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.

Big Murk's Kids

There is a faint but distinct tearing sound as Billy Murkledove flips through a stack of old photos, each showing a group of smiling youths. The pictures are stuck together from age; Murkledove has collected them for almost a decade.

"This boy here, he got 40 years," Murkledove says, indicating a skinny child with a wide grin. Another flip, a 12-year-old flashes gang signs for the camera. "This one here caught a case. He was the lookout for a shooting."

These are Big Murk's kids, gangbangers and troubled teens from South Dallas with whom he's developed relationships over the years. Some ended up in college, some ended up with jobs, some ended up in prison.

Murkledove withdraws a letter from the city from another file. It begins: "Due to the current fiscal environment it has become necessary to reduce our staff size." His job as community outreach supervisor, focusing on anti-gang activities from within the Park and Recreation Department, has been slashed. The program's $330,000 budget has been absorbed into the budget of Youth Services, which sponsors mainstream programs such as after-school sports and summer camps. Except for a handful of caseworkers in the police department, Dallas' entire official gang-intervention effort is now dead, killed by the pen when the city manager signed the 2001 budget.

"They're just putting these kids out of the parks buildings," Murkledove says. "The city isn't in the anti-gang business anymore."

The park department says the program hasn't been killed, merely reorganized, but staff members are being moved from their offices, activities have been discontinued, and staff positions have been deleted from the budget.

In fact, the city has almost no intervention programs for any teen-agers who are either involved or flirting with a criminal life. The heads of city programs prefer to concentrate on more-manageable younger children or athletes with nowhere to play. Teen programs rely on good kids coming to them, instead of reaching out to kids on the brink.

"The kids don't need me in the recreation centers. Our focus was always outside the rec centers. My job was to teach them how to function in society," Murkledove says, sitting in what used to be his office. He's packing slowly, and the move is obviously painful.

Murkledove has watched the city's grim 10-year attempt at gang intervention from his desk as outreach supervisor to the Juvenile Gang Prevention Program, a position he held since the program was conceived. Its goal was to attract kids who didn't go for traditional city activities and keep them engaged, using city money, vehicles, and facilities to fight the aimlessness and boredom that drives juvenile crime. From his seat, Murkledove witnessed the city's inability to do this, a feat that dozens of youth groups in the city seem able to accomplish, powered by grant money.

The city spent years killing its anti-gang effort, starving it of influence and leadership before quietly stripping its budget. Park and Recreation officials say the program bit off more than it could chew in trying to tackle gangs, and the department has responded by abandoning all intervention efforts. The distaste for the program felt at higher levels of city government grew as it became a racial battleground between Hispanic and black power blocs and after a teen was murdered following a city-sponsored dance. The directorship of the program had more executive turnovers than pre-Napoleonic France. Flawed or not, the formerly high-profile program died a surprisingly unheralded death.

There's a reason the program lived unloved and died unmourned. It was a poorly executed effort born of city government's reaction to the media's coverage of gangs. It was under-funded (starting with a paltry $100,000 in 1991) and had a vague mandate. By attaching the focus specifically to gangs instead of overall at-risk juvenile intervention, the program became easy to dismiss as unnecessary when gang membership began dropping in the mid-1990s.

The effort became more than polarized by race; it became segregated. Outreach supervisors had separate programs based in different recreation centers. City workers in separate black and Hispanic communities who brought their programs together had to worry about creating or inflaming fights.

Yet somehow, Murkledove created his own fiefdom of juvenile intervention--to "do his own thing"--isolated from park department oversight. Taking advantage of political contacts, he was able to set up shop in his native South Dallas, while other supervisors were confined to recreation centers. Murkledove roamed his former neighborhood, using his violent history and redemption to enter the lives of children and their families to become an adviser, father figure, and role model for kids who didn't have one. If the program failed, it's harder to say Murkledove did.

Now, the big man is worried. Murkledove is being shipped out of South Dallas, where he was born and raised and where he feels he has a connection to a generation of kids drifting toward hopelessness and violence. He's concerned that the kids closest to serious trouble will see the city government only as an agency that is trying to put them away.

"This will leave a void. The city won't be interacting with the kids it needs to interact with," he says. "They are only reinforcing the belief that the whole system is set up to incarcerate."

