Cornealious "Mike" Anderson has plenty of time to think. He spends most of his day locked in a cell in Missouri’s Southeast Correctional Center, pining for his family and wishing he could wake up from what feels like a nightmare.
“It's — it's like my life is wasting away,” Anderson, 37, told NBC News’ Kate Snow in an exclusive interview that aired on TODAY on Thursday.
“I think about my wife, my children ... all my family ... and I just try and stay positive, you know. 'Cause it is depressing.”
Anderson’s case has garnered national media attention because its circumstances are so unusual. Back in 1999, Anderson helped rob a Burger King assistant manager in St. Charles, Mo., with what turned out to be a BB gun. In May 2000 he got convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 13 years in prison — but because of a clerical error, he never did the time.
He went on to become a law-abiding, happily married man with four children. After training as a carpenter, Anderson started small businesses and built his own home from the ground up. On the weekends, he volunteered at his church, went fishing, fixed up old cars and helped his kids prepare for their spelling tests — “just normal, everyday, good stuff,” he told Snow.
“I grew into the man that I was supposed to be,” he said.
At first, Anderson lived every day wondering whether law enforcement might arrive and take him to prison.
"For the first couple of years, yes,'' he said. "When I'm in the shower, I hear a noise, outside somebody closing the door, I'm thinking it's them at the door every single day."
Despite that anxiety, he did not turn himself in.
"That was not me,'' he said. "Prison is not me."
Then, early one morning in July 2013, that day came, as law-enforcement officials descended on his home and hauled him away for failing to serve his sentence all those years ago. Anderson maintains that he was never a fugitive and he never hid his whereabouts from authorities.
“We did everything we were supposed to do,” Anderson told Snow. “We filed all the paperwork. My attorney (at the time) told them that I wasn't incarcerated, that I was out on bond.”
Anderson told Snow that as the years passed, he registered his businesses with the state of Missouri, renewed his driver’s licenses, got married and even voted — all the while using his full name and his current mailing address.
“A fugitive is someone that they’re looking for and that’s running,” Anderson said. “I never ran, and they weren’t looking for me. ... I used to think, ‘Maybe they just wiped the slate clean.’”
Late last year, Anderson’s lawyer Patrick Megaro filed a writ of habeas corpus on Anderson's behalf, arguing that incarcerating him now after so many years constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster countered that Anderson “took advantage” of the situation and is at fault for not turning himself in.
On Monday, May 5, a circuit court hearing is scheduled in Charleston, Mo., to consider a new petition on Anderson’s behalf. The petition seeks to require the Missouri Department of Corrections to credit Anderson for the 13 years he was technically at large.
Koster told NBC News in a statement that his goal was to suggest a way for the court to balance the seriousness of the crime, the clerical error and Anderson's life in the years since the crime.
Megaro also has filed a separate petition seeking Anderson's release and has requested clemency from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
During the interview, Snow asked Anderson, “You must understand that there are people who think, ‘You did the crime ... you serve your time.’ ... What do you say to that?”
“I never said I shouldn’t serve my time,” Anderson answered. “I just said that I should have served it then, and (13 years) was too much. ...
“I shouldn’t have to serve it out now because I feel the last 14 years of my life speak for itself.”
Anderson told Snow that he long ago stopped being the drinking, partying, “selfish” young man he was in 1999.
“When you drink, you're not yourself,” he said. “Alcohol is — is a demon drug ... I had to cut that out, because every time I drank I wasn't myself. ...
“I gave my life to the Lord and he changed my mindset, gave me a new heart — changed my mind about the way I was living, the way I thought about things. And I just — I became a man.”
He said the crush of media attention in recent months has been “overwhelming” and “embarrassing” — in large part because he hates thinking of his wife struggling to support their four young children by herself while he’s behind bars.
“It makes me feel like I've abandoned my job as a father and a husband,” he told Snow.
He said he also constantly worries about what his kids are thinking, feeling and dealing with at school.
“I just want to tell them I love them,” Anderson said. “Daddy would never do anything to hurt you guys or do anything to jeopardize seeing you. ...
“Just know that Daddy'll be home soon. And just keep praying, and keep hope.”