First-person account of life as a gang member in Manatee

Bradenton HeraldApril 1, 2013 

MANATEE -- The beating lasted for 13 seconds.

It began at 1:30 a.m. at Ballard Elementary School. He remembers because he chose the time for its numerical significance. When it was finished, E.R. was part of SUR-13.

"It was the longest 13 seconds of my life," the man recalls. "I rethought everything. I didn't want to show any weakness. I felt the hits, but I didn't stay down. I didn't see it as being wrong. I just saw it as what you had to do to be a part of that family."

After he was "jumped in," E.R., who is not being identified by his full name, had all the things he was looking for: love, respect, brotherhood.

SUR-13 is one of several street gangs that have been identified -- and targeted for prosecution -- by local law enforcement using tactics first developed to target the mafia and other organized crime groups. Just last week, a SUR-13 member already serving a life sentence for second-degree murder had another 15 years stacked onto his sentence after pleading guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges.

He joined some 50 other gang members, including E.R., similarly prosecuted in the past six years.

In and out of a gang

E.R.'s initiation into SUR-13 began his spiral into criminal and gang activity.

After several crimes, court hearings and nights in jail -- many of which revolved around the fatal shooting of 9-year-old Stacy Williams III -- God intervened.

Six years have passed since E.R., now 21, was beaten in the schoolyard. Now, he works a full-time job, volunteers at church and shares his story with at-risk youth. But it is a constant struggle as he lives with the consequences of decisions he made as

a gang member.

"He is an example of success when a community surrounds a kid in need and never backs down," says Jerry Parrish, teen outreach coordinator at Manatee YMCA, who has witnessed E.R.'s journey.

Becoming a gang member was natural for E.R.

The son of an El Salvadorian mother and Mexican father who divorced at his birth, E.R. never had a strong support system.

"My mom didn't want me because I was dying; I had breathing problems," E.R. told the Bradenton Herald. "My dad took me to Mexico. Then my mom only wanted me back when she was losing her citizenship papers. She abused me, physically and verbally."

E.R. went back to live with his father when he turned 9.

"He was remarried. He had a son and a stepdaughter. They already had another family going when I got there," E.R. said. "They treated me like an outcast. I didn't have a reason to be a part of the family."

So E.R. looked for attention elsewhere.

He would get into fights and make jokes at schools, going from King to Sugg Middle School. He began hanging out with the tough kids, succumbing to peer pressure. He would smoke, throw rocks at cars or houses and stay out late, sometimes until 7 a.m.

As a last resort, he was sent to Gulf Coast Marine Institute in Sarasota.

"A lot of troubled kids were there," E.R. said. "That is where I was exposed to the gangs. It wasn't necessarily the part of gangs being cool, it was when they talked about family and their respect for each other that drew me to it. People liking you, knowing you, fearing you.

"I didn't care to commit crimes. I wasn't about that life. I wanted love and acceptance."

As E.R. struggled with the decision to join a gang, his older brother came to Manatee County from El Salvador to leave the Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13.

"He told me not to join, but he also talked about how it was like family," E.R. said. "Everything he told me, it drew me toward gangs. It did more damage than good. Eventually, he ended up moving. Then he wasn't there to tell me 'no' any more."

E.R. and a friend founded an MS-13 clique in Manatee County, welcoming two other guys.

"We didn't want to jump-in just anybody," he said. "We didn't want to be stupid. People need to be trusted."

God intervenes

They later joined SUR-13, creating a hybrid gang.

"Me and my homeboy were planning to deal drugs and firearms and put out hits on people," E.R. said. "MS-13 is known for violence and danger. We wanted to live up to that name. Every time we got close to making a deal or finalizing, something broke down."

E.R. later realized that God intervened.

"We were hired to pull a hit on a rival gang member," E.R. said. "SUR-13 was going to supply the guns and vehicle. All we had to do was go in, kill everybody and leave."

The weekend that the slaying was planned, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office showed up at E.R.'s home with a search warrant.

"I was arrested for possession of ammunition and weapon by a convicted felon and possession of alcohol by a minor."

God intervened.

When E.R. was released from jail about 30 days later, SUR-13 returned with the same proposition.

"The same weekend I got out, they said, 'Do you still want to do it?' And I said, 'Yeah,'" E.R. recalled. "We were gonna pull the hit on a Saturday. That Friday, they arrested me to charge me as an adult."

God intervened.

"There was a lot I was willing to do and wanted to do, but God didn't allow me to go that far. I see that now," E.R. said. "I didn't want to take someone's life, but I was willing to because I wanted to be respected by my family. I had a motive to keep me going -- my reputation -- so people would love me and keep loving me.

"It was the only way I knew to get love and attention -- or at least what I thought was love."

