These are accounts of ten angry young men with nothing to lose. Mayhem at home, drugs and alcohol, gang warfare, drive-by shootings, armed robbery — even murder — and always stints behind bars with a dark promise of more to come.
Then always some prudent insight hit home and suddenly there began a turnaround. One young man, serving time for second-degree murder, called his moment of insight an epiphany.
With the help of volunteer attorney-mentors acting through a statewide organization called Volunteers in Parole, each man interviewed for this story has attempted to transcend the stuff of personal tragedy. Not all of these stories have happy endings, but for all of them, these are the second acts.
The profile of a juvenile under the lock-down supervision of the California Youth Authority is a young man or woman who is failing in school, has been raised in a dysfunctional family, and is involved in substance abuse and is therefore mentally disordered. The majority (96 percent) are male. The age range is 12 to 25.
The California Youth Authority, however, may come late in the career of a delinquent. When a young person commits a crime, depending upon its severity, he may face no more than a reprimand from a police officer or find himself ordered by a judge to informal probation. The juvenile justice system prides itself on working with a young person and the structures that are already in place — the home, the school, and the larger community. But if these structures fail and the young person continues in illegal activities, he faces formal probation. There follows a variety of lockdown placements at Juvenile Hall or county camps. The facilities offer encouragement for the young person to alter his behavior. If upon release from one of these settings, however, he continues his illegal activities, he may graduate out of the county system into the state-run California Youth Authority.
The California Youth Authority was created in 1941, and in 1943 the agency began to operate the state’s “reform schools.” The largest juvenile offender agency in the nation, the Youth Authority now has 5984 young people in institutions and camps, and 4300 more on parole.
During the 1950s and 1960s, guided by the premise that youthful offenders should not be housed with hardened adult prisoners, the agency built more facilities. Today, there are 12 located throughout the state, and like other parts of the criminal justice system, they have been subject to overcrowding, staff abuses, and media criticism.
According to a December 24, 1999, article in the Los Angeles Times, 40 percent of Youth Authority wards live in “open dorms with quaint names.… But most have left petty theft far behind. Nearly two-thirds of the prisoners are committed for violent crimes such as rape, murder, and assault, compared with the 47% who were violent offenders just a decade ago. About 44% require special handling for some mental dysfunction. Gang affiliation and racial animus are rampant.”
The enactment in 1999 of legislation that required certain 16-year-old offenders to be charged as adults, and the passage in March 2000 of Proposition 21, making the prosecution of certain 14-year-olds as adults easier, the Times article continues, brought the “juvenile justice evolution full circle.”
For the past 16 years, Jim Pauley has watched this “tough on crime” mood grow. From his office on Texas Street in Mission Valley, he serves as the San Diego program director for Volunteers in Parole (VIP). His job of matching attorneys to mentees requires him to set things up and then get out of the way so the volunteer attorney and the new parolee can begin to form their relationship. This matchmaker says, “What we do may be a pretty small cog in the overall picture, but any influence on a person’s life can have a tremendous impact, and I see that happening all the time.”
Volunteers in Parole was founded in 1972 and brought to San Diego three years later. The program matches volunteer attorney-mentors one-on-one with Youth Authority parolees. Over the course of nearly 30 years, the program has helped more than 3500 troubled young adults become self-reliant, self-respecting, self-supporting, and crime-free. Research indicates that the program, with its support base of 200 mentor volunteers, has helped reduce the rate of recidivism among participants by more than 50 percent. This is no mean statistic. When weighed against the price tag recidivism means to the state, the drain it is on society, and the personal costs paid by the individual who returns to criminal behavior (as well as the cost to his/her victims and their families), the savings are inestimable.
Pauley, tall and thin, with the genial air of a Gary Cooper paired with the movie star looks of Kevin Costner, sends information about Volunteers in Parole to upcoming parolees while they are still incarcerated. Each year he interviews about 150 young men and women released on parole. Half sign up for the program, and about half of those go on to become official “matches” (when an attorney and a parolee meet face-to-face at least two times). On behalf of Volunteers in Parole, Pauley speaks before lawyer groups and civic organizations, sets up the annual awards banquet, and manages fund-raising events — all in the hope that a kid might make a turnaround.
Many of the parolees Pauley sees have grown up under horrific circumstances. Those willing to change course must often do so in the face of years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, drug and alcohol addictions, and lousy school histories. With little money and few contacts, too often new parolees return to the same environments that spawned them.
“What some of these kids have gone through is unbelievable,” says Pauley.
He reviewed one case in which a father filled his child’s bottle with LSD. In another, a father wrapped a plastic bag around his three-day-old son’s head and blew in marijuana smoke; later, the father abused the child sexually and physically. Then there was the case of the 5-year-old whose father took him along on crime sprees. The next year, the kid was hooked on marijuana, and by the age of 12, he was going without sleep for a week because of his rock cocaine habit. According to Pauley, the youngster’s need for drugs was so intense that he attempted suicide. “It was the only way he knew to free himself from the craving.”
And on it goes.
One parolee’s father was a pimp and a drug dealer. Another parolee, at four, watched his father commit a murder, then a year later lost his mother when she was pushed from a moving car and died. In another case, the parolee’s mother was a prostitute and his father her customer. The woman had five children by different men, and the family lived with 27 other people in a two-bedroom apartment. By the age of 12, the youngster had taken to the streets. Some young people have spent years being starved; some suffer from chronic malnutrition.
And on it goes.
Kids from stable backgrounds are less likely to go into crime, but dysfunction comes in all racial shades and from all socioeconomic classes. Pauley recalls one parolee whose mother was a Ph.D. cancer researcher and his father the president of a large corporation. “Meanwhile, the young man had been sexually abused by his older brother from the age of 3. By the time he was 14, he had a lot of anger.”
Pauley often sees delinquency linked to a failure in parenting. It is a cautionary formula he takes personally. For himself, he says, “The most important thing I do is the way in which I treat my wife and children.” Pauley’s wife, Catherine, is a third-grade teacher, and together they are raising their nine-year-old daughter and four- and seven-year-old sons in a bilingual household where Spanish and English are spoken.
“We want our children to get a sense of how complex the world is and to have some of the skills to participate in its multiplicity. We see that as our job.”
Pauley heads Volunteers in Parole with the same attention to detail that he brings to his role as husband and father. And just as he sees that the overall goal of partners and parents is to engage in loving and responsible behavior that influences all parties within the family, so he points to what his work is meant to do. It is a simple prescription: reduce crime and violence in the world.
“New parolees come into my office defensive and wary. San Diego hosts one of the few VIP pen pal programs, and they may have participated in that, but when we meet face-to-face, I explain that although we are housed in the same building as the county’s parole officers, VIP has nothing to do with the California Youth Authority. What we do is strictly voluntary.”
New parolees are told involvement with Volunteers in Parole will make no difference on their records. But it may, Pauley says, help make a difference in their lives. He describes their mentor, scholarship, and community-education programs; he mentions the free tickets the group gets to movies and sporting events.
“They have to understand that they have a right to the privileges of living in society. I explain that they can get up in the middle of the night and go to the refrigerator, get a license and drive a car, get a good job, and wear nice clothes. They have a right to expect that they will not be injured or hurt. And they must understand that they cannot hurt or injure others.”
Pauley is specific on this point. By “not hurting people anymore,” he explains, he means neither physically nor financially nor emotionally.
“If they can commit to this, I tell them that we’ll help them any way we can.”
In the classes on criminal justice that Pauley teaches as an adjunct professor at San Diego State University, he puts it to his students that if the goal is to keep innocent people from being victimized, there are only three choices. “Our first choice is to kill the criminal, and the second is lock them away forever. But, clearly, as neither of these is going to keep the vast majority of former offenders from eventually returning to society, we are left with the third and only feasible option. This is to treat the new releases in ways that insure they will not hurt people again.
“This means that we have to provide them with ways of handling the incredible stresses that occur once they leave incarceration. We have to help and support them in their efforts to find employment. We need to make schooling available to them. Many parolees have nowhere to go, and we need to help them find places to live. Finally, many are returning to the same communities and the same relationships that helped to put them behind bars in the first place. We need to work with them on their people skills, their relationships.”
Pauley has a favorite story of a young parolee he met in 1984 — one of his first relationships in the program — for whom all the right circumstances came together. (In this account, like a few others, names and details have been changed where requested. Those asking for anonymity cite the possibility of gang reprisal, embarrassment of family members, and fear of problems in the workplace.)
In 1985, Jamal Mars won VIP’s outstanding achievement award, and four years later, Pauley was on hand to walk Mars’s fiancée down the aisle of a tiny Catholic chapel in National City.
Mars, now 36, never knew his black father and had a love-hate relationship with his white mother. His run-ins with the law began early. When he was 5, he slammed another child against the head with his lunch box and was sent to a foster group home. For the four years he was there, he says, he “lived under an administrative structure set up to get me to sit at a certain place, to eat at a certain time, to go to bed. When I got out, no single person had the skills or the muscle to take over the duties of 20 paid staff, so I ran the streets and got into trouble.”
He was sent to Green Valley Ranch in Ramona. Upon his release, his violent, antisocial behavior reappeared and escalated. He was sent to mental institutions; he was put on drugs. Nothing worked.
There were petty skirmishes with the law, auto thefts. Finally, he and four others forced a driver and passenger out of a car at gunpoint. The carjacking led to a high-speed chase and their capture. Mars, a hard-core member of the Neighborhood Crips, spent three years at a Youth Authority facility. By the time he was 19, he had spent more than half his life locked up.
Mars’s institutional experiences were reflected in the December 24, 1999, Los Angeles Times piece. Mark Gladstone and James Rainey write that the Youth Authority’s “mission to rehabilitate and train wards of the state has been supplanted by a culture of punishment, control and, sometimes, brutality.” Citing dozens of interviews and internal Youth Authority documents, they write that “hundreds of sexual predators, drug addicts, and mentally ill inmates routinely go without prescribed therapy. Hundreds more, including suicidal inmates, are locked in cells 23 hours a day. Teenage wards often serve more time than their adult counterparts for similar crimes. And access to education, a traditional ticket out of the criminal world, is not assured.”
In 1984, on parole, Mars joined Volunteers in Parole and met his mentor.
Joe Rubin, now 64, had come to San Diego from his native Cleveland in 1969 to work with juveniles accused of crime. “When a child is accused of a crime,” he says, “they have a right to an attorney and the best representation available.” He took a job with Defenders Incorporated, a quasi public defender’s organization, and after a little more than a year went into private practice. He is in court almost every day and pays personal attention to every case because, he says, “My client’s liberty is on the line.”
It is not irrelevant to point out that when Rubin is not practicing law from his office in Banker’s Hill, he is playing a mean game of bridge. Twenty years ago, he made “life master” and four years later began to play with the Grand National Team. In the course of three tournaments, Rubin and his team have come in second, third, and fourth in the nation. He plays bridge every Thursday and relishes the thrill of thinking logically, planning ahead, and figuring out stratagems that playing the game well requires. Rubin acknowledges that he is tremendously competitive. He brought this instinct into his relationship with Jamal Mars. Both are large men who share a brawny physical presence and a powerful drive to make their mark. This shared instinct has helped them overcome differences in background and education.
Like Mars, Rubin has a rich appetite for life. He is a voracious reader (science fiction, spy novels, autobiographies like Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, as well as classics like the Iliad and the Odyssey). He has hosted, to date, nine foreign exchange students (from France, China, Russia, Australia, Brazil, and Scandinavia). Rubin and his family are Conservative Jews, whose religious tenets support the concept of a diverse and ecumenical world. He does not apologize for being an old-time liberal who seeks to make real Martin Luther King’s dream of a color-free society. Mars has said that it was from spending time around Rubin and his family “that I have learned to treat other people differently than the way I used to act toward them.”
Mars talks before high school and college groups and has served on the Volunteers in Parole advisory board and re-entry committee. However, he feels that most of the effort comes too late, when the kid has already had a history of trouble.
“But no matter what is offered, or when, the reality is that the person has to be ready. If they’re not ready, nothing will help.”
