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Gang-Intervention Counselor Packs Resume That Resonates on the Street

June 09, 2003|Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

When Donald Garcia was 2 years old, his father was killed by Pacoima gang members at a San Fernando park.

As a young boy, Garcia recalled, "I wanted to become a cop and arrest people who did bad things like what they did to my dad." Instead, he became a killer. For second-degree murder and other crimes, he spent half of his life -- 31 years -- in prisons, jails and juvenile halls.

Now 62 and known on the streets as "Big D," Garcia is a gang-intervention counselor, calling on his vast reservoir of hard times to try to make life less painful for youths heading down the path he so ravenously took.

"A lot of people, from different neighborhoods, even in L.A., know his name and respect what he says," said Gilbert Bautista, supervisor of the Intensive Gang Supervision Program at the Los Angeles County Probation Department. "He's like that old commercial: When Big D talks, people listen."

One of those paying rapt attention is Richard Sarabia, a member of Big D's old gang.

"We definitely listen to what D says," said Sarabia, 32, who credits Garcia with helping him straighten out his life. Sarabia, who has been shot and stabbed, now works in the film industry and owns a home.

"When we were kids, he was like a role model to us because he was such a fool, so crazy, so bad. Everyone heard about Donald. He was someone to look up to," Sarabia said. "But now we look up to him for different reasons. He's trying to tell people not to live the life he lived."

Garcia's tale began as a poor boy on the streets of San Fernando, where his widowed mother worked at a tortilla factory to support her five children after his father was slain March 7, 1943.

In the early 1950s, he said, his mother was fired for stealing food from the factory to feed her family at a time when "meat was a delicacy."

After that, she worked as a dance hall hostess. Garcia said that when some neighbor boys found out, they began calling her names, prompting young Donald "to defend her honor."

At San Fernando Elementary School, classmates made fun of him and his tattered clothes and "they would mock me in front of my sister," said the shaved-headed, heavily tattooed Garcia.

The bell that ended the school day was often like the opening ring of a boxing match, Garcia said. Some older students would wait for him at the gates, ready with taunts, slaps, kicks and punches.

"I started fighting and they would beat me up," he said. "I'd be swinging at them and crying at the same time."

One afternoon, around 1952, Garcia stole two knives from a store.

The next day, he nervously walked out the school's front gate.

"I had on a little Eisenhower jacket and a knife in each pocket," recalled Garcia, leaning back in a swivel chair in his North Hills office. "The biggest guy came at me and I threw one of the knives at his feet."

Garcia landed "a lucky shot." The knife stuck in his attacker's shoe, between his toes.

"That was my turning point," he said. "People started to respect me and I became a little terror."

A life of street fights and crime followed and brought about his first arrest in 1956, at age 15, for assault with a deadly weapon.

"That's when my career started," Garcia said.

For the next three decades he was incarcerated. There would be short stints of freedom -- during one he married a woman with a daughter -- but soon he'd be back behind bars.

For his fearlessness and brutality, he became known as "Big D," even though he was 5-foot-10 and 153 pounds.

"Big D was an infamous, total, straight-out gangster," said William "Blinky" Rodriguez, director of the nonprofit gang intervention organization Communities In Schools, where Garcia is a youth counselor.

Rodriguez, 49, who grew up in San Fernando, remembers how Garcia used to brag that he worked out so much on his abdominal muscles that "he didn't have a six-pack, he had a 12-pack."

In 1987, while serving his last term in Los Angeles County Jail for possession of heroin for sale, Garcia's tough-guy reputation helped him get the coveted position of jail trusty, which gave him special privileges. The catch was that the trusty was assigned to the cellblock where the hard-core gang members were housed.

Garcia accepted the position on the all-black cellblock. But, even after 30 years in jails and prisons, it was a precarious situation and eventually he seethed with anger.

"I decided I was going to kill this big shot," he said, referring to a member of one of the most notorious gangs.

In his office, he demonstrated how he planned to stab the prisoner. Garcia rose from his chair and started slashing away at an imaginary person.

"Then I was going to stick the knife in his forehead, and I was hoping his mother was coming to visit him that day. That's how vicious I was," Garcia said. "I knew I was going to death row."

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