<a href="http://www.emilywinfieldmartin.com/">Emily Winfield Martin</a>
“I’ve always been hard-headed,” confesses Lucas Taylor, “and I have lots of trouble listening to other people’s views. I like math, though. There’s always one right answer.”
The first semester has ended, and Taylor and I sit outside a coffee shop not far from the college. Taylor stands six feet, three inches tall, weighs 340 pounds, and sports a thick brown beard. On this day, he wears dark glasses and a baseball cap turned backward. He is 28 years old.
Two months earlier, in my introduction to philosophy class, students often seemed taken aback at Taylor’s assertive, even arrogant, demeanor during discussion sessions. On several occasions, when he spoke up forcefully, it struck me that an attempt to keep a lid on tight was failing.
Taylor returned to community college in the fall of 2014 to begin forging a new career. After once giving up on school at 19, he’d been pursuing a life of professional crime — and chaos. During that period, he came to be known as “Grizzly.”
“I am the poster boy for the idea that a disastrous childhood leads to lifelong crime,” he had written in an assignment. “Now if that is true, I should never be able to turn my life around.”
In his second try, Taylor wasn’t finding college academics hard, though maintaining concentration was a problem at first. The particular difficulty he had in my class, he says, was stopping his intolerance from flaring up. The variety of opinions that students express he seemed to be finding hard to take.
But in one tangent on cybersecurity, Taylor struck a more knowledgeable than confrontational tone. He displayed a comfortable familiarity with computers and information technology. At the time, he attributed his expertise to experience he’d gained working as a bill collector. He held forth for several minutes on how easy it is to track people online.
As we continue sipping coffee in the afternoon sun, I try to learn more about his technical knowledge. “Remember what you told the class about being a bill collector?” I ask.
“Oh, that was a euphemism for what I learned doing identity theft. I was leery of my classmates dwelling too much on something I didn’t want to explain.”
But it was something else that first piqued my interest in Taylor’s story. A segment of the course on the topic of free will versus determinism, long a staple of introductory philosophy courses, brought forth Taylor’s most passionate expressiveness. He first wrote an essay rejecting criminality as a fate, arguing that anyone could move beyond it to productive activity. Then, in class, he raged against the kind of defeatist attitude that keeps the doors revolving from mean streets to incarceration and back again.
Taylor’s college major will be electronics engineering, he says — to be used eventually for legal purposes, of course. He is sure he can create his own destiny. But does reality allow this to happen? Our unique heredities and the environments we live in often seem to dictate the outcomes of our lives. That is, in fact, what a view called hard determinism maintains. The universe is a vast system of material causes and effects that play out like clockwork. It’s difficult sometimes to see how powerful the influences on us are because the world is so complex. But whatever has happened in our lives could not have been otherwise. And what you “choose” to do today and tomorrow is already written in the blueprint. In other words, our belief in free will is an illusion.
This view was the reason why Taylor became so agitated. He’d already been down a hard road. Were that road and his make-up determining what he thought to be his newest choice? Or will his history bite him in the future and fling him back to the dissolute life again? It’s early yet, and there is no guarantee that Taylor’s turnaround will last. But listening to determinists, he thinks, could cause him to give up. It would be as though he accepts being doomed already.
Many seductions could pull Taylor back into crime. Take only the money. During his criminal life, Taylor claims he swam in bundles of cash. These days he and his girlfriend subsist on his freelance computer troubleshooting work and her steady but low-paying job. He’s no longer the big shot high roller. Isn’t the temptation powerful at times to go back into the fast lane again?
No, claims Taylor, because “I frittered away most of the dough anyway, on drugs and booze.”
How about the chemical dependencies? His drug and alcohol use became so extensive that he’s had to start taking medication to repair his liver. Again, Taylor is confident. It would seem naively so. But he says he’s not had anything to drink nor taken any drugs for six months. Did he attend Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-step programs? How about a treatment program? Neither one. “I just decided to stop one evening while staring at the ocean from the shore in Mission Beach,” he tells me.
Taylor credits two sources of help. Weekly, he receives psychotherapy, and he has been prescribed medications to help overcome the substance addictions. “I think the doses have to be large,” Taylor recently tells me, “because of my size.”
Football, drugs, and crime
I was curious about the criminal life Taylor says he led, and the extravagance of his story eventually turned me incredulous in regard to many of its details. He tells me he started running afoul of the law when he was in a Spring Valley grammar school.
“I had trouble controlling my emotions, especially anger,” he says. Threatening another student in the fifth grade led to his being expelled. “At the next school the following year, I shanked a student and got expelled again. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision as a violent outburst. I felt bad about it afterwards and, to this day, I still don’t know what the thought process was that led me to do that.” The incident resulted in the transfer to a third school.