Today, Mars and his wife own a business that was bankrolled by a friend from Volunteers in Parole. (“He’ll never say that. He’s that kind of guy.”) The business is thriving, but the couple claim their greatest success is their 15-year-old son, a top student and a star athlete.
“I love them to death,” says Mars, speaking of his family. “They have made my world for me.”
In 1999, Mars and Joe Rubin were honored with the Lifetime Contribution Award from Volunteers in Parole.
“Thanks for coming to our class. You guys were a great influence on all of us. Now I am certain that I will never join a gang or get involved in crime.”
(Letter from a grateful student)
Steve Diamond thinks the world of Jim Pauley. (“He’s a great guy and he’s doing great work.”) He had mistakenly thought that Pauley and he were alumni from Southern Illinois University (Pauley is a Southern boy who did his undergraduate and graduate work in Kentucky), but that was about Diamond’s only mistake in his work with Volunteers in Parole. At least according to Jason Robo, who feels he can do almost no wrong.
When I speak with Diamond in August, it happens to be his 36th birthday. Robo has just departed from Diamond’s Poway office after giving him a small gift, and the attorney is left to field calls until it is time to close shop and drive home, where his wife Nancy and their eight-month-old son Derek are waiting. In the meantime, the birthday boy, with fraternity-boy good looks, talks as if he has all the time in the world.
He found out about the program, he says, from a flyer. “I’d already done some volunteer work in reading and literacy back in Chicago, but it was not satisfying because it didn’t seem to go deep enough.”
Diamond and his law partner, Richard E. Chang, were colleagues in a large Chicago firm and were feeling “the yoke of the corporate master” when they decided to make a run for it. “A Chinaman and a Jew,” he says with laughing irreverence. The friends chose San Diego to build their practice.
Diamond, who likes to recall dates, arrived here on August 28, 1998. Since then, he and Chang have been building up their practice. It is a climb, but Diamond enjoys the challenge.
“I call myself a plodder. Maybe there’s a brighter guy in the room, but let me in there.” He smiles, his blue eyes shining. “I go on responsibility and self-motivation, and I get the job done.”
Jason Robo has been to Diamond’s house for dinner. They have spent time working together in Diamond’s back yard, leveling the ground and building a spa and expanding the driveway. Clearing space, building, expanding — while the symbolism may be lost on Robo, a 20-year-old with energy to burn, his delight in physical activity and the pride he takes in contributing to a job well done is obvious.
“It feels good working together,” he says. Diamond with Robo has the feel of a big-brother relationship.
For many Volunteers in Parole partners, sporting events and movies rank high, and these partners are no exception. They had seen Gladiator and Amores Perros. The first film, an account that includes mistaken identity, combat, and eventual requital, might easily describe the life of Jason Robo. But it is the second film, a story of violence and love gone bad, that speaks to the play of heated emotions upon which Jason Robo’s own story hinges. As is true for the characters in Amores Perros, Robo’s struggles are personal and his demons private.
Like Diamond, Robo, a young white man with brown hair and green eyes, has only recently come to San Diego. Born into a Navy family in Worcester, Massachusetts, he traveled with his parents and two younger brothers up and down the East Coast before arriving in Southern California in September 1999.
Robo dates the onset of what he calls his “troublemaker” role to the age of four. His mother refused to buy him a Voltron toy that he wanted, “so I walked out of the store with it,” he says.
The next year, in school and under clinical observation, he was diagnosed as hyperactive and put on medication. The medication did not help and was discontinued. Robo remained a handful. A bright kid assigned to school programs for the gifted, he was often in fights or as likely to throw a fit. At age 9, he was put in therapy. For the next seven years, until he was 16, he would undergo psychological counseling.
“I just didn’t like listening to people,” he says, his tough-guy voice harsh and unequivocal. “They had a clinical term for me. I was described as being ‘oppositionally defiant.’ ”
The screws tightened when he was 14. After punching his brother, his father had him locked up in the holding cell at the local courthouse. He was then transferred to a detention center and from there to a group home. Upon his release to his parents, a counselor was assigned to do on-site intervention.
Robo recalls the experience of being locked up with bitterness. “My father didn’t tell me anything about what was happening. He just said, ‘Let’s go!’ and then the next thing I know, I’m down at the courthouse.”
If Robo is perhaps ill-advised to label himself a troublemaker for walking out of a store with a toy, he seems equally unable to recognize what seems to me obvious: that an unusually bright kid, with a hair trigger on his emotions and defiant to the point of earning a clinical label, might easily ignite family tensions until everyone feels that his or her back is against the wall. Indeed, it is hard not to sympathize with his parents. Yet, does the bitter tone I hear stem from the fact that Robo Sr. had him locked up, or is Robo hurt that he trusted his father, went where he ordered him to go, and when that was a locked cell, felt himself betrayed?
In J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 Booker Prize–winning novel Disgrace, the novel’s protagonist doesn’t defend his behavior in sleeping with one of his students, but he does defend his right to his desire. He recounts how a dog was beaten by its owners whenever it got excited by the proximity of a bitch in heat. “This went on until the poor dog didn’t know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide.” The protagonist says that he despaired before this spectacle.
“No animal will accept the injustice of being punished for following its instincts.… What was ignoble…was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature.”
However harsh the note in Robo’s voice, an even harsher note seems reserved for self-criticism. It is a voice scraped raw of youthful indecision, and gentleness. If there is any evidence of emotional abuse, I think it can be found here. It is hard to separate fair parental criticism from remarks made by someone with a history of being “oppositionally defiant.” Jason Robo never mentions emotional or psychological abuse, but he is clearly and achingly vulnerable, a kid whose feelings are easily hurt, a teenager wanting to trust and fearing its consequences. He might be a pain in the rear, but did Robo come by this angry wanting on his own?
That he is a “bad kid,” a mess-up, the one certain to be where there is trouble — these are old tapes looped to play over and over again in his head. They tell some part of the story, but not all of it. The portion left untold is also the most insidious: when someone loves, yet feels unloved in return, if he tells himself he is unworthy of love, oddly enough, this reasoning offers a degree of comfort. It is a way by which people make peace with their unhappy worlds. This is insidious because it is unconscious and thus likely to play itself out in many guises and over an extended period of time.
Robo goes on:
“When I came back home, things were okay for a while, but my brothers knew they could do just about anything because I was told I couldn’t touch them. Anyway, one day, my brother is pushing my buttons and I whacked him on the side of the head.”
The counselor assigned to monitor family interactions happened to be there. It is arguable that the youngster unconsciously chose the moment when the counselor was present because, with unusual insight, he knew he needed to be removed from the home. Certainly, he had earlier found information on a voluntary program for at-risk youngsters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and now asked to be sent there. After undergoing a 30-day observation period, he was deemed a good candidate for the program of self-help and personal motivation. He was discharged a year later.
“You’re supposed to show initiative and leadership, but I did the minimum. Instead of advancing in the program, I was hanging out with some of the bad kids. I started smoking and drinking. Instead of getting better, I got worse.”
At Virginia Beach, protocol was emphasized — how to speak respectfully, how to appropriately express appreciation, how to open a door for someone. “I came back home, that was what I was doing. I’d open the door for my mother, to show respect.” This change in behavior helped make his return pleasant. “But I could not escape my past,” he says. “If there was a simple conflict and I expressed my opinion, my parents would say that I hadn’t changed, that I was never going to change.”
Because his family didn’t have faith in him, by his own account, Robo stopped trying to please them.
“Do you think your parents love you?” I ask.
He freezes with uncertainty, does not pick up on the question, and continues with his story.
In July 1998, Robo went to live with his maternal grandmother, and here things began to seriously unwind. He dropped out of one school and was dismissed from another. “I asked for more challenging work,” he says, but he was expelled when a teacher accused Robo of threatening him after finding something Robo had written and left on his computer. (Robo says he was offended that his privacy had been invaded but fails to consider the inappropriateness of writing a threatening note in the first place. “It didn’t mean anything,” he says, “but he read it and I was out.”)
Robo took to coming home late at night. He ran with a tough gang, sold drugs, and got into fights. His grandmother, he says, was requested to set up a court date for him, and she did. “But she didn’t tell me, so I didn’t go because how was I to know?”
Robo’s world was coming undone. He speaks, for example, of a gun-toting friend whom he invited into his grandmother’s home and who wheedled his way into the older woman’s affections. “He jeopardized my relationship with her,” Robo says, insulted. This was coming from a 16-year-old who was taking his grandmother’s car without asking (hence called “theft”), keeping his own hours, doing drugs, running with a rough bunch, and inviting a pal with a gun into an elderly woman’s home. Was this a screwed-up teenager going through a bad phase or an expression of what might be called a metaphysical, spiritual disease?
“It was my grandmother who called the cops on me,” he says.
Picked up, he was cited for gang-related activity, missing his court date, stealing a car, and driving without a license. “But I’m grateful to her because it was a good thing I got locked up.” In hindsight, he recognizes that he was out of control and heading for serious trouble. He also expresses gratitude to his father’s parents. “They visited me every week, and they never gave up on me.”
Jason Robo reserves a special note of gratitude to Judge George F. Leary, First Justice of Worcester Juvenile Court. In the course of a long career on the bench, Judge Leary had come to see that the high rate of recidivism might be reduced by the adoption, in certain cases, of alternatives to traditional incarceration. Judge Leary may have seen something special in Robo, for he had his charges reduced and ordered him to undergo extensive testing. Robo was then sent to a specialized treatment center for wayward youth. It seemed to make the difference. At the end of six months, in 1999, Robo left to join his family, which had moved to San Diego. He had written his own lengthy aftercare plan.
“In my home time I will spend the majority of my time trying to repair the damage done to the relationships with my siblings and my parents. To do so I will spend time with my brothers talking about the things in life and the lessons I’ve learned, in doing so I will prepare my 14-year-old brother Nick for life and its trials ahead. The worst consequence of my actions is the fact that I’ve lost the majority of respect and trust that all of my family members have had in me. Therefore, I will do all I can to repair the damage that I have done and do what I can do around the house to show my family that I am dedicated to making things right in my life.”
Robo wrote that he hoped to go out for sports in high school but that this would not be a priority “due to employment that I will immediately be searching for upon reaching California.”
Today Robo has a job in retail. His plans to live with his family did not work out. Much of Robo’s social development (like that of most of the men interviewed here) seems to have been put on hold. In writing up his aftercare plan, Robo had addressed that sense of missed opportunity:
“My education is gonna be a definite challenge to get back on track. The majority of my junior year has been dedicated to negative aspects of life and this year I will do the opposite of last year. I’m getting a chance to start over in a brand new school where nobody is aware of my past and the path I have previously taken earlier in my life. I am currently at the 10th grade level since I have been out of school basically for a year so it will be trying for me to get back on track and graduate in 2001. I am one year behind and will repeat my junior year. I am no longer eligible to be in my graduating class of 2000 so unfortunately those are the consequences of my actions. Sports is not a necessity but it is to be desired if I have the grades and have the free time to contribute to my school. If possible I will join the National Honor Society and take AP college credit courses. A majority of my home time will be dedicated to studying to do whatever it takes to become recognized by colleges and possibly receive a scholarship.”
With the exception of living with his family and the purchase he hoped to make of a $10,000 Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle (Mike Diamond supported a decision to instead buy a metallic blue 1994 Pontiac Sunbird with a V-6 engine), Robo went on to meet all his challenges. Sporting a gold-and-brown varsity uniform, he played defensive linebacker for the Conquistadors, Serra High School’s football team. His 4.0 grade point average as a junior and 4.3 average in the first half of his senior year qualified him for the academic distinction of Key Club member. He took advance placements in biology, European history, and English. He received a Cal Grant and a Governor’s Scholar’s Award, for which only 5 percent of California’s graduating seniors qualify. Daily, he works from 6:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the evening, then rushes home, changes, and is in class at Mesa College until 10:00 p.m.
Robo visits his parents’ home once a week to pick up his mail. He tells me that he’s shared his schedule with his father.
“He called it insane,” he says. “He told me I couldn’t possibly keep it up, and that if I did, he wouldn’t believe me anyway.”
