Chicago ex-gang member joins Manatee fight against gangs

MANATEE -- A former Chicago gang member who served time in federal prison and now has become a motivational speaker has joined Manatee County’s fight against violent crime.

Victor Woods, 47, who lives in Rosedale near Lakewood Ranch, but travels the country giving anti-gang, anti-prison speeches, read about the still-unsolved Palmetto shooting that claimed two lives and injured 22.

Woods called Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells to offer his help and the two not only forged a partnership, but a friendship as well, Woods said.

“Chief Wells is really a miracle,” Woods said Thursday. “This man could have taken the attitude he is just going to sweep the streets of Palmetto and lock up every young male. But, instead, he is willing to think outside the box.”

Wells asked Woods to speak to students and adults in Manatee County and on Thursday, Woods faced 200 students at Horizons Academy, 1910 27th St. E.

Horizons Academy is a school of third- through 12th-graders who have been assigned to the school because they have committed some offense in their zone school that require them to be placed in an alternative setting, said Horizons principal Jeff Harris.

Woods stunned the students by speaking candidly about life, prison, feelings of inferiority and problems at home blocking development.

“I know who you are because I was once you,” Woods told the students. “You got no money in your pocket for a burger and a shake and no one at home has any money. Maybe an uncle has abused you. I apologize for that. Maybe no adult has ever reached out to you or cared about you. I apologize for that, too. Maybe your mother and father have other issues. In fact, how many of you have family members in jail right now?”

A high number of students, perhaps a third, raised their hands.

“I didn’t come here to play today,” Woods said. “I am not here to talk at you, but to talk with you. I apologize if you were abused or if someone did not figure out a way to reach you. But I tell you now, you can’t let that pull you down. You can’t listen to the voices that say you will amount to nothing. If you don’t have a plan right now, you are planning to fail.”

Woods told the students that he had run away from home at 15 and lusted for a gangster world of fast money and street life. He did petit theft and ramped that up to armed robbery and credit card manufacturing. Before he was caught and sent to prison for six years, he had created $40 million in counterfeit credit cards.

“I didn’t blame anyone for me being in prison,” Woods told the assembly. “I blamed myself for making the wrong decisions. When I started making the right decisions, my life changed.

“You are one stop away from prison right now and no one is telling you,” Woods added to his hushed audience. “People told me, ‘Oh, you are going to Horizons. Those are the bad kids.’ I say, ‘No, those are the smartest kids. But they are directing their intelligence the wrong way.’ You know what I like about all of you? None of you in this room are quiet. You do something! You are doers. You did something to get here. But you have to change what you are doing and put that energy on a different path.”

Woods would occasionally stop speaking and single out students who weren’t paying attention, once separating two girls who were talking to each other.

“You might not have any interest in what I am saying, but maybe someone around you does and I am not going to let you take that from him,” Woods told the girls.

Woods wants to speak to adults in jail locally. He also wants to have a parent involvement night.

“I thought he was great,” said Horizons student Reggie Gardner. “What he is saying is switch our energy from negative to positive. I believe that could work for all of us.”