Jesus in a Mullet

Del Hendrixson's uncertain journey from convict to Dallas gang guru

"Del has what is known as 'founder's syndrome,'" Gary Ivory says. "She feels she has to be involved in every aspect of the business. Founder's syndrome is a common ailment at start-up nonprofits, which often are created by one person with a compelling vision. Most of Bajito Onda exists only inside Hendrixson's head. "I wish she would put more structure in her program," Hallman says. "I think you use Del to sell it, but you need somebody else to draw it up."

Recently, Hendrixson thought she had at last found the right person, a quiet African-American volunteer named Theo. Hendrixson met Theo on August 14, a Sunday, and by August 16 she is convinced she has found her successor. "It's almost like we have the same brain," Hendrixson gushes. "His brain talks to my brain. It's like my brain has a friend. I'm serious--my brain is lonely having all this stuff in it, and it can't really relate with other people."

Hendrixson doesn't press Theo too hard on his background once she has established the vital fact that he, too, has had trouble with the law. "He successfully completed his probation," Hendrixson says. "So he kind of qualifies. He kind of fits in with what we're doing." For the remainder of the week, Theo's obvious competence has Hendrixson delighted--but on the following Monday, he is nowhere to be found. She doesn't hear from him again for a week.

Beth Gilbert has brought her management expertise to bear at Bajito Onda. "When I first came, my goal was to keep $100 in the bank," she says. "And that was hard."
Beth Gilbert has brought her management expertise to bear at Bajito Onda. "When I first came, my goal was to keep $100 in the bank," she says. "And that was hard."
Vicki Hallman, regional director for the TDCJ Parole Division and a Bajito Onda board member, has developed a reputation for fairness among parolees. "Ask anybody on the street--they know to come see Ms. Hallman," she says.
Vicki Hallman, regional director for the TDCJ Parole Division and a Bajito Onda board member, has developed a reputation for fairness among parolees. "Ask anybody on the street--they know to come see Ms. Hallman," she says.

Hendrixson sends Theo packing when he eventually reappears. "I'm very demanding," she says. "I invest in you, I expect you to invest in you. I can't invest in an empty hole in the ground." Yet her capacity for investment seems limitless. "I think Del's idea is, 'I save your life, you stay here and work with me and we'll keep this place going,'" Hallman says. "But these aren't people that can help Del. These are people like Del."

Jessie "Chuco" Chavez is one of those people. On one steamy evening last month, the 32-year-old Chavez sits in his front yard, visiting with Hendrixson. He is in obvious pain, but his instincts won't let him relax. At any sign of movement beyond the chain-link fence surrounding the yard of his family's small Oak Cliff house, Chavez tenses in his wheelchair, his eyes probing the darkness. "Sorry, man--paranoid," he says after one such interruption.

Chavez has good reason to be paranoid. His legs have been paralyzed since a bullet lodged in his spine when he was 17, just one of nine different times he says he's been shot. Chavez never let his disability hinder him in his duties as a gang leader, however, either in prison or on the outside. "He'll go after them right out of his chair," Hendrixson says in a respectful tone. Now though, Chavez's body is betraying him. During a recent hospital visit for a nagging infection in his thigh, Chavez fell from his chair and broke bones in both his weakened legs. Occasional tremors, either from fever or pain, course through his body.

Chavez and Hendrixson have a friendship that at times seems more of a mutual admiration society. Chavez is impressed that Hendrixson seeks out company that would give most middle-aged white ladies nightmares. Hendrixson, in turn, is awed by Chavez's grim determination to earn respect from the world at any price.

Chavez heads to his trailer behind the house to get a piece of his artwork for Hendrix to copy. It is a breathtaking, brooding ink drawing of the Stations of the Cross that he did in prison. Before rolling back to the door, Chavez points to a small cross propped in a dish. "See that?" Closer inspection shows that the cross is actually a thorned, gray metal "T" with an overlaid "S," a blood-red stone in a claw-like setting at the center. "Texas Syndicate," Chavez says--a much-feared prison gang. "That means I'm a general. Guys that know, they're shitting their pants when they see that."

Out front again, Chavez talks about his brother Johnny, one of 19 siblings in the family. Hendrixson has mentioned Johnny before: He was known as the "Thrill Killer" and was executed by lethal injection on April 22, 2003, as his family members watched. After apologizing for his crimes, Johnny smiled and winked at his brother and then lay back, closing his eyes. "OK, Warden, take me to heaven," he said. But as the automatic plungers fell, he lifted his head again and asked, "Is this thing working?"

"We thought he was going to beat death," Chavez says. They were wrong--but Chavez swears that all those present saw his brother's spirit rising to heaven shortly afterward, arms crossed in death and wearing a beatific grin. "The guard grabbed me on the shoulder," he says, "and said, 'We just killed somebody from God.'"

It was Chavez's love of art that led him into Hendrixson's shop in 2000, but it was years before he would trust her, and even longer before he would return her hug. Chavez remembers her first attempt: "I was like, 'Don't hug me, lady. I don't hug nobody.'" Since then he has appeared with Hendrixson on TV and at gang conferences. "Somebody should have told me a long time ago," Chavez says. "They should have said, 'You've got some talent there, you could do something different.' If someone had told me that when I was a kid, I wouldn't be in this chair now." Does that mean he is no longer a gang member? "No," he says, amused at the question. "We're a family."

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