In his review of Amores Perros, critic Michael Woods writes that when things seem to be going well and none of the characters are suffering physical harm, there is always the likely spectacle of characters verbally abusing one another. Woods writes of their rage that it flared up out of “depths of forgotten angers and resentments.”
According to Woods, the characters know how to ask the right questions and are never deceived about goodness. “But this doesn’t save them from their mistakes. Perhaps they’re not interested in being saved, since everything suggests that their mistakes are who they are.”
Jason Robo is eager to make sure that his mistakes don’t define him. Steve Diamond says that next term, he and Robo will start looking into good four-year colleges that offer scholarships.
According to March 2000 statistics on the California Youth Authority population, Latinos top the list at 49 percent, followed by African-Americans (29 percent), Caucasians (14 percent), Asians (5 percent), and others (3 percent). Where does someone of mixed race fit in?
At six feet, and weighing 220 pounds, Keith Larson has his Scandinavian father’s body and his Filipino mother’s small, pretty features. His name is Anglo, and he is often mistaken for Mexican, with his spiky black hair, cut short and brushed straight back. But he identifies as a Filipino (and would have checked that box on the Youth Authority race survey). “Family,” he says, making a point, “is very important in the Filipino community.”
Married and the proud father of two-year-old Keith Jr., Larson drives a red SUV Toyota 4Runner to his job as a licensed loan officer and financial consultant. His job allows him and his wife to squirrel away a goodly amount each month toward the down payment on a home in Mira Mesa. In the meantime, Larson, 24, continues to live not far from his childhood home in Paradise Hills, the scene of his violent youth.
I’d first seen Keith Larson in January 2001, at the 26th annual VIP Awards Banquet, where his mentor, Randy Rechs, presented him with an achievement award. After being introduced as the first mentee in the history of Volunteers in Parole to have his own Roth IRA, Larson stepped up to the podium and said a few things that were pleasantly impudent. He left the stage that afternoon on a wave of appreciative laughter and applause, but eight months later, Larson writhed at the memory.
“The problem is that when I get nervous, I wise off,” he said, anxious to explain. He had asked Jim Pauley if he could have another go next year. “I want a chance to say what I really think, how glad I am, and how lucky I feel to be here.”
Pauley had promised to give him a second chance. In the meantime, Larson enjoys popularity with friends and colleagues. He is expansive, with a powerful masculine bluff seasoned with a keen sensibility that can only be described as feminine. It is a pleasing mix. Larson’s family is proud of him. His manner is agreeable, and his mollifying Anglo name may have helped to open some doors and grease some wheels on his climb up from a broken home in Southeast San Diego to middle-class respectability, but in the end the question remains: exactly how is it that today’s model citizen was yesterday’s gang member, a kid who took drugs in junior high, a teenager who carried guns to high school, a thug who held up strangers at gunpoint?
“Don’t ask me!” Larson shakes his head in wonder and uncertainty. “I just think how different everything would be if one of those times I’d pulled the trigger.”
Randy Rechs is an inch taller than Larson. They make a good physical match, like a pair of salt and pepper shakers. But where Larson still has a young man’s need to claim turf, 32-year-old Rechs has graduated on to the self-effacing demeanor of a successful lawyer.
“I joined VIP because I wanted to work with kids who hadn’t gotten many breaks. I wanted to help make a difference,” he says.
Born in Sacramento, Rechs spent many of his summers with his grandparents in San Diego before his parents moved with him to Louisiana. The youngest of three children, Rechs was once a tennis whiz (in 1986, he won Louisiana’s high school doubles’ championship), but upon his return to San Diego, as a freshman at SDSU, he stopped playing competitively after suffering an injury. He now plays tennis recreationally and also enjoys pickup games of basketball, baseball, and football. Rechs and Larson play football in an informal lawyer’s league and attend sports events.
The matches that work well play off each person’s strengths. Rechs has helped Larson transfer the focus and energy he uses in catching a ball and racing down a field to his daily life. Larson makes it all look easy — part of his bluff card — but it cannot have been.
His father was an alcoholic. When his parents separated, his mother joined Al-Anon, a complement to Alcoholics Anonymous. She hoped to find there a guide to handling her two sons. Certainly Adam, the older brother, was a handful; but Keith was a more serious matter. At 12, when he was a student at Bell Junior High School, he stole a gun.
“I just always liked guns,” he says.
After a year’s probation, he took to smoking marijuana, ingesting speed (methamphetamine), and snorting PCP, the substance feared by police officers for its power to make the user feel dangerously invulnerable. It was an easy slide into truancy and gang-related behavior. Kicked out of Morse High School, he was transferred to Mission Bay.
“Changing schools made me feel insecure. I only felt safe there if I was armed.”
He carried a .357 magnum and a sawed-off shotgun, both loaded.
His small arsenal of weapons was never discovered, but he was expelled for truancy and for threatening the staff. He was sent to Metro Continuation School on El Cajon Boulevard. At 16, he dropped out and started robbing people.
“I’d drive around late at night, mostly in the Bonita area, watching for someone getting out of their car. Then I’d get in close. Holding a weapon on a person,” says Larson, “was a power thrust, a way of control.”
Apprehended, he was charged with seven felony counts (for robbery and assault, because he used a gun) and tried in adult court.
Behind bars from May 1994 through December 1998, he spent most of his time at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility at Camarillo. Arguably the best facility in the system, among its lesser-known benefits was a population of young female juvenile offenders who were housed separately but nearby. Larson says that the chance to glance at a girl gave him a taste of the world outside the facility. This, he says, was important.
Inmates at Ventura were able to earn minimum wage working in responsible jobs. For example, a small staff of specially selected inmates took overflow calls to TWA, offering flight information and making reservations.
Larson was sent to Ventura because he scored high on the placement test given to incoming detainees. At Ventura, he finished high school at the same time his friends at Morse High were graduating, and he went on to complete 45 college credits.
I ask what made the difference for him.
“I guess it helped that I was smart. I mean, I scored high on my placement test, and so I got to take high school and college courses. And then my family came to see me. They never let me down. They said they believed in me. And then at Ventura,” Larson smiles, “I’d see people driving up in nice cars and they’d be well dressed. I didn’t see that happening with gang-bangers, so it made sense to me to look on the other side and think that maybe that was where I wanted to be.”
At Ventura, as in any youth facility, there were the usual early “proof-of-turf” fights. Larson carried himself well and credits the ease with which he moved through Ventura to the fact that he hung out with black inmates.
“We just got along,” he says, reflecting on his decision not to hang with Filipinos or Mexicans. While his former classmates at Morse High were going on dates and applying to colleges, Larson and his friends, in that stage of early and most vigorous youth, were participating in behaviors appropriate to survival in their own tough — even harsh — world.
“We’d have punching matches, just to have something to do. You never hit somebody in the face, otherwise it was very serious: you meant to hurt the other guy. I’d never learned to fight before I got to the facility — I just pointed a gun — but there I learned how to make my moves.”
After being released and returned to San Diego, Larson was sometimes tempted to use his new fighting skills. Once he was cornered by members from a rival gang at the beach, but he handled the situation. “Responsibly” was the word used by his parole officer, Edward Garcia. When parolees go back to their old neighborhoods, they face familiar perils — old friends who encourage a return to criminal behavior, rival gang members with long-standing grudges, and the awful airlessness engendered by boredom. Larson got through all of this.
“Now I’m strictly down,” he says, speaking of his life today. “And I’m ready.”
“Thank you so much for coming to our class yesterday. I really enjoyed your presentation. Your experiences and your willingness to share them has helped me to better understand the peer pressures that I feel and why so many kids give in to that pressure.”
Victoria Lopez and her Volunteers in Parole match, Jesus Cerda, both have unusually beautiful eyes. Hers are a deep green, his are an inky black and dominate a thin, ascetic countenance. Her eyes are fired by a quick, warm intelligence; his are soulful.
Victoria Lopez, at 53, looks ten years younger than her actual age. After graduating from UCLA, she worked as a television newsperson for KPIX and KQED in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her boyfriend, Marco Lopez, was a law student when they married. Inspired by César Chávez, Marco decided to work in civil rights. Victoria became a paralegal and worked with him. In 1986, they arrived in San Diego to represent Umberto Carrillo.
Afternoons, after school, Umberto Carrillo, 12, and his brother Eduardo liked to slip through the fence at the border. They’d hurry into McDonald’s, order hamburgers, then hurry back. Members of the Border Patrol who witnessed this regular occurrence seemed to look benevolently on the matter until one afternoon, when, as the youngsters made their way back through the fence, an officer tackled Eduardo and brought him to the ground. Umberto, already on the Mexican side, screamed at the officer to leave his brother alone. He scrambled for stones, throwing them; one of the Border Patrol officers aimed his revolver and shot. The bullet passed through Umberto’s body, barely missing a lung. He was rushed to the hospital and successfully operated on.
Marco and Victoria Lopez brought the Carrillo case to trial and won the first judgment ever against the Border Patrol in a civil action. Marco was interviewed later for the CBS Morning News and Prime Time; the publicity brought new cases, and the couple moved to San Diego in 1988 to be “closer to the action.” At about this time, their marriage, already on the rocks, went under and the couple divorced. Victoria found work as a legal secretary at a law firm for two years, and then as an adjunct professor at Southwestern College in Chula Vista until 1992, when she enrolled at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in Old Town. After graduating and passing the bar exam, she worked as an attorney. In 1999, she was hired full time at Southwestern College, where she coordinates the Paralegal Studies Program and teaches 12 of the 16 course offerings. Paralegal majors must take at least 8 of her classes, so she gets to know them well. In addition, Lopez is the faculty advisor to the Paralegal Club and has guided a few students on to law school.
“I love my job!” she says, speaking with unveiled enthusiasm. “Touching people’s lives, that’s what I want to do.”
Given her teaching load and extracurricular activities, how does she have time for her work with Volunteers in Parole?
“I make time!” says Lopez, a former member of La Raza Lawyers, a mentorship program for law students. Having already witnessed the benefits of mentoring, she signed up with Volunteers in Parole in 1997. She began corresponding with Jesus Cerda in 1999, while he was still incarcerated. They lost contact for a year while he was paroled to a halfway house in Los Angeles, then met in January 2001 when he returned to San Diego. They have been working together ever since.
“Do you want to know why I think Jesus is special? Because he is willing to take responsibility for his actions. Nothing more, nothing less. He realized that life is about making choices and that he made some bad ones. He wants to make good choices now. Every day, he makes a decision to choose the right path, to stay away from bad influences, not to drink, not to do drugs…”
While incarcerated, Cerda became a born-again Christian. He and Lopez sometimes attend Heart of God, a nondenominational church in Rancho Bernardo.
Jim Pauley offers his team of lawyer-mentors one bit of advice: “Encourage the young parolees with the simple statement, ‘I’m here for you.’ ” To this, Lopez adds, “I believe in you.”
Lopez and Cerda go to museums, the movies, and the zoo. Because of her antipathy for violent films, they see movies like Pay It Forward, in which a boy’s decision to do good deeds without any view to recompense sets off a chain of Good Samaritan acts.
“And I understand that,” says Lopez. “I have been very blessed in my life, and as the Bible says, ‘He who has much, much is required of him.’ ”
Jesus Cerda is 21 years old, of average height, and thin. His eyes, huge and dark, gaze with melancholic regard upon a world that he no longer terrorizes, yet that still seems to have the power to hurt him. For example, Cerda was ordered to leave his Lemon Grove home. His mother had allowed his sister to entertain boys there, but Cerda knew that some were gang members and he understood that even a casual association with gang members could be dangerous.
“Your sister can have anybody over she wants!” his mother told him. “She lives here! She belongs here! And you don’t!” Cerda’s mother ended the conversation by telling him to move out.
“They don’t understand,” he tells me, his eyes weary and haunted with dark experience. “They only see the fun stuff, the laughing and the music when people are just hanging out. They don’t see the violence that happens later, on the streets.”
