Mystery Science 2000

Mesa is home to a multimillion-dollar quest to quantify gang-intervention techniques

Shortly after his arrival in Tempe, Steven shot a gun at a house in Chandler. He was sent to Adobe Mountain juvenile correction center.

"When we were in Phoenix, everyone gets away with everything. Over here, it's like, you know, the law, they got the shit down."

How did a 12-year-old get a gun?

A project participant works on a self-portrait.
Paolo Vescia
A project participant works on a self-portrait.
A woodcut print by a project participant.
Paolo Vescia
A woodcut print by a project participant.

"I was taught by the best. I was the biggest manipulator. . . . I took advantage of a lot of these kids out here, you see what I'm saying? I was a snake. I did everything for the cause, everything. It didn't matter if they got hurt, I didn't give a shit. It's all for the cause."

The cause?

"I was on a mission, you understand? I was trying to fight something that wasn't there. I was confused, but I really believed that if I got all these dudes to strong-arm these motherfuckers, we could run shit out here. I wanted it to be like the west side, I wanted it to be."

Getting locked up wasn't so bad. "I felt like I was somebody." And he was out soon. "The laws were not so tough as they are now. They would have locked me up and thrown away the key [today]."

Steven was kicked out of Marcos de Niza High School on his first day, for fighting.

"I got jumped and I still got kicked out. You know why? My mentality was like, 'Accept me for who I am. This is who I am.' It's a different mentality. Say you're a teacher. You don't have any clue why I'm like the way I am."

He was kicked out of the next school -- McClintock High School -- on the first day, too.

"As far as high school, it was a lot of anger and resentment toward the system, toward white people. I was really racist because I thought that every white person I ran into, they gave me shit. They all had glasses. It was a stereotype I had toward white people. I was always looked down on because I was different. . . . I started saying, 'Fuck you, white people!' I was angry. I was very angry."

Steven managed to stay at Corona del Sol High for six months. That's where he and his brother helped to set up a chapter of their gang, called Southeast Hollywood.

"The guys from the west side, they saw us as a useful tool, me and my brother. And they said, 'You know what? Start another chapter.' And that's what happened. . . . I don't wanna say I started it, but it just snowballed, you see what I'm saying? And Southeast Hollywood, it became known. I mean, we were our own men. We didn't have to answer to nobody. And it was just like something that fell into our hands. And I was jumping in guys older than me, guys that were like 23. . . . I'm knocking heads."

Around the same time, Steven fathered his first child. He was 14.

At 15, he was back at Adobe -- accused of a shooting, a charge of which he was later acquitted. Again, he enjoyed detention, hooking up with his homeboys, scaring the staff.

"I went in a toothpick. I came out with muscles, you know? Every day for nine months, come on man, you're gonna grow. Eating good, three meals a day."

After Adobe, Steven never went back to school. A dropout at 16.

The gang had dwindled while he was locked up -- from 60 to 20 members. "The true guys, the true Hollywooders out there, stayed. The pussies, the weak motherfuckers, they left. And we respect that, because we don't want you around us if you're gonna wuss out, okay?

"They supported themselves by selling drugs, mainly pot. Marijuana's a big thing out there. . . . A lot of people smoke weed -- even doctors and teachers."

Steven hadn't lived at home since his first child was born (he now has several; he and his girlfriend recently married), but his father convinced him to go through the Project Challenge, a boot-camp-like alternative to detention. He stayed clean for a while, but it was hard. His buddies didn't approve. "I started hearing questions -- 'Oh, [Steven] is weak. We gotta start doing something about him.'"

He started smoking pot again, hanging out with his homies.

He was locked up again by the time he was 18.

"My best buddy got shot by these guys from 48th Street. We're like, 'They did that to us. If we don't do something back, that's bad. We could lose everything.' . . . We didn't know how to get this guy, you know, 'cause he's surrounded by 10, 15 guys. We saw him at Kmart, it was just like, 'That's the guy.' We just ended up beating him up, my partner stabbed him, he almost died."

Right there in the pharmacy aisle.

"It was fucked up. You gotta remember, we were fucking stupid asses. We were dumb."

Steven hid out in his neighborhood but felt guilty, because his friends had been caught. He finally turned himself in, almost a year later.

He spent seven months in Madison Street Jail. The food wasn't as good as at Adobe; Steven wasn't happy. Because of his juvenile record, Steven was offered a plea bargain of a 12-year prison term. One of his friends who had a clean record convinced Steven to pin the crime on him, knowing the friend would never have to go to trial.

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