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One Man’s Mission to Reclaim Lost Youths

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The odd couple cruises along the Foothill Freeway in a faded Taurus.

Riding shotgun is young William Stewart, former Los Angeles gangbanger and convicted armed robber, scouting traffic for his mentor, William Haney Jr., a middle-aged Pepperdine University law professor.

The two are on a late afternoon journey to San Bernardino County, looking to call a close to their unorthodox gentlemen’s agreement.

Since last summer, Stewart has lived with Haney’s family in their Camarillo home, enjoying all the attention of a natural-born son. In return, he has stayed clean and avoided the violent crime that had put him behind bars.

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Each day at 6 a.m., Haney assumes his role as strict father figure, morality coach and domestic drill sergeant, rousting his 19-year-old ward from bed for another long day of study, hard work and heartfelt life’s lessons.

All that remains is the last step: figuring out where Stewart will live once he leaves Haney’s home.

Stewart is the latest in a string of rough-cut street diamonds made to shine by a professor who teaches his most important lessons far from his Malibu classroom.

For five years, with the approval of court officials and parents, Haney has plucked about 20 young offenders from behind the high concrete walls at Camp David Gonzales, a Los Angeles County juvenile probation center in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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As many as four at a time, the boys bunk down in rooms once occupied by Haney’s two grown children, work on computers in his living room and eat Southern-style chicken dinners served by his 83-year-old mother, whom the boys call Granny.

Meanwhile, Haney and his wife, Sandra, run them to classes and after-school jobs, and supervise their paychecks, the music they listen to, even the amount of TV they watch.

It’s Haney’s answer to what he calls the worst crime of all: society’s willingness to let these youths leave county custody and return to the troubled neighborhoods and gang influences that helped lead them astray.

Haney, who says he is motivated by his own upbringing in a broken home, matter-of-factly compares his work to taming wild horses. “I really enjoy seeing someone do well who’s been a troubled person, kids who have a reasonable chance of changing,” he says.

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And so the white-haired, 57-year-old professor forges a no-nonsense bond with these streetwise youths. He’s their Coach Bobby Knight, without the bombast. They call him OG--not for Original Gangster, but Old Geezer.

They also call him relentless.

Students in the Success Academy

When he isn’t counseling residents of what he calls Safe House, he’s looking for new recruits. Five nights a week, with the help of law students who earn academic credit, Haney is back at Gonzales. He’s working with 10 inmates in what he calls his Success Academy.

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For six months, he teaches each set of students basic wisdom such as how to weave a proper Windsor tie knot, write a resume and go on a job interview.

The most troubled--the ones from shattered homes and with entrenched gang connections, the ones Haney feels most desperately need his help and have earned his trust--are offered a year in Safe House.

Haney also counsels young women at the California Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo, men at the state prison in Norco and volunteers his Saturdays counseling at an inner-city church and school.

Even after 23 years of teaching at Pepperdine, Haney still works 80 hours a week, juggling his law classes and reaching into his own pocket for most of the $20,000 annual price tag for his programs.

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Penal experts are staggered by his energy and commitment.

“You’d think the average professor wouldn’t take the risk of doing what he does,” said Al May, senior probation director at Camp Gonzales. “But here’s a white guy who goes into black and Latino communities on his own mission.”

The young criminals are also impressed.

“Night after night, he has the same motivation. He doesn’t fade away,” says an 18-year-old convicted car thief named Reynaldo, one of Haney’s Success Academy participants. “Me, I would have faded away a long time ago.”

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Haney is more than an idealist. He sees these young men and remembers being 15, enduring his parents’ divorce, growing up without a man’s direction.

He remembers working odd jobs to put himself through college and then law school--borrowing money for tuition, holding a garage sale to pay for a bus ticket to a tiny school in Alabama, and later moving on to New York University.

That’s when he promised himself he would provide young people with the guidance he never received, and show them what they could achieve with just a little support.

No matter how miserable your childhood, he tells the boys, the trick to success is to ignore the obstacles and focus on the goal. There’s no such thing as impossible.

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And then he tells them to remember something nobody says in jail: The good guy always wins.

Rewards and Tough Rules

It’s already dark and the cicadas are singing as Haney rumbles down a dirt road into Camp Gonzales, a short drive north from Pepperdine.

Success Academy is about to begin.

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Using a thick, jail warden jangle of keys that hang from his belt, he eases through several security doors, nods to the night supervisor and enters a forbidding steel and concrete structure that is the camp’s Isolation Control Unit.

In a windowless classroom he finds 10 youths ages 15 to 18--all with shaved heads, many bearing exotic gang tattoos and weary faces.