Jesus Cerda was born in Brownsville, Texas, to young, newlywed parents. His father was a housepainter who found work easily. Cerda Sr. liked to pack up and take off when he felt like it. The family moved a lot. But by the time Jesus was three years old and his parents had found their way to San Diego, his father’s alcoholism and run-ins with the law had become a fact of life for their family. (When I spoke to Cerda, his father was in jail on charges of drug possession and parole violation.)
Cerda went to Vista La Mesa Elementary School and Lemon Grove Middle School, from which he was expelled in 1994 for participating in a race riot. He was just 13 years old, a mite of a guy, and already hooked up with a gang.
In the course of that melee, as police rushed to the scene, Cerda got ahold of a gun and fired it into the air. It was a loud statement that he was serious, a force to be reckoned with.
“Everything I do, I do it to the fullest,” he tells me.
It comes as a surprise that in telling his story, Cerda still speaks of rival gang members as “my enemy” or “the enemy.” Some lessons, it seems, are hard to unlearn.
We are sitting on a bench in Seaport Village. Cerda came off his night job two hours earlier and has waited for me, walking up and down the early-morning streets. “I like just walking,” he says, reflecting on his freedom.
Around us move young couples with their well-dressed children. The scene is bucolic, but Cerda has planted himself in his chair at an angle that allows him a quick and full view of all passersby. During our time together, he never relaxes his vigilance. He says something, answers a question, maybe offers an insight, then glances quickly over his shoulder before returning his attention to me.
“It’s the price you pay for leaving a gang,” he answers quietly when I point out his behavior. Not long ago he was a teenager. I notice that, already, his black hair has begun to turn gray.
“Probably from stress,” he explains.
After the race riot, Cerda was transferred to University Summit school on University Avenue. When he weighed school against doing “crystal” and kicking back with his friends, school came in a sorry second. Within a couple of months, he’d permanently dropped out.
“We didn’t listen to anybody,” he says, speaking of his gang.
Fights and gunfire, and at 14 Cerda was ordered to a year in Rancho del Campo, a county probation camp, where, for example, at set times of the day inmates were ushered into the toilet. Cerda says that if they didn’t manage to do their business within the allotted ten minutes, they had to wait or get locked in the toilet, which he remembers as a filthy place that smelled bad. Back in the dorm, if someone suddenly needed to go to the toilet, they’d push a button that alerted staff. “But the staff wouldn’t come right away. Sometimes it took a really long time, and if you couldn’t hold it, you dropped a towel into a corner and you peed on it. What else could you do? But when the staff came, then you’d get in trouble.”
Despite the unpleasantness, Cerda recalls the year with detachment.
“If you’re a gang member, you expect to do time. Up front, you know you’re probably going to have to sacrifice your freedom. You don’t think about being locked up. You figure that this is your home now. What you’re doing is ‘dead time.’ ”
But he earned respect at Rancho del Campo. “I came out somebody.”
Back at home, he was a hero. Friends from the neighborhood stopped by to welcome him. His first day in Lemon Grove coincided with the Old Time Days Parade. There were plenty of parties, and Cerda found himself the center of an admiring crowd. At one point, the marijuana low, he and three of his friends jumped in a car and drove off in search of more. They were followed by members of a rival gang who fired on them, then sped off. Cerda was hit in the elbow.
They returned to the party, where pandemonium broke out. Within minutes, angry youngsters jumped into cars — seven of them — and cruised the streets, eager for payback. But the streets were quiet that night.
Cerda had a girlfriend at the time whose mother had just gotten out of prison, while her father was still behind bars. Under pressure, the young woman got a tattoo indicating her affiliation with a gang that was a rival to Cerda’s. He and the girl broke up, and a month after the shooting, he was in a car with some buddies when they came upon the girl on her front porch with members of the rival gang. His friends wanted to fire on them, but Cerda convinced them not to. They’d have their chance soon enough.
A week later, his gang had rented a couple of rooms in a nearby Motel 6 for a “hotel party,” and Cerda was walking there when a car slid into a gas station. He spotted his assailant in the backseat. Cerda, holding a gun at his side, approached the driver, who was now filling the gas tank.
“Where you from?” Cerda demanded.
The youngster at the pump saw the gun and pleaded, “I believe in God!” as Cerda’s assailant pulled himself out of the back seat. “Fuck your neighborhood!” he yelled at Cerda, who had stepped away from the car. Cerda fired several shots. One hit the rival gang member in the knee. He fell over, screaming. Should he finish him off? Cerda stepped forward. It was, he recalls, a surreal moment. A peculiar silence had descended. He remembers looking across the street, where customers in the Jack in the Box pressed against the windows. The light was green, yet no traffic moved. Safe in their cars, drivers stared at him. And something snapped. Instead of firing the gun, he raced home and ditched it. (It would later find its way into the hands of a gang-banger friend.) Soon a helicopter was whipping the air overhead, and within 20 minutes, word was out that Cerda had done the shooting. His ex-girlfriend called his mother. “He shot my friend!” she screamed into the receiver.
The incident was for Cerda a chance to earn another stripe.
A week later, he was at his roofing job in Escondido when police officers tore through his house, looking for the weapon, traces of gunpowder, and anything else that might point to him as the gunman. When Cerda returned home from work that afternoon, all his clothing and shoes were gone, and the house was empty. Running to his cousin’s house ten minutes away, a police car coasted up next to him. “Are you Jesus Cerda?” asked the officer behind the wheel.
His soulful eyes turn hot as he describes taking off, fleeing the police, how he flashed across back yards in his Lemon Grove neighborhood, ducking down and hiding in the bushes.
“I was hiding outside my cousin’s house when the police caught me. They had the street blocked off,” he says, “and they were there, their guns pointed at me.”
Jesus Cerda is the first Volunteers in Parole mentee to have been awarded a full scholarship, valued at $40,000. The circumstances were clear: he was in need, he was bright, motivated, and deserving. Yet just a few years ago, he was behind bars, sentenced to a two-year program at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier. “But I ended up catching three years,” he says, “because of the fights.”
According to the December 24, 1999, L.A. Times article, “Wards typically have their sentences extended by the Youthful Offender Parole Board if they misbehave or fail to complete programs. The result of these ‘time adds’ is that youthful offenders spend more time incarcerated than their adult counterparts for almost every crime except murder, the agency’s records show.”
The fights, as Cerda sees it, were the usual domination routine that occurs. Inmates try to “punk” each other. The logic is simple. “I had stuff they wanted,” he says.
Goods like cigarettes and comic books are provided to inmates by families who visit or send spending money. But Cerda’s family never once visited him. And his friends were either busy out on the street or locked up behind bars like himself. So how did he accumulate goods?
“I convinced people to give me something for nothing. They trusted me.”
Sure, it is easy to trust Jesus Cerda, to like him and want the best for him. But I think he inspired fear. He was small, but he was mean, and he was probably a little crazy. A staff member at Nelles delivered him a severe but valuable piece of information. “You keep fighting and you can end up doing ten years here!”
Cerda makes a fist. His fingers are thin and well formed, with his gang name tattooed on the fingers below the top knuckle. “I can’t punch anymore, for sure,” he says, “but I got in so many fights that just making a fist and my finger goes out on me.”
“You can be a leader,” a counselor told him, “you don’t have to be a follower.” This observation came, Cerda says, at a time when he was “watching my homies getting locked up for robbery and murder.” And at one moment there was suddenly triggered in him a thought so extraordinary that it turned his world around: “I wanted respect for who I was, not for what I’d done.”
He took high school classes, and by the time he graduated, his exemplary behavior had earned him the right to transfer out of a dorm of 70 people and into one of the ten honor rooms that housed just 2 inmates.
“It was the diploma that made me see that I wanted the positive, not the negative,” he says.
In his third year at Nelles, he began correspondence with Victoria Lopez, his mentor. He was paroled out of Los Angeles and spent six months in a halfway house there. He admits that the experience tested him.
“And when I came back to Lemon Grove, I had to catch myself from sliding backward.”
Robert Kirschner, Earl Jackson, Ms. Phelps, Jim Pauley, and Victoria Lopez — these are the names of the professionals who have helped him turn his life around. “Make sure you get their names,” he says, shaking my hand. When I turn back, Cerda is 20 yards away, his earphones are on, and he is listening to a CD.
In the last movie he and Victoria Lopez saw, Pay It Forward, at the end the saintly young hero is stabbed by a couple of gang-banging middle-schoolers. I think of this while watching Cerda, who might be any young man out for a stroll, enjoying the blue sky overhead and the smell of the nearby ocean. But his shoulders are hitched high, and even from this distance and so very far away from the scene of his earlier life, he appears guarded and ready for any surprise.
A few weeks ago, Jesus Cerda was discovered working with others in a scam operation. While he once had so much to look forward to and had appeared to have won out over recidivism and a family history that was all but a one-way ticket to prison, Cerda has now lost what remains of his $40,000 scholarship and is likely to have his parole revoked. Currently behind bars and preparing to appear before a judge, he faces a term of incarceration in a county facility and up to a year in a state facility on revocation of his parole.
Downcast and utterly dejected, he spoke to Jim Pauley. “I’ve really blown it now,” he said. This, a question as much as a statement, invites a second and obvious question of why? Cerda, who had been turned out of his house and cut off from his community, mentioned to Pauley that he had not made one friend on campus during his year there. Perhaps the answer is simple. In the end, this street-smart kid, adrift in the suburbs and isolated at a suburban college, turned back to those he knew and spoke to them in a language that both understood.
“I am only 13, but I have already been ‘jumped’ a lot of times. Where I live, it’s hard to not join a gang, but once you’re in, it’s even harder. You guys have given me the strength to walk away.”
Ted Drcar and Larry Hoang (not his real name) both enjoy the play of identities. They like to wear masks. For example, Drcar (pronounced dr-KAR) works for McKenna & Cuneo, where he specializes in representing contractors engaged in construction projects. He has had eight Volunteers in Parole matches since 1995. At the same time, Drcar is a member of the National Rifle Association. (“The Second Amendment to the Constitution is an important part of our freedom,” he says. An organization like the NRA, he believes, helps keep the government in check. “And because the police cannot be everywhere at once, a gun is helpful in protecting yourself.”)
As if this dichotomy were not enough, Drcar (flamingly heterosexual with, at the time I spoke to him, a beautiful Vietnamese girlfriend) has marched in the local Gay Pride Parade, in the section reserved for parents and friends of gays and lesbians. In 1999, in a move unusual among attorneys, he grew a goatee and sideburns. However, the facial hair gave his keen features a slightly piratical look, so he shaved.
Weekends, Drcar can be found behind the wheel of his 2001 Chevy Camaro, a dark blue muscle machine he races in Solo II autocross events, sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America. With his car, #149, Drcar often places in the race. He gets a kick out of the fact that his license plate, which reads SOLO TWO, is an oxymoron. This is how his mind works. He enjoys attacking the convoluted problem (which is why he feels he is a good lawyer) as much as he is drawn to the edgy experience. He makes a good match with Hoang, who shares his interest in motorcycles and sports cars. While Ted Drcar is many things — a complex man of rich enthusiasms and sudden diffidence — he is no fool. He understands limits, even if he takes pleasure in extending them. One moment in which the fun almost turned nasty was in 1996 when Drcar attended the wake in East San Diego of a young gang member, an early match, who was killed, execution style.
“I was there to pay my respects, and while it was unclear who among the mourners were gang members and who were not, many of those at the service were clearly unhappy about the death of their friend. I looked around and discovered that I was the only person there who looked like ‘whitey,’ and it crossed my mind that there might be trouble.” Fortunately, there was not.
Drcar enjoys the taste of coincidence. Sometimes that taste is sour (he knew Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer, as a classmate at the Bishop’s School), and sometimes it is sweet. Two years ago, he and his girlfriend went to Vietnam, and while he did not visit many places outside Saigon, he did travel to Vung Tau, a beach town on the South China Sea. Like a good tourist, Drcar took pictures, and when he returned home, he showed them to Larry Hoang.
“This is where I’m from!” Hoang said, staring in amazement at the photos.
