Inside and Out: Marcus' year of trouble and surprises

February 1, 2011

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(WBEZ/Rob Wildeboer)
Maura Smith was a volunteer at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

Today we're checking back  with a talented, charismatic young man we met a year ago as part of our series on juvenile justice, Inside and Out.  At the time Marcus was struggling to graduate from 8th grade after becoming involved with a gang. He kept getting suspended from school. We're using a pseudonym to protect his identity. Marcus said he didn't want the gang life anymore,  but the constant suspensions seemed to be pushing him in that direction. 

"I like being in school. I like learning stuff new.  If you want me out of your school so bad why you just won't let me do what I got to do and get up out you all school the right way.  I will walk across the stage.  I will wave politely at you all good-bye, " he said.

Marcus never did walk across that stage. It's been a year of trouble and surprises.

At 14 years old, Marcus started 2010 running from the law.

He was on probation but wasn't living at home, a violation of his curfew every night if nothing else.

He was living with his girlfriend on Chicago's Southeast side.

On a morning in early February her mother asked him to get some milk and cereal from the store and on the way he bumped into a friend.

MARCUS: At that time I didn't know he had a gun but as we walking he like I got the slam on me.

WILDEBOER: You know that that's trouble, right?

MARCUS: I know how it is around there personally so I can't just tell him like, go put that gun up because I be telling him like, go put your life in danger.  If you ain't got a gun and somebody walk up on you and they catch you slippin' as we say, they gonna shoot and they ain't gonna miss and they ain't gonna try to miss.

When they got to the store Marcus was getting the cereal and milk and sure enough, someone did walk up, a rival gang member of Marcus's friend.

MARCUS:  He said he was gonna kill my friend so my friend just, he upped the gun, he cocked it back and just got to shooting at him.  I ran to the back of the store, hid in a closet.  When I came out the police was in there, they was all in there.

Marcus was taken in to custody. 

When I talked to him in the jail in early March, he was angry.

MARCUS: I been trying to call my momma and tell her to come visit me so we can talk but hey, she don't wanna come.

Marcus wants nothing more than a relationship where he and his mom talk.

He's a fourteen year-old gang-member, or if not a member, he's certainly gang-involved, but when he talks about his mom, you remember, in many ways, he's still just a boy.

MARCUS: My momma, she was telling me, we was gonna get it right.  She was going to start talking to me then I think that would be better with our relationship but her not doing that is causing a big problem.

It's a problem because when they don't talk fights end up exploding and she kicks him out of the house.

GARCIA: After we learned that she had put him out we really had no other option but to withdraw the violation of probation because if she's not going to allow him to reside there, we can't fault him for not being home.

Randy Garcia is Marcus's probation officer.

He says he expects Marcus will be released at his court date on Friday but when the court date arrives his mom doesn't show up.

She doesn't want him back at home yet.

Marcus's dad, who's been absent most of his life, does show up and he's willing to let Marcus live with him.

So Garcia calls Marcus' mom to get the okay because she's the legal guardian, but she refuses.

It means Marcus won't be able to leave jail today.

And it exposes an old rift in the family.

GRANDMA: We can't do nothing without her.  She tell them to keep him in jail, you know they'll keep him in jail.  She have the last say so.

That's Marcus' grandmother on his father's side.

Marcus often stays at her house when his mom kicks him out.

In fact she tried to get custody of him when his mom and her boyfriend used to beat him with an extension cord.

GRANDMA: I told him, I said look, don't never let them whoop you naked with no extension cord.  If you have to run out the house naked or anything, leave out and hop on the bus and get over here, and that's what he did.  He ran out of the house in his underclothes and that's when the people picked him up on the street.

Marcus's mom went to jail for that beating.

She does show up for the next hearing and takes him home.

The probation department arranged for a therapist to visit with the family in their home but Marcus' mom didn't show for the sessions.

But it's not that she doesn't care at all.

She's just busy.

She is providing for four kids and a grandchild by working at a Popeye's Chicken in the suburbs, but the upshot is that they didn't get any therapy.

Marcus ended up spending most of the year locked up.

Probation officer Garcia tries to list off the new cases.

For starters fingerprint results started coming back on old residential burglaries Marcus had committed.

GARCIA: Then there was also the burglary to the auto, he'd stolen from his mother, he had taken her debit cards.  That was a felony theft, the aggravated battery, the other residential burglary around the corner, so I mean that's four cases.

Garcia says Marcus had a record number of cases and yet somehow, he always seemed to get an extra lifeline.

GARCIA: He's got a way with people that not many kids do.  He's very intelligent, I mean in custody he writes books of poetry and he calls non-stop, my office, his public defender and so by the time you're in court it's almost like you can't help but you know grow a little sympathetic.

As a probation officer, Garcia isn't just trying to bust kids when they screw up.

He really wants to help, but by fall, Garcia says he and the attorneys and the judge were running out of patience with Marcus and probably would have sent him to prison.

But then, the mother of all lifelines was extended.

SMITH: I've tried to think of other ways to help him and I thought really the best way to help him is to get him out of Chicago for a while.

Maura Smith's daughter goes to a Catholic boarding school in Kansas and one day she thought it might be a good place for Marcus.

So she and a friend offered to split the tuition costs.

Smith met Marcus when she was volunteering at the juvenile prison every Tuesday night just visiting with kids.

It's through a Christian ministry but she says she's not much for talking about God.

She talks to the kids about their families or music they like.

SMITH: And some of those boys, you feel like, there's not going to be many options for them and it breaks your heart.

But Marcus?

SMITH: He was just one of those young men that you really felt, hey, this young guy could probably do something.

Smith was charmed by Marcus though she's no fool either.

She chooses not to know the details of what all he's into.

She arranged for him to visit the Kansas campus.

MARCUS: Man it's nice.  It's a lot of international kids.  Like I met this girl from Peru.  She was nice.  She was gorgeous.  Talking about just beautiful.  And I met this girl from Mexico, beautiful too.  Then another girl from Ghana, Africa.  Beautiful.

So last fall, with this unheard of opportunity on the horizon, the judge, the probation officers, the attorneys, they all gave Marcus extra lifelines just trying to get him to the new semester.

He was set to leave January 3rd so they didn't let him out of jail until December 22nd in an effort to limit his chances of getting in trouble.

But probation officer Garcia says even in that short time frame, Marcus disappeared from his mother's house for a few days and he missed a meeting, but Garcia gave him the benefit of the doubt one final time.

GARCIA: It was all with this notion that come January 3rd he's going to show up at home and have his bags packed and ready to go.  Like that's all I was focused on.

Marcus did leave January 3rd though he's already gotten in trouble at the new school for smoking Marijuana.

But there are also signs of hope.

He's been asking teachers for help, showing he wants to succeed.

And he's talking about a trip in the spring.

Garcia says that means he's finally looking ahead, thinking about more than just tomorrow.

Robert Wildeboer, WBEZ.