Shot At Redemption

Page 5 of 9

"He told me when I talked about hiring him that he was an alcoholic, but he hadn't had a drink in five years," says David Grece, the print-shop owner. "He said, 'I'm willing to work some extra hours, but I want you to know that my time is really devoted to helping other people.' And he went to the jail, I know, at least once a week to counsel inmates."

Within a year, Grece made Lederer a manager, making him responsible for ensuring jobs got done right and on time. "He knew how to do everything, and he did everything in just a fantastic way," Grece says. "He basically had what I refer to as an owner's mentality."

Lederer's biggest flaw as a supervisor, Grece says, was that he was too nice. Instead of cracking down on employees who weren't up to snuff, he'd do the work himself. "If Gordon has a fault, it's that he tends to have too much empathy," Grece says. "I explained to him, 'I put you in this position; I want everyone to do things as well and in the manner that you do it.'

"I just consider him to be a fine individual. I would be proud to have him as a brother or a son or anything."

Maria Regalado was too busy in the kitchen to notice, but a man doesn't eat lunch at Taco Bell every day just because he likes seven-layer burritos. Gordon Lederer was watching her, looking past the cashier to the prep line.

"'He likes you,' my friends say," she recalls six years later. "I said, 'Do you think?' I asked, 'What did I do?' He just kept coming and coming."

Romance was the last thing on her mind. Estranged from her husband, she was a single mom from Mexico with a five-year-old daughter to raise on fast-food wages. She spoke no English -- just getting orders right was a challenge. That didn't dissuade Lederer. "I was really intrigued by her, for some strange reason," he says.

And he'd always had a way with women.

Before he sobered up, strippers and assorted other girlfriends would sneak through windows of his mother's house at night to be with him. After getting clean, he got more than moral support at Alcoholics Anonymous. "Back then, he was kind of a slut," Ousley says. "He met all kinds of girls in the program and went out with them. He was dating three women when he met Maria. It's definitely not his looks. It's his personality, I guess -- his charm."

It's tough to charm a woman who can't understand what you're saying, so Lederer bought some teach-yourself-Spanish tapes and practiced phrases on his way to work each morning. Eventually, he slipped her a business card. On the back he'd written, "You are so beautiful. Call me." She did, but got nowhere. The only English word she knew was "Hello." After that, silence. Convinced it was a crank caller, Lederer hung up.

But it wasn't long before love bloomed.

Maria cut her hand with a slipped knife one afternoon and needed stitches, but the restaurant was busy. Biltmore Graphics was right across the street. So she called on Lederer. "I dropped what I was doing," he says.

The emergency room isn't the best spot for a first date. Lederer was the only Anglo there, surrounded by Hispanics and not understanding a word that anyone said. But Lederer made the most of it. Using hand gestures and what Spanish he'd learned, he asked her to dinner.

Plenty of women would be impressed with dinner at The Fish Market on Camelback Road. Oysters on the half-shell, swordfish grilled over mesquite, cloth napkins, a wine list. Lederer did the ordering -- he was trying to look like he was in control, like he belonged there. She hated it.

Her idea of a good time is a weekend camping trip. She grew up in a small Mexican village, where seafood cocktails overflowed with shrimp, octopus and shellfish. "So when they gave me four shrimp with that weird sauce, I was just, 'What is this?'" she says. They'd both brought dictionaries so they could speak to each other. Despite the language barrier, she made herself clear.

"I told him, 'I don't feel comfortable here. I really don't like this. It's so fake. Look at the people around you. When you try to appear something you're not, people know. If you want to impress me, treat me right and just be yourself.'"

It was Lederer's turn to be impressed. "She did it in a manner that I kind of appreciated," he says. "It endeared her to me. She doesn't pull any punches -- she says what's on her mind."

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Bruce Rushton