Family and home are important to Hoang, a former gang member. It was, after all, his family who helped change his life. Today there is little to indicate his history as a hood. “I have a trustworthy face,” he says. It helps that he removed his tattoos. I asked about the laser-removal procedure because I knew Jesus Cerda was looking forward to having his tattoos removed from the fingers of his right hand. “It hurt a million times worse than having them put on,” Hoang tells me. This was bad news for Cerda, who complained that it had really hurt getting the tattoos in the first place and hoped that it would be easier having them removed.
Of average height and with black hair, Larry Hoang was a year old when his parents left Vietnam and settled in East San Diego. In retrospect, what happened to Hoang seems almost inevitable. Sociologists studying generational conflicts have coined the term “acculturation identity crisis” to explain why some recent immigrants from Southeast Asia have produced gun-toting hellions.
“My parents were traditional,” explains Hoang, “and so there was a conflict.”
At home, he participated in a cultural life that went back hundreds of years. But at school, he says, there was the drive to be popular, to have an identity among peers whose penchant for violence derived from America’s image of itself in its old Westerns, and perhaps from the endless hours of video-game playing. And there was the American take on race that Hoang appropriately modified.
“I learned to hate anyone who wasn’t Asian,” he says.
He blew up a house. The home was the residence of a fellow gang member who appeared to be waffling in his devotion to the gang. The explosion was meant to serve as a warning, a means of keeping the gang-banger in line. However, the youngster’s father — the owner of the house — was a police officer, and when Hoang was brought to trial, efforts were made to try him as an adult. At Juvenile Hall, on Meadow Lark Drive in Linda Vista, Hoang found he was facing 10 to 15 years behind bars. His parents, who had watched his behavior escalate and were helpless to effectively intervene, were deeply shamed. They now disowned him.
“I beat my 707,” says Hoang, a reference to a section of the Welfare and Institutions Code — rather than being tried in adult court, he was tried in juvenile court. He could be committed to the Youth Authority only until his 25th birthday. At 17, he entered the youth correctional facility in Chino.
Hoang looks back on his life and marvels at the degree of desensitization he experienced. Behind bars, he was subject to games, rules, and intimidation.
“You stick to your own race and never ‘eat after’ someone, meaning you never touched a plate or fork that someone from another race touched. If you let someone ‘punk’ you, you ‘have the green light’ and you lose everything — your shoes, your TV, everything. When you’re a fish, when you’re new, you have to learn all this the hard way, and it’s tough.”
Throughout the interviews, parolees spoke of the tension behind bars, of a sense that a time bomb was about to explode. Hoang entered Chino weighing 180 pounds and standing five foot six. Three years later he’d gained three inches and lost 50 pounds. He lost the weight, he says, because he was “stressed out.”
Hoang was in contact with his sister, but others in his family stayed away until his birthday. “My parents came to visit,” he says. I heard a quiver in his voice. “Did you cry?” I ask. He couldn’t, he answers. “Being inside, no matter what I was feeling, I had to stay tough. But after that visit, I wanted to do better.”
He had been working in the warehouse and had taken a computer-repair class. Hoang would go on to complete high school and earn his A.A. degree. He left the Youth Authority at 20 but remained a parolee, seeing his parole officer once a month, until he was 25.
Today, Hoang works as a security guard. He likes the job because it offers full benefits. He wants to go into international business, importing and exporting. In the meantime, he is enjoying what was denied him behind bars.
“But no hood rats,” he says, referring to the girls that hang out with gang members. “I attract college girls mostly, innocent girls.”
It is his choice of the word “innocent” that makes me wonder if he is putting a game on them. He says yes, that he is. They’d be shocked if they knew his history, he adds.
Hoang had earlier spoken of desensitization, and I suggest that if he’s playing games and breaking hearts, maybe he’s still somewhere behind bars, that he has not come fully un-numbed.
“Right now it’s fun,” he says, but he agrees with me. “But what can I say? It’s called ‘being institutionalized.’ ”
It is noteworthy that three of the five Asians interviewed for this story requested anonymity, saying identification would bring shame on their families. Although Asians make up nearly 11 percent of the state’s population, they represent just 5 percent of those incarcerated under the California Youth Authority. How much family pride accounts for the low number is a question worth pursuing.
Calvin Lu (not his real name), a young Filipino, the 10th of 14 children, was the only member of his bilingual (English and Tagalog) family to get into trouble with the law. The children went to school, worked in their parents’ grocery store, and moved easily into responsible positions in society.
Jim Pauley has hundreds of cases on file of young men and women who came out of incarceration as parolees, worked with mentors from Volunteers in Parole, and today are productive, responsible citizens, but Lu’s case is special, his rehabilitation spectacular.
Lu, now 27, was convicted of armed robbery in March 1991. He and a couple of accomplices had robbed homes and businesses, including the McDonald’s where he was arrested. After serving two years and three months, Lu was paroled in June 1993 and began what Pauley describes as an “exemplary” parole. He was never in further trouble with the law, all his drug and alcohol tests showed negative, he did not affiliate with negative peers, and he performed community service by speaking before groups in high school, etc.
Dabney Langhorne Fredericks was his mentor. “He was extremely self-motivated and very clear about his plans,” she says, speaking by telephone from the Office of the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, Virginia. The reserve in Fredericks’s voice, her careful choice of words, her disinclination to inflate dialogue, all suggest that she and Lu were well matched: each was about taking care of business. “He wanted to go to college, and he studied the catalogs intently,” she says. “Teenagers are not noted for their powers of concentration, but he was very focused.”
Lu graduated from UC San Diego in summer 1998 with a degree in business and finance, then worked as a performance analyst for a large investment company. He petitioned the State of California to seal his juvenile record and set aside his adult conviction. The state approved his request and he believed that his slate would be wiped clean.
Last month, Calvin Lu graduated with an MBA from one of California’s top universities. Just before he graduated, he accepted an offer to work with an investment company at a starting salary of $60,000 per year. Not long after, however, the offer was withdrawn when a background check showed Lu’s conviction for a felony. He is currently working with an attorney to expunge his adult record.
When Jim Pauley heard of Lu’s setback, he mused sadly that the young man’s past continues to haunt him.
Early Sunday morning and Kisda Senglothnam (pronounced KIZZ-dah SENG-loath-nam), 27, is busy with his net at the Coronado pier near Orange Street. He’s caught a few shiners to use later for live bait and is transferring them into his plastic bucket while I ask how he met Alan Cheung, his Volunteers in Parole mentor. It was at Plaza Bonita in the spring of 1998, he says.
“I didn’t have a clue what he looked like.”
Hunting the crowd, he spotted a respectable-looking middle-aged Asian and went up to him, hand extended. “Hi, I’m Kisda,” and the man stared. “Aren’t you Alan?” The man shook his head and hurried off. Alan Cheung showed up a few minutes later. He was five inches shorter than Senglothnam and just three years older, with an expression open and friendly. He might have passed for the parolee’s younger brother.
“I figured a lawyer would be older and wearing a jacket and tie. But Alan, he was young and looked like he was ready to hang out.”
Alan Cheung, 30, was born in Chicago and came to San Diego to attend USD Law School. He graduated in 1996 and, a Chinese-American, found a sense of solidarity in the Asian community here. He decided to stay and start his practice in immigration law. It was rewarding to help people trying to come into the country, or stay here, he says. But soon enough he felt he needed to do something more, something different. That something more and different would be, as it turned out, mentoring in Volunteers in Parole with Kisda Senglothnam. After exchanging greetings that first afternoon, they made for Applebee’s, where they took a table and talked.
“I wanted to help guide young people, to show them that they have alternatives,” Cheung says. Already a Legal Aid volunteer, he felt a need to “give something back.”
Senglothnam tended to keep his feelings inside, but he’d been working on expressing himself. Cheung, more naturally outgoing, eased things along. Their meeting was a success.
An earlier match had not worked out for Cheung. (“The parolee did not seem into it.”) Now, just a few months later, here Cheung was at Applebee’s, talking like old friends to this young Laotian who had spent the last seven years behind bars for second-degree murder.
“Kisda had a good head on his shoulders. I saw that right away,” Cheung recalls. We are meeting at the offices on Kearny Villa Road that Cheung shares with his partners John Goodrich and William Quan. On the other side of his door, in the topsy-turvy reception area, phones ring and people move in and out. The practice is clearly thriving.
“Kisda,” Cheung is saying, “knew he had made mistakes and was sorry. He also realized that his time in YA helped turn him around, and he was grateful for that.”
Speaking before high school and college groups, Senglothnam has shared his experiences as a gang member, what he learned during a brief, intense period of violence, and how his life changed during his incarceration.
In 1999, he won VIP’s Outstanding Achievement Award.
Despite a bad knee and ankle, Senglothnam joins Cheung most Tuesdays at six for a pickup game of basketball at the Doyle Community Park in University City. They go to dinner, and Senglothnam has met Cheung’s fiancée (and will travel with him to San Francisco for their wedding this year). They describe each other as friends.
Cheung recounts a moment he calls “pure Kisda.” Cheung had gone with friends to see the movie Traffic, and at the end of the film, before the lights came on, he heard someone at the back of the theater say, “That movie was terrible!” Cheung recognized the voice. “Kisda —?” he called out in the darkness. “Alan —?” came a disembodied voice.
“And of course it was him!” says Cheung.
On the pier, I ask Senglothnam what made the film so bad. (Traffic is an Oscar-winning account of drug trafficking as experienced by drug enforcement agents, a Mexican cop, and an upper-class Washington politician’s family.) “The ending was too slow,” says Senglothnam, baiting his hook. I had liked the film very much and ask about the acting, the story line, the cinematic effects. Sure, all that was okay, he says. It was just that the ending was too slow. I’m not sure I agree with him, but it is clear that Senglothnam likes things moving at a fast clip. It is one of the contradictions of a contradictory individual, for here he is, with the speed of a New York cabbie, his bucket half full of saltwater in which small fish circle, gleaming, while he drops his line and props his rod against the rail. He is ready for an extended wait. Fishing off a pier, after all, is hardly an extreme sport.
“I’ve caught bass, halibut, and barracuda here,” he says, eyeing his line.
Senglothnam was born in Laos in 1975. Of medium height and build, but muscular, his handsome features resemble those of the Buddhist deities that ornament the temples of his homeland. I ask about his name. “It means sharp, quick blade, or something like that,” he says.
He arrived in San Diego in 1980 and soon enough began to live up to his name. He attended Roosevelt Junior High and Pershing Middle School. But by 1989, he had dropped out, already entrenched in gang activity. At the time, eager to “earn his stripes,” he did drugs, broke into cars, and “tried to find fights.”
His birth father had been killed by the Vietcong, and Senglothnam was raised by his mother and stepfather, a drug taker, he says, who physically, verbally, and emotionally abused him. He does not elaborate, saying only that at 14 he left home.
“In the beginning it seemed like fun,” he says, speaking fast, stringing his words together so they go off like firecrackers — pop! pop! pop! “But pretty soon it became boring. There was nothing to do, and all the pretty girls went to school.”
Like the other parolees, Senglothnam describes his early life, before he went straight, with an ironic detachment, but this makes his account even more chilling, as if the violence and destruction had happened to someone else. And in a way it had. He is looking back to what occurred 12 years ago, nearly half his lifetime.
“Dropping out,” he says, summing up the first stage of his meltdown, “was not what it’s cut out to be.”
He was picked up for stealing a car and joyriding and spent a week in Juvenile Hall. But once out, he returned to “kicking it” with his friends. He drank, smoked marijuana, and snorted speed. But he did not like the drugs, especially the speed, which stripped food of all flavor and made him feel paranoid. (“I felt closed in with nobody to talk to.”) He began to carry guns — a small .380, and a 9-millimeter.
