BATTLE LINES: GANGS OF TOLEDO

Toledoans take steps to steer youngsters away from gangs

4/30/2013
BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Roshawn Jones, center, owner of Soul City Boxing and Wrestling gym trains one of his pupils during a Monday night session.
Roshawn Jones, center, owner of Soul City Boxing and Wrestling gym trains one of his pupils during a Monday night session.

Third of four parts

It didn’t matter that the shooter wasn’t looking for her sons.

Her youngest — only 11 years old — was sitting on the sidewalk next to his bicycle.

When a red sport utility vehicle made a quick turn onto Norwood Avenue, the boy and his twin half-brothers saw a man, a black T-shirt pulled over his face, point a gun out of the passenger-side window.

It didn’t matter that her boys weren’t the target.

Denton Yates, the 11-year-old, managed to dodge the barrage of gunfire by hiding behind a chair.

When the shooting was over, he found gunpowder on his shirt.

His half-brothers, Devon and Davon Lewis, then 12 years old, took off running toward a friend’s house.

These are the things you learn to do when you are a child living in a neighborhood where guns are fired just because.

Police recovered 12 shell casings from the scene — just west of downtown Toledo across I-75. Two men were shot but survived.

“I was scared for them when they were outside, ’cause they’re shooting and you don’t know if you’ll be killed,” said the boys’ mother, Marvita Mason-Holmes, 33. “… It’s scary, you know? It’s sad when you can’t let your kid go and play because you don’t know if they’re going to start shooting today.”

Something had to change.

It wasn’t right that her boys — not even teenagers — were surrounded by gangs and gang violence.

It wasn’t right that they had to know how to dodge bullets.

It wasn’t right that, sooner or later, her boys would have to decide if the sense of “security” that the gang could offer would be worth the risks.

Mrs. Mason-Holmes couldn’t take that chance.

Too many lives had been lost to senselessness.

She packed up the family’s Norwood apartment and moved into a home just two streets away.

Sometimes even a few blocks can make all the difference.

By the time you are 9 or 10 years old, the only things you should know are whom you like and who you don’t want to eat lunch with. You shouldn’t have to decide if you want to join a gang that could on one hand offer protection, and on the other hand, kill you.

But that’s exactly what’s happening in Toledo.

Nine or 10-years-old — that’s about how old Devon and Davon were when they talked about joining the neighborhood gang, the Lil Heads, Bloods with a citywide reputation for violence.

To the twins, the gang felt like a sensible option; the people they hung out with were involved. It was something to do.

Someone to have their backs.

“When I first heard that word [the Lil Heads], you know, I don’t like that,” Mrs. Mason-Holmes said. “I want my kids to be able to go in any neighborhood that they want to.”

With her husband still locked up at the Lucas County Correctional Treatment Facility, she decided to take charge.

She wasn’t waging war against the streets but would fight for her children’s safety.

Devon Lewis, 13, does push-ups while working out at  Soul City Boxing and Wrestling gym. Their mother Marvita Mason-Holmes send Devon and his twin Davon Lewis, to Soul City Boxing and Wrestling gym to keep them occupied in a productive activity so that they will not get into trouble in the streets.
Devon Lewis, 13, does push-ups while working out at Soul City Boxing and Wrestling gym. Their mother Marvita Mason-Holmes send Devon and his twin Davon Lewis, to Soul City Boxing and Wrestling gym to keep them occupied in a productive activity so that they will not get into trouble in the streets.

The battle against gangs had to be won at home.

Scared straight

“You can have a single mom that’s raising her kids, and that’s fine in the home, but it’s different when they go out on the streets,” said Shawn Mahone, founder of Young Men and Women for Change, a “dose-of-reality” program. “Whatever they have to do to survive out there on the streets, that’s what they’re going to do. By any means. If that means they have to rob, steal, unfortunately kill, that’s what they’re going to do.”

