- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) - Former Latin King recruiter Patrick Sabaitis isn’t necessarily proud to know the streets the way he does, nor is Lake County Sheriff Violence Intervention Director Tom Branson.

The two men took completely different life paths. Today, they collaborate for a common cause - keeping kids off the streets and out of gangs.

Sabaitis and Branson recently coordinated with United States Attorney David Capp to speak with Clark Middle and High School students about the dangers of the streets.

“I’ve been in law for 40 years, and have never seen an enemy or rival gang member get someone in trouble,” said Capp. “It’s always their so-called friends, so choose yours carefully. I don’t like arresting kids, many with their whole lives ahead of them, but my office has vowed to keep them off our streets.”

Capp referenced the 19 alleged Latin King and Two Six gang members who were indicted Dec. 4 and are being held without bond.

“Do you know what that means?” he asked the students. “It means parents can come in our office with $10 million and (their children) aren’t going anywhere. That’s no life for anyone.”

Patrick Sabaitis knows that life far too well.

Sabaitis, who was recruited at 10 years old, spent many of his adolescent years terrorizing the North Hammond community and “inflicting fear and pain on anyone” who came between what he thought was his “street family.”

“When you are a young kid and someone gives you so much power and value, you become loyal quickly,” he said. “I never received that type of encouragement from my own family and I thought I was loved, and that’s the power of the gang life. We were trained how to find and prey upon the vulnerable.”

Times have changed for Sabaitis.

While incarcerated at age 17 in Lake County Juvenile Center on battery charges nearly a decade ago, Sabaitis “made a pact with God.” Tired of harboring hatred and rage in his heart, he vowed, upon his release, to help misguided youth from taking the same “downward spiral.”

He created the Sabaitis Educational Institution and a program called Reclaim Our Kids. The initiative recruits mentors, many former gang members who have turned their lives around and want to help kids off the streets and into healthy environments.

“Gangs are very organized,” Sabaitis said. “We have to stop looking at them as a nuisance and take them seriously. They aren’t all in baggy jeans and hoodies; some are in suits working in corporate America.”

Sabaitis believes the problem far exceeds troublemaking. It was his motivation for writing the book “Undiscovered Domestic Terrorism.” The book, published in 2013, reveals the tactics gangs use to kill, steal, sell drugs and destroy neighborhoods.

“There is a lot of money in guns, drugs and even human trafficking,” said Sabaitis. “It’s sophisticated. People think gang members are just stupid kids, but most are highly intellectual, and gangs use neuro-linguistic programming to control these soldiers and prey upon the vulnerable.”

As a young man, Sabaitis was taught to channel his rage and put himself in a trance-like euphoric state before carrying out his “missions” for the King Nation.

“I would visualize my father coming up those stairs, reeking like alcohol and wanting to hurt me and my mom,” he said. “You couple that animosity with drugs and alcohol, you’ll do anything. It was a very dangerous state to be in, but that’s what you are trained to do.”

Sabaitis and about 40 peer mentors, most former rival gang members, began in October with a weekly program at Clark Middle/High School to connect with students and encourage them to make better choices. They meet with students every Monday and make presentations, engage in role playing and offer counseling.

“This has been an exceptional program,” said Robert J. Wilson, Clark Middle/High School principal. “Many of our students have thanked me for bringing it to our school. Patrick has lived here and knows what they go through, and they can learn from that.”

A major component of the campaign comes from a strong relationship with Lake County’s Tom Branson.

Branson, a highly decorated officer, including an induction into the American Police Department Hall of Fame, and a Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm veteran, often collaborates on presentations with Sabaitis.

Branson served on the Gary police force for 23 years as a homicide commander before landing at the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. He now serves as Lake County Sheriff’s Violence Intervention program director.

During a recent presentation to Indiana University Northwest criminal justice students, Branson pointed out the importance of collaboration when it comes to police work.

“I’ve had gang members tell me ‘Brans, I’m gonna sell drugs until you catch me,’” Branson said. “I tell them, ‘Just know that I will not stop until I catch you,’ and we fist bump and move on. For many of them, they feel it’s worth the life until the day they get caught.”

For Sabaitis, working with law enforcement brings greater legitimacy to his program and helps get gang members out of the life. He feels having a solid relationship with law enforcement lets the gangs know “they are hot.”

Both Branson and Sabaitis know that it is a steep mountain to climb to reduce the number of kids on the street, but they remain focused on changing the culture.

“I’m not scared of many things, but when you see a mother and hear her scream for her dead child, that plays on your mind,” said Branson. “This woman bore a child and carried it in her womb for nine months, and it’s all over in seconds with a mere senseless squeeze of the trigger.”

Branson cited a report by the Chicago Crime Commission, noting there’s an estimated 33,000 gangs with over 1.5 million members in the United States.

“Many of those gang members gravitate toward the big cities like Chicago,” Branson said. “Gangs aren’t just in the inner cities, but almost a third of communities refuse to acknowledge a problem. That’s very scary because gangs are smart and they look for places to hide.”

Branson and Sabaitis have toured numerous schools including elementary, middle, high school and colleges warning of gang destruction.

“The numbers aren’t tangible,” said Branson. “We won’t see the effects of this work for years, but that doesn’t mean we stop. Saving one life at a time can mean all the difference in the world to a family.”

The 4-year-old Violence Intervention program is funded by a partnership between the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and Geminus Inc.

“We have to reach these kids in elementary school because that’s when the gangs do,” said Sharon Bennett, Lake County Sheriff’s Special Victims commander. “They need to see and hear Tom because his message is powerful. He tries to save lives.”

Bennett also says that the collaboration with Reclaim Our Kids will show people life “is not like the movies.”

“They are fortunate to be able to tell their stories,” Bennett said, “because many can’t.”

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Source: The (Munster) Times, http://bit.ly/1P3MXGJ

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Information from: The Times, http://www.thetimesonline.com

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