He traveled to Las Vegas with friends. While he was gone, a rival gang jumped one of his “homies.” Upon his return, Senglothnam and his friends were hungry for revenge and soon had their chance. Nearly 20 strong, they were outside the Plaza Bowl in National City when a car pulled into the parking lot. The driver was known to Senglothnam’s gang and was well liked; the other four in the car belonged to the rival gang that had stomped Senglothnam’s friend. What happened next — weapons pulled and fired — was quick and startling. The car sped off, but later (according to police) coasted to a stop, the driver and one other dead. Everyone fled the parking lot. A week later, Senglothnam was sleeping at a friend’s house in Imperial Beach when he heard the slide of the patio door. He opened his eyes and found himself looking down the barrel of a 9-millimeter gun. The policeman warned him not to move.
He was sent to Juvenile Hall and spent the next six months in legal proceedings. The judge committed him to the Youth Authority until he reached the age of 25.
He was just 15. Ten years stretched out like a lifetime in front of him. “I felt like I was being buried six feet under,” he says.
“It was while I was in Juvenile Hall, and then at Norwalk, that I began to look at what was happening and to ask myself what was I doing here. That was when I had my epiphany.”
Much of Senglothnam’s trouble may be laid to problems at home, especially his relationship with his abusive stepfather. But what came as a shock, he says, was that, with his own drug use and violence, “I had turned out to be like him.”
New wards at the California Youth Authority facilities are told, “You come in here alone, and you leave alone.” Besides discovering that he’d turned into a replica of his detested stepfather, now it hit home to Senglothnam that he was flying solo. For someone who had relied on gang affiliation to fill the vacuum created by years of abuse and feelings of loneliness, this was a rude awakening. But it was an awakening.
His Youth Authority number was 62383. As one year passed into another, and as the numbers of incarcerated juveniles mounted to 70000, Senglothnam became one of the old-timers.
At the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier, he returned to his books, earned his high school diploma, and took courses leading to an A.A. degree. At 20, he was transferred to the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, where he earned minimum wage booking reservations for TWA.
Because of his model behavior, he was granted parole after seven years. But it was not easy at first, being back on the street. “My little brother was taller than me when I got out. And everything was happening so fast. I couldn’t get used to it.” He told his parole officer that he couldn’t seem to get it together to find a job.
“Being institutionalized for so long, it takes a while to readjust. But the real dope is you never catch up. That time is dead time. You come out and the cars have changed, people have changed, the music is different. I’ve been out three years now and I’m still readjusting.”
He checks his line.
Senglothnam works for a sporting-goods outlet and wonders whether he should return to school and study to be a counselor or quit his job and install car stereo systems. I suggest that a job as a counselor would seem to speak to his abilities. He answers that it is more important to do what you like to do and not to worry about money or career advancement. He talked about the extraordinary tension he’d lived under behind bars. (“The tension is like a time bomb,” he said. “And every once in a while, it has to explode.”) The stress of being incarcerated had taken its toll. Senglothnam was locked up in the Youth Authority the longest of my interviewees, and he seemed perhaps to have permanently retreated.
Today, his stepfather is out of the house and Senglothnam has a better relationship with his mother. “But it’s not like in the movies,” he says. “In real life, things don’t get nicely wrapped and packaged in the end.”
The Coronado bridge swoops over his right shoulder, and straight ahead he sees the outline of downtown San Diego. With his Laotian roots, Kisda Senglothnam knows the Buddhist position on karma, about how the bad that we do returns to us. The Tibetan Buddhists have a national folk hero. His name is Milarepa, and he is famous for having used his extraordinary powers to kill — and then turning his life around and, after a superhuman effort, reaching enlightenment. I want to tell Senglothnam about this but hesitate. Jim Pauley has said that mentees usually voice regret for what they have done and that some find it especially difficult to come to terms with their pasts. Senglothnam, checking his line, looking at the blue water, is surely one of these.
“We had only asked for an hour of their time, and both of them [Volunteers in Parole parolees engaged in community service] stayed an extra hour to talk one on one with several of the students. Joe was able to relate with a student who had a similar troubled past. He offered to mentor this teen and gave his number to the teacher for future contact. There was another teen in the class that had been expelled for gang affiliation. Luis took him aside and spoke to him about the troubles he personally experienced due to his gang involvement. He too offered to mentor this teen and gave his number to the teacher… After Joe and Luis left, the students and teachers could not say enough positive things about the speakers and highly recommended them to other classes.”
Jonathan Schneeweiss learned to think on his feet while serving in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. Schneeweiss (his Austrian name means “white snow”) was using that skill in May 1999 as he argued before the judge in juvenile court that his Volunteers in Parole match was ready to turn a corner. Jose de la Torre (not his real name) had fled the state and then returned, placing himself in custody.
The judge listened to the attorney, weighed the matter, and instead of revoking de la Torre’s parole, encouraged him to take advantage of the support offered and build a new life. Jonathan Schneeweiss, 30, was well suited for the work of building a new life. He has made a habit of remaking his own.
Born in Upstate New York, he’d dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but in his junior year of college, spent at Oxford, he studied history and, back in the United States, he dropped his pre-med major, continued with history, and then applied to law school in Syracuse. He entered the JAG Corps after graduation. The corps brought him to San Diego, where, for three and a half years, he did criminal defense work and learned, he says, what it means to ask “Why?” (“I felt that I was really, really helping people,” he said of his experiences in the military.) After leaving the Navy, he returned to school to study environmental law at George Washington Law School in Washington, D.C., then came back to San Diego and found employment in a large firm. It paid well, but he wasn’t happy, and he took the job he holds today as senior deputy county counsel.
In September 1999, Schneeweiss joined Volunteers in Parole.
“I thought I could work well with the parolees because of my background in criminal defense.” Schneeweiss is more than a successful lawyer. A warm and inspiring person, he is a take-charge guy as willing to cook a meal for a friend as give a hard and uncompromising opinion.
Jose de la Torre, usually quiet and retiring, has no problem finding words to describe his feelings for his mentor.
“Jonathan is a great guy,” he says. “He is my friend and has really helped me.”
They play chess. (De la Torre learned while incarcerated and apparently is pretty good.) They run a couple of times a week and talk on the telephone. De la Torre, who has limited relationships with his family, is at Schneeweiss’s for holidays and weekend barbecues. Schneeweiss helped him find a job and supported his move out of his family home, where the temptations to return to his street life were strong.
Speaking from his house in Ocean Beach, his six-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Madison, underfoot, Schneeweiss recalls how his father, a college president, created the first zero-plus cash plan to help students from the inner city and rural communities finance their college careers. It is this same attitude of bringing hard, practical solutions to difficult problems that informs Schneeweiss’s own work as a lawyer and mentor. What struck him most forcibly about de la Torre was that he needed time to catch up on workplace and social skills that others took for granted. “He heard suggestions as criticism and a helpful comment as an accusation. He didn’t know how to look at things.”
Jim Pauley says that Schneeweiss put an unusual amount of time into the relationship. For his part, Schneeweiss offers that working with de la Torre “makes me feel happy just for the chance of being there and being able to support him. He makes me feel good about living.”
Jose de la Torre, now 21, arrived in the United States from Honduras in 1988. He was the second of three children and the only boy.
“My mother came to give us a better life,” he says, speaking by telephone from his apartment in North Park. He never knew his father.
The evening I call him, he is back from his job, has grabbed something to eat, and now, at seven, is preparing to write an autobiographical essay for tomorrow’s night school class. I ask de la Torre to describe himself, explaining that I want a sense of the person I am talking to. He stutters and says finally that he doesn’t know what to say.
“Well, for example, do people mistake you for a Mexican?”
“Yes, a lot.”
“And what else?”
He is silent. On the telephone, I hear the wooden chair squeak as he shifts his weight. The sound is penetrating. I have an immediate sense that the chair is ancient and the room barely furnished.
“What does your girlfriend say you look like?”
He is silent.
“Your girlfriend,” I prompt, “she likes the way you look, doesn’t she?”
He makes a snuffling, embarrassed sound.
“I need help on this,” I say.
“Yeah, I guess so. She probably does.”
“And what does she like best?”
“I have a friend now — but we’re just friends. But my girlfriend before, she said she liked my eyebrows.”
“Your eyebrows? Why, are they thick?”
“Yeah — they’re ugly,” he says, his voice, with a self-lacerating edge to it, is barely audible. It drifts in and out — clear, then mumbling — as if he were not so much talking to me as in conversation with himself.
The family settled in Southeast San Diego. De la Torre went to a nearby elementary school but was bused to Wilson Middle School, and then Serra High School in Tierrasanta, where he lasted only half a semester. He was in the lunch line when his friend swung him around by his backpack. They got in a fight and de la Torre was expelled. “Why you?” I ask. He explains that they hadn’t wanted him at the school anyway. “I had bad grades and I didn’t speak good English.” One of his problems, he says, was that he’d never gotten properly placed to address his problems with English. Yet it is clear that de la Torre is a bright guy. His English is heavily accented, but he articulates well. As he speaks, the room echoes and draws from me a feeling I cannot quite put my finger on. Maybe despondency. His voice, drained of affect, answers questions and gives information, but emotion is withheld.
He was transferred to Crawford High School, where he managed to finish ninth grade. Then he was expelled for truancy and fighting. By now he was involved with gang activity and living in a drug house, where he got addicted to cocaine and marijuana. He enrolled at Hoover High and lasted barely an hour.
“I was walking up the stairs behind this guy from a rival, and I made him fall.”
The facts are not so benign-sounding. De la Torre, when pressed, admits that he grabbed the other student by his backpack and sent him falling backward down a flight of stairs. The fall left the student unconscious.
Arrested and sent to Juvenile Hall, de la Torre was later placed on three-month home study. There were other skirmishes with the law, a six-month stint in Juvenile Hall, and finally, parole and assignment to O’Neill Summit school.
“I was pretty deep in the gang stuff, and I was doing drugs.” On the other end of the line, the wooden chair cries out. “Part of me cared,” he says, “and part of me didn’t care. I was addicted.”
More gang-banging led to his arrest and a five-count charge (three counts of assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of intent to commit robbery).
I found it hard to believe that a kid barely 16 could get into so much trouble.
“People like me that grow up in a bad neighborhood, it’s a bad thing to say,” he says, “but that’s everyday life.”
In a plea bargain, the charges were reduced to one count. Out on probation, almost immediately de la Torre got in a fight with a drug seller and was arrested.
“There was a meeting to see if I was going to be charged as an adult.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because of the violence,” he says. The fight with the drug seller was actually a gang rumble, held on a busy street in the middle of the night. De la Torre wielded a bat.
“I lost my 707,” he says. He was tried in adult court on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and inflicting great bodily injury. He was sentenced, he says, to one year in Juvenile Hall. The 13 living units in the Linda Vista center hold approximately 590 youthful offenders. De la Torre was sent to maximum security.
After serving six months, he was released to his home under house arrest, an electronic bracelet attached to his ankle. He was ordered to remain in the house and have no contact with friends.
“So what happened?”
“They had the place staked out,” he says.
He was discovered smoking and drinking and had just had a girl in his room when the cops busted in. He had been out only 17 days. Returned to Juvenile Hall, he was then sent to the Youth Authority facility at Norwalk for a 90-day observation period. At Norwalk he got into two gang-related fights. To finish his sentence and the additional time that was tacked on, he was sent to El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility near San Luis Obispo. There, he got into a fight with a rival gang member and was sent to three-month lockup in what he describes as “the hole.” In this unit, called Cambria, youngsters are housed in segregated and isolated cells for all but half an hour each day. De la Torre describes how the inmates passed each other notes and used sign language. The scene recalls to me something out of a movie, maybe — young tattooed thugs communicating with mirrors. I ask if he has tattoos.
“No. I never got any because I thought it was like wearing evidence that would get you caught.”
Returning to his story, he says his first day out of lockup he was in another fight, charged with assault, and sent back to the hole. I stop him. “What’s going on?” It has become increasingly difficult listening to this laundry list of attacks, reprisals, and incarcerations. “I mean, why you?” I ask. “Were you a really big guy or something?” Quite the contrary. De la Torre describes himself as standing five foot seven, and at the time he weighed just 120 pounds. (He has since gained 50 pounds.) “Yeah, I was a little shit,” he says.
Throughout this account, his voice, his hesitation, his rejecting as “ugly” the feature his old girlfriend had described as attractive have all been red flags.
