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From Gang Leader to Youth Advocate

We are pleased to introduce our new Advisory Board member Chris to you. Chris brings extensive experience as a person who was formerly incarcerated and a former gang leader, who has used his experience to positively influence others. The following is an excerpt from his autobiography.

On January 15, 1991, I, Christian Claudio, entered the New York Criminal Justice system. I sat alone inside a 6x9 prison cell with 37 years remaining on my sentence. There I sat inside my prison cell with the weight of the world upon my shoulders. I had one million and one questions racing through my mind, and this was only the beginning. This was the place I now called home until I was released 15 years later.

I was at one time one of the most powerful Latin Kings in New York City. I founded the Almighty Latin King Nation on Rikers Island, controlling over 14,000 prisoners as “Supreme Crown.” I was a drug-lord, a criminal, a man who had been the subject of numerous homicide investigations and who had been convicted of Conspiracy to Commit Murder in the Second Degree. Before being arrested, I had been operating a major drug network that expanded into all five boroughs of New York City, into Long Island and upstate New York, and eventually into numerous states throughout the U.S. I was dangerous, I was powerful, and I knew it.

I was born in the George Washington Carver Housing Projects in Spanish Harlem, an area known for its poverty and drug-abuse. It was a tough neighborhood, yet I somehow managed to stay a “good kid” for a time. As a child I was a victim of bullying. I was a mama’s boy who led a very sheltered life. I wore glasses that were issued by Medicaid services. We called them “cat” glasses because of their pointed corners. These things only made me a target of ridicule and physical abuse. The bullying became abusive physically and more and more frequent. All I wanted was a friend and all I got was enemies. Eventually, I got a taste of the streets and I loved it. One day after school I got beat up by some neighborhood kids. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I decided to not let anyone pick on me or beat me up ever again. I didn’t know how I was going to accomplish this, but I knew that was not going to let this happen to me ever again. Eventually I discovered that through the use of violence I can get people to stop picking on me. I turned to weapons, since I wasn’t much of a fighter. As I grew older I gradually became enmeshed into the street culture. Soon, I became a regular user of cocaine. As I recalled in a recent interview, it was all an attempt to fit in – “You wanna do what the cool kids are doing.” I developed a strong-willed, independent character. Looking back, I now describe myself as being “more twisted than a plate of spaghetti.” Yet my downward spiral had only begun.

In an effort to help fund my drug habits, I started dealing, but in the process, I discovered that my addiction for making money superseded my desire to get high. Money became my God, and I learned an important principle: “You don’t get high on your own supply.” With this rule of thumb, I soon became one of New York’s largest drug dealers. Everything seemed to be working according to plan, and I eventually became so successful that I quit school. College just didn’t seem necessary anymore because I was making more money than Wall Street executives were making! High on cash and confident in my abilities, I moved to the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx where I got my first taste of organized crime with the Italian Mafia. My reputation as a criminal increased; but I managed to avoid arrest by constantly bouncing from place to place and using different aliases.

In 1989, my heydays as a drug-lord abruptly ended when NYPD Det. Sgt. Jimmy Peterson arrested me for dealing drugs to an undercover DEA agent. Pending my up-coming trial, I was sent to Rikers Island, the largest jail facility in America. To me, going to jail was like entering a whole “nother world.”

It was on Rikers Island that I first learned about the Almighty Latin King Nation, a violent gang that originated in the streets of Chicago in the 1940s. When the gang first started, it was nothing more than a club fostering Puerto Rican pride and culture, but by the 1960s, the Latin Kings had evolved into a dangerous gang known for drugs, racketeering, murder, and other violent crimes. It soon spread to the East Coast where a man called Luis Felipe (a.k.a. “King Blood” – who is now serving a federal sentence of Life-without-parole) firmly established the gang’s presence in New York City. Today, the Almighty Latin King Nation is one of the most well-organized and violent gangs in the country. In 1989, however, the Latin Kings were just beginning to creep into New York City’s prison system. I had heard about their reputation, but didn’t know much else.

During this period, I was being charged with an A-1 felony, the most serious charge a criminal can face in New York State. Eventually my charges were reduced and Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. gave me only two to four years in a prison upstate. I got off easy this time, but I had other crimes in my past that would eventually catch up with me.

While upstate, I dove headfirst into the Latin King culture. The gang had a strange allure to me, for it provided a source of stability and support where I had none. In my mind, it was like an “extended family.” I immediately got involved in the gang hierarchy, and when I was shipped back to Rikers Island in 1991 to face other charges, I ran into “King Blood” himself. King Blood authorized me to establish the Latin Kings on Rikers Island.

