07/24/2013 04:18 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

How One Father Got His Son Out of a Gang

This is a true story. Only the names have been changed.

When I met him in the early mid-1990s Jerry Wheeler was a refrigerator repair man in South Central Los Angeles (now called South L.A.). He was divorced from his wife and she had custody of their two children, Charlene and Darnell. Jerry had grown up in South Central, was steeped in gang lore and knew the appeal of the gangs to young boys who came from broken homes. But he never in a thousand years thought that his own son would run with the gangs.

Then, one day, his daughter called him up and said that Darnell was hanging out with a faction, or "set," of the Crips. Jerry didn't believe her. But Charlene insisted it was true, so Jerry bundled her into his car and drove to the street corner where she said Darnell was. And she was right -- there was Darnell, then all of 12-years-old, dressed in the sag pants and sneakers that was then the gang outfit, hanging around with a bunch of Crips. Jerry called from the car, and a frightened Darnell ran over. Despite appearances, Darnell vigorously denied he was a gang member. Jerry told him to get 'in the car, drove him home and burned his son's gang clothes.

But a few weeks later, the same thing happened -- Charlene called Jerry and said that Darnell was at it again, hanging around with the Crips. And again, Jerry drove to the street corner, chewed Darnell out in front of the other gang members -- "dissed" him -- and then drove him home.

This pattern continued for several months, but try as he might, Jerry couldn't pry his son away from the gangs. One day, he found a gun among Darnell's possessions. Confronted, Darnell said he was just keeping it for a friend -- "Fine," said Jerry, grabbing it. "Tell your friend he can come get it from me." The "friend," of course, never showed up to claim it.

Things only got worse. Darnell started stealing cars with the other gangbangers, again as part of his initiation into the set. (The girl gangbangers' initiation rite: having sex with all the male members of the "set.") The cops called Jerry and said they were holding Darnell on stolen car charges.

Jerry closed up the refrigerator repair shop and drove down to the precinct, where the cops handed over his son. Jerry then took Darnell back to his brother's house nearby, and, as he puts it, "coached" his son on how not to steal cars -- all the while telling Darnell that he loved him, that he was his father but that he'd be damned if he would let him join a gang. But Darnell, swayed by the other gang members, kept at it -- and about the third time the cops called Jerry to come get Darnell, Darnell, fearing what was coming, begged them not to release him to his father's custody, which is exactly what the cops did.

Then, interestingly, Jerry tried a new tactic.

He knew that a car parked near his house was one that Darnell and his gangbanger friends had probably stolen. So very early on a Saturday morning, he yanked Darnell out of bed, grabbed a can of motor oil and some rags, and told Darnell they were going to wash the car down. Jerry proceeded, with Darnell staring on in open-mouthed amazement, to wipe every inch of the car, inside and out, with motor oil, in effect erasing any finger prints. Then Jerry gave Darnell the keys to his own car, even though Darnell was under age, and said, "If you need a car, use mine. But don't steal." Dumbfounded, Darnell took his daddy's car out for a ride.

After a while, Jerry, using his own particular brand of "tough love" and street smarts, began pulling Darnell away from the gangs. Anyone will tell you that pre-teen kids are the most susceptible to joining the gangs, and if they do, they are generally lost. Darnell was at that critical age, but even some of the other gangbangers were impressed with Jerry's determination to keep Darnell out of harm's way. In fact, when I asked Darnell what the other kids thought of Jerry repeatedly showing up and yanking him off the street, let alone "dissing" him in front of the others, he said that they said, "You don't know how lucky you are to have an old man who cares."

Then, just when Jerry thought he had gotten his son all the way out of the gangs, the roof fell in. Darnell was at a 7-11 store buying a soda when he was confronted by the girlfriend of a rival gang leader. She called Darnell a "chicken" for leaving the gangs, and then she slapped him -- an obvious provocation. Darnell hit her back, and she ran.

It didn't take long for word to get out that there was a "contract" out on Darnell -- that the girl's boyfriend was going to kill him. Jerry heard about this and decided to take matters into his own hands. He and his brother, who played a significant role as his backup, emotionally and physically, went to the rival gang leader's house. The mother answered the door, and Jerry asked politely to see her son, the gang leader, a kid in his late teens. When the kid appeared at the door, Jerry let loose with a roundhouse punch. He had Charlene and Darnell in tow, standing right behind him. "If you harm either one of these kids," he said, pointing to them, "I'll kill you." Then he walked away.

The next thing Jerry knew, there was a "contract" out on him. He was told that a carload of gangbangers, led by the kid he had punched out, was driving around the neighborhood looking for him. Jerry got his brother and they both went looking for the gangbangers, thinking this was the final confrontation.

Both Jerry and his brother were armed. They stood in the middle of the street, High Noon- style, and faced the approaching car which bristled with guns. Jerry says now he didn't know what was going to happen, but at the last-minute the carload of gangbangers suddenly swerved and turned down a side street, thus avoiding a bloody confrontation. That's the last Jerry ever heard from the gang leader who was out to kill his kid.

But it wasn't over yet.

About a year later, Darnell, by then back in school and holding down a part-time job, was standing at a pay phone, talking to his girlfriend. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a car pull up slowly and a gun come out. Instinctively, he dropped the phone and rolled onto the ground. A shot was fired, and it hit him in the leg.

Jerry called me that night, steaming. I thought for sure that he would get a gun and go out looking for the shooter himself. I asked him what he was going to do. "Nothing," he said. "I've done all I can. It's up to Darnell." And it would have been easy for Darnell to round up some of his old gangbanger buddies and seek revenge, but he didn't do it -- he had finally turned the corner, much to his father's relief and pride. His only reminder is a slight limp because of the bullet wound.

Through all this, Jerry was still working as a refrigerator repairman, although the business suffered some because he was chasing down Darnell at all hours of the day and night. But he had also been thinking about working with kids in gangs, about trying to get them out like he had gotten his own son out.

Then, one day, he walked out of his house and saw an old man being beaten up by some members of a Crips set. The gangbangers said that the old man owed them money. Jerry jumped in the middle and challenged any of the gangbangers to take him on. They backed away -- they knew him from the street and respected his authority, which is something you can't learn, you either have it or you don't. Jerry had it.

Shortly after that, he became a street gang counselor, and that's when I met him.