Gangstas in Paradise

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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.

It's a military operation, understandable given Benavidez's prior tour of duty as a marine in Vietnam.

These gangsters don't come from the part of Galveston regularly seen by tourists. Gang haunts aren't the Strand, the Seawall or 61st Street. They won't be dining at Gaido's. Take a wrong turn and there they are, though, over on Winnie at 39th, Winnie at 29th, 25th at L, Tenth at L, 55th at M. They gather for fights outside the A&M grocery at 36th and M. They come from the projects -- Cedar Terrace, Palm Terrace, Magnolia Homes and Oleander Homes, where surfboards are few to nonexistent. Eighty percent are African-American. They attend Galveston public schools, where 58 percent of the students get free or reduced-price lunches. Many never make it over the causeway to the mainland, officials say. Most live north of Broadway where the cops drive slow and shine their lights at night and ask people to move along, writing them up for "impeding the sidewalk" if they don't.

Galveston -- that little bit of paradise, the storied land of pirate Jean Lafitte, exotic foliage, pastel-colored historical homes, lighthouses and sandy beaches just an hour's drive from Houston -- has a problem rivaling that of any major city. Thirty-two miles long and three miles wide at its widest point, this city of fewer than 60,000 people is home to at least 20 separate gangs, with more than 350 members associated with either the Bloods or the Crips.

Step in from the edges a bit and find crime, blinding poverty and desperation. The gangs were supposed to be gone. What social programs of the early and mid-'90s didn't turn around, law enforcement took care of with hard-core, aggressive policing. They sent the bad guys away, usually on drug, weapon or theft convictions.

But now the gangsters are back. Some, like Michael, say they want to settle down, be given another chance. They say the island needs to do more for its own, more activities, more education, more job possibilities.

Others are clearly ready to reclaim their turf, and if trouble comes, well then, trouble comes. Shooting and dying is just part of the deal. Little ticking time bombs, that's what they are, with a deadly fatalism guaranteed to get themselves and others in reams of trouble.

On an island divided into bits and pieces of gang territory, the dance floor at the Boys and Girls Club at the corner of 45th and P is neutral ground.

Bloods and Crips come together Friday nights. Colors are checked at the door under the watchful eye of police officers like Clemente Garcia. Bloods are red and Crips are blue, but that's in transition too, as Crips have started using gray and black. There's never been a weapon seized, but that's probably because they know the officers are there. Occasionally someone throws down gang signs, the police shine lights on them, order them to cut it out.

Mostly, it's a dance like any other teenage dance; girls hang with girls, boys with boys, circling the floor again and again, pressed to the walls of the room until someone asks someone to dance to rap music.

Only students are admitted to the dance. Those suspended have to wait out their time. Robert Quintero, the club's vice president of operations and development, says kids are always trying to sneak in.

The club is so determined to make the dance a safe haven that it offers kids bus rides home so no one has to walk back through the wrong territory or turf. There are two city buses, a squad car and police officers. "We guarantee that to the families," Quintero says. "Of course, we can't guarantee that they'll get on those buses."

The club also has an outreach project to try to get dropouts back in school, and an after-school program available to its 2,300 members for $10 a year. But Quintero says there are families with several children who can't handle even this much and the fee is waived. The age range is six to 17.

The Boys and Girls Club is grant-driven and constantly looking for money. Things used to be better. It and other social service agencies in Galveston used to get more grants, but money on the island was reallocated to infrastructure. Cheryl Chatman of the Boys and Girls Club says the kids asked for the dance. It used to be open till three in the morning, but they don't have the funds for that any longer. "If we had the funding," she says, "we'd do it again."

Frank Bankston is the gang intervention specialist for the club. A soft-spoken, earnest man, he attends the dances to keep an eye on the hardcores and the wanna-bes. He says dances go well; trouble, when it starts, is two to three blocks away, where the suspended kids wait for the dance to let out.