Caught in RICO

E.R. doesn't remember all the crimes he committed. There was petty theft, battery on a law enforcement officer, possession of a weapon, resisting arrest, setting fire to a rival member's car. And in 2007, E.R. found himself in the midst of the county's second RICO investigation of gangs.

"That's when I met God. He started pulling me toward Him not too long after I got to jail," E.R. said. "I didn't know anything about God."

E.R. began attending Bible study at the Manatee County jail.

"They showed me who I was as a sinner and where I'd go without him," E.R. said. "I accepted my Lord and Savior three months after I got into the county jail, and things started to change."

E.R. stopped hanging out with other incarcerated gang members.

"I was spending more time in my cell by myself with the Word," E.R. said. "In my heart He was telling me I had to leave the gang. 'It's them or me.' I decided to choose God."

Meanwhile, statewide prosecutors offered E.R. a plea deal resulting in an eight-year prison sentence for charges of racketeering and conspiracy. Before he signed his paperwork, the attorneys asked him one last time if he would be willing to testify against the others for a shorter sentence.

He thought to himself, "Where I grew up, you didn't do that. You don't snitch on your homeboys."

But he kept hearing God's voice telling him that his daughter, who was born while he was in jail, needed him. He needed to be a part of her life.

That's when he hesitantly said, "Maybe. I might."

E.R. was taken back to jail. A part of him hoped his testimony wouldn't be necessary; another part of him wanted to tell the facts.

A few months later, detectives from the gang unit picked him up at the jail and told him he had one chance to tell them everything.

"God told me to speak the truth," E.R. said.

When he returned to the jail, E.R. told his fellow gang members he would be testifying against them and wanted out.

"I told them 'I have to do this because it's the truth,'" E.R. recalled. "If you want to kill me, you have to do whatever you want to do. Other people testifying got beat up, but nobody ever touched me."

Except on Father's Day, when he was officially "jumped out" of SUR-13. There were no guards around while E.R. endured another 13-second beating, this time from the guys he would send to prison.

Taking the stand

E.R. was a trial witness against Orlando Valenzuela, who was charged with second-degree murder in the slaying of 9-year-old Stacy Williams III.

"I was right there when it happened," he said.

On May 21, 2007, E.R. was hanging out with friends from MS-13 and SUR-13 when he got a phone call from a fellow gang member who had just been in a fight with rivals.

"If something was going down and they called me, even if I was scared, I was going to be there and do what I had to do," E.R. said. "I wanted them to accept me."

E.R. and a friend were driven to Manatee Woods apartment complex and left there to "post up," while the others went to pick up Valenzeula.

"I knew Orlando and he usually had a gun. He was quick to pull the trigger," E.R. said. "I told them, 'Don't get him. I know he's going to do something stupid.'"

While they were waiting, a rival member passed by and threw signs. E.R. did the same, but the member pulled a gun. E.R. and his homeboy ran for cover.

They returned to the area but were outnumbered by rival members.

"We were surrounded," E.R. recalls. "My homeboy and his girl come back. They drive up. Orlando is in the back. He stands up and starts shooting toward the crowd."

A car from the rival gang showed up, and fire was exchanged.

"A stray bullet hit Stacy," E.R. said. "I saw the smoke. I saw the shells. I saw him hit the ground. It was all in slow motion. It just happened and everybody ran."

E.R. and some of the gang hid out at the apartment complex. The sheriff's office helicopter was flying overhead. A lesser-known member of the gang went outside to check on things.

"He went out there and didn't come back for a bunch of hours," E.R. said. "We heard somebody was killed. It was more serious than we thought."

E.R. and the guys snuck out an apartment window, climbed over fences and made their way to his house.

"Orlando went and dumped the gun in Palmetto," E.R. said. "We saw later that night they arrested Orlando and the boy and girl in the car. I was concerned they'd come get me, too."

E.R. decided he would move to El Salvador where he could "get weed cheap, ship it to Mexico and they could ship it to the U.S." The father of an ex-girlfriend was working with a cartel in Mexico. It would be easy.

As he planned to leave, E.R. filled a journal with information and future plans for criminal activity in Manatee County to leave with a friend.

Before he could flee the country, the sheriff's office raided E.R.'s home again.

"They found the book and I ended up going to jail," E.R. said.

Surviving prison

E.R. met a volunteer chaplain who changed his life.

"She would come in and give life lessons from the Word that were applicable. She spoke in ways we could relate to," he said. "Eventually we built a relationship and she became like my mom."

She was subpoenaed to testify on his behalf. His sentence was reduced to three years in state prison. Valenzuela received a life sentence.

"She fought for me," E.R. said. "When I ended up going to prison, she wrote me, sent me books and spent time with my daughter and her mother."

