shortly after he was released from prison in 2012 and he is like a new person today," Dave Gargano said, though he admits it took a leap of faith.
"I was cautious at first, but I had dealt with a lot of people who had issues," he said. "That's what church is all about, helping people deal with their issues. Scott worked faithfully and showed a lot of potential, so when he applied for an internship program, he was accepted, and then was accepted again for a second year. He was eventually put on the staff and was licensed as a pastor in 2015."
The change from prisoner to pastor wasn't easy, and was inspired by a series of seemingly random events, though both Highberger and Gargano believe it was part of a larger plan.
"I was 28 years old and I went to a theater to see 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose'," Highberger said. "Something happened in that film and for the first time in my life, I felt the presence of God. I went outside and cried.
"The next day I got picked up on a warrant that I didn't even know I had and was sent back to jail. I got sentenced for that and two other warrants, but while I was in jail I did something else I'd never done before. I got a Bible and started reading.
"I started going to services in the jail," and so began the turnaround.
"It wasn't easy ... It took about five years," he said. "Now I've been clean for nearly 10 years. I would not be where I'm at without Road to Life. I needed to be around healthy, godly people who could provide security and a safety net for me. They say you are a lot like the five people you hang around with most, and I was hanging around with the wrong people."
Just before the theater incident, Highberger's girlfriend got pregnant and "I felt like I wanted to do better because of my son. Then I had the experience and it all came together ... God rattled me by giving me a child to set me on a different course," he said.
"It's a huge unraveling process to break all those bad habits. It took five years to change the paradigms. I was a terrible person, but today I'm all different, though I still have to be careful. The church played a huge role in that. I just wanted to run and hide, but they were there to coach and mentor me through a messy process.
"Now I thank God every day for the position I'm in, and the struggles and pressures I now face. Those are good things."
Through the church, he met his wife, Danielle – they'll be celebrating six years soon – and Christian author Donna K. Rice.
"People kept telling me. 'Your life is like a book; your life is like a book'," Highberger said, "so I started writing things down and then I met with Donna ... We sat down and she was skeptical at first, but when she read the stuff I had written down, she said she would love to do the book. We spent the next two years on that."
"Behind the Wire, A Prisoner's Journey to the Pulpit" wasn't a best-seller, but it did help get his story out.
"A lot of the congregation of Road To Life saw his story and that helped them accept him," Gargano said.
It also caught the attention of filmmakers.
"We wrote a book and it got a lot of attention, and then heard from a Christian production company (Graham Family Films)," Highberger said.
The movie, which will be filmed "all round Michigan City, as well as Chesterton, Valparaiso and Portage, starts production in July and is expected to be in theaters around May 2020," Highberger said.
While it was the book that originally inspired the film, it won't be the same story.
"There are stories from the book that will be in the movie, but the book was not a memoir," he said. "The book was to help people in the cycle, while the movie will be about my life."
His transition, and the book, also had some other personal consequences.
"My mom died four years ago," Highberger said, "but she got to see my transformation and she died a proud mother. She was always close to me and saw me transform – and I also got to lead her to Christ as well.
"I still have relationships with my dad and step-dad and they are also proud of what's happened to me."
It also helped him reconnect with his son.
"I was out of contact with my son for 11 years and we just reunited," Highberger said. "He's 13 and he found me on social media. We met for the first time not long ago and now we're taking those first steps to get to know each other."
While Highberger has been growing, both emotionally and professionally, Road To Life has also seen some big changes, including opening a sprawling campus in Michigan City on CR-450N, just east of Johnson Road.
"We're a non-denominational church and have been in Michigan City for four years," Gargano said. "The building had been a church in the past, but had been empty for quite a while. Now we minister here and in Chesterton, though that one is still a portable church."
The have also created a prison ministry since Highberger joined the staff, the pastor said.
"I go back to a lot of the jails and prisons that I was in before," Highberger said, "along with a lot of other ones.
"I was trapped in that cycle for all those years, and now I reach thousands of others in prisons and jails for the last seven years. I go to ISP, the Westville Correctional Center, Porter County Jail ... I was actually received well by the prisoners, but I had to build up my credibility at first," he said.
"Westville was the first and then Porter County Jail, which was where I went after my first arrest and most of the others," he said. "Now they are even going to open up the jail for filming there."
Gargano said Highberger's story has been good for the church.
"His story has helped the church in some ways," he said. "It inspires a lot of people to join. They think, if God could do this for him, with all the issues he had, then what can he do for me."
And the pastor said it's also helped him personally.
"As a pastor I could've looked at him and said, 'No, I want to keep the church clean.' But I took a chance and he passed all the tests. And now I think, what if I had said no? Where would he be now?
"Getting people to reach their potential through Christ is the goal of this church and we will keep doing it."
Highberger gives Gargano credit for that.
"I have a 30-page rap sheet and anyone would say, 'He's a career criminal,' and most would just give up, but they took a chance and helped me. I was an extremist, but I ran the wrong way. Now I've accomplished so much by running in a different direction."