Bankston is not a believer in the power of the prison system to turn around lives. He thinks the gangsters are back and want to reorganize. He's working hard to reclaim OGs like Michael, offering them other options. "Most of them don't have a father role model. There's nothing positive in their lives. So we try to teach them things about family unity and self-esteem."

Ask club president Johnny Enriquez, and he'll tell you there's a direct correlation between the drop in social program funding and the rise in gangs and juvenile crime. The Island Youth Programs, which drew together social services groups, the city, the Galveston school district and the University of Texas Medical Branch paid attention to these kids and intervened as problems developed. But by the end of the 1990s, when it seemed like the gang problem had disappeared, almost all the funding was pulled.

"In the '90s we had an endless stream of funding. We're facing a $40,000 to $50,000 deficit this year. The community, society got relaxed. I said several years ago in '96 when we had the big funding cut [from the Moody Foundation] that this would happen," Enriquez says.

In its heyday, the Galveston Boys and Girls Club got a lot of recognition. "We showed the state how it should be done," Enriquez says. "We had people visit us from New York, L.A., the Valley; the Great Cheyenne Nation came down to see our programs."

Now the problems are back. There isn't enough to do in Galveston, and there isn't enough attention being paid to these kids, Enriquez says. With the dance and the other programs, Enriquez tries to cut into the gangs' recruiting base.

Punishing them with prison hasn't done them or the island any good, Enriquez says.

"In all honesty, we spend $90,000 over three years to send them to prison, and the only thing they come out to do is become better gangsters. I know they're going to be harder to catch."

Club programs are designed to hold the kids accountable rather than punish them, he says. It was the same kind of program that helped him when he was one of seven children growing up in a housing project, before he went on to serve in Vietnam.

Enriquez runs through his former programs like a list of beloved family members wiped out in an earthquake. The truancy program freed officers from four to five hours of paperwork; instead they brought truants to the club to handle.

In the "Child in Need of Supervision" program, kids with more than three Class C misdemeanors were referred to the club before they moved on up the chain. The Boys and Girls Club hired police officers to supervise community service. Police would pick up the no-shows in a patrol car, making an indelible impression.

In Teen Court, students would be not only sentenced but asked to return to serve on the court. In "Second Chance," counselors went to the homes of youths in danger of being incarcerated, the ultimate salvage effort.

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc agrees the city had a lot more social programs in the past, but he's not sure of their effectiveness.

"A lot of these programs were paying administrative salaries that were not going into effective programs. Four to five years ago the council did a complete 180. No more administrative payments would go out to social service agencies," LeBlanc says. "They really weren't doing things other than pay their own salaries. They would hire themselves and two staff people and not do a whole lot that was effective."

Instead, LeBlanc says, the city went to the immediate community and asked what they wanted, and the answer was streetlights and sidewalks. The city demolished crack houses, built basketball courts, instituted community policing and set up a program to encourage first-time home buyers.

"Now we've gone through a complete cycle of that. The pendulum has swung, and we need more of a balance. We don't know what that is going to develop into." One thing he does know is that this won't be solved by just throwing more police at it.

The city has devoted ample attention to gangs in recent weeks, holding and trying to hold community meetings, which can be tricky. "Things are going slowly," gang specialist Bankston says. "One meeting was at a church. Well, the Crips didn't show because they didn't want to be preached at. The next meeting was on 43rd, where no Bloods would show up because it was the Crips' territory."

Gang members who've shown at meetings say their civil rights are regularly violated by police, that there's not enough to do in Galveston, there are few jobs and the city should give them another chance.

The city has started a midnight basketball program on Saturdays, but attendance has been lackluster. The city is alternating sites between the turfs of the Bloods and the Crips. Bankston says that until they get the gang leaders to buy into midnight basketball, it just won't work. "You can go and pull a few gang kids in, but you need to get the leaders," he says. LeBlanc says simply that if no one shows up, they'll switch to something else.