The school transfers created tensions with his new classmates, and his reputation had followed him. Toward the end of his sixth-grade year, he says, “A kid who was stealing from the woodshop teacher tried to pin it on me. But I had nothing to do with that one.”
Participation in football, at first informal, began to use up Taylor’s energy in seventh and eighth grades and relieve a lot of the stress he was experiencing. He says he was “only skating by” in his school work.
Then came San Miguel High School, where he made the varsity football team.
By tenth grade, Taylor says he gained a reputation as “having a future in football.... There are only a few ways out of a place like Spring Valley, and teachers began giving me the proverbial social promotions.” Taylor’s mother knew he wasn’t succeeding academically, though, and decided to have him tested for learning disabilities. For a week, he says he went through a battery of tests and came out with high intelligence scores. It encouraged him that “not my intellect, but my motivation and the exhaustion from football were the problem.” But he developed a strong resentment toward his mother for putting him through the tests.
Robotics was one academic program Taylor loved at school.
“I was always good with my hands, fixing bicycles and things like that, so robotics was really fun.” It was also his introduction to computers.
Taylor continued to excel in football and, as an offensive lineman, became proud of his team setting a league rushing record. He eventually suffered two injuries, the second ending participation in football in his senior year. By this time he had already been drinking heavily and using street drugs. As time went on, his behavior became ever more erratic. He was selling marijuana and ecstasy.
Taylor’s mother kicked him out of the house when he was 17 (his father had died in his infancy). So he went to live with his grandparents. The move helped temporarily because he looked up to his grandfather.
“I loved him as the wise man in my life,” says Taylor, “a retired Navy chief, who had survived lots of tragedies. He had been a boxer, someone who put on a very tough-guy face to the world, and I tried to follow his mentality.”
Four years later, his grandfather died of cancer. “It sent me reeling,” says Taylor, “but I didn’t feel I could grieve because I had to take care of my grandmother. To everyone else, though, I became an all-around asshole, losing patience with everyone.”
The steady decline culminated in Taylor’s first arrest and conviction. About this event he speaks only cryptically. It seemed to involve possession of a firearm in addition to drugs and alcohol abuse. There is no mention of it in San Diego County’s criminal records. But Taylor does say that he plea-bargained and had enough money to pay for substance-abuse classes that kept him out of jail. Throughout his criminal career, he claims, he was able to avoid state prison, doing a combined total of no more than 30 days in county jail.
“After that, I toned down my more extreme behaviors, although not completely,” he tells me, “and focused on the business side of things, selling drugs and stolen property, anything I could get my hands on. I tried always to play smart, plan things out. Those who don’t plan well are the ones who end up in prison.
“In drug dealing, there is a graduation that takes place. Most of us would start out with weed. It’s the least likely to land you in jail for a long time. It’s not a fiend drug. Fiends will call you at all hours of the night and come knock on your bedroom window. So weed is the easiest. Then you graduate to a narcotic like ecstasy or cocaine. That was a progression I went through. A lot of dealers stay in cocaine because it can be extremely lucrative. Or you go on to crystal meth and guns. Crystal users are tremendously paranoid, so the gun sales fit right in.”
After a while, Taylor moved to the area near El Cajon and 70th Streets and sold crystal in his neighborhood. But he also became well recognized in La Jolla, where the clientele wanted mostly cocaine and didn’t haggle much about prices. “It was risky, though, especially travelling with the stuff in the car,” he tells me.
He moved again, to another part of town that he declines to identify. There he worked with a few other people on home invasions, strictly to steal property and later fence it.
“We’d have to get in and out fast because lots of times people have alarm systems. So we’d try to disable those first and leave in about 90 seconds. It takes cops, at a minimum, that much time to get there. We’d go for the first things we saw — jewelry, electronic equipment, and so on. But also credit cards or anything else with identification information on it.”
One time, says Taylor, police interrupted a burglary attempt, and he had to flee to his own place. The cops showed up, thinking it was someone else who’d slipped into the house and asking Taylor, as the homeowner, if he’d seen the culprit.
“My two pit bulls were in a bedroom going crazy and the cops decided not to enter that room, where I’d thrown the stolen goods. Those dogs saved my butt more than once.”
Taylor also led larger teams that pulled off lucrative identity thefts. Once they had credit-card numbers, he says, they manufactured 18 or 20 cards and gave them to team members to go out and make purchases. “Girls were good at it because they could often hoodwink a young male cashier into being more careless than he should be.”
Taylor seemed willing to do anything illegal that made money. The one exception was human trafficking. Perhaps it was only the lack of opportunity that prevented it, although he tells me he knew people who were involved in that type of activity.
