BREAKING NEWS
L.A. Now

For teen program's chief, tough love may have turned criminal

The surprise visit to Alberto Ruiz's house was swift.

Dress quickly, he was told. You're going to boot camp.

His parents, worried about his drug use and habit of skipping school, had followed a friend's advice and called Kelvin McFarland.

Ruiz's behavior had earned him a spot in McFarland's Family First Growth Camp in Pasadena, a place with a reputation for breaking gang-bangers and drug addicts and turning them into law-abiding teens.

A former Marine who likes to be called "Sgt. Mac," McFarland founded the camp two years ago and boasted that his tough-love tactics and military-strict discipline were the perfect formula for reforming gang members, taming runaways and getting through to troublemakers.

Ruiz, who is now 18, credits McFarland's intervention for helping him finish school and quit drugs.

But authorities say McFarland's scared-straight approach crossed the line and veered into criminal behavior earlier this year when he crossed paths with another Pasadena teen.

Investigators allege that in May, McFarland was driving in Pasadena when he spotted a girl walking along the street during school hours. He stopped to question her, then handcuffed her, placed her in his car and told her to direct him to a relative's home. At the relative's home, he demanded money from her father to enroll the 14-year-old in his program. The girl's father mistook McFarland for a truancy officer when he flashed a badge, Pasadena police said.

McFarland is facing trial on felony charges of kidnapping, extortion, false imprisonment and child abuse, and unlawful use of a badge, a misdemeanor.

Now Pasadena police are investigating possible abuses that allegedly occurred at a rival Pasadena boot camp where McFarland once worked. The Pasadena Star-News recently published videos allegedly filmed in 2009 in which McFarland can be seen yelling at teens, forcing them to gulp down water even as they retch and vomit. In one scene, McFarland and other drill instructors appear to scream at a youngster, inches from his face, as he collapses in tears under the weight of a car tire on his shoulders.

The publicity has had a chilling effect on McFarland's Family First boot camp. Parents have pulled their kids out in droves. Where several dozen cadets once attended, only a handful remain.

"I'm not going to lie… we don't have 75 cadets, but we're still continuing," said Elpidio Estolas, one of Family First's directors.

McFarland is quick to defend his work in the community, as is Keith Gibbs, the director of the rival boot camp. Both say they offer a last resort for exasperated parents who have nowhere else to turn.

In interviews with McFarland, his cadets, their families and those who have worked with him, a complex portrait emerges. Critics describe him as a fast talker, easily seducing working-class Latino families with his authority-laden persona. Supporters say McFarland is a man filled with good intentions, who has overcome his flaws such as convictions for DUI and a misdemeanor assault.

McFarland says his criminal history allows him to dissuade cadets from a life of incarceration. He talks openly about the months he was homeless and his continuing struggle with alcoholism. These attributes, he says, make him a relatable figure.

McFarland is set to stand trial Wednesday, though the case has been delayed several times — once after his boot camp could no longer afford to pay his attorney, a former Pasadena mayor. He is now represented by a public defender.

But McFarland continues to operate his program throughout Pasadena, in local parks and occasionally a small strip-mall church.

In fact, it didn't take long for the boot camp to resume after McFarland got out of jail

In mid-June, from the stage of Faithworks Ministries church, McFarland — freshly released on bail — thanked his cadets and their families, quoting the Bible as he spoke. For days, they had rallied on his behalf outside a Pasadena courthouse, hoping a judge would reduce his bail.

McFarland, a deeply religious man raised by an aunt in rural Georgia, looked on quietly. Dressed in his signature military fatigues, he occasionally barked commands as the cadets stood in formation.

"I don't know of a boot camp that praises the Lord as much as we do," said McFarland, who granted The Times access to his boot camp last summer but has since refused to speak with the paper.

After the morning drills, the group moved inside the church. The teens marched single file into a side room for a self-esteem workshop. Their families, meanwhile, sat in the pews, listening to a nutritionist. Involving parents in the program is a key component of success, McFarland says.

"The program has benefited the children tremendously," said Mirza Balvaneda, who enrolled her son when he was only 8. "The other parents said I was brave to bring him in because he's so young, but he needed to learn some discipline."

In addition to the instilling of discipline, parents — most of whom don't speak English — said they hope their children will take more initiative in their studies.

When news of McFarland's arrest broke, some thought Gibbs, who operates Sarge's Community Base, was the one who had been arrested.

The men have similar authoritative demeanors and dress — usually camouflage pants with dark polo shirts. They even have similar nicknames. McFarland is "Sgt. Mac," Gibbs is simply "Sarge."

"People were calling me because they thought I was the one who had been arrested," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said that he hired McFarland in early 2009 and that his new employee became his right-hand man. But now the two compete for recruits and offer differing views of how their relationship fell apart.

Gibbs said he fired McFarland when he discovered his criminal history and heard complaints from staff that he was using excessive force when disciplining cadets. McFarland said he only followed Gibbs' orders.

Gibbs has also faced allegations of child abuse. In a 2010 letter from Edwin Diaz, superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District, Gibbs was told his permit to use school district facilities for his camp had been revoked.

School officials had received reports from parents that Gibbs' boot camp tactics amounted to corporal punishment. Another parent charged that he had engaged in "an inappropriate sexual relationship" with a minor. Pasadena police investigated but never filed charges because the teen recanted her claims, Diaz wrote.

Gibbs calls the allegations lies spread by disgruntled cadets who wanted out of his program.

As his court date approaches, McFarland has kept a low profile, quietly running his boot camp and dismissing his critics, who he said are trying to destroy his business with baseless accusations.

He says that at the end of the day, "it's all about the kids."

ricardo.lopez2@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°