They are petty thieves, carjackers, armed robbers--many just a crime or two away from hard time in prison. In unison they call out: “Good evening, Professor Haney!”

Seven years ago, Haney took a law class on a field trip to a youth detention home. He was struck by the hopelessness he encountered.

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Not long afterward, he persuaded Camp Gonzales administrators to give up five isolation cells used to discipline troublemakers.

Choosing 10 candidates from a pool of 135 inmates from the facility’s group living section, Haney set up an academic boot camp.

He bought bunks and desks for the cells, textbooks and furniture for the classroom. Separated from other inmates, Haney’s boys spend their days studying--each night attending classes, reading the classics, and learning to stay out of trouble.

At first, the professor puzzled the youths. Nobody knew if he was a quirky millionaire or even some child molester. Why would anyone come to Camp Gonzales who didn’t absolutely have to?

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Haney answered the skepticism by giving them an identity. He provided typewriters and uniforms--khaki pants and collared shirts--and offered each a priceless bit of privacy by bunking two boys in a cell.

There was, of course, a catch: Each night, Haney searched their quarters for contraband, the shampoo, soap and cigarettes often smuggled in by mothers and girlfriends. If you were going to stay in the professor’s program, you had to play by the rules--not just the camp’s, but his. One indiscretion and you were out:

“The boys said, ‘Don’t you trust me?’ and I answered, ‘Don’t hand me that, I’m not your mom and dad. No, I don’t trust you. You haven’t earned it yet. I’ll look inside your ears if I have to.’ ”

Helping to Break the Cycle

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Most nights, after reviewing books such as H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and drilling on interview techniques, Haney’s classes conduct other business--voting on prospective new academy members. Anyone with a reputation for gang high jinks at the camp is summarily voted down.

Peter, a skinny 16-year-old from the San Gabriel Valley whose back is covered with dragon tattoos, is one Haney believer.

“He’s helping me break my cycle,” said the youth, who was last arrested for robbing a mini-market. “I’ve been through this camp before, so this is my last chance. I don’t want to go to prison.”

Haney encouraged 18-year-old Reynaldo, serving time for grand theft auto, to earn his high school equivalency degree and is trying to enroll him in community college.

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“This has been like a detour,” Reynaldo says, “to take me away from the stupid things I was doing.”

All the while, Haney scrutinizes his students, listening to their stories about the home life to which they must return. He is looking for new Safe House candidates, trying to figure out which ones will sleep under the same roof with his wife, mother and grown daughter.

It’s lights-out time for the academy for now. Two by two, Haney herds the boys into their cells, encouraging each to stay up late to finish their studies.

“Remember,” he says, “I’m always in that room with you, watching.”

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The professor is full of corny can-do sayings.

“When I close these doors, am I locking you in?” he asks.

The boys know the script. “No!” they cry. “You’re locking the bad guys out!”

Finally, near 11 p.m., Haney walks down the empty hallway, talking low under his breath.

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“Night, men,” he says. “See you tomorrow.”

The Story of One Youth

William Stewart was one of the wise guys at Camp Gonzales. A member of the Blood Stone Villains, a gang from 55th Street and Central Avenue, he once spent two weeks in an isolation cell for his troublesome ways.

By 16, with his father long dead and his mother an overworked housekeeper, Stewart had racked up more than a dozen arrests. In his last escapade, he and four homies stole a Venice Beach man’s car, leather jacket, pager and even his shoes.

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“We flipped for the jacket,” recalls Stewart, a 10th-grade dropout with thick linebacker shoulders from years of lifting weights. “I won.”

They split their $1,000 take, not long before they were stopped by LAPD gang officers. Stewart was caught with a Glock .40-caliber pistol and sentenced to 18 months.

He knew of Haney, but dismissed him as a flake. “I’d heard he ran a kiss-up program,” he recalls.

During one stretch in isolation, he looked jealously from his cell window to see academy members in their semiprivate rooms. “They all talked about this guy Haney who takes a chance on people,” Stewart says. “My own family wouldn’t take a chance on me, afraid I’d steal their car or a TV.”

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Stewart pestered the professor to let him into the academy. Finally, Haney relented.

Six months later, Stewart was one of Haney’s star students. As his parole approached, he talked about returning to the old neighborhood. That’s when the professor told him about his Safe House program.

Stewart recalls standing in Juvenile Court, his hands cuffed behind him, listening to this law professor he barely knew talking about what a fine young man he was turning out to be and how badly he wanted to assume custody.

The judge agreed. But the bailiff who removed his cuffs gave a sneering send-off. “You’ll be back, Stewart,” the youth recalls him saying. “You always come back. You live here.”

