Gangstas in Paradise

Galveston has beautiful beaches, the Strand and Moody Gardens. North of Broadway it has the projects, crippling poverty and big-city problems. And now the bad guys are back.

I was eight years old when I first got directed into the Crips gang, the 29th Street Crips gang. First I started off running drugs for them 'cause at that time police didn't really look at little kids in search of some. They would have us to run the dope and make their sales…I guess I was good at that, so I guess I just moved up. I was a runner, then I was a pusher, then I was a dealer…I started working my own stuff.

By 11 I was holding my own. I smoked marijuana, but as far as like crack and all that other stuff, no. My mama, she was a successful drug dealer at the time; she got strung out on her own stuff and I vowed to myself I'd never be like her. Growing up in Cedar Terrace, it was kind of hard and I didn't have a lot of things that kids should have at that time. No father figure. He was in the penitentiary…My mom was out there smoking dope…I was out there hustling. -- "Michael," age 23, an OG from Galveston

At 23, Michael sits in a straight- back chair in a private meeting room, ready for redemption. He wants to be responsible and caring, wants his nieces and nephews to avoid the path he took, wishes more than anything that he hadn't had his latest run-in with the police a couple of months ago, right when he was about to turn his life around.


He looks younger than 23, babyfaced. On closer examination, the dents show. One forearm has a twisted, wormlike lump. That's where he got shot and didn't go to the hospital because he and his stepfather weren't getting along so well and he didn't want him to find out about what he'd been doing. The hand swelled and turned green, until three days later there was no hiding it. He shows off scuffed knuckles, saying anyone can see he'll fight. His original weapon of choice was the machete.

He's a born-on-the-island Galvestonian and a gangbanging Crip, and the one has tied him so firmly to the other that even though he knows he needs to leave if he's ever going to get out of trouble, he just can't see his way clear to do that.

His options are limited. He goes to job interviews, but after two years in the Texas prison system, he says, most interviewers won't look him in the eye. He dropped out of Ball High -- had to, he says, because his life was too hectic what with his drug business, the gang fights and shootings. He was pulling in $1,600 a day, even dealing out of the fast food restaurant where he worked for cover to explain his money.

Now, he can't afford to hire an attorney on the charges of prohibited weapons and retaliation against an officer. He racked those up four months ago when police found a bag of guns on his living room floor and him sitting on the couch, a little bit drunk and holding a gun at his waist after a fight with his wife.

Michael -- none of the gangsters interviewed for this article want their real names used -- is what's called an OG, or Original Gangster. Many of them had been away in prison. Now they're back, and police believe they're pumping up the younger gangsters with their tales of glorious exploits at the height of Galveston's gang problems in the early 1990s. They're providing that extra spark that moves disagreements from fistfights to shootings.

In the past year there have been more than 20 gang-related shootings, compared to just five the year before, police say. It's the old days returned, but smarter, wiser. Shootings happen in the middle of the night, from undercover ambush. Kids dress in black. It's not like it was in the early '90s, when someone would get mad and just blaze away in broad daylight. It seems you can teach an old gangster new tricks, and then pass them on to younger brethren.

On October 3 about 12:15 a.m. on 39th Street, a semiautomatic handgun was used to kill 17-year-old Richard Leon Jones. He was shot five times, three of them in the back. Another man, 19-year-old Benson Lionell Winn, wasn't hit. But their friend, Jerry Richard, 19, was shot once in the head, crawled away and somehow survived.

And as much as Michael wants to stay out of gang business and shootings and death, he got dragged back in. Jerry Richard is a relative of his, and that night Michael got to race to UTMB in the early-morning hours to find out whether Jerry was alive or dead. "They had to take out his whole frontal lobe to get to the bullet," says Michael, adding that Jerry is still trying to regain use of his left hand.

Galveston Police Captain Edward Benavidez didn't hesitate to call the shooting gang-related and possibly connect it to another shooting later that same day. Benavidez has mounted a task force to try to keep tabs on the increasing gang activity. Officers track the names, the whereabouts, the times they encounter Crips or Bloods, and file and cross-reference and map.

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