“Are you lonely?” I ask. My question comes out of the blue.
“Yeah,” he says without hesitation. “You could say I’m lonely.”
“Well, then, what do you think is the reason? It must go way back.”
He agrees. “Probably so,” he says.
“What about your father? Do you think maybe you missed not having one?”
“Yeah, sometimes I wish I had a dad,” he says, and for once the voice is allowed an expression. It has a plaintive ring. Nothing Jose de la Torre has said until this moment, nor anything he says later, carries the same punch. Here seems a key to the rage, the attacks, and the disdain for authority. But he does not linger over the feeling. He goes on: “In incarceration, you don’t build bonds with anybody. You’re on your own.”
September 17, 1999. De la Torre remembers the date of his release.
“They had to let me go!” he says. “I had served my time, and it was do or die!”
He was 19, and on the outside he found a job doing landscaping, but that didn’t work out, and he was called in and given strict procedures to follow for his parole.
“I was mad at the system because I was not totally free!” In speaking of his father, his voice had shaken with feeling. It was happening again, but this time the sentiment is clearly rage. “I went to them and told them to arrest me right there, that I didn’t want somebody up my ass all the time. I said they were setting me up for failure.”
The parole officer to whom he was complaining was a 45-year-old Hispanic woman who wanted to help him work through the system. “She said she was there to help me in any way that she could. She was really supportive.”
He tries to remember the parole officer’s name and promises he will get it for me. “She was the person who got me involved in Volunteers in Parole, but after three months she left.”
His new parole officer was Alberto Acuna, and de la Torre gets along well with him. But he messed up with drugs and further violated his parole (“My excuse is that I got frustrated”) by fleeing the state. He went to Las Vegas, where he drank and did drugs.
“It was the same thing. It felt like I was 16 all over again, and I was tired. I just wanted to get it over with.”
He returned to San Diego and turned himself in. He was just 19, but even in the retelling, he sounds like an old man. At his hearing, Jonathan Schneeweiss, his mentor, spoke on his behalf.
I know the story from there.
Our telephone call had been long and draining, and I could only guess how exhausting living through those experiences had been. Everything about de la Torre suggested that he was operating on a low-grade depression. The problem with people who suffer from the condition is that when they’re depressed, they don’t necessarily remember that things are not hopeless. When you’re depressed, you’re depressed, and that’s it. Hoping to end our conversation on an up note, I ask about his current girlfriend.
“She’s not my girlfriend. We’re just friends,” he repeats. “You know the difference, you know when it means more.”
“Well, did you ever have a serious girlfriend?” I ask.
“Yeah. It was a while ago.” He pauses. “She was the quiet kind. But I wanted to hang out…” His voice trails off.
“Do you ever wonder what happened to her?”
“I know what happened to her. She split.” He met his current non-girlfriend at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “She knows it’s not serious for either of us. She’s cool.”
As we end our conversation, I wish him luck on his autobiographical essay and remind him that I will call for the name of the parole officer who introduced him to Volunteers in Parole. She was a lifesaver, I say.
“She sure was,” he agrees.
“Please stay out of the gangs. You are such cool guys, and you have already wasted half of your lives in gangs — don’t waste the other half!”
Michiko Lindsey is, at 35, a serious lawyer with impeccable credentials and a plum job. We met last August in her office on the 24th floor of One America Plaza, near the foot of Broadway, where she enjoyed a breathtaking view of the harbor. She specialized in securities with the firm Luce, Forward, Hamilton and Scripps. She had a nice two-bedroom apartment in La Jolla, expensive clothes, and a car that ran well. Lindsey is a curvy Amerasian, a beautiful woman with a waterfall of black hair running down her back. And her story is as extraordinary as a parolee’s.
“She was an at-risk youth,” says Jim Pauley, who knows her well, “and she ended up at Harvard Law School!”
“That’s the mini-version,” says Lindsey.
Lindsey’s Japanese mother and Chicago-born father met in Tokyo during the Korean War. They corresponded, and after her mother came to the United States to attend college, her parents eventually married and settled in Chicago. It turned out that her father was abusive, and her mother, a nontraditional Japanese woman, refused to accede to him.
“So there was tension and stress,” says Lindsey, who wanted out. At 18, she married, quit college after one semester, and traveled to San Diego with her Marine husband. She was in flight from the behavior she had witnessed at home, but she found herself in a repeat pattern. Her husband was physically abusive. “I gave myself away,” she says. “I guess that’s how best to put it. And I was appalled at myself.”
One incident is instructive: her husband was behind the wheel one evening, attempting to get off the freeway, when Michiko saw that he’d just missed the exit and casually mentioned it. “He turned off onto Texas Street, stopped the car, and made me get out.” She had neither shoes nor a purse, and before the era of cell phones, she was very much stranded. “I walked home and waited on the front steps for him,” she says.
The couple went into counseling, but for much of her marriage, she says, she had her bags packed because she knew it was not going to work. She left him and married a second time. Her new husband offered a variation on an old theme. Instead of being physically abusive, he was emotionally so. He cut at her self-esteem. Michiko, for example, was working full time and going to night school, where she earned straight A’s. Her husband said this was only because of the lower academic standards at community colleges.
“We’d have an argument, and to make his point, he’d go over to the wall where his diploma from a four-year college was hanging, point to it, and say, ‘This is why I win!’ ”
Yet she believed him on some level, she says. Why else, she asks herself years later, did she spend seven years in night school earning degrees in business management, legal secretarial work, and court reporting? Eventually, however, she took the plunge and entered San Diego State. She took three years to graduate because, again, she was working full time and going to school at night. She earned straight A’s. After doing well on the Law School Admission Test, she decided to chance it and apply to Harvard.
“The hard part came after being accepted,” she says.
However difficult it was to believe she’d been accepted, it was harder still when she was deposited at the school some months later. “It was all so unreal. I didn’t know anyone in Boston. It was so far away from home. My sister and my mother drove me up from Chicago, and when they left, I cried.”
Yet she did well and graduated. (She might have pointed to her Harvard degree and said, “Now, I win!” but her marriage to her second husband had already gone the way of her first. Husband No. 2 dismissed all ideas of remaining in the marriage with the remark that he didn’t want to be married to a woman more successful than himself.)
Lindsey sees that her problems in her marriages have to do with childhood stuff. Her relationship with her mother is good, she says, but her feelings for her father are “complicated.”
“It’s not easy trying to get through to someone who operates on automatic pilot, but I’m still in there,” she says.
She joined Volunteers in Parole in 1999 and met her match, Tien Dong (not his real name). They enjoy outdoor activities like skiing, and “he comes over to my apartment and we eat. And we talk on the phone.” According to Lindsey, Dong is wise. “I’m almost old enough to be his mother, but sometimes he talks to me like he’s my big brother! He’s a real gift!”
Jonathan Schneeweiss recruited Lindsey for Volunteers in Parole. He told her that she was going to get more out of the relationship than she was going to give.
“And it’s so true!” she says, laughing.
Tien Dong, 21, is a big guy, and when he appears at the doorway of the Black Angus on E Street in Chula Vista, the room shrinks around him. He wears khaki pants, white dress shirt, and a head newly shaved bald. He orders a Hearty Cut Filet.
Born in Texas the year after his parents emigrated from Vietnam, he was just a year old when they settled in Linda Vista in 1981. Dong went to Ross and Fletcher Elementary Schools, to Taft Junior High, and to Mission Bay High.
“Things started up when I was in Taft, but I wouldn’t say I was in a gang. It was just some people who liked to hang out together.”
In the seventh grade, he was getting into fights and ditching. The next year he was stealing stereos from cars and breaking into houses.
There are five children in his family; he is the third child. His older sister raised him, more or less, he says. “My father was very sick and was on dialysis from 1980 until 1992, when he got a kidney transplant. He still can’t live a fully active life.”
While Dong’s mother looked after his father, Dong’s sister, six years his senior, oversaw his transfer to Fletcher, and followed his academic progress. Dong was admitted to advanced classes and in high school went out for the football and wrestling teams. But then his sister went into a nursing program that demanded much of her time, and suddenly Dong had greater freedom.
“I had to make sure I was on top of things when my sister showed up. But that was about it.”
“He was living two lives!” announced the prosecutor when Dong appeared in court. He’d lasted just six months at Mission Bay High. His other world — the one he enjoyed with his friends — had claimed much more of his time and attention.
“I tried to fit in and be hard. I tried to prove myself.”
He was 14 when, according to the court, he and his friends went on a “rampage.” For the better part of a year, they went on a spree of armed robberies. They chose houses whose residents were known to them (always Asians), found a time when everyone was home, then appeared at the front door.
“Someone would answer the bell, and we’d roll in, pull the telephone cord out of the wall, grab what was there, and split.”
Our food is set down at our places. Dong cuts into his Black Angus steak.
He talks fast, his thoughts jamming together. The fact that he stutters (in an attempt to parse and articulate his thoughts) makes him appear almost teddy bearish, but I can imagine my blood running cold facing down a big 14-year-old, with a gun, in the company of other young hoods. He says there were eight or nine of them, and although they did not work together, Dong admits now that they were a gang of sorts. He says they were actually more like “members of organized crime.”
Their MO was simple: “In and out real quick.”
“But suppose someone had resisted or refused to cooperate?”
“We were lucky, I guess,” he says.
His friends used the money to buy weapons, hang out with girls, and fix up their cars. (Dong, at 14, was not eligible even for a driver’s permit.) The police spent months trying to track them down. When they were at last apprehended, Dong was hit with 18 felony charges that included possession of firearms and a “211,” he says, referring to the California penal code for armed robbery. At 14, he was old enough to be tried as an adult. “I lost my 707,” he says, and was indeed remanded to the adult court. Dong was facing 25 years’ or more incarceration when a series of plea bargains ensued. In the end, he was sentenced to serve 8 years for the commission of 2 felonies.
“I was 15 by then,” he says, “and I served four and a half years behind bars. I had my 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th birthdays behind bars.”
After being evaluated at Norwalk, he was sent to the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility in Whittier, where he served his entire sentence. He earned six months’ extra time for engaging in fights early on, but he was lucky.
“They call it the ‘Time Bomb,’ ” he says, describing Whittier. “It’s rough there and it’s hard not to get into trouble. Everybody catches time there. That’s why it’s called the Time Bomb.”
Dong’s parents were devastated; no one had any idea what he’d been up to. (In court, the prosecutor had referred to Dong as “slick.”) Members of his extended family do not know, to this day, that he spent time locked up because, behind bars, he suddenly began to apply himself and he earned his high school diploma and learned a trade.
“I was at Whittier so long, I got to know the place, and they let me learn handyman skills. I did electrical work and plumbing and helped maintain the sprinkler system.”
Dong became a born-again Christian in 1997, when he was at Nelles, and today is a regular member of Cross Roads Community Church, on El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights. He says Pastor Rick Davis offers a ministry especially pertinent to former gang members and “jailbirds.” Dong liked the junior high school ministry.
“I talk to them. I tell them they don’t want to grow up like I did. Hopefully, my story will help others.”
When he was released, he says, he had a lot of catching up to do.
“In the beginning it felt weird. I didn’t go to the prom and I didn’t have a license. When I came out I had nothing.”
Today, Dong is an apprentice plumber with medical and dental benefits, and in another year he will be a licensed journeyman. At the same time he is licensed, he will have earned his A.S. degree at City College.
“God has blessed me!” he says.
Like any young man, Dong is happy to have money in his pocket and is visibly proud to be the owner of a new Nissan truck. He had a girlfriend but confesses to not appreciating her. (“I just wanted to hang.”) He spends time with Lindsey and looks for a Christian girl, and so for the moment, all seems well.
Our plates are gone and the waitress hands us the dessert menu: Apple-Walnut Cobbler, Big Mountain Chocolate Fudge Cake, Sky High Mud Pie, City Slicker Cheesecake…
“It all sounds good to me,” he says.
“I really respect you guys for your courage to be yourself and to get away from your gangs and that awful life. I know because my mom has spent most of her life in jail or prison. But hey, that’s her…even though my grandparents still love her, they lost trust in her a long time ago. They are raising me now, and I don’t want them to lose trust in me. I am telling you these things because I think you will understand and I don’t have anyone else that does.”