Even drug-running across the border soon turned him off after a few tries. He claims his last adventure at the border fixed his attitude forever.
In Mexico, he had the right wheel well of his car loaded with a large shipment of cocaine. At the border, the U.S. agent asked him the usual questions, checked under the seats and in the trunk, and everything seemed fine. But a German shepherd began acting strangely and sat down near the cargo, staring at Taylor through the opened right door.
“That’s all the dog did,” says Taylor, “just stare at me. I thought for sure the dog would signal what he smelled to the guard. I remained as cool as I could but, just to show how crazy my thinking was at that time, I prepared to smash the dog in the face if it came near me.
“The guard kept me for about 20 minutes and finally told me I could go. All this while, a smuggler had been in line right behind me. He followed me as I drove to the drop house after I got over the border. For the longest time, he and several others who were waiting at the house grilled me about why it had taken so long at the border. They were suspicious I had been ratting them out while the border guard questioned me. One of them put on such a severe face that I thought I might not make it out of there alive.
“After three hours, they did pay me $1500 and let me go. It pissed me off, though, because I’d done something big for them and then they treated me like crap.”
Rumbling filled the emptiness
Lucas Taylor liked to sit with friends in his favorite night clubs, whose names and locations he keeps close to the vest.
“You would not believe what goes on in those places. On some nights, I saw lines of cocaine strung the length of the table. People you wouldn’t believe are there getting high: doctors and lawyers and anybody else with lots of money.”
To hear Taylor tell it, he was a big player in the bars because he could provide some of the drugs and attractive young women who would go into the restrooms for sex with generous men.
“Everybody wants extra money these days, and I talked a lot of those girls into doing that. It’s the biggest regret I have about things I did in my former life. There’s something about trading in flesh that doesn’t sit well. But at least I never forced the girls into anything or laid a hand on them. I would always have their backs, and they never wanted for anything. If I hadn’t, somebody else might have convinced them and maybe beat them up.”
Taylor says that he often dropped as much as $1000 buying rounds of drinks in the clubs. Sometimes, at the end of the evenings, he and his cronies would end up in street fights outside.
“I really liked to rumble,” he tells me. “It filled the emptiness in me, the way sex does for some people, or gambling for others. Because I was big and good at fighting, it was something that earned me a lot of praise. It’s how I acquired the nickname Grizzly.”
The tough-guy reputation propelled him into the alpha-male position among his peers in crime. By the summer of 2014, however, Taylor had had enough. At the time, he and his girlfriend were having trouble finding a place to live. They had spent short stints with relatives, but other renters were leery of his pit bulls. The couple had been homeless a time or two, but they were always able to keep the dogs with them. Finally, in El Cajon, they found an apartment that accepted the dogs.
But Taylor knew he had to get rid of the dogs. “I loved those dogs but was convinced they would eventually attack someone,” he says. “If I was going to have them put them down, I’d have to have a really good reason.”
One evening, after an argument at home, Taylor went out to Mission Beach, where he stood on the boardwalk staring at the ocean. “Why couldn’t I do something better? I have been successful on the streets,” it occurred to him, “so I could also succeed in a regular career.” He went back, and that evening both he and his girlfriend decided to enroll in community college.
It is four months after my first interview with Taylor. We meet in the college cafeteria, where he talks about the math and science classes he has been taking in the second semester. Something tells me they have not gone as well as he expected or that his enthusiasm for electronics has waned.
“People can change their lives,” Taylor insists, “without knowing exactly which direction to take. If you stop doing what you once did, you can start to create new options and control things that once were beyond control.”
But he concedes that he is facing old demons, such as severe anxiety, night terrors, and insomnia. And he still struggles with outbursts of anger. His psychiatrist is now treating him for not only substance addictions but for bipolar disorder as well. He now takes high doses of antipsychotic medications.
Taylor has always given me the impression that he is of two minds about his criminal life. I don’t doubt he wants to change and create a respectable career for himself. But especially his stories of high rolling in the clubs suggest a pride in the status he believes he achieved in the underworld. Do I think he lies about his exploits? Possibly. Exaggeration is probably more like it.
Does he have the free will to change? I can only say personally that I believe freedom to be not a question of yes or no but rather of degree. So, can Lucas Taylor still forge his own destiny? To some degree, yes. He is finding out how much.
Lucas Taylor passed away on Thursday, August 27. He died in his sleep. His fiancee, Ericka Zesati, called me to say she took him to the emergency room two days earlier after he started experiencing a great deal of pain. He then went to his doctor the following day.
Taylor and Zesati were high school sweethearts and had been dating regularly for the last seven years. They were planning to marry this coming January. — Joe Deegan