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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Life after gangs: Former Madison street toughts show others the way out
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Credit:Eric Tadsen

When Jacob Dunn was just a boy, his teachers would sometimes predict a bleak outlook for him: "You're going to end up in prison."

It turns out they were right, though even they might have been surprised by how quickly their predictions came true. Dunn was drawn to the gangster lifestyle, fascinated by crime bosses and prisons. His favorite movie was The Outsiders. "I was always into the mobster fantasy, the slicked-back hair, the crime boss," he says. "That's what I wanted to be."

He joined a gang when he was 13 and was raking in cash selling marijuana, cocaine or crack -- some nights he'd make more than $2,000. But drug dealing isn't what made him, at 14, the youngest boy in Wisconsin sentenced as an adult.

Dunn earned that distinction after a rival drug dealer sent a biker to rough him up on Madison's east side.

Dunn remembers the night, July 6, 1994, clearly. He knew the man was looking for him, and though he was surrounded by about 20 of his gang members, Dunn told them not to intervene or protect him. "I knew I was going to shoot him," Dunn says.

When the biker arrived, Dunn went up to him and shot him in the stomach. As his victim lay on the pavement bleeding, Dunn shot him once again in the leg. Then he ran.

He hid from the police for about a month, but then turned himself in and was off to prison. It wouldn't be the last time.

As startling as Dunn's early descent into gang life might seem, even more surprising is who he is today.

You'd guess that Dunn would be dead by now, or serving life in prison, or at the very least living life on the lam as a hardened criminal. Somehow, he survived to become a loving father and husband, a forklift driver, and a Christian who attends church and is working on a book about his life.

Dunn keeps a scrapbook chronicling his quick rise and fall as a thug. He takes it with him into the Dane County jail to speak to juveniles and young adults who are now facing the prospects he once did.

"When I was in the system, there weren't people like me coming in showing me I could turn my life around," Dunn says.

Dunn is one of a handful of former gang members in Madison who minister to other gang members, hoping to get them to change their ways before it's too late.

Though he left the gang life behind him, he still feels a bond with those in gangs, a calling to rescue them and bring them to Christ.

"You have to go back into the sea," he says, referring to the mean streets. "You don't leave your crew out there."

The cops

All around Madison, Officer Shane Olson sees evidence of gang activity. "I think everybody's in a gang," he says, jokingly. He admits his perception is a bit skewed. As a member of the Madison Police Department's anti-gang unit, Olson is responsible for investigating gang activity and digging up information other officers can use in investigating crimes.

On a ride-along early this summer, Olson explains that he sees tattoos, graffiti, clothing and hand signs relating to gangs everywhere, in every school and neighborhood around the city. During a break from the gang unit, he worked two days of street patrol, but even then "literally every arrest had some gang affiliation."

Gangs don't manifest themselves in Madison the way they have in other cities, by claiming certain neighborhoods as their territory.

"If you go to Milwaukee or Chicago, there are distinct lines of where the neighborhood territory is. For the most part, Madison is not like that," says Olson. "But gangs are far more prevalent than people want to admit."

Gangs have been present in Madison for at least 20 years but probably longer, says Sgt. Amy Schwartz, who heads the police department's gang unit.

Kids join gangs for all sorts of reasons, Schwartz says. "They join to be a part of something, to fill a gap that family isn't. They'll join a gang for protection, because they're being picked on by another gang. Sometimes they're blessed into a gang because their entire family is in a gang."

But, she adds, some join gangs simply for the excitement. She points out that a few years ago, an affluent Maple Bluff teenager in a gang was involved in a shooting. "Sometimes being in a gang gives you an adrenaline rush, and they feed off the danger and criminality."

Olson says that kids as young as 11 or 12 and of every race, class and economic background have been involved. The gangs themselves aren't race-specific, as some are multiracial. Two girl gangs are also active.

"With girls, it's just pure fighting," says Officer Reggie Patterson, also of the gang unit. They fight to intimidate and bully others. "They're not selling any drugs, and they're not fighting over territory."

The Madison Police Department has documented 55 gangs with a presence in Madison. The number of known gang members stands at 1,198, Schwartz says, and generally keeps growing. "The numbers mostly go up," she says, "not because we're getting more gang members, but our intelligence improves."

