ORLANDO, Fla. — From the outside, 19-year-old Wes Nguyen (pronounced “win”) looks like any other teenager growing up in Orlando. He likes cars, always has a phone on him and speaks in a low voice.
Behind that voice, however, come words and sentences strung together by someone who has lived one lifetime – and is embarking on a second.
Until early last year, Nguyen was a rising figure in one of the Orlando-area’s gangs. He kept some details of his life private, including his specific affiliations, for safety reasons.
However, he agreed to meet with WFTV with a clear goal in mind: educate people about the life he came from and call on law enforcement leaders to end their back-and-forth squabbling over what’s wrong with the justice system and get to work fixing it.
“Fix your system, fix it to help kids be better people,” he said. “Stop lying to say it’s a rehabilitation. It’s not.”
From the cradle to the Crips
Nguyen said he was never recruited into his gang. The opposite happens, he said, recalling instances where he and his friends would drive younger teenagers away from their activities.
Instead, he was essentially born into it.
“I’ve been around it since I was like, three years old,” he said. “I really did not know what was wrong or right. So I was just like, I’m hanging out with my friends.”
He said his parents were hard-working immigrants, strict at home but who often left him to be raised by his brother, who he described as an ill-suited role model.
His need for family and acceptance drove him closer and closer to what his friends were doing as he got older, he recalled. His first encounter with police happened around 12 or 13 years old, when he said he was attacked at a gas station by another group of teenagers.
Thus, Nguyen fell into the pattern that has been well-traveled by teens in the area. In and out of the justice system’s grasp, inching closer and closer to a breaking point.
Nguyen’s came at 17 years old, when he was arrested for attempted murder. His six felony charges included a possibility of life in prison.
“I wasn’t really that scared because I didn’t really have much to lose,” he said, flatly.
A plea deal that got prosecutors to drop most of the charges allowed him to begin turning his life around with the help of his mentor, Stop the Violence’s Eddie Willis, who said he didn’t speak to Nguyen for three weeks, other than short commands, after the two were paired together.
“I wanted to feel him out,” Willis said, preaching the value of patience. “I wanted to see what he had. I know just by trying to have a conversation with him, that wasn’t going to work.”
The two said Willis finally broke through to Nguyen by asking the teen about his family’s heritage, something Nguyen said had never been discussed.
Willis, in essence, gave Nguyen the identity he never had outside of his gang ties.
Reality of rehab
The praise Nguyen heaped on Willis for the guidance the mentor gave was balanced with criticism leveled at the juvenile justice system, including the detention center Nguyen became familiar with.
While the system is supposed to balance punishment with rehabilitation, Nguyen said there was very little of the latter. Few teens in the facility wanted to change, he said, and staff didn’t give them any incentive to. Lessons mimicked the ones he didn’t care about in school, while more valuable possibilities like job training, manners and other life skills weren’t included.
He described occasions where the teens would fight because they were bored.
“You really want to rehabilitate us, treat us better,” he said. “Show us things in life that we can actually look forward to instead of keeping us inside a cell.”
Sometimes, he said, that treatment was the best he could get, and spoke of other instances where he said staff looked at him as if he was less than human.
Nguyen now spends his time working as a mechanic and mentoring teens Willis has a harder time breaking through with in his more fatherly role. Nguyen said he tries to offer the simple lifeline so many others in his life never extended.
However, he said the area’s youth violence would not be reduced as long as the current conditions remained. He said too many younger teens lacked mentors and outlets for their energy, and turned to gangs to provide the sense of belonging that doesn’t exist.
He also said guns were becoming too much of a problem.
“You can get a gun like it’s a cold drink,” he said. “It’s cheap, too. That’s just how it goes.”
Overall, Nguyen said he was still struggling to leave his old life behind, and said many aspects of his past were catching up with him.
He remained positive, though, and said he was confident he’d be able to live a life his mother could be proud of.
“It was a tough ride, just to be where I’m at right now, and I’m still fighting,” he said.
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