Prisoner from Bothell earns his degree

Dirk Van Velzen received a bachelor of science degree with highest distinction from Pennsylvania State University.

He never set foot on campus.

He hasn’t set foot out of prison for the past decade.

It’s the second time I’ve written about Van Velzen, 38, without ever speaking to him. I keep in touch with his father, Ted Van Velzen.

“Dirk received his degree at the May 2010 graduation ceremony (in absentia, of course),” Ted Van Velzen, 75, wrote via e-mail. “Once he is released he can actually go back and go through the ceremony with whatever class is graduating.”

His father, who is never apologetic about his son’s actions, said his son, who is intelligent and artistic, chose his own path in junior high school.

“He was a challenger,” Ted Van Velzen said. “He pushed the envelope.”

Dirk Van Velzen got off the upward path while attending Washington State University in 1990. He was apprehended by police at an Apple Cup game between the University of Washington and Washington State University in Pullman.

Van Velzen and a college friend set off a smoke bomb at Martin Stadium. He spent seven months in jail on convictions of second-degree reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct.

His criminal ways continued back in his hometown, Bothell, where he became involved in a burglary ring, leading to an appearance on “America’s Most Wanted.” At the time, Van Velzen was wanted on a federal firearms violation and a Snohomish County warrant for two counts of first-degree possession of stolen property and two counts of second-degree burglary. He also had an outstanding warrant in King County for a probation violation on a forgery charge.

The show did the trick and Van Valzen was captured and convicted.

He is serving a 15-year sentence.

I asked Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul if she remembered Dirk Van Velzen.

“This defendant’s case was memorable in that he was an intelligent person who used his smarts to victimize a lot of people,” Paul said. “Fairly sophisticated break-ins and thefts of merchandise from golf shops, computer and sports equipment stores, and art galleries. In addition to the state charges, he pled guilty to a federal charge involving illegal transfer of a submachine gun.”

Every once in a while, Paul said, she hears that an inmate has done something productive with his life while in prison.

“Recently I received a letter from a defendant convicted of murder,” Paul said. “He was obtaining his bachelor’s degree, and had done many productive things with his time in prison.”

She said she is happy to hear that Van Velzen is not just serving his prison time, but is making positive changes to his life.

Though the prisoner has no access to a computer, his profile is posted on MySpace, created by Prison Voices. He is listed as wanting a pen pal and can be reached at

He describes himself as “a happy, ironic confluence of capitalism, altruism, Marxism (Groucho, that is, not Karl), realism, Dadaism, impressionism, romanticism, idealism, pragmatism, hedonism, intellectualism, moralism, optimism, fatalism, humanitarianism, egoism, survivalism, and vitalism.”

Val Velzen’s profile notes: “It would be a nice change to hear about something interesting. How do you occupy your free time? What are you doing or about to do — excluding hype? In a largely dreamless community, I miss hearing about ones goals and aspirations.”

Dirk Van Velzen wrote to me from prison, saying he’s run out of money for the Prison Scholar Fund he created for inmates. He was able to give money to 160 inmates for education, Van Velzen wrote.

Ted Van Velzen was the program’s work horse, dealing through the years with more than 1,500 applications from men and women incarcerated all around the USA.

They no longer accept applications because their major supporter, the Annenberg Foundation, closed the checkbook.

“The applications keep arriving,” Ted Van Velzen said. “The word simply spreads from mouth to mouth. For them, hope never dies.”

I first met Ted Van Velzen in his lovely home, before he moved to Orting. He still owns the Bothell house due to the sour economy, he said.

“Thanks for remembering us,” Ted Van Velzen recently wrote. “So often we feel very alone in this struggle.”

His son aims to earn his master’s degree in prison.

There is time.

According to his father, Dirk Van Velzen expects to remain incarcerated for another six or seven years.

Kristi O’Harran: 425-339-3451;

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