Walking around the Martin Luther King Center in South Dallas with Murkledove is like strolling with a retiring congressman. The young and old hail him as he walks around the center, on the streets, in the halls of charter schools, in the park where students and vagrants are often indistinguishable behind 40-ounce beer bottles and loose-hanging clothes. It's clearly his turf. He's relaxed, affectionate, flirtatious.

"I got good name recognition in this area," he says. "I have been one of the ones who has been reformed."

The kids he's helped call him Big Murk for good reason. He stands more than 6 feet tall, still holding an impressive girth and presence, despite his 56 years and chronic limp from knees injured while playing football. White hair grows like scrub brush along his cheeks. He's quick to joke, keen to spin long-winded tales, and eager to share handfuls of Jolly Rancher candy with anyone who comes to the office. Murkledove's extroverted, intractable, and fearless.

"Big shots don't like Billy because he speaks the truth," says one former city co-worker. "The administration is like, 'Oh no, he's opening his mouth again!'"

According to conventional park department wisdom (i.e. wagging tongues), the reason Big Murk can speak without fear from on high is because he rests comfortably under the political umbrella of County Commissioner John Wiley Price. (Price did not respond to requests for an interview.) It took Murkledove several years and several internal disputes before he landed a job without direct oversight in the MLK Center in South Dallas, where car thieves sometimes ditch stolen cars on the parking lot when the cops are in pursuit. His connections gave him the physical space he needed to get things done his way.

When the emphasis of the gang unit was firmly focused on Hispanic neighborhoods, there was a push to put Hispanics in charge of the project. Murkledove turned this to his favor; he pointed out that the city's easiest way around the problem was to put Murk on his own turf in a black neighborhood.

"If I'm having all these problems with the Hispanic community, let me provide this service in South Dallas," he says of his reaction to complaints that the program was underrepresenting Hispanics, who made up two-thirds of all gang members. "They put everyone else under direct supervision in rec centers, but they left me alone." His office became a haven for troubled kids seeking advice, whether gang-related or (more often) not.

Murk's connections come from a lifetime in the neighborhood. He has many legacies: a tragic star athlete, a dangerous street thug, a tenacious community activist. He has used the luster and lure of all these experiences to drag himself and anyone else out of the criminal life.

"I was voted most likely to succeed in athletics in high school, but I blew it," he says, thinking of the scholarship money he lost when he was sent to prison for attempted murder and robbery. "I mean I really blew that opportunity. All those scholarships I had went down the drain."

Flashback to 1961: Billy Murkledove is on the brink, and he doesn't know it. All the signs point in a dark and dangerous direction. The 17-year-old is dating an older woman, one of the kitchen workers at his high school, Madison. The star athlete, co-captain of the football team, is quick to anger when people challenge him or his girl on the streets, where he drives a Ford Fairlane his crew stole as it was being loaded on a train. The relationship makes him enemies: Thugs of all ages challenge the brash kid. He gets shot at while at football practice and jumped on the street. Murk responds by buying a shotgun. The barrel is cut so short the buckshot scatters in a wide spread, like a blunderbuss. Aiming is virtually unnecessary.

"I shot a couple people and never got arrested for it," he says now. "I was living two lives. This came out in my trial."

The halls of the newly opened Madison are tense as well. When the school opened, it brought kids from distinct neighborhoods under one roof. Cliques form, fights are common, and weapons in hallways aren't considered a social crisis, simply life insurance.

Football players make up the nucleus of Murk's crew. They amuse themselves by stealing and fencing cars and car parts, getting bent on drugs, and robbing drunks as they come out of bars. "We'd watch those drunks like buzzards...Back then, it was all this Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn shit," Murkledove says. "Now the kids catch cases."

But Murkledove's destined to catch a criminal case, too. One night on the way to a pep rally, a friend stops at an A&P for cigarettes. He sees a manager counting money and gets an idea: a quick holdup. Murk, shotgun always at the ready, agrees, and they enter the store. He wants to rent a convertible for the prom, and he figures the theft will make that possible.