With Community Development Block Grant money, the City Council plans to develop something recreational or educational in the Carver Old Center area. A new rec center is planned to replace the Wright Cuney center, built in the 1940s for army reservists.

Enriquez agrees the city is making efforts. "The problem I see is territorial. You're not going to get a gang member to go to another neighborhood." He also is frustrated about the funding shortages, especially when he thinks about the extremely wealthy people who also live on Galveston.

"We have people in this community who with a shake of a pen can make something happen immediately."

Steve slumps back in a studied pose, disdainful, guarded, hostile and tough. The 16-year-old in the red-checked shirt can't go to the Boys and Girls Club dance after being suspended from school. He's not happy about that or about much of anything else, it seems.

He says he's a gangster, says he's a Blood, says he's that way because that's the way he was raised; his relatives were all Bloods. He hangs around with his fellow gangsters, gets in a few fights from time to time. He's been in trouble once, got sent to the detention center in Texas City for holding onto a kid's bike, not letting him leave, but says that won't happen again. He says he doesn't know why he did that, but it was stupid.

Last October, he and one of his homeboys were in a car in a parking lot when a Crip stabbed his 15-year-old friend. "I had to run because the police came. I ran to A&M store." His friend didn't die, but he got stitches. "The guy who did it went to TYC over that."

Despite his toughness, Steve is one of the kids Frank Bankston and the Boys and Girls Club think they can save. He says he's toned down his gang involvement. He wants to go to the University of Houston and eventually be a professional athlete in football, baseball or basketball. His grades are B's, C's and D's with "one or two A's," so the dream isn't just wishful thinking.

He lives in Magnolia Homes and would like to change schools, moving away from Ball High and his friends there. School fights don't go on that much, he says, except "sometimes the Mexicans fight each other and sometimes the Mexicans fight the blacks," but right outside school is a different story. The first week of classes police were dispatched to Ball High at every afternoon release. By that week's end there was enough police presence -- complete with paddy wagon -- to keep things calm. The next week it rained, further cooling off tempers.

Steve has talked to his mother about going to school in League City, but that's doubtful. How's he going to get there? He spends summers outside Texas in various parts of the country. But during the school year he rarely ventures over the causeway except to buy school clothes. He likes living in Galveston but doesn't think he'll do well if he stays.

He had a court date in late November because of the tobacco ticket he got for smoking a cigar. Asked why he lit up, he's instant belligerence: "'Cause I felt like smoking it."

He and the police are not pals. Police single out young black men all the time, he says. "They see two black kids in a car, they're going to automatically pull you over." In his most recent encounter, he says, the officer asked them why they were driving so slow, trashed their car, then gave them a ticket for turning on the wrong blinker, using the right when it should have been the left.

Not everyone who lives in the projects is a gang member, Steve says. Not everyone who wears red is a gangbanger, he adds. And not everyone who wants to be a gang member gets included, Steve says.

"You got to be raised up in a local project [to be a Blood], on a street that's known for being a hood. Many people get rejected because they say they're from there but they're not really from there." But these kids aren't discarded entirely, Steve says. Some are used as gang flunkies, assigned undesirable errands and chores.

Pressed again for why he became a gang member, Steve says, "For friendship, true friends." He has a mother, father and three siblings, but the gang is where he went for friendship. When asked about the option of joining school clubs instead, words fail him.

Steve says he's never owned a gun and that "killing don't make you a gangster." The rising number of gang shootings is a maturity thing, he says. "Kids are getting older and more mature and think they should do more mature things. Instead of fighting they think they should shoot."

He likes the Boys and Girls Club. "There's always something to do." He doesn't take the bus home from there, though; doesn't want to miss any fights, which he says are fun to watch.

"[The police] come by. They don't come by on time. They come by in the police car, but they don't got time to get out the car and chase after nobody."

Steve contradicts himself when he talks about what his parents know of his gang affiliation. First he says they're trying to get him out of it. Then he says they don't really know that he's in a gang. According to Bankston, who talks to Steve's mother, she's well aware her son is a Blood.