Police believe there are about 2,500 additional people associated with gangs, though the police haven't yet confirmed their membership.

Gangs with a presence here include Gangster Disciples, Maniac Latin Disciples, Money Before Bitches, Yung Gunz, Get Money Boys, Vice Lords, Latin Kings and Mickey Cobras, to name a few.

The gang unit has four officers. Among them, they keep an impressive database on who is involved in gang activity and where.

"The crux of what we're doing is gathering information," Olson says. "You're identifying people in the neighborhood who are most likely to commit illegal activity. We usually know who is hanging out with who."

Much of the intelligence is gathered at schools -- both high schools and middle schools. The officers regularly stop in at schools to chat with school officers, principals, teachers and students.

Sometimes the information can be used to make an arrest. At other times, information can be used to protect the gang members from getting hurt or in trouble. Early this year, when the gang unit was hearing chatter about an escalating gang conflict around the city between the C-14 and Mexican Brown Pride gangs, the police organized a mediation. It was held at La Follette High School, which some of the gang members attended (others attended West).

"History tells us that a lot of little things lead up to the big one," Patterson says, referring to shootings and murders. "A lot of little things happen, and then somebody is going to take it a step further."

They approached the gangs and visited their parents. Over two nights, they brought gangs and parents in to talk about the conflict. They met with each gang separately and then brought them together.

Olson says the officers had no idea what to expect. But they were able to get the gang members to come to an understanding and agree to ground rules for future interactions on the street. For gang members, a lot of it comes down to respect and saving face.

"If someone disrespects you, you're going to respond with an act of violence," he says. "If someone threatens you, you're going to respond with violence."

The fighter

Olson and Patterson introduce Isthmus to one young Latino man who recently left a Madison gang after several years. Few details of his story can be printed because of the real possibility his old gang might retaliate against him.

He left the gang when he realized they wouldn't stand by him when he needed them. But he's not without nostalgia for the lifestyle. It was thrilling and in some ways easy. He sold drugs out of his house, so he didn't have to work.

"Everything [now] is boring," he says. "Living the lifestyle, everything was fun, partying, it was a rush." Today, he works and goes to school.

There were constant fights, and he was always getting attacked by rival gangs. A few times, guns were pointed at him. Since he expected to die young, this didn't faze him.

"I miss the fighting," he says. "The anger I had about everyday situations, I just let it out."

There was also the feeling of power, of "knowing you could do anything you wanted. If someone had an iPod you wanted, you could just grab it. You have control of everything except the cops."

The preacher

Jose Dominguez traces his involvement in gangs back to a basic craving: love he never got from his father. "I grew up always wanting to be a part of something," he says, sitting on his deck in Fitchburg as his children play in the yard. His thug life started as play: "I would flip my hat and imagine being in the Latin Kings."

Going back and forth between Madison, where his dad lived, and California, where his grandfather lived, Dominguez found trouble wherever he went. He joined gangs in both places.

In Madison, he belonged to the Mexican Syndicate Locotas 8 gang. He helped the gang sell drugs. "From Madison to Chicago, we went to war with everyone," he says.

In the early '90s, he was arrested for shooting a rival gang member. "I was going to kill him, but he ran away."

Dominguez had been to jail before, but this time he faced life in prison. In his jail cell, he faced a reckoning. "I got down on my knees and asked God to help me out and I'd serve him."

Trusting the Lord was on his side, Dominguez refused to accept a plea bargain that would have put him behind bars for 20 years. He also rejected bargains for eight and six years. When the district attorney finally offered him five, he accepted.

And he immediately made good on his promise to serve God. He was sent to a prison where members of the rival gang Spanish Cobras -- who had killed one of his friends -- were serving time. His old desire for revenge kicked in, but then he heard God's voice telling him, "What are you trying to prove? Instead of fighting them, why don't you lead them to me?"

So Dominguez went to the rival gang members, who were afraid of him. As they apologized for killing his fellow gang member, he told them, "I can't forgive you for that. But I know who can."

All of them knelt down and prayed with him.

Dominguez's ministry, Lighthouse Church, has flourished outside of prison. On the streets and in the jails, he's known as "preacher."