Using my incredible leadership and networking abilities, I soon declared myself “Supreme Crown” over the entire prison system. I was overseeing about 14,000 prisoners on Rikers Island. I translated the Latin King indoctrination program into Spanish and began distributing the lessons throughout the jails. I developed numerous relationships with correction officers and prison officials, exploiting them for my own gain. Even my violent behavior worked to my advantage, for every time I misbehaved, I was reassigned to another section of the prison. I was always bouncing around. I never lasted in a housing unit more than a month, sometimes a day, sometimes just a couple of hours…just because I was really stressed out, really violent. This allowed me to exert my authority as “Supreme Crown” over almost every section of the prison, firmly securing Latin King dominance.

In 1991, I was rearrested and charged with attempted murder in the 2nd degree, conspiracy to commit Murder in the 2nd degree, and possession of a weapon in the 2nd degree. I was also being investigated for about twenty other homicides. Furthermore, just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse, I received devastating news. My fiancé had left me for another man. It was a major blow – something I had never expected. With nothing and no one to turn to, I began contemplating suicide. I felt alone, by myself. I’d always prided myself on my strength, my contacts, but I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t make anything happen, and I wasn’t in control, and I was just so desperate, and I just wanted to escape everything. I just wanted to end it all.

I went to trial and lost. As a result I was sentenced to 37 years in prison for my crimes. It was hard to accept, but I had to stay focused. The reality of my situation also caused me to start seeing things very differently. I knew I had to change, and it had to start right away. So the first thing I did was step down from my position as supreme crown and then leave the Latin Kings forever. I was certain that the Latin Kings would want me dead when they heard of my exodus. Many of them though had great respect for me and I was the one who recruited them in, so as a result no action was taken against me. As I matured I began counseling and educating gang members by sharing and exposing the dangers of gang life. Everyone saw the miraculous transformation that took place in my life, and many wanted to know more. Correction Officers began approaching me encouraging me to continue my efforts in trying to reach the gang members; prisoners abandoned their gangs; and my entire family abandoned the streets and went on to become productive members of society. Even my old driver, back from my days as a drug-lord, abandoned the streets to also become an upstanding citizen. When Sergeant Peterson, the man who arrested me in 1989, heard that I had also turned my life around, he could not believe it. “I’m a cop,” he said, “and cops pretty much don’t believe anything.” But when he visited me and saw with his own eyes how my life had changed, he was amazed. Everywhere I went, I was talking to prison gang members, educating them about the realities of gang life, and lives were being changed.

I spent the next several years of my life committed and dedicated to reaching and educating fellow inmates. Despite the improbability, I still held onto a lingering hope that maybe, one day, I would be released from prison. Either way, I would accept whatever the outcome was. Nearly three years later, on September 1, 2005, after serving only fifteen years of my sentence, the impossible occurred. I was released on parole.

Retired Det. Sgt. Jimmy Peterson, who is now good friends with me, knows first-hand that my story is far from typical: “A lot of people, when they go to jail, their experience is so horrendous that they just become more bitter.” But I am one of many who has survived that ordeal. I never gave up hope and continued to fight for my freedom. “Everybody deserves a second chance,” comments Peterson, “Chris has a second chance to do something positive with his life, and I think he’s taking advantage of that.” Former Detective Peterson goes on to say: “He’s really truly passionate about what he says and wants to do . . . and when you’re passionate about something, nothing can stop you.”

Upon my release, I committed myself to reaching and educating our youth. Those same skills that served me so well on the streets are now being used for a greater purpose. In particular, I have a heart for gangs and for the kids swallowed up by them every day. We have to start doing something. If we can reach and rescue our youth one at a time, then our schools and community will become safer and more productive. I am a certified New York State Gang Specialist and founder of a not-for-profit organization, “Throggs Neck – La Famiglia”. The organization focuses on reaching our troubled youth through anti-gang & anti-bullying intervention, prevention, and awareness. I also host anti-gang workshops, crisis intervention and workshops. I have developed programs that address the rising gang & bullying problems within our schools. I am also currently employed by the City of New York at the Administration for Children’s Services as a Youth Advocate. What that means is that I oversee all of our Juvenile non-secure placement facilities in New York City for the purpose of assuring that the rights of our juveniles are not being violated while in our agency’s care.