Four times during the interview, Steve dropped his guard. He laughed when he was asked if he liked country music. On his own initiative he offered to demonstrate his gang's handshake. He giggled about watching fights outside the A&M. And he said his trip to Universal Studios was really cool and way better than Disneyland.

In a moment, though, all that disappears in a blaze of testosterone. Don't come at him wrong or try to patronize him, he warns. "If you do, I'm going to charge you up, I'm going to get in your face."

Officer Jim Bitner is a 28-year-old widower with a ten-year-old daughter and a fiancée. He's been in Galveston for two years, after serving as a Harris County constable. He's a self- proclaimed hard-liner about crime; thinks there should be harsher punishments, more prisons. He doesn't believe the problems can be blamed on race or poverty. He says "missing family values" is the culprit.

He works the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, and as he drives along on a recent Saturday night, he shines a harsh spotlight from his car onto people sitting on their front stoops. A few wave. Most either retreat back inside their houses or stare silently. He takes a back route, and three men standing in an alleyway melt into the shadows. He spots a car moving slowly down the street, no license plates. Could be a drug dealer or a gangbanger hoping to avoid being caught.

He drives by Cedar Terrace, a Crips area in the projects. Recently rehabbed, the units don't look bad on the outside. He says they're the scene of major narcotic activity.

"There are a lot of extremely nice people who live here, and a bad element is mixed in." He was part of a team investigating a gang shooting at 28th and Seawall last year. He has little use for gangs, prefers writing traffic tickets because "it's clean, it's handled."

The gang fighting, most of it is retaliation, driving and looking for anyone wearing rival gang colors, he says. "Younger gangsters won't fight with their hands. They fight with guns. The older guys are encouraging the younger guys to shoot."

His objectives have changed from when he first became a cop. To really stop gangs and drugs, he says, "We would have to just destroy the Fourth Amendment. You'd have to be able to search anybody at any time, any place." Demand for drugs is so enormous, he says, that taking out a dealer just gives another enterprising gang the chance to move up.

So his philosophy has become a simpler one. "My goal is to make sure no one is hurt when I'm in the area."

Bitner readily admits that to be inside a gang member's head is beyond him. Most will run when an officer steps out on them; most police will then give chase, he says. But the fact is, his high school cross-country days are long over. "I'm 200 pounds with 20 pounds of gear on me…They're in Nikes and windbreakers." Plus his reward if he catches them is three hours of paperwork and they're back out on the street before him, selling dope to raise money to pay a lawyer.

To deal with the problems, the city has enacted certain laws. It's illegal to impede the sidewalk (two suspected prostitutes get written up for that on this night). It's illegal to have an unregistered bicycle. Bitner says that for a while dealers were selling all their dope on bicycles.

He's very concerned that the public understand that police are working very hard to solve this thing. Nine new officers are in training, he says. A tactical response team has been put together. There are heightened patrols in the bad spots.

Captain Benavidez, a former Galveston SWAT commander, has $20,000 for the gang response team and stretches it as far as it will go. He pays four-officer teams overtime four times a week. The money is gone after December 31.

The housing authority also hires off-duty officers to patrol, and Benavidez coordinates the assignments. If those arrested can be identified as gang members, police notify the district attorney's office, which usually results in a higher bond and stiffer punishment.

Benavidez sends regular reports to the Texas Attorney General's Gang Resource System, building an information database.

What everyone counts on, though, is just old age. "Eventually they get old enough, they don't want to be gangbangers anymore," Bitner says.

Officer Robert Owens works the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at his own request. He likes to be where the big action is. While there may be fewer calls than the earlier shift, late-night happenings are usually more serious.

At first, he wasn't interested in dealing with gangs. But he was interested in investigating drug cases, and in Galveston the two are often, though not always, linked.