Mr. Mahone, 44, a Toledo native, founded his boot camp seven years ago after leaving a high-paying corporate sales job.

He knew what it was like to be a kid in a tough neighborhood. When he was growing up on Oakwood Avenue in the 1980s, it was known as Cokewood; drug trafficking and usage was “at an all-time high,” he said.

Basketball and NBA dreams kept Mr. Mahone out of gangs but didn’t make him immune to his surroundings.

As a teenager, he was shot in the left leg during a drive-by. The bullet ricocheted off some basketball courts on Fernwood Avenue.

He always wanted to give back to his hometown, and working with troubled youth was always his passion. He founded his scared-straight program, and to date he’s worked with hundreds of children.

The twins — Devon and Davon, now 13 — are two of them.

The boys and other troubled youths spent 12 hours with Mr. Mahone and his team. They were screamed at, forced to do push-ups, and confronted about their bad behaviors.

Break them down, and build them up.

Sometimes, Mr. Mahone takes children to funeral homes. “Picture yourself in that casket,” he tells them.

Before the boot camp ended, the twins decided gang life wasn’t for them.

“My kids wrote they are so sorry for everything that they have put me through,” Mrs. Mason-Holmes said. “And they don’t ever want to be in a gang because they don’t want to end up 6 feet under or in jail. I love that. I was so ecstatic about that. … I start crying. I try to hold it back, but I couldn’t. It was so heartfelt.”

A ‘crazy’ life

Charles Fletcher, center, speaks to a kid privately while other participants in the
Charles Fletcher, center, speaks to a kid privately while other participants in the "Young Men and Women For Change" weekend program stand with their faces against a wall. YMWC is a Modification Boot Camp program, "Dose of Reality", for both males and females.

Marvita Mason married Kore Holmes in 2004.

He had a past. She knew that.

Holmes, now 44, was in a gang and served 13 years in prison for “someone not respecting my neighborhood,” he said.

“I shot somebody,” he said. “I didn’t mean to. You know, it’s not nothing I’m happy about, but it was back then, and I just did it.”

Holmes doesn’t want his stepsons to follow his path in and out of jail.

Holmes said in 2010 he was attacked by a group of juveniles, members of the Recc Squad, a Folk gang that claimed the Brand Whitlock apartment complex until it was razed last year.

He was driving a work van when a juvenile threw a brick through a window, hitting Holmes in the head.

“They robbed me, jumped and kicked my van, bust all the windows out,” he recalled.

He was left for dead in front of a funeral home.

Only months ago, Holmes was released from the Correctional Treatment Facility. He was sent there in October after pleading guilty to a domestic violence charge after choking one of his stepsons.

While locked up, he realized that his life was “dysfunctional” and that if he didn’t change, he’d never be able to help his children.

“My actions and everything I did in my life was crazy,” he said. “I was on a [runway] straight to hell.”

Soul City

Left hook. Right jab.

“Are you in a gang?” Roshawn Jones asked Devon and Davon. “No,” they replied.

Right, right. Watch your feet.

“You ever in a gang?” the 24-year-old coach asked.

In the background, Michael Jackson’s “Bad” pumped through a small portable speaker.

“This is what’s going to keep you out of the gang,” Mr. Jones said.

After Mr. Mahone’s scared-straight program, Mrs. Mason-Holmes wanted to reinforce the anti-gang attitude and keep her boys from banging on the block.

Denton Yates was training at Soul City Boxing and Wrestling, so the twins joined him.

“I felt boxing will help them, even if they got all that anger inside them,” Ms. Mason-Holmes said. “They could just box it out. Get all that anger out.”

Soul City is a corner-lot gym above a barber shop in front of a police surveillance camera at Junction and Belmont avenues. It’s a gym built for youths like Devon and Davon.

The gym’s mission is to keep kids off the streets, out of gangs, and in school.

