Big Murk's Kids

Politics and mismanagement closed the books on the city's anti-gang program, but try telling this South Dallas fixture the problem's solved

Hispanic leaders immediately criticized Boyd's inability to speak Spanish, since police statistics indicated two-thirds of the identified gang members in Dallas were Hispanic. Boyd resigned over the issue before she even started.

In 1992, a new director was chosen: Alfonso Herrera. He was prevented from taking office after being indicted by a state grand jury for holding two full-time public jobs at the same time. Dallas pastor Luis Llerena Jr. was then tapped for the directorship, but he quit in June 1992, complaining that the majority of the program's budget went to staff salaries.

By the time the pastor was gone, the charges against Herrera were dropped for lack of evidence. He took charge of the program in November 1993 and lasted until 1995. The scant resources and race politics were making progress impossible.

Victor Calderon Jr. was killed after attending a city-sponsored anti-gang dance.
Victor Calderon Jr. was killed after attending a city-sponsored anti-gang dance.
Victor Calderon Jr. was killed after attending a city-sponsored anti-gang dance.
Photos by Mark Graham
Victor Calderon Jr. was killed after attending a city-sponsored anti-gang dance.

"There were political factions supporting him and political factions against him," Mendez says. "I'm talking about community factions here, not parks board."

The position would remain unfilled for more than a year, when Javier Rios was named director. Insiders say the park department higher-ups never fully trusted him and kept a sharp eye on his moves. Rios was demoted to supervisor in 1997 for being "insubordinate" and twice using a city vehicle without permission, taking it home after late-night appointments. Gehrig Saldana became the interim coordinator, a title that stuck until the program died.

"I wanted to be the director so bad," Murkledove says. "I felt like I was being punished for that kid being killed on my watch."

Murkledove is referring to an event that undercut any city confidence in the program forever: the 1991 slaying of Victor Calderon Jr. outside Pemberton Hill Recreation Center (now Janie C. Turner) after a gang-prevention dance. Murkledove was one of the chaperones who organized the dance and went home afterward. The murder happened half an hour after the dance ended, as kids were milling around outside the building.

Controversy burned quickly and brightly in the press, with questions being raised about the competency of the park department staff to deal with gang kids. The program never really recovered.

Financial scandals also gutted the program's reputation, even though the key players were unattached to the gang program, and park department staff was dead-set against granting them money. Two anti-gang groups, the Afro-American Players and the D-Boy Community Center, teamed up to win $100,000 of federal money from the city to run a program. The effort was destined to be ripped apart by internal arguments and an audit that showed executives used a forged document to receive a $25,000 bank loan, maintained a list of fake board members, and accrued $31,645 in "questionable expenses" during its year and a half life span.

The same brush tarred the entire program, and Murkledove says the park department let it happen. "People said there was issues of integrity, but our program was running smooth," says Murkledove. "We never got to stand in front of the park board and say, 'We do this, and we do that.' We had an excellent program, which has not been waved in front of the City Council."

Statistics and crime trends make it easier to shut down an anti-gang program. Local and national accountings show gang violence is down. According to the Dallas Police Department, 845 gang-related crimes were committed in Dallas during 1998. In 2000, the number was 723. The drop has been steady over the last five years, and the reasons seem to be economic.

"We have a couple of theories. There seems to be a trend away from violence and towards narcotics," says Brandon Sailor, gang-unit crime analyst for the DPD. "There's a focus on money and away from killing each other for little things."

It has become vogue in Dallas City Hall, as in many city halls, to say that any facility open to children is de facto anti-gang. From this holistic approach, corporate-sponsored nighttime basketball games, the Police Athletic League, and even the very existence of public parks are deterrents to gang violence. This new paradigm eventually allowed Murkledove's outreach program, by now a general teen outreach program but labeled "anti-gang," to be erased from the budget.

"In my opinion, the drive-bys and gang activity have gone down, but juvenile violence is still out there," Diaz says. "The city has never really focused on its youth. Now that the drive-bys have gone down, they'll trim [their efforts] even more."

Late last year, the program managers began to hear that a horrible word was being used on management strata of the Park and Recreation Department, that buzzard of a term circling over their heads: restructuring.

City Manager Ted Benavides recommended erasing the $300,000 for a juvenile gang-prevention program from the 2001 budget. The program died without a whimper; The Dallas Morning News didn't even mention its passing.

Of course, the city couldn't leave the perception that it had abandoned its teen-agers--in case someone noticed. In 1994, the city unveiled its "Youth Task Force," chaired by City Councilwoman Barbara Mallory Caraway. The task force recommended the creation of a permanent department called the Youth Services Office, which was quickly conceived and birthed (with fanfare) in 1994. The budget is currently at just under a million dollars, the amount that experts say most cities devote solely to anti-gang programs.

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