The story of Rodney Cummings’ rise from petty hoodlum to become Madison County’s chief law enforcement officer is a well-known one.

But with just a handful of days remaining in what’s left of his third — and final — term in office, the story of his life’s next act remains to be written.

Cummings’ life has been the subject of a short documentary on HBO, and his 1994 election victory — just three years after passing the bar exam — over seven-term incumbent prosecutor William F. Lawler Jr. was the stuff of statewide and national news coverage.

Act I

Cummings grew up in foster homes, his father was unable to care for him and his mother was a drug-addicted prostitute.

He went to 27 different schools before he was arrested for burglary in 1973 when he was 18. He was sentenced to three years probation for breaking into an Anderson home and stealing a coin collection.

After a two-week stint in the Madison County jail, Cummings began going to Anderson’s Police Athletic League Club. And while many thought he could be dissuaded from a life of crime, few thought he’d reach the heights he has.

“Oh no,” said Roy Springfield. “Thirty-five years ago, he was just a long-haired kid who came into the club.”

Springfield was then a sergeant on the Anderson police force and in charge of the club.

In the strictest sense, Cummings shouldn’t have been allowed to hang out at the club. The club was meant for children up to 18, Springfield said, but within six months of Cummings’ first PAL visit, he was sleeping on a rollaway bed on the club’s second floor.

“It’s hard to say, but I did see something there (in Cummings),” Springfield said. “But just because the kid turned 18, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t need someone.

“We gave him a place to stay, and it meant someone could be there (in the club) overnight. It served two purposes.”

Springfield, along with Sonny Clark and Larry Newberry, got Cummings started boxing and he was good at it. The long-haired convicted felon got the nickname ‘Ponytail’ because he had to tie his hair back when in the ring.

The future lawyer won three Indiana Golden Gloves championships in the mid- to late-1970s and he would come to associate the battles he fought in the ring with the challenges he’d ultimately face in the courtroom. Fighting became a metaphor for life — for good or bad — both in the way Cummings sees himself and is described by others.

Act II

“I was a street kid that grew up pretty tough,” he said. “I think I have one of the most unique points of view of anybody. There’s no other prosecutor like me in the country.

“I’ve been poor and I’ve done better and everywhere in between.”

“I always found him very cordial,” Springfield said, grasping for a way to describe Cummings’ personality. “It’s hard. He’s very sincere in his work. He was that way in the PAL Club, in boxing and finishing his education.”

Along with the Golden Gloves championships, he also earned a $1,000 scholarship, money he used to go to Ball State University. Then-Gov. Otis Bowen pardoned Cummings, erasing the felony so he could become an Anderson police officer in 1979. That was another fight for Cummings.

“There was a lot of resistance to it (on the force),” Springfield said. “But over the years, after they worked with him, they got over it. Rodney was definitely not greeted with open arms.”

While working as an officer, Cummings earned his undergraduate, master’s and juris doctorate, graduating from the Indiana University School of Law in 1990.

“Rodney’s story is somewhat remarkable ... people, myself included, saw some good in him,” said Madison Circuit Court Judge Fredrick Spencer. “There’s much to admire. He made a reputation on being tough on criminals. (But) he made enemies when he didn’t need to.”

Cummings’ intensity would show when he ran a heated race against William Lawler in 1994 for the prosecutor’s office.

“If Bill Lawler is elected to another term everyone living in this county is at risk,” Cummings said dramatically during a candidates’ meeting of the American Association of Retired People.

After winning the election, he faced some of the same challenges as when he first joined the Police Department. Another fight was brewing.

ACT III

“Lawyers are very collegial,” he said. “To them, I was a cop, not a lawyer. “When I came in it was very tense. But I think I won them over with our success. I think you gain respect from winning.”

He made being a deputy prosecutor a full-time position and he stopped giving plea bargains to most violent offenders.

“We took a community that was going through the worst crime wave in our history,” Cummings told The Herald Bulletin recently. “We ended plea agreements on murders and serious crimes of violence. We a took a community that had one of the highest crime rates (in Indiana) to one of the lowest.”

He continued to build on his reputation for being tough, but said he remembers where he came from.

“I do (have sympathy) for people who are first offenders, or non-violent offenders,” Cummings said. “I am sympathetic, but not sympathetic for people that commit crime after crime. At some point, you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Some people give up and start committing crimes and I don’t have much sympathy for those people.”

There was no sympathy for Fredrick Baer.

In June 2005, Baer, now 35, was sentenced to death for the grisly slayings of 26-year-old Cory Clark and her 4-year-old daughter, Jenna, in their Lapel home in 2004.

“It was a horrible crime,” he said. “It’s the most horrific crime that I can imagine in the 27 years that I’ve been (involved in law enforcement) in this community.”

Baer’s case is currently winding its way through the appeal process, mainly on questions involving the state’s right to put the mentally ill on death row. And that’s where Baer is being held — the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

Where Baer’s crime was random and vicious, John L. Neal’s alleged criminal enterprise was extensive and touched many in Madison and Delaware counties.