On the face of things, it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely match than Waldo Sauls and Karolina Ericsson. Sauls is an African-American, dark enough to call up hidden prejudices, large enough to call up fears. Ericsson is a Swedish import, tall and willowy, a natural blonde who invites fantasies. Sauls, at 23, having diligently applied himself, earned his high school diploma in 2001. No one from his family was at his graduation, just as no one was there when he was paroled. In each case, he has stepped forward on his own. Ericsson, 30, breezed through Stanford Law School, as her family stood by, offering quiet approval. While he was behind bars, struggling to survive in what he called a “gladiator school,” she was clerking for Judge Napoleon Jones and learning how to maneuver through the court system. Finally, after years of emotional and physical abuse, Sauls has learned a trick of vanishing in the middle of a sentence, before your very eyes. Ericsson’s home life was happy, her family close-knit, and while she might wish to disappear sometimes, instead she turns heads. Dressed in classics that favor her lean figure, with her glowing complexion and sky blue eyes, she is the poster child for the brainy kid who grew up to be a beauty.
If she looks like the young Grace Kelly in High Noon, her instincts are more akin to those of another Swede, Ingrid Bergman, especially her character in the 1945 film The Bells of Saint Mary’s. Bergman, playing Sister Benedict, managed to save a church. Lina Ericsson wants to save the world — and she is willing to do the hard work required. But having been endowed with that Scandinavian instinct for practicality, she has settled for the moment on one sector of the city, the densely populated, ethnically diverse area called City Heights. And she does not want to save anyone as much as to help locate the keys to independence.
“I cannot imagine doing a job that I was not passionate about,” she says. “I need work that is a calling.”
Ericsson, an idealist, is a 30-year throwback to the halcyon days of Camelot and Kennedy’s Peace Corps. Indeed, from 1994 to 1996, she was a volunteer in Americorps, the domestic Peace Corps. (Its motto: “Give back for a year. Serve your community. Change your life.”) It changed her life. “Being with the other volunteers, I learned to loosen up a little, to reconsider my priorities.” After two years with Americorps, she entered Stanford, eager to learn but not obsessed with getting top grades. “That was a real change,” she says. But Ericsson is hardwired to toil. Currently, as housing and community development director of Price Charities, she is working on the revitalization of City Heights and is up to her ears in city politics and red tape. She couldn’t be happier. Excited by the possibilities inherent in a community locating its strengths and acting from them, she works late hours, squeezes in a quick jog, and still finds time for a boyfriend who, she says, fortunately is as busy as she. It was with this gargantuan appetite for engagement that she met with Jim Pauley when it came time to find her a match.
“I remember that he gave me a couple of folders to look at, and I saw Waldo’s name and I just knew he was the one,” she says.
Waldo Sauls and I meet in his exceedingly neat second-floor apartment in City Heights. On prominent display is a photograph of the preteen daughter of his girlfriend. There are a number of bud vases filled with cut flowers. He likes to give them to his girlfriend, he says, and in the middle of showing me around, he vanishes. That is the first time.
He does it again at the International House of Pancakes on University Avenue. Sauls has left his glasses and cap in my car, so that sitting across from him I am able to study his face. The skin is smooth, the cheekbones high, and the eyes have an Asian cast. With his crown of neat braids, he has androgynous good looks.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I say, “but you’re almost pretty! I mean, you look like Venus Williams, the tennis star!”
Sauls smiles, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He is smooth, and he is a chameleon. And chameleons (I am about to discover) don’t mind getting busted because when they next do their trick, it makes their feat all the more remarkable. This is what happens:
For a quarter of an hour, after ordering and being served, I ask questions that he answers while his hamburger sits on his plate untouched. Perhaps a little embarrassed by my remark about his looks, he picks up his hamburger to take a bite and finds that it is cold.
“Do you want me to ask the waitress to take it back and have it warmed?” I ask.
“You can do that?” he says.
I tell him sure.
For many young men and women, the closest thing they know to a restaurant is a McDonald’s. In addition, Sauls has spent nearly a quarter of his life behind bars. He does not know that you can ask a waitress to take food back and have it warmed.
“No, that’s all right,” he says.
“Are you sure?” I look at him.
“Yeah. It’s fine,” he says.
And in that moment, right before my eyes, he disappears.
We talk in the car, and he vanishes there too. I forget how often and where it happens. He is singularly the most difficult person I interview. Then I discover that on the telephone, he stays put. The telephone gives connection while offering the advantage of distance. Waldo Sauls has survived by learning to distrust anyone who comes too close.
To begin to understand him and his story, and what he makes of it, it is important to recognize that he is an autodidact. He is immensely proud of his high school diploma because he never believed that he’d earn one, but he is vastly more articulate and sophisticated than such tardy academic distinction suggests. He is self-taught and extraordinarily sensitive to the world and his movement through it. “I was the center of a dysfunctional family,” he tells me, and he goes on to describe how that dysfunction played out. But as he begins to elaborate and to generate ideas about the reasons for the dysfunction, his thoughts rely less on sociological tenets and more on a privately defined construct. If there is a problem in understanding what he’s saying, it is a problem of language. And it is as much my problem as it is his, for Sauls uses language in a rich, if idiosyncratic, way.
In speaking of the dysfunction, he says the problem lay with poverty. And why poverty? “It leads to complexes and to multiple disturbances,” he explains.
Sauls’s father worked full-time for TaylorMade golf clubs, had a side job as a mechanic for Midas mufflers; he also worked part-time as a janitor. Yet, says Sauls, there was never enough money.
“The kids were used as bait, as hostages to get more money.”
The source of this discord was Sauls’s stepmother.
In his biological family, Sauls is the sixth of six children. Before he turned seven, his father took him and his older sister from his mother in the Watts section of Los Angeles and brought them down to Oceanside to live with him and his long-term fiancée. According to Sauls, it was his “stepmother” who used him and his sister as bait. For example, her children might be given Nike and Adidas tennis shoes when they shopped at Pic ’n Save or Goodwill.
“I’d get hand-me-downs or something from the next-door neighbor.”
He says a child’s mind is subject to great changes and adds that at seven, he felt himself “put in prison, in maximum security.” He says there was “neglection” and distortion, and one is invited to go beyond the garbled diction to a picture of a life of intense disorientation and alienation. To add to his unhappiness, his stepmother would often say that if Sauls’s real mother truly loved him, she would have come for him.
The stuff of ghetto life — out-of-wedlock children, substance abuse, welfare fraud, and “neglection” — each played its part, but Sauls leaves many of the details of the dark history unsaid. Only in passing does he mention how he’d go into stores and drink liquor from shelves or that he was smoking “bud” — marijuana — at 7.
I had earlier seen clear evidence of one interviewee serving as the “bad seed,” with all familial disorder being attributed to that one child’s presence. At least this was my take on Jason Robo. Now here it was again. Sauls, it seemed to me, was the vector point upon which the mad stresses of an intense and unyielding psychosis played.
“In the beginning, my stepmother would tell me to do a chore, like vacuum the carpet, and I’d do it. But when my father came home, she’d say I didn’t go to the store when she asked me. At first I tried to tell him that she had not asked me to go to the store. She’d accuse me of lying and ask my father who he believed, her or me. She’d say, ‘Are you going to beat him or not?’ And he’d have to do it.” If all the children disobeyed, his stepmother made sure, Saul says, that he got whipped first. (She threatened to put Sauls’s father out if he refused.) Established in his role as the disruptive agent, at about the age of 8 Sauls told himself, “If I have the name, I might as well have the game.”
Compared to guzzling alcohol and smoking marijuana, stealing candy from his stepmother may seem like small stuff, but it had a symbolic advantage. After all, she earned a little extra money as the neighborhood “candy lady” by going to the store and buying packages of Jolly Ranchers, Tootsie Pops, and Gummy Bears, then selling them individually to children. Stealing from her was meant as payback.
“I was an ‘angry child,’ ” he acknowledges. “I did not want to be in that house.”
By 9, he was beating up kids in the schoolyard and on the football field. He knew how to sidle up to adults and gain their affection, but among kids, it was another story. “Nobody fucked with Waldo!” he says.
In one of his language distinctions, he explains that his stepmother’s challenge was both physical and intellectual. He was getting beaten at the same time, he says, she was trying to mess with his brain. “But I did not accept her challenge,” he says. “I would not bite the bait. I did not challenge her. Instead, I was her opponent. An opponent protects himself and fights in self-defense.”
Sauls was trundled through Pacifica Elementary School, Lincoln Middle School, and into El Camino High, all the time, he says, being passed along. He picked up few of the basic skills.
He was 16 and in a Carlsbad mall when a Mexican kid called him out. Sauls says he backed off twice, but the third time he “went for it.” The kid was pretty badly beaten up by the time mall police pulled him off. Sauls was put in the security office, then transferred to the Vista jail for adults, then Juvenile Hall in Linda Vista. There he spent six weeks awaiting a hearing where, despite this being his first run-in, he was charged with assault with intent to do great bodily injury, a felony. He was committed to the Youth Authority, where his maximum term of incarceration would be seven years. Although he was expected to serve only two, after being assigned to the youth correctional facility in Chino, he picked up 22 extra months for fighting. He would finally serve five years.
He tells me he got in 87 fights, and I believe him. “Youth Authority,” he says, “is like gladiator school; it is about who is the toughest person.” He says he learned to depend upon his Higher Power. I ask what his Higher Power is. “Jesus Christ and God,” he answers, but then, admitting that he is no churchgoer, he says, “I’m a nomad. I seek the truth to explain myself.” This is his Higher Power: himself and his nomad’s journey to the truth. If it is not always easy to follow his thoughts, when Sauls says something like “I seek the truth to explain myself,” the remark echoes with a subtext of race and deprivation and transcendence. His remarks hit the notes like haiku poetry.
Sauls was installed at Chino and, he says, lost a year because he did not know he had to complete programs to move through the Youth Authority system. He says that he never saw his caseworker.
“You’re supposed to go to boards every six months,” he says, referring to reviews by the parole board, “but I did not go to boards for a year!” With little help, he picked up on the program, all the while resisting the call to join a gang.
“They tell you which table to sit at when you eat, which telephone to use. And always later there are consequences, so what you’re doing is keeping your eyes to yourself and your mind to yourself and your mouth to yourself, and all this is destroying you!”
Behind bars, he read books on is is what happened to each of the tenscience, literature, and philosophy. “Outside there were less opportunities.”
In a sense, this is what happened to each of the ten young men I interviewed. Behind bars, with nowhere to go and little to offer distraction, they found opportunities to take advantage of.
Sauls was paroled in 2000 and sent to Casa Rafael in Vista, where he sold newspapers. Then he went into a recovery program at Utah House, an apartment complex for 15 men, where he lived for five months while, every day, he went out in search of work. He rode a bus or walked from seven in the morning until five. He applied to every dining facility in Mission Valley. Unskilled, he finally found a job at a cemetery.
“People say you shouldn’t second-guess. But the first thought is not always the way to go.”
Jason Robo, who has gone on to win scholastic honors and a scholarship award after years of street violence, wrote a poem that picks up Sauls’s thoughts and ends with a question that each person I interviewed, in his own way, managed to answer:
Tempers high, and fists shall fly
Bump into another, no longer brothers
Reckless action, with life’s subtraction
Deaths immediate, due to an idiot
Berserk rage, just another page
In this tale called life, but one of strife
Furious pain, as muscles strain
To close another’s book, ’cause you got shook
Insecure, with thoughts impure
Misery and sorrow, is there a better tomorrow…?
In the matrix of reversed logic that Waldo Sauls sometimes chooses to spin his thoughts, he has found an answer. And like the other young men interviewed here who have attempted to successfully complete their parole phases with the help of their mentor-lawyers, Waldo Sauls is a remarkable young man. His achievement, against distressing odds, is praiseworthy.
“Men make us who we are,” he says, “but we should not consider ourselves man-made.”