What you find out, says the Boys and Girls Club's Bankston, is that often gang fights aren't so much about territory as they are about drugs. As he puts it: "This is my turf. This is my turf. No, this is my dope turf."

Owens believes more proactive intervention, more social programs would help. "These kids who get in gangs don't know anything else. In most cases, their daddy was locked up." Still, he's not ready to blame everything on the parents, either.

"A lot of the parents I've talked to, they're trying hard," Owens says. There is a nighttime curfew, which gives police probable cause to write citations. This "detains them a little bit," according to Owens.

Criminal histories kill job opportunities, Owens says. Asked if the military wouldn't be a good channel for their aggression, Owens is quick and brief. "That won't work. They don't like authority."

One of the very sensitive areas is whether there's a history of police racism. Gang members say there is. One social activist, who did not want to be named, said there clearly is racial profiling, causing cops to issue a lot of tickets to African-Americans. That causes hostility between the community and police.

Owens says he's been told the force used to be racist. But he's been with it only four and a half years, so he doesn't know. He does know that most of the kids he encounters have been taught by their parents to hate police.

Clay is a dark figure in a dark night standing in running shoes on a sidewalk across the street from the Cedar Terrace projects. Even though relatives live there, he's not allowed in -- Galveston Housing Authority rules ban felons from the property. And Clay has recently finished up eight years flat in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

So he sits across from Cedar Terrace, visiting every day from his new residence in La Marque. He denies he's a gangster; in fact he mostly denies that anyone on Galveston Island is a gangster. The police say he's a bona fide documented gangbanger.

In fact, police say the 26-year-old is among the top three gang leaders running the Cedar Terrace operation. Which he does from across the street.

At first, he doesn't want to talk. Assured his real name won't be published, he decides to walk down the block a little, away from other people, and answer questions.

"When I was 11 or 12 I first started selling weed," he says, quickly riffing through his résumé. "I was hanging with people who steal, but I didn't know how to steal. My mom was trying to raise three kids, and we didn't have the money. I was looking for something to get into that would bring me the money."

He was kicked out of school. Asked why, he dismisses that with a vague "There were too many distractions."

He was 16 when he went to prison. What he leaves out is why: aggravated robbery, evading arrest, four counts felony theft, two attempted murders, possession of a controlled substance, an unlawful weapons charge, and that's just the major stuff.

He spent considerable time in the law library, he says, and knows his rights. In the two years since his release, he's been in Galveston jail a lot. He says that's because he speaks his mind, and is the target of fake charges and police harassment. Police say it's because he keeps breaking the law and has a violent temper. He has been known to kick out the windows of patrol cars after being placed inside, police say. Officer Bitner says Clay has probably been arrested 30 times since getting out of prison.

He wears a lot of colors, just doesn't happen to like red, which doesn't make him a Crip, he says. He takes care of his family, he says, likes to organize block parties, and helps people. He says he counsels kids to keep them respectable.

But even in his accounting, violence remains part of his life. His brother was shot and killed. He, himself, was the target in a recent shooting. He says he has no idea what caused the other guy to fire at him. He works different jobs when he's not in jail, says he's going offshore to do sandblasting.

There is no way he wants to leave Galveston. "Why would I run? Why would I leave? Why can't I stay in the community?" At one of the community meetings, he asked the mayor: "Why do you feel I can't change? Just 'cause I wear blue doesn't mean I can't change."

His civil rights are violated all the time, Clay says. Go to the other side of Broadway, and there's no problem standing out on the sidewalk in front of your house, talking with your neighbors. "They see us, they feel like they have to break us apart. We're just having a good time."

Bitner concedes that one, to a point. What Clay apparently doesn't realize, he says, is that residents in that very neighborhood are calling in on him, tired of the drug dealing. "And yeah, people in the other parts of town don't get citations for standing on the sidewalk in front of their homes and talking. But I don't get calls there like I do on Winnie and 29th."

