For years, Eric Antuan James has used his life story of going from Missouri gang member to Arizona school principal to motivate kids.
Now he's teaching kids about hypocrisy and betrayal.
Last week, James agreed to plead guilty to stealing from an impoverished Indian community school and using the funds to support his "youth empowerment" business.
James served for four years as principal/superintendent of Casa Blanca Community School on the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix, and also as principal of Noah Webster-Pima charter school in Scottsdale.
Officials at both schools confirmed he's departed from those positions, but declined to comment further for this article.
James didn't respond to emails or phone messages.
His promotional website contains a detailed bio that describes his early gang life:
"At 18 years of age, Eric was 'jumped in' to Chicago's largest black gang, the Black Gangster Disciples... Although Eric has never killed anyone, he was considered one of the top ranking "folks" in the area, participating in a five-year rivalry with Bloods from Plover Street."
The young James cleaned up his act, served in the U.S. Army and obtained two master's degrees in education.
"Through his €œChanged Man Productions, his C.H.O.I.C.E. Program, his educator workshops, and his rap performances, Eric spreads messages of hope and inspiration as he campaigns against gangs, drugs and youth crime to attentive young audiences around the country," his website states.
We couldn't determine immediately how long he's been working for the charter school or when he resigned — he's still listed on the school's website as its principal, but a voice message states the new principal is Kelly Wade. He resigned as leader of the small Gila River school district on June 30, 2013, court records show.
The federally funded Casa Blanca Community School (also a school district) serves about 250 students — kindergarten through fourth grade — who attend a main school building in Bapchule.
James used his district credit card to "benefit his part-time careers or avocations as youth motivational speaker and musician," a plea agreement signed last week states.
He blew $5,700 at a "guitar center," more than $8,100 in music supplies, about $1,400 on "puppets," and also paid back nearly $5,000 to a debt-collection agency. The feds nailed him specifically for the latter debt, which stemmed from his unpaid student loans. James filled out a "purchase request" with the school to make the $4,936.22 payment, records show, writing fraudulently that it was for "online library management systems."
All told, James stole more than $22,000, records state. He pleaded guilty last week to one count of embezzlement and theft from an Indian Tribal Organization, a felony.
James faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine at his sentencing, which is set for June 11 before U.S. District Judge Steven P. Logan. Prosecutors with the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office will cut him a break of some sort because he's been cooperative.
He agrees to pay back the money he stole before the sentencing hearing, plus return any other school property or items he bought with the government credit card. He's also barred permanently from various educational and procurement work with the federal government.
At least James can still fall back on his music career.
UPDATE: Noah Webster school got back to us this morning to say that James worked as principal of the Pima campus from July 1 to October 30, 2014, and that he was laid off due to budget cuts.
UPDATE: James received three years' probation at his July 2015 sentencing hearing.
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