The impromptu robbery is botched: The manager takes shelter behind bulletproof glass and makes a grab for Murk's partner as he reaches for a pile of cash. As his partner dashes off, the 17-year-old Murkledove fires two shots on his way out the door. No one is hurt. The next morning, detectives arrest him at his home. News of the robbery had spread around the pep rally, and a parent called police.

Murkledove was sentenced to 10 years for attempted murder, possession of a stolen vehicle, and armed robbery.

While in prison, his athleticism saves his sanity and starts him on the road to reform. His prison basketball coach gets him out of solitary and guides his way through the state prison system. Murk makes the cut, travels with the prison basketball team, and eventually becomes a model prisoner. He's released after five years, nine months, three weeks, and two days. The exact length of his stay remains seared in his brain.

The stint in prison clears his head, and the straight life suits him: Jobs as a machinist at Texas Instruments and Ford Motor Co. put money in his pocket. He marries and earns a college degree. Murkledove also makes a name for himself among activists and forms connections in the world of black politics after joining a motorcycle club called the African Bandits. The club members dedicate their time to community work. He lands a job as a recruiter for the Dallas County Community Action Agency and learns the ropes of life in the public sector, being promoted to higher positions within the youth-development program. He eventually gets a pardon from Gov. Preston Smith.

When Dallas decides to embark on an anti-gang program, political friends such as Price, Al Lipscomb, and Dallas County Justice of the Peace Thomas Jones, whom Murk befriended in school, offer his name as a way to include blacks in the effort. The year is 1990, and he's lived a lifetime's worth.

Mattie Davis was ready to drop out of Madison High School when she met Murkledove in 1993.

She was an overwhelmed and insecure freshman, with a lot to be worried about. Davis was never a gang member, but her temper and hand-grenade impatience certainly qualified her as "at-risk." The halls of Madison High School were, to her, havens for violence and mayhem. "You know how bad it was then. There was a lot of fighting and people doing whatever they wanted to do," she says. "I always wanted to learn, but how can anyone learn with others messing up our chances? I just wanted to drop out."

Davis told her friends she was through with school. A couple of them told her they were going to talk to someone named Mr. Murkledove, and did she want to come along? She agreed, and found the father figure she lacked since her father died when she was 3.

"They introduced me to Mr. Murkledove, and ever since then, he's been my role model. He told me if I run from my troubles I wouldn't gain a new life, but if I stay in school I could make some progress," she says. "He did all the stuff that my father would have done if he were here."

Davis says the key to Murkledove's reputation was the time he had to invest in kids' problems. "Everybody could go to Mr. Murkledove. No matter what the situation was, you could have killed someone or been dealing drugs, and he's gonna sit down and really listen. He won't just tell you something and kick you out, he'll sit down and map it out," she says. "We had our days when he would tell me things I didn't want to hear."

To Davis' grandmother and namesake, Mattie B. Davis, Murkledove is nothing less than a divine blessing. "I do believe if it weren't for Mr. Murk my grandchild would not have graduated," she says. "He helped her and so many of her friends. He's such a good father figure."

Now Davis is 23, working as a registered nurse and, with the help of her grandmother, raising her two nursery-school-aged children. In late January, she started classes to become a medical assistant.

It's as though Murkledove's life story was made for a cameo in an after-school special. His thug life and redemption may give him the cachet to speak with tough kids, but it's his likableness that wins them. Wilbur Williams, former principal of Pearl C. Anderson Middle School and a 33-year veteran of DISD, saw Murk in action during the first shaky years after the school opened in the early '90s.

"Previously, there was no middle school, so we bused those kids out of the community," Williams says. "When we brought them all back, it was a real challenge for everybody. And Billy held up his end of the bargain...He came by on his own and said, 'What can I do to help?' He was an oasis in the desert."

Rival toughs jockeying over new turf gave school administrators plenty to worry about. The school became a haven for street kids looking for a free meal; they were allowed to eat there with the tacit agreement that the school wouldn't be the scene of any violence or drug-dealing.

"Billy would come by religiously, if not daily, at least once a week," Williams recalled. "He'd meet with kids who were gangbanging. He knew them by name." The style impressed Williams, who, as a former Madison classmate, was well aware of Murkledove's personal history.