Thanked for the interview, Clay strolls off, only to be called back for a moment by Bitner. "Just for grins, and I promise I'm not going to jack with you," Bitner tells him, "let's see what's in your right front pocket."

Clay shuffles backward, an aw-shucks grin on his face.

Bitner asks again. With a shrug, Clay pulls out a wad of $100 bills -- $1,400 worth. This is some well-paying part-time work.

Michael will tell you straight out, he hasn't had a very happy life.

His mother used to take him everywhere she went, which sounds idyllic until he tells you that included crack houses. That's how he got raped, he says, when he was just six or seven years old. She'd left him in an upstairs room, and when he went to her, she was too messed up on crack and told him to go back upstairs. That's where a man and woman sexually abused him, he says.

His mother wasn't there for him a lot of other times in his life.

"The last time I seen my mom it was early '91; she had just got out of rehab," he says. She was straight for about six months, got a job at UTMB, but got fired when they tested her and she came out positive. He says he knew she was using again because her butt started to shrink, and that's the first thing to go when someone's heavily into crack.

"When they smoke crack, it's like that person -- the shell of them -- is there, but the person inside is not there. As long as they get a buzz they all right. My mom, she sold everything. I came home from the penitentiary, she had sold everything. I didn't even have a house to come home to, that's how bad it was."

At 15 he went to the Texas Youth Commission for petty theft, for breaking into cars. Despite the money he was supposedly making from drug dealing, he needed to do this to build respect among fellow gang members.

The money really started rolling in later. By the time he was 17, he says, he was flush with cash. He could have made more than $1,600 a day, but he was careful, not wanting to attract too much attention to himself. He saved some, and a lot of it disappeared in cars and furniture and a nice apartment. He got engaged to his future wife and things were looking up, then his wife miscarried.

Despite every precaution, at 19 he got popped and went to prison. At one point in the conversation he says it was for aggravated robbery; another time he says it was just a collection of "failures to appear" that finally caught up with him. He mentions he "did a lot of violent stuff that I never got caught for." In any event, he was jailed for about two and a half years, he says, eight months in county, a year in the state prison in Beaumont and the rest of the sentence in Childress.

Prison wasn't that bad, he says. "Everybody I knew was in there. Just had to hold my own. Mainly staying to myself, and I stayed with my homeboys."

Since getting out, he's been doing odd jobs. He was working at the Dow chemical plant, but he got sick and quit. He thinks he could make a good marine. "My skills are already honed. I can sneak up on you." But really the job he wants is to be a firefighter, and he plans to go to college next semester and take courses that would qualify him for the work. He believes God told him that's the job for him. He wants to make up for past wrongs.

Right now, though, those plans are on hold, on account of the weapons charges. "I had an AK-47, two Tec-Nines, a nine millimeter, a SIG Sauer, a nine-millimeter Glock, a Calico, one of those New Age guns. Just a lot of stuff I was collecting in the past." He just hadn't gotten around to getting rid of them, he says.

Michael joined a gang "because I thought it was like a closeness or bond," he says. "I know you've heard that a million times, but it is. When you're amongst real G's they make you feel like family, and a lot of them, they looked out for me because my mama, you know, she wasn't there, so they made sure I had shoes and clothes, and they telling me to go to school 'cause they seeing something in me."

He can't resign from the Crips but says he tries not to associate with gang members anymore. "A lot of my homeboys are dead now. A lot of them are doing time in the federal penitentiary, the state penitentiary…A lot of them are getting out. Some of them come out, they going to do good. Some of them getting out, they still got their gang vibe on them."

If he had money again, Michael says, he would build his own community center right in the hood on 28th. Not out on 61st Street.

If he has to go to prison again, he's not going to be the same person. "I have to be a person I don't like to be. I have to be mean, going to have to be on top of my game. I don't like playing fear on other people; I do have a conscience.

"I never preyed on weak people. I never preyed on tourists. I always wanted to go against someone strong, and I always won."

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