Sgt. Schwartz says that religion is often the force capable of turning people away from the gang life. "Religion is one of those hooks where we can pull a kid back," she says. "It's always been an integral part of getting kids out of gangs."

Dominguez sees the work of God in just about everything these days. Anyone he meets, including a reporter from Isthmus, was sent to him by God for a reason.

Dominguez draws particular inspiration from James 19-20: "My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins."

Dominguez still sees some of his old gang members -- and enemies -- from time to time. "The ones that gave their life to Christ are good; the ones who didn't are suffering.

"If you look at gangs, it's always the same thing," he adds. "Older guys recruiting young kids; people killing each other over names and numbers and colors."

The old-timer

James Whirl doesn't understand kids today. They simply don't respect the gang like he did when he was growing up.

"It's a whole different era," he says. "I don't even know how they call them organized."

When Whirl was coming up in the gangs in Chicago in the early '80s, the credo was "all for one and one for all. They don't have that today," he says. "When I was coming up the concept was, you die for this organization.

"I was taught by older guys a certain way. The new guys have no loyalty, respect or unity," he adds. "Now it's all about money."

Similarly, Whirl is unimpressed with the Madison gangs' mettle: "I could take a gang out of Chicago and tear up Madison."

Whirl says the gang scene in Madison is real but "on a small scale." Which is a good thing: "The gangs in Chicago are serious. They don't have a care about life, they don't value life. Madison will never be as bad as Chicago."

Whirl moved here in 2001 to get away from the gangs and drugs of Chicago. A restaurant chef, he helps out with Dominguez's ministry.

He's reluctant to talk about what gang life was like for him. "Some things I can't say what I've done."

Whirl joined a gang when he was 18 in 1981, not long after he'd lost his mother and brother in a car accident. He had been looking for a place to belong.

"They took care of me. I felt their love," he says. But years later, after a member of his own gang shot him, he came to realize that love was superficial. He says he's found true love now in his faith in Jesus Christ, which he tries to share with kids who are locked up in juvenile detention.

"I just tell them the truth," Whirl says. "A lot of my devils in life were love of money and making bad choices. For love of money I had to sell a lot of cocaine, and I became my own best customer."

Whether they listen or not doesn't seem to concern him a great deal. "The most important thing is to do the work of God. Sharing your story will make a person have second thoughts," he says. "If they're going to do something, they're going to do it.

"This is not the life to live," he adds. "I thank God I made it out of it."

The prodigal son

Jacob Dunn was just a little kid when he joined a gang. That gave him the advantage of surprise in fights. Bullies saw him as easy pickings, and he'd show them up. "I was like a wolverine, little but vicious," he says.

He learned how to survive. "You live by two street rules: Never say a word and never panic."

He adds that he was always high or drunk. "A lot of kids are young junkies. They don't know the power of the chemicals they're on, especially when they're that young."

Dunn spent most of his time living in drug houses or with friends. "I had the type of mom who would call the cops on me."

Dunn hung around with a Sureños gang -- one that aligned with Southern California gangs. When he was 13, the gang took him to a hotel on the Beltline. There were about 15 other members there, including the leader from L.A.

A top of a desk was filled with lines of cocaine. "I snorted every single line from one end to the other," he says. "They were like, 'he's loco.'" Racing on coke, he blurted out, "I feel like I could kill somebody."

Then it happened: One of the gang members punched him in the face, and suddenly they were all on him, punching and kicking him. It was the ritual initiation. The gang leader -- who has since died -- slowly counted out loud.

"You're going to get a longer beating if you fight back, but of course I fought back," Dunn says. The count went up to 13 and suddenly it was over.

"Then they all shook my hand, and I asked for a cigarette," he says.

Dunn is far enough removed from the gang lifestyle that he's able to laugh about how crazy he once was and marvel that he lived to tell the tale. He hopes that young kids don't romanticize who he used to be.

It's not always clear if he's getting through to them. "A lot of them are emotionally dead. I know I was. That's how you cope."

Dunn knows that the pull of the street is strong and troublesome. "A wannabe gang member is the most dangerous. They'll do anything to prove themselves," he says. "Those are the ones you need to stop."

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