Although he won’t see the case to its conclusion, it’s another case that Cummings said he’s proud to have filed charges on.

“The menace of John Neal is gone from our communities,” he said.

Superior Court 3 Judge Thomas Newman Jr. approved earlier this month the appointment of Henry County Prosecutor Kit Crane to take over the case, partly because incoming Prosecutor Thomas Broderick recently represented Neal in a case against the city of Anderson.

Neal, 69, Yorktown, was arrested in September on more than 70 felony counts filed in Madison County. The Madison County charges range from money laundering to promoting professional gambling.

Crane will also handle the cases of 38 others accused of being involved in the money laundering and promoting professional gambling scheme.

But it’s the bartenders, waiters and waitresses left jobless when the taverns were ordered closed that brought about what Cummings said is perhaps his biggest mistake.

ACT IV

“The biggest regret I have is we closed the bars down and put people out of work,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate how many people would lose their jobs that really couldn’t afford it. That’s probably the biggest regret I have.”

It’s also a mistake that some suspect may have caused, at least in part, Cummings to lose his bid for a fourth term. More than two dozen drinking establishments were closed during the early-fall raids.

The prosecutor, however, points to local voters being swept up in the national tide of anti-Republican sentiment for his November downfall. Nearly 4,500 more Madison County Democrats voted straight-party tickets than Republicans.

“That’s the only thing that explains between now and two years ago,” said Cummings, who was confident going into Election Day. “It was shocking,” he said. “I’m a fighter. I’ve always been a fighter. It was like losing a long fight.”

For Spencer, however, Cummings’ election loss was a reflection of his style, and the voters sent a message.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know of anyone who was surprised that he lost the election, other than those on his political side,” he said. “But Nov. 7 was his report card and we all know what kind of grade he got.”

The prosecutor and the judge share an entangled — and complicated — history. Another fight.

In 2003, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended Spencer for 30 days without pay after Cummings filed a complaint against him in 2002 over the appointment of a special prosecutor in a case.

The case involved a group of teens placing explosive devices around attorney John Blevins’ home in 2001. Spencer, without conducting a hearing, appointed a special prosecutor at the request of John E. Eisele, who was representing two of the 10 accused teens.

“I think Judge Spencer made clear his disdain during the campaign,” Cummings said. “The only reason is because he did something wrong, I called him on it and the Supreme Court issued its decision.”

Spencer declined to comment on the suspension or elaborate on his opinion of Cummings’ performance.

“I don’t want to open wounds,” he said. “I don’t want to get into a he-said, she-said situation. It’s just not productive for me to point out anything about anything.

“It just isn’t productive.”

Cummings has been a magnet for rumors and criticism — often coming during campaign seasons. He said he’s used to it, but it’s tough on his family.

“People say a lot about you, especially every four years,” he said. “It’s very frustrating and it’s very hurtful to my family. I won’t miss that.

“When you’re in a position like the prosecutor’s office, where you make a lot of people unhappy, people are willing to believe a lot that isn’t true.”

The unwritten act

Cummings’ third-floor office at the Madison County Government Center is filled with boxing mementos, legal citations and press clippings. In the coming days he’ll take them down and prepare for the rest of his life.

Cummings is 51 and has been married for 23 years to his wife, Rosetta. The couple have two children.

His fighter’s persona and pugilistic style have served him well in some arenas and worked against him in others. He knows this.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it: I’ve matured,” Cummings said. “I’ve learned to be less confrontational with people who oppose me. I still stand by my principals, but I’ve learned to be less confrontational. And I’ve worked on that.”

One option for the future is a position as a deputy prosecutor in Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi’s office, or he may seek election to a judgeship in Madison County.

“I’m not sure where I’m going, to tell you the truth. I have a few options that I’m considering, and that (working in the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office) is a possibility.

“That’s certainly a possibility,” Cummings said of running for judge. “I had been considering that. That certainly appeals to me at some level. What I think about is having an impact on our own community and making it a better place.”

But, he said, another run for Madison County prosecutor is highly unlikely.

“I never say never, but it’s not in my plan,” Cummings said. “I’ve served my time. (Being prosecutor) is a lot of time; it’s a lot of pressure.”

He also discounted practicing in another field of law, such as becoming a criminal defense attorney or going into family law.

“I’m most proud of the prosecutors we’ve brought in, that we’ve trained, that have stayed,” Cummings said, comparing them to family members. “It’s what I’ll miss most.”

For Springfield, 65, his PAL mentor from over three decades ago, Cummings’ successes — from teen felon, to the boxing ring, to the police force and then to the prosecutor’s office — are proof enough of his determination to persevere.

“He’ll do well wherever he goes,” Springfield said. “Because he’s not a quitter. He’s dedicated to his beliefs. I’ve never had any regrets about taking him under my wing and helping him out.”

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