“We didn’t know this gang problem was going to get this bad, so once we noticed this neighborhood was suffering a lot of murders, we drifted towards, ‘Let’s get those kids out those gangs and try to break that up and try the best we can even though it’s going to be hard,’ ” said Mr. Jones, who runs the gym with his father, Otha Jones, Jr.

Shawn Mahone, Sr., founder and president of
Shawn Mahone, Sr., founder and president of "Young Men and Women For Change", takes a moment alone during the weekend program. YMWC is a Modification Boot Camp program, "Dose of Reality", for both males and females.

About 60 children are signed up in either the wrestling or boxing programs.

“So far it’s been all right,” Mr. Jones said. “One life at a time.”

Sometimes you lose one.

A young man, a gang member and drug dealer, not much older than Mr. Jones, stopped coming to the gym after more than a year of training.

“He’s in a gang that’s pretty tough … and we were kind of pulling him away from them,” Mr. Jones said. “… With the new year coming, he kind of fell off. … That’s heartbreaking.”

Now that gang member — who has been incarcerated and whose car was shot up — is an example.

You can’t help everyone, but Mr. Jones tries.

“If we continue to go that path of not helping them, it’s going to get worse,” he said. “As a young black man myself, I don’t want to see our culture go down.”

Short-term goals

Mrs. Mason-Holmes is on to something.

By enrolling her boys in boxing, they can have short-term goals, even if it’s preparing for the next practice, the next fight.

That is crucial to successfully keeping youth off the streets, Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said.

“These kids need three-month goals, not, ‘What am I going to do seven years from now?’ Seven years is not foreseeable,’ ” the sheriff said.

Mrs. Mason-Holmes dreams like all parents. She can already imagine her children’s futures.

“I picture them having big old houses and nice cars, a wife or a husband. Kids. I told them I only want one grandchild a piece from all of them,” she said. “ … I want them to graduate from high school. Education is the most important thing.”

School programs

Lyric Carter, a sophomore at Woodward High School, is making huge improvements.

As a freshman, she rarely went to school and finished her first year with a 0.2 grade-point average.

This year, at the insistence of Assistant Principal Robb Slusser, Lyric, 17, joined Young Women of Excellence, a new organization at the school. She was, to say the least, pretty uninterested.

But soon she was attending school regularly. The organization became more than a group that meets a few times a month and has resume-writing workshops. It’s accountability, a sisterhood, something to look forward to. Something to be proud of.

In less than one academic year, Lyric’s grade-point average has improved to 2.26.

Young Women of Excellence and the male-equivalent program, the Student African-American Brotherhood, are having tremendous impact on the Woodward family, said Romules Durant, Toledo Public Schools assistant superintendent, who created YWOE and brought SAAB back to Toledo.

“Many students see the change in her [Lyric] and want the change in them,” said Mr. Durant, who will become interim superintendent on Aug. 1.

Other students see the change.

Isaiah Jefferson, 16, a sophomore, said gangs are everywhere in the city. He joined SAAB “to get out of that life.”

Gangs are attractive because they offer a family lifestyle, and if there’s no love at home, the streets will provide it. Both SAAB and YWOE are working with that same philosophy. They’ve created families. It’s safe. There is a lot of love there.

“I used to think I was a bad person, but they showed me I’m not,” said freshman Celina Kelly, 15.

“I’m a different person,” said Day’Shawn Jones, 16, a junior. “People look at me like, “ ‘I want to shake his hand.’ ”

Mr. Slusser, who leads Woodward’s SAAB chapter, said the organization’s cumulative grade-point average was 2.02 last year; this year, it’s up to 2.66. For YWOE, which is in its first year, the grade-point average is higher: 3.12.

About 20 percent of Woodward’s student body is active in SAAB or YWOE, but they make up more than half of the school’s 103 students with a 3.0-or-better grade-point average, Mr. Slusser said.

The impact is buildingwide, said Meighan Richardson, who oversees YWOE at Woodward.

Overall attendance is up. The number of teenage pregnancies at Woodward is down. The number of students ending up in the juvenile detention center is down.