For the first time in his life, E.R. had positive support from a parental figure, but things were headed in the wrong direction at Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center.

"They put a hit on me while I was in prison," E.R. said. "I saw gang members circling me, passing by me. My roommate was a Crip. He said, 'I like you, but I shouldn't be telling you. They want to kill you.'"

E.R. considered checking into protective custody, but he had heard conditions were poor.

"I was scared, but I didn't know what to do," E.R. said. "I decided not to check in. Nothing happened."

After being transferred to the Central Florida Reception Center, the same problems surfaced when word got around that E.R. had testified against SUR-13 members.

Somehow, a SUR-13 member working as a trustee at the facility gained access to the control room when no guards were around.

"He opened my door and another kid came in and did me up," E.R. said. "He fractured my upper jaw, knocked my two front teeth out. I went into shock. My roommate carried me out."

E.R. was taken back to Lake Butler to see a specialist.

"Nothing else happened. That was God's glory," E.R. said. "There were a lot of points in there where something could have happened. Other people around me were getting beat up, but nothing happened to me. I was very grateful for that."

Getting out, moving on

E.R. was released from prison on April 16, 2010, and taken in by the female chaplain who never lost touch with him. He completed his probation last year.

"I didn't have anywhere to go," he said. "For somebody to change, they have to know God and be removed from that atmosphere. They need people to help, like my godmother."

But E.R.'s struggles of re-entering society didn't stop there.

"When I got out, I was 18 years old. I didn't know how to get a car, insurance or pay bills," E.R. said. "I didn't have confidence. I filed applications at a lot of places, but once they see the racketeering conviction, it's just not going to happen. My application comes in as a red flag."

His godmother stepped in. She got E.R. working odd jobs with a long-time friend with whom she went to church. When E.R. proved himself as a reliable worker, that man got him a job at his brother's business.

"I see people all the time, but I don't know if they recognize me," E.R. said. "I wanted to go the wrong way when I got out. I was lonely. I missed the gang. I missed my family."

Fostering relationships

When E.R. first got out of prison, he tried working things out with his daughter's mother.

"I tried doing God's way, but she wasn't happy and I was falling astray," E.R. said.

When E.R. ended the relationship, he didn't see his daughter for a long time.

"I know what it feels like to not have that love and affection. I know what that void is like, and I don't want her to feel that," E.R. said.

The situation is better now. E.R. sees his daughter and talks with her over the phone.

"I do have an earnest desire to be there for her, to be a dad to her," he said.

Opening up to his own parents has not been as easy.

"She didn't know how to be a mom. All she knew was anger and hatred. With my dad, I have a better relationship," E.R. said. "Dad was always there, I didn't see it until now. He loved me, but didn't know how to show me because my grandpa didn't show him love. He didn't understand the significance of showing attention, love and approval or the consequences it would cause."

E.R. said he only knows one other gang member who has been successful in transitioning to a crime-free life. For now, E.R. is volunteering with Parrish at the YMCA and his church.

"I needed something to be there to help me build confidence, show approval and give continual love," E.R. said. "People have reached in. God has reached in. The community has surrounded me.

"These kids need something to be there constantly. Like Pastor Jerry says, I think you do need a community, something to be there for the long run."

But so many at-risk youth are not shown that support and are unaware of another lifestyle. They join the gangs, and then feel like it's too late to leave.

"I had a hardness to my face that people would see, but that was my cover. I was afraid," E.R. said. "They don't want to be the people that others think they are. They're not hard. They're worried about their lives and concerned about what's going on."

The problem is so many people don't even realize such an epidemic exists.

"People in Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota don't see it happening," E.R. said. "I don't even see this happening anymore, so I don't know how bad it is."

E.R. is trying to do his part as he teaches at-risk kids to dream for success.

"I do a lot of writing and drawing. My vision is to create a studio that creates Christ-centered media," E.R. said. "I want to make a living, but more than that, I want to provide these kids a way to find passion.

"Until I went to prison, I didn't know I could think, imagine, dream. I want kids to find what they're good at, what drives them. I want to help them find a passion and have the equipment and people there to help them pursue it. I want to hold these kids' hands all the way and take them there."

He is using his story to inspire others.

"I used to think maybe it would have been better if I was raised in a Christian family or did this or that, but now I don't think so," E.R. said. "There are so many people who don't have my experiences, who don't understand what I understand. All that I know is I can use it to reach so many more people and to reach deeper.

"I can tell a kid that I know what it's like to struggle, to be afraid, to want to kill somebody, to desire love," he acknowledged. "I'm not glad about it, but I don't regret it. I'm grateful that I have experienced what I have and that I'm still alive so I can reach out to other people."

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