"I saw the transformation in him, and I know how he can relate to those kids. They don't want someone talking down to them from an ivory tower. He's been where those kids are, and they can relate to him," he says. "He has a gift, an art for working with young people."

Between 1991 and 1992, Murkledove quietly helped engineer a truce between the "Oak Cliff Gladiadores" and the "Pleasant Grove Vatos," who had several tense entanglements. His photo book contains images of the first hesitant dinner and DJ parties, more relaxed photos of a joint weekend trip to Austin, and a Christmas present exchange.

Part of deflating the lure of gangs is filling whatever void the gang itself is filling. Murkledove knows this can be as simple as giving kids transportation. What good is it to give a kid tickets to the circus, he figures, if there's no way for them to get there and no guarantee they're going to go? The answer is to drive them yourself.

The void can be as simple as a car or as complex as an identity. For that reason, Murkledove never used a gang's official name. "We didn't give them that identity. That was one of the things they thrived on."

The whole mission, as he saw it, was to find the kids who needed help because they weren't going to find him. He recruited teachers to go with him door to door to alert parents to their children's truancy or gang membership and gauge their situation at home. He offered incentives--trips, tickets, and the rides to get there--to kids who attended his five-day-a-week activities. His touch was personal and focused. Isolated from the rest of the city's program, Murk operated as a troubleshooter, a neighborhood saint.

To the park department, the way he ran his fiefdom wasn't worth the effort. "Billy's really dedicated to South Dallas. That's his passion," says assistant park director Ralph Mendez. "He really tried to help as many kids as he could. He had a wider variety of programs other places didn't have, but other places had programs he didn't have either...We found that for the amount of [staff] time spent on four or five kids we were missing a lot of other kids, too."

If the Juvenile Gang Prevention Program were a spaceship, it would have been launched with a crew that despised each other and had too little food to go around. Funding was so light that by the time school let out, the staff was on its way home. Insiders say that by 1995, after a fatal shooting, numerous directors, and a drop in gang violence and membership, the program was being dismissed as more trouble than it was worth.

"By the early 1990s, the park board agreed we should be more involved in prevention than intervention," Mendez says.

Evidence of the change in the city's attitude can be found in a 1996 letter from Mayor Ron Kirk to The Dallas Morning News, his response to the editorial board's plea for increased support for the park department gang-intervention program. The mayor wrote that the park program "represents only a fraction of the city's effort to keep Dallas youths out of gangs." Kirk highlighted the city's other efforts. He credits corporate sponsors, his own summer job-training programs, and the existence of the city's park system for stemming the tide of gangs.

Where once there was concern for a generation in need of rescue, now there were kids who could be reached before they got into trouble. The letter oozes with preventive measures; isn't it better to swim at public pools than it is to hang out on street corners?

The letter seems strange unless you consider what was going on behind the scenes before, up to, and after 1996: The city was already practicing what anthropologists call selective neglect, when a parent quietly favors one sibling over another. In short, the program was already slated to die.

"It wasn't really a program that you could say was helping kids, and that was because there was never enough money," says Jesse Diaz, Pleasant Grove chapter president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and a member of the city's now-latent Gang Task Force. "Now, they more or less have withdrawn from [youth intervention.] There's never been enough money, and they spread it around so much because politics got involved."

Diaz--who makes it clear he means "John Wiley Price" when he says "politics"--says the program was hamstrung with under-funding from the start, and the lack of resources led to infighting over its allocation. Activists pointed out that the original $100,000 in funding was 10 times less than what Fort Worth had allocated to anti-gang operations. The amount was raised to $330,000, but it just wasn't enough to go around. "Basically, it was baby-sitting," Diaz says of the program.

Finding someone to serve as director of the sparsely funded program would have been difficult, but race politics made the difficult impossible. From its inception, the position became a political battleground where activists and politicians assassinated anyone who tried to take the helm.

In 1991, park director Frank Wise set up an official gang-prevention effort within the department, naming Diane Boyd as the unit's first coordinator. A pilot program had been funded a year before, after city funds were kicked loose in the wake of high-profile gang shootings, and the official program was lauded for facing a serious social problem.

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.

"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.