These are students who live in neighborhoods with boarded up houses and violence — most of the things parents would prefer their children not be surrounded by.

Helping the students do better could make the neighborhood better, Mr. Slusser and Mr. Durant said.

“I hope it transfers to the neighborhood,” said Mr. Durant, an East Toledo native. “The intervention is not true if it isn’t following you elsewhere.”

Police efforts

Police intervention was supposed to make the twins’ neighborhood safer.

In August, Toledo police filed participating-in-a-criminal-gang charges against seven members of the “Smith Park Mafia” — a gang that identifies as the Lil Heads. The arrests were announced in a courtroom full of active gang members during a meeting, part of the Toledo Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, the community’s year-old anti-gang game plan.

The gang charges were filed after at least one member was linked to at least one shooting, although police haven’t said which man or which shooting.

The arrests haven’t changed much.

“They’re just as active as they have been in the past,” said police Lt. Ed Bombrys, who oversees the Toledo police gang unit. “I wouldn’t say they’re any less active or we’ve done enough to them. We’re always trying to do more.”

It’s too early to see, statistically, what impact the initiative is having, said police Sgt. Anita Madison, who oversees the community initiative.

The effort is challenged to do three things: find gang members on parole and invite them to a meeting at the county courthouse. Once they’re there, tell them to stop shooting. If they don’t comply, let them know the police will be waiting.

A services component helps connect any willing wayward men with programs to further their education or find a job.

It's not “hug-a-thug,” officials said. It’s a push in the right direction.

The third component involves the community. What Toledo Police Chief Derrick Diggs calls the “moral voice.”

“Unless the community stands with us, this type of gang violence will be allowed to continue,” Chief Diggs said.

City officials are doing what they can with the resources they have available, Mayor Mike Bell told The Blade.

What is needed, the mayor said, is for violent criminals to be kept in jail after they’re arrested and for harsher convictions.

Prison should be not looked at as a cakewalk. And it is.

“People say, ‘Arrest ‘em,’ ” the mayor said. “OK. Once the police have done their job, they have incarcerated these people, what happens next? … If we really want to see crime go down, there has to be a change to the proportion of spinning those people right back onto the streets.”

A group approach

Keeping kids out of gangs starts at home. Keeping them off the block has to be a neighborhood effort.

Neighborhoods need a “sense of collective efficacy” and the “ability to promote the types of goals they want for their neighbors in terms of safety,” said Ray Swisher, an associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University.

Those things existed once, but jobs and families who could afford to moved out of urban centers did, leaving concentrated poverty in their wake.

Some of these neighborhoods are without many male role models. Before, a man down the street might step in to help a family if necessary, or a neighbor could discipline a child if it was appropriate.

It takes a village.

“Now they feel they can’t do that,” Mr. Swisher said. “People are fearful to intervene.”

A divided community must be united.

A fearful community must feel safe.

City residents who live in some of the most gang-infested neighborhoods don’t like to talk about what they see and what they hear. It’s hard to blame them.

Everyone knows the no-snitch rule. Learned early. Reinforced often.

Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of retaliation.

While Toledo police Detective Bob Schroeder was preparing for the trial of Kevin James in the shooting death of Montrese Moore, someone left a notebook, which had been used as target practice, outside the door of a key witness.

“It was kind of a statement not to talk to us [the police],” the detective said. “It was not successful.”

A small victory.

Staying silent

While Denton talked about the details of the day he and the twins were shot at, Davon buried his head in his lap. Devon remembered he’d been a witness to another shooting.

Kore Holmes looked at Davon, “What’s wrong?”

“My brother is saying too much,” he said.

“You need to tell the truth and stop [acting] like you’re trying to protect somebody,” Holmes said to his stepson.

But that’s what Davon thought he had to do.

Protect his brother.

These are the things you learn to do when you are a child living in a neighborhood where guns are fired just because.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@theblade.com, 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @taylordungjen.