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After arrest, rocker finds Jesus and a job in the Hot Springs court system

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Chris Carney, singer, probation officer.
  • Chris Carney, singer, probation officer.

Maybe it's no surprise that the son of the mayor of Hot Springs, a tattooed rock and roll musician who found Jesus in a Christian rehabilitation program after he was arrested on drug charges, is now a probation officer for Hot Springs Municipal Court. Hot Springs is different that way.

But the story of Chris Carney, 30, who'll be wed this fall to Disney Channel actress Tiffany Thornton ("Sonny With a Chance," "Random") at Garvan Gardens and who just recorded with Jason Truby the song "I'm Back" to raise money to fund Hot Springs' DWI and drug courts, rises above the Spa City's already high bar of what's normal. Carney's tale includes a couple of stints with reality TV and a conversion in a Pentecostal church, where Carney approached the altar, looked to heaven, and asked, "God, if this shit is real, give it to me."

It might be told best from the beginning, as told to a reporter from Carney's office in the Hot Springs Municipal Courthouse.

Carney, whose mother is Mayor Ruth Carney and whose father, Ken Carney, is the pastor of First Church of the Nazarene, sang with the Prom Kings, a rock band that debuted in L.A. in 2005; they recorded a self-titled album and their song "Blow" was featured in the film "The Island." That led to a short-lived MTV reality show "twentyfourseven" about guys trying to make it in Hollywood and it featured Chris and his brother, Greg, who also lived in L.A. The second episode centered on Chris' arrest in Hot Springs for drunk driving and aggravated assault and featured footage from his home, a dinner with his parents, and church, where he weeps as his family kneels about him. (It was seeing those tears that sparked Thornton's interest in him, she said in an interview on "Fox and Friends" in April.)

The TV show was a flop, the band broke up, and Carney was "living from couch to couch," and hanging out with a crowd that liked to party. "I had an image to uphold," he said; it was one that didn't exactly jibe with weeping in church. Thornton, who dated him a few times, decided he wasn't for her.

But the rock star was on a spiritual search. "I was anti-Christian," Carney said. "I thought it was for weak people." So he worshipped Krishna for a while. (Ruth Carney said he once arrived at the Little Rock airport wrapped in a sheet and shaved bald. "God gave him to me to expand my acceptance" of others, she said.) He tried Wicca, too. Then Carney became a Buddhist — which he took seriously enough to have the symbol for the mantra "om" tattooed on his forehead. "That's their cross," he said of the Buddhist symbol. As a Buddhist, "I was my own God."

But this deity was also a failure, or so he thought, and he left L.A. to return to Hot Springs in 2007, skinny and "defeated" and smoking pot and was soon arrested on a charge of possession of cocaine.

The Buddhist ended up in court before a judge named Ohm.

Carney laughed. He asked Municipal Judge Ralph Ohm, "Do you know what your name means?" Carney, who disputed the charge but didn't have money for a lawyer, took the judge's name as a sign that not contesting the charge was the right thing, that "the universe said, go take this path."

As it happens, the judge had just discovered Teen Challenge, a faith-based (and confusingly-named) residential facility for men 18 and over operating a 14-month drug rehab program. Carney was given three choices: He could go to jail, he could go to the state-funded Quapaw House treatment center, or he could go to Teen Challenge. Since his father was a pastor, Carney said, he chose the faith-based option, though he considered it a "crazy cultish program."

"I was going to get out of jail, go to the program and walk off," Carney said.

Carney smarted off initially, earning three extra months tacked on to his probation period. He was laughing and joking during church at the First Assembly of God in Hot Springs, when the preacher asked those who wanted to receive the Holy Spirit to come to the altar. "I, in my arrogance, walked up," Carney said, and a man put his hand on him. "It was almost like a scene in the 'Matrix,' " Carney said. "I started speaking in this language I've never heard, I'm crying and I'm conscious but I'm not in control. It scared me." He returned to the Teen Challenge facility and told his friends, "Dude, stuff went down and it happened." He was a changed man.

About 10 months later, Carney, still a Teen Challenge resident, was injured on a job at a county fair in Missouri. He was taken to a hospital, and in the waiting room saw television for the first time in more than a year. It was the Disney Channel, and he was about to ask the staff to change it to more adult fare when "here comes Tiffany. It was like my life flashed before my eyes, a download from the universe."

Carney was 10 days away from freedom — and becoming the first of only two men to successfully complete Garland County's Teen Challenge program — so it wasn't long before he was able to call Thornton herself, to tell her of his conversion to Jesus. They talked on the phone every day for a month, she visited him in Hot Springs and he asked her to marry him. They've set a date: Nov. 12.

In 2009, after his release, Carney was hired by Municipal Judge David Switzer as a probation officer for his DWI court; Carney follows about 200 cases. One of his qualifications, he said, was his fluency in Spanish, which he learned as a child in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where his parents were missionaries. He got law enforcement training from the Garland County Sheriff's Office.

It was on a visit to Thornton in Hollywood that the idea for making a reality show of Hot Springs' drug court system was born. Carney ran into an old acquaintance, Wilmer Valderramma ("That '70's Show"), brought him up to date on his life — his drug charge, Teen Challenge, his conversion and his job. The story was good enough to interest Relativity Media, which came to Hot Springs earlier this year to film court footage, including interviews with Carney, that it will use as a trailer to promote the show to potential producers. (The state Supreme Court's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, however, would likely oppose any such airing, given its strong disapproval of Fayetteville Judge Mary Ann Gunn's national broadcasting of her drug court. The court appointed a committee last year to study rules on broadcasting.)

"It doesn't bother me that God's in the courtroom," Carney said of Ohm's use of faith-based programs for the offenders that come before him. "If we can keep [offenders] off the streets for three months, and plant a seed, I'm all for it."

(Unlike Ohm, Switzer, who conducts court for felony-level DWIs, sends all offenders to Garland County's Minimal Security Incarceration program.)

Neither Ohm nor Switzer is paid for their Friday DWI and drug courts, though the DWI court has a grant to pay two probation officers and a part-time file clerk. To support the courts, Carney has recorded a song with Little Rock musician Jason Truby, "I'm Back."

"I'm back back from the dead I've been brainwashed brother by the river that be flooding my head

(Baby) I'm back back from the dead I got the good news sister from the Man with the holes in his hands ..." You can hear the song on youtube.com.

Carney, once a rock star with his own TV show, is paid $10 an hour. "At the end of the day," he said, the reality is that he's not going to be a probation officer forever. "I'm getting married in eight months." He'll probably return to L.A. But this time, he knows that "for me, Jesus Christ is the only way."

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