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'It's about breaking the chain'

April 15, 2007|By TAMELA BAKER

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.-It seemed like the cool thing to do at the time.

At age 14, Angel Gonzales thought taking a gun to school would brand him as a "tough guy" and earn him acceptance with his peers.

At 28, Gonzales has only one explanation for his actions then.

"Stupidity."

He took the gun to his second-period civics class at J. Frank Faust Junior High School and passed it to a friend. Showing off.

"I've never really been a follower," Gonzales said. "It seems like it was a movie - either you were auditioning for the starring role or you were in the background."

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The gun wasn't loaded, but he knew the game was up when the principal and Chambersburg police approached him.

The police took him away.

"That's when the journey started," Gonzales recalled.

Clutching the workbook he has been using in his courses at the Franklin County Day Reporting Center, where Colorado-based BI Inc. runs intensive treatment and training programs for past offenders, he shudders as he recounts the story.




Some heavy baggage

After court proceedings in Chambersburg, the first stop was the Central Counties Youth Center in Bellefonte, Pa. He tried to be tough, but the new surroundings frightened him.

"I'm really a momma's boy," Gonzales said. "This was the first time, I was not wanting to be away from my mom. There at the 'intake,' I straight told the guy, 'I don't belong here' and I cried."

But from that point, Gonzales seemed to bounce back and forth between doing well in controlled environments and falling under the influence of bad associations and, in his words, just plain "stupidity."

And wherever Gonzales went, he carried some heavy baggage.

"It wasn't hard to do what I had to do" to follow the rules at the youth center, he said. "But that bad paper trail followed me."

He was sent to upstate New York for psychological testing. He figured out how to manipulate some of the tests to his advantage.

"Even then, at 14, I knew I was hip to it," Gonzales said. He gave "safe" answers to the Rorschach inkblot tests, saying, for example, he saw butterflies in the patterns rather than anything negative.

Even so, he said, that period in his life was "the first process of changing. I opened up to being able to take criticism. I had to listen to my peers and accept what they said and then say something nice about them."

Gonzales had grown up with siblings, a single mother and some resentments that affected his behavior.

While Gonzales began to show potential, he still had a long way to go.

"I was like a garbage disposal," he said. "I took in what I thought I needed then."

Gonzales completed the programs he had been assigned and went through court proceedings again.

"They said I excelled, but I couldn't go home," he said.

The severity of the crime kept Gonzales in custody - although at the time, "I didn't know how serious it was," he said. "All I was worried about was 'y'all are taking me away from my mom.'"

For a while, Gonzales was placed with a foster family in Williamsport, Pa., where he flourished.

"That experience made me realize what a family was," he said. "I had a father figure, I got hugs from the mother. It was waking up to breakfast every morning."

Gonzales chose to stay with the family for two months longer than required.

"Then I felt I was wronging my mom," he said.




'Stupid decisions'

At 16, Gonzales returned to Chambersburg.

"I was doing good, going to school. I was on probation," he said. "Then I lost interest for school - it seemed like we were doing the same thing. I got mixed up with the wrong crowd. I made stupid decisions."

Among them was breaking into businesses - a gun shop, a jewelry store.

"I ended right back" at the Central Counties Youth Center, he said. "This time I didn't cry - I already knew what to expect."

At first, anyway.

Gonzales said he wept later when he had time to think about his situation.

"I missed my brother and sister," he said. "I felt I was on my own."

But Gonzales thought he could make it.

"I already had the blueprint," he recalled. "Then, bam - they said I was going to Franklin County Prison."

In court, the judge sentenced Gonzales to time served, but before he could be released, "I went back to jail and got in a fight."

After nearly a year, Gonzales was released on his mother's birthday. He went to live with his grandfather in Waynesboro, Pa., but he wanted to go back to Chambersburg. When an old friend arrived one day to show off his new car, Gonzales went for a ride with him and never came back.

In Chambersburg, Gonzales did whatever he needed to do to get by.

"I was moving from house to house, motels, freeloading, manipulating people," he said. "It got me by."

For money, Gonzales sold drugs and robbed people, he said.

Gonzales was charged with conspiracy to commit robbery in 1997. Tipped off by a friend that the police were looking for him, he called his mother, who had moved to Florida.

"I cried and I just told her I was tired of being in Chambersburg." She sent him a bus ticket, and Gonzales and his girlfriend fled to Florida.

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