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That afternoon, Sandra Haney found Stewart a snug-fitting shirt and tie, and the professor had his latest ward out beating the Camarillo pavement for work.

Haney drove, always coaching, even writing down little take-charge things for Stewart to say. (“Sir, I’ll work real hard.” . . . “I’ll even come in weekends.”) They put in 10 applications that day.

As he had done with other Safe House members, Haney brandished his Visa card and took Stewart on a $500 shopping spree for clothes, part of $1,000 in front money he offers youths fresh out of jail. Haney says that he isn’t worried--he keeps accounts and says the boys have always paid him back after they find work.

One day, Haney dropped Stewart off for a cold-call interview at a Taco Bell. “I didn’t want to work for any Taco Bell,” Stewart recalls. “That was the place we used to bag on and rob. But Haney told me, it’s a job and it’s better than jail.”

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So Stewart went inside, moments later returning to the car. “I don’t think they liked me,” he announced.

“How do you know they don’t like you?” Haney said. “They don’t even know you. Hang in there. You’ve got to show them what you got. Remember, the good guy always wins.”

The next day, they were back to follow up on the application. Stewart walked slowly back to the car. “I tried to be slick,” he said. “I told him ‘I got the job,’ planning to go home and kick back” and start work the next day. “I figured I’d done enough for one day.”

But Haney wasn’t through. “Good boy,” he said. “Now go back in there and tell them you’ll start today.”

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No Returns to Old Haunts

At the Haney home, Stewart shares a room with Walter, a former runaway who also works and goes to school. The professor constantly watches both boys, knocking on their door to yell “Study!” if they’re not downstairs at the computers.

Sandra Haney worked for months on Stewart’s poor grammar, editing the double negatives from his speech. The professor doesn’t charge the boys for such lessons, just $50 a week for food and gas.

House rules are strict: At first, the boys must show Haney their paychecks so he can advise them on how much to spend and what to save. There’s no rap music, which Haney says debases women and advocates violence. Nor is dating permitted.

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Most important, there’s no going back to the old neighborhood. Family meetings are restricted to neutral turf.

Haney still takes the youths to troubled neighborhoods on his regular Saturday counseling stops in South-Central Los Angeles. At first they were his navigators through dangerous turf. But the years have taught the professor a few things. He dumped an old red car that suggested gang colors and tinted the windows on his white Taurus so his former gang members wouldn’t get spotted by old enemies.

Haney says that none of his 20 Safe House wards have gone back to jail or prison, in sharp contrast to the high recidivism rate among juvenile offenders. (Stewart has stayed out of jail for 10 months--his longest stretch since he was a child.) Nor, Haney says, has one raised a hand toward him or been disrespectful to his family in their home.

“Sometimes they argue with me,” he says, “but no more than you would expect a child to argue with a parent.”

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A few graduates have slipped and wound up in their old neighborhoods. To reduce the number, Haney dreams of acquiring an apartment to help the transition to their new lives.

“I don’t want this to become a cult,” he says. “Eventually, I’ve got to cut ‘em loose.”

A Meeting With Family

The odd couple is barreling along the Foothill Freeway and Stewart is consulting his road maps, craning his neck, herky-jerky. As afternoon storm clouds turn prison gray, he turns to scan approaching vehicles. “Clear,” he grunts.

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Slowly, Haney eases his car into traffic. This is one of their most important journeys together. For the first time since he moved in with Haney, Stewart is going to visit relatives, a great-aunt and uncle in Upland. Although most youths see family regularly, Stewart has been estranged from his for years, and the professor knows how crucial this meeting is to him.

Haney can’t stop his coaching. “You nervous?” he asks. “Of course, you’re nervous.”

Stewart looks spiffy in his shirt and tie. Even the professor is amazed at his transformation. Having saved more than $1,000, the young man is completing his high school equivalency degree, and is contemplating college and a career as a nurse or counselor.

His homies once called him Baby Mad Mike because of his wildness. Now the professor calls him Midnight Man, because he often works until that hour.

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Just the other day at work, some gang members approached Stewart in a parking lot. He thought there was going to be trouble. Instead, noting his shirt and tie, they asked directions and even called him “Sir.”

He liked that.

“William’s a teddy bear,” Haney says. “His favorite weapon used to be a 9-millimeter. Now it’s a knife and fork.”

Later, Stewart’s great-aunt will give him a bearhug and embrace Haney as well, thanking him for his efforts. She’ll offer Stewart a room when he’s ready to leave Haney’s care.

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For now, the two are inseparable. Side by side, cruising east, they guffaw over a rap song written by a former student in honor of the professor and his goofy Haneyisms.

“The good guy always wins,” the refrain goes. “Remember, the good guy always wins.”


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