Former inmate establishes scholarship fund for students with incarcerated parents

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WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- In the 1980s, he was a drug dealer put away for attempted murder, but today, a West Valley City man is making good on his past by paying it forward.

“I ended up doing about an even 20 years, counting parole,” Karl Winsness said.

He was sent to prison in 1988 for attempted criminal homicide of a police officer.

“They served a no-knock warrant; I fired two warning shots,” Winsness said. “I fired two more shots as I retreated. One of the officers on the other side of the wall got wounded.”

While Winsness was behind bars, his two daughters didn’t have it so easy.

“They were kind of left on their own,” he said. “It was hard.”

Decades later, he decided to make up for the lost time. Using his plumbing business, he started funding an operation on the side, known as The Willy the Plumber Scholarship, a foundation titled after his nickname, Willy.

“If you get a divorce or a parent dies, you get Social Security or benefits from Social Security, or you get child support from the divorce: If you go to prison, you get nothing,” Winsness said.

With the help of community donations, his foundation seeks to fund college scholarships for the children of inmates.

“It’s probably turning negatives into positives,” Winsness said.

The scholarship provided $3,500 in scholarships for Utah students in 2013, including Mariah Williamson, a freshman at the University of Utah.

“You really are like the shadow of your parents that are incarcerated because people just assume you’re going to be the apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree and end up like her,” Williamson said.

The social work major was mostly raised by her grandmother, while her mother served time behind bars.

“She’s done major things, like armed robbery at a bank, forgery, theft, identity theft,” Williamson said.

Along with receiving a full scholarship to the U, Winsness’ foundation provided her with a $1,000 scholarship.

“The U was always my goal,” Williamson said. “I always dreamed of coming up here and being the biggest U.”

Next year, her cousin will be joining her on campus.

“I used to live with my mom when I was little, and she was in jail most of my childhood, I guess you could say,” said Selena Montoya, who hopes to major in biology.

For them, college never seemed possible. But now, they’re leading new lives for themselves.

“I’m so proud of my little cousin for wanting to pursue her dreams and coming past her mom’s trials and tribulations, herself,” Williamson said.

While Winsness was once not much different from their parents, he’s using his life after prison to make a difference in the lives of others.

“When I’m long gone and buried, I think this will still be going,” Winsness said.

All donations made to the Willy the Plumber Scholarship are handled by the Community Foundation of Utah. If you would like to help, you can find more information by clicking here.



  • Ace

    This dick shot a cop. and has never once owned up to it. He wasted hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars in lawsuits against the county and state while behind bars. While the deputy he shot survived, yes. but his life never the same.. I hope he burns in Hell.

  • Karl

    Tell the TRUTH it was a NO-knock/ NO Announce forced entry and armed assault. What would you do if some armed thugs were kicking in your door; doing a Home invasion on you? Would you even fire the first two warning shots or pause before firing the next two shots?

  • Trish Ramirez

    These poor criminals wouldn’t be jail if it wasn’t for all the thug cops arresting everyone… Let me criminal friends go! Who cares if they take drugs and try to kill people in court, they are my buds.

  • C

    Willy can’t change his past. No do-overs available there. However what he has chosen to do is impact the future of children. Those children will impact all our futures. How many other “criminals” make the choice to give back in this way? As a teacher, I can assure you that children left behind by incarcerated parents often lead lives of quiet pain and hopelessness. At least Willy actively does something to help.

  • Karl

    You seem to know the shot officer. Ask him what REALLY happened that night. And if he is really a ‘Good Cop’ as in honest (not “Good” as in covering for his “brothers”) to come forward – it’s been 26 years, now. PS nobodies lives are the same after something like that (the families, kids…) but he could come clean and try to make it right.

  • brent

    If the system really worked this man would have never seen the light of day after killing a police officer!!!! And I don’t care how much he says he has conformed, he is a murderer and should have never been released from prison. The system is so screwed up and our goverment is to blame! I work with career criminals daily and k
    now first hand that the public has know idea what their tax dollars are being spent on and would be outraged if they knew.

    • Karl

      I can already tell you I’m outraged that my tax dollars are paying you [your attitude and lack of attention]. He did Not kill a police officer, he actually did everything in his power not to kill anyone, by first firing two warning shots, paused and then only fired two more shots in retreat from an armed assailant [that just happened to have a badge]. So if you work with “career criminals” and cops you know that cops can/will out lie a criminal every time.

  • Cindy mcclees

    Do you punish your child for a life time or would you start fresh tomorrow and hope for a better day

  • Natasha

    While all of this is well and good…. maybe I’ll go to prison so my kids can get a free ride to college. Other hard working parents who help their kids pay hundreds of thousands in student loans don’t really matter. lol (The man is doing a nice thing, but for some reason something about it just feels a little off. It’s making these kids of prisoners victims. I’m not okay with that.)

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