These days, the Youth Services Office keeps busy. It serves as a liaison between community youth efforts and as a referral system for organizations and residents. It runs dozens of job-training, recreational trips, and after-school activities. Murkledove's new gig with the Send-a-Kid-to-Camp program is under the auspice of Youth Services. It's a not a direct, in-the-trenches approach; the city leaves that to the police.

What the Youth Services program excels at is high-profile public relations. The centerpiece of the project is the Youth Commission, composed of 15 council-appointed teens who supposedly advise the city on youth matters. Then there's the Teen Leadership Council, a group of 20 more students that "provides support for the Youth Commission."

When asked what the Youth Services program is up to currently, coordinator Mavis Lloyd highlighted a national Youth Crimes Prevention convention in April, and an upcoming "March Against Violence." None of it is the sort of one-on-one, street-level counseling Big Murk provides.

"The police were and are better-equipped to deal with this. There's so much expertise required," Mendez says. "Now, they have got counselors [in their anti-gang unit.] What you need in a situation like this is caseworkers."

The anti-gang squad Mendez refers to is made up of two civilian caseworkers, 10 field enforcement officers, plus a handful of brass and support technicians. The police caseworkers admit their role is mainly a referral system to route kids toward local private and nonprofit youth programs.

If a patrol officer or parent calls seeking help with a problematic child, the DPD caseworkers open their big book of private agencies and make a referral. "We get involved after the fact," says Carol Shaw, one of the two DPD gang caseworkers. Those agencies are found at safety fairs and conventions, as well as City Hall networking. There's a plethora of them out there, but many are not gang-specific because the real grant money these days can't be picked up fighting gangs.

"They're looking at grants that meet the need of the community, and most are focused on drugs," Shaw says. "It's what the government gives them money to do."

The DPD also has followed the trend away from thwarting gangs themselves. "There are a lot of programs based on drug abuse. Not a lot of them deal with gangs specifically," she says. "There are sections or parts of them that focus a little on gangs, like an hour or 30 minutes to talk about gang prevention."

In a culture that sees police as the enemy, going or being shunted to the police for help can be awkward. Getting kids' confidence is of paramount importance because they must want to seek help themselves, and the police are not high on their list of helpful folks.

"The very first thing I do is tell kids I'm not with the police," Murkledove says.

Anthony Lampkin is a positive mirror image of Billy Murkledove, circa 1961. He's 18, a key utility player on Madison's football team with a promising future playing ball in college. He was voted most valuable offensive player on the team, "thanks to the offensive line." Where Murkledove was on his way to the pen, Lampkin has plans to attend Texas Tech with an eye on medical school.

Lampkin met Murkledove in 1998, while the city worker was glad-handing students in the halls of Madison High. "You know how colleges only pick up athletes with height and speed? He tells me that it doesn't matter, that if I have my brain and my speed and keep my head together I'll succeed," he says. "He was like me, small and fast."

Murkledove's not fast enough to dodge the overhaul of his program and his transfer from South Dallas. That does not sit well with many at the MLK Center, including the kids he's helped.

"After so many years, and with so many kids he done motivated, they're just gonna tell him to up and leave? It makes no sense," says Mattie Davis. "I thank God and him for motivating me. He told me things that stuck with me and never let go."

Murkledove's still in the kid game, and those who know him know that his passion for South Dallas isn't going to allow him to keep away. Just as he defines an era of South Dallas, that neighborhood also defines him. It's clear he plans to use his stature--literally and figuratively--to keep an eye on his turf.

He harbors the disappointment of a reassigned employee, and a lot of that emotion is aimed at Mendez. "He lied to me a lot, and the trust factor went out the window," he says. "I had no idea the program would be shut down...If there was going to be a reorganization and I wasn't involved, it would be a slap in the face."

Now, Murk still holds a city job working with kids, but his mind is fixed on doing things his way in South Dallas, office or no office. He's lobbying for an expansion of the Send-a-Kid-to-Camp program to a year-round, weekday program that smells suspiciously like some of the activities that died with his deceased program. The narrow focus of his new gig, sending a handful of kids to summer camp, irks him, and he likely won't sit still for long. The struggle for the soul of South Dallas is too personal.

"I'm supposed to be catching the ones who fell from the system," he says. "You can't just get kids involved and then leave that void, especially now that they're engaged. We can't close the door on them."


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