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Life Sentence

Savagely beaten by rival gangbangers, Danny Orozco will spend the rest of his life unable to walk or talk. But he's still determined to confront his past and, possibly, change the future.



Danny Orozco seems dressed for a date. He has on a blue checked button-down shirt, a black tie, black sweatpants, a black leather jacket, a new pair of white Reeboks, and a baseball cap that says "I'm All Good." Hidden by his clothes are the tattoos--the blue and red signature of his life in a Pilsen street gang and his years in prison.

"You ready, Danny?" asks Joel Perez, standing in a hallway at Sheridan Shores Care & Rehabilitation Center on North Sheridan.

Orozco smiles, gives a thumbs-up, and accelerates his wheelchair, an Action Power 9000 Storm Series with two heavy batteries under the seat. It's a rental. His own chair is in the shop.

His left hand pushing the joystick, Orozco wheels himself into the elevator. As the doors start to close, Pat Love, a nursing assistant, calls out, "Bye, Danny!" Orozco waves and smiles.

Orozco, who's 45, carries around a small photo album containing several dozen snapshots of him with various female nursing aides, therapists, and caregivers at Sheridan Shores. There's also a photo of him as a strong young man deadlifting 305 pounds. On the back of his own wheelchair are buttons and stickers and a patch that says Don Juan.

Orozco seems frail, and his thin body is bent. But his eyes are alert, his manner calm. And he laughs a lot.

The elevator doors open onto a first-floor hall that's filled with old and young nursing-home residents, some disabled physically, some mentally. Orozco motors out to a rear parking lot and unbuckles his chair's safety belts. Perez, a strong 41-year-old who runs a gang-prevention program for the city of Elgin, lifts him into the front passenger seat of a van that was donated by Willow Creek Church in Barrington. It's emblazoned on both sides with the words "Manifold Mercies Christian Center" and "God's Gym."

Orozco is on his way to his third public-speaking engagement, at a middle school in Elgin. It will be the biggest crowd by far that he's addressed--hundreds of students. Asked if he's nervous, he picks up the keyboard that hangs around his neck, shrugs, and taps out an answer with one finger. He touches a key, and a synthetic monotone comes out of the speaker that hangs from the arm of his chair: "I don't know exactly what I'm going to say."

Eleven years ago Orozco was beaten senseless by members of a rival gang, who stabbed him in his neck and back and left him for dead. He spent nearly six months in a coma. He can't speak or use his legs or right arm and has only limited motion in his left arm. He also has trouble remembering things.

As he sees it, he had it coming. For 19 years he fought with swaggering tough guys just like himself, using fists, knives, clubs, and guns. "In my life I shot so very many," he says, the synthetic voice carrying none of the emotion in his face. "I think about them every day. And it hurts."

Perez turns onto Lake Shore Drive, dodging red-light runners as he weaves the cumbersome 15-passenger van through traffic on Ontario and turns onto the Kennedy. Orozco, who can still make some sounds, laughs and feigns fear.

"Hey, you remember Crazy Tony?" says Perez, who was once a member of the same gang as Orozco. "The guy who got killed a long time ago in a shoot-out with the cops?"

"Yannnnnh," says Orozco, nodding.

"His son boxes at the gym now. You know who else wanted to come see you from the neighborhood? Dizzy, from 26th Street. Has he called you?"

Orozco shakes his head. But a few other guys, some of them former members of his gang, have called, and friends who are still in prison and have more time on their hands also stay in touch. And Perez comes to see him at least once a month.

The two men crossed paths for the first time in years last June, after Perez got a letter from another former member of the gang, who's serving a 55-year sentence for murder in the supermaximum security unit at Tamms Correctional Center. He described Orozco's situation and said Orozco wanted to talk to kids about staying out of gangs. Perez visited Orozco at Sheridan Shores, and two months later Orozco spoke for the first time to a group of grade school students.

"A lot of people would crawl into a hole and never come out again," says Perez. "But Danny doesn't want to do that. He wants to help. He wants to be involved. He is an amazing guy. His brain is still as sharp as nails."

Perez and Orozco belonged to the Ambrose, a gang that started in the late 50s as a softball team named after the saint. Both of them lived in Pilsen, and both joined the gang when they were 13--Orozco in 1970, Perez in 1975.

Perez remembers Orozco from the gang, though Orozco doesn't remember Perez, who was five years younger. Perez says Orozco was a bit of a bully: "He never touched me, but he was kind of strong, kind of bold, defending turf and the colors and upholding the laws."

Perez had several close calls, and eight years after he joined, his family moved to Elgin to pull him away from the gang environment. He got out and stayed out.

Orozco didn't. He was the son of migrant farmworkers--his mother was picking pears in Oregon in 1957 when she went into labor and gave birth to him, her first child. She had a second child, then her husband disappeared. Orozco remembers nothing of him. His mother moved the family to Texas, where she remarried and had two more children. That husband moved everyone to Chicago, then abandoned them when Orozco was 13. Shortly after that he joined the gang. "I was easily influenced by the gang scene," he would later write, "because I never had a father or older brother to guide me." His mother, who never remarried, struggled to support her four children, working as a domestic or in factory jobs and later opening a small taqueria.

"Thirteen," says Orozco. "That's how old I was when I first shot someone."

It was a standard gang shooting. He fired a handgun from a moving car at rival gang members. "I just volunteered to shoot someone and borrowed a gun," he says. "It was nobody in particular. I just shot into a group. It was a gang war. Gang wars are about reputation mostly."

At 14 he was shot in the thigh by rival gang members. At 16 he was stabbed in the back during a fight outside a bar. His lung was punctured, and he spent a week in the hospital. A year later he was stabbed in the chest in a gang fight and spent two weeks in the hospital. Later he was clubbed in the head during a fight with police, shot in the hip by an unknown gunman who fired from a passing car, and shot two different times in his left leg. He still has two bullets in him and was wounded so many times he can't remember them all. One night someone with a gun came to his door looking for him. His girlfriend opened it and got shot in the face.

None of his injuries did any permanent damage, and none of them persuaded him to quit the gang. "I just got meaner," he says. At one point he was convicted of aggravated assault and given a three-year sentence.

"We called him Puppet," says Ignacio Perez, another former gang member who was only a couple years younger than Orozco and became a close friend. "When I was a kid I used to look up at him and admire him. He was a boxer, knew karate--a womanizer. He was a gunner, a gang member's dream." He was also stealing, selling, and running drugs, and regularly getting arrested.

Orozco's mother and siblings hated that he was in a gang. But he says the gang made him feel more than he was, made him feel powerful, dangerous, admired. He dismissed their concerns.

And they let him be. "It seems ironic, but we had our lives and Danny had his," says his sister Maria. "He chose that way for whatever reason. But he didn't want us to choose the same thing, and we didn't."

Maria says Orozco was a father figure for her. "If I did something I knew I would have to answer to him," she says. "I never wanted to do that." When she got pregnant in high school he told her she was going to have the baby, raise it, and graduate too--he'd dropped out early in high school. She had the baby, got her diploma, and found work as a secretary. His other siblings did well too. David went to college and got a master's degree in business. Janie found a career in real estate, got married, and raised two boys.

Orozco says he saw their lives as boring. He didn't want to just go to work and come home each night to dinner, kids, and television--though he did work. He helped out his brother-in-law, an electrician, delivered pizzas, got factory jobs, did some construction work.

In his early 20s he was teetering between the straight world and the gang. He tried to join the marines but was turned down because of his criminal record. When he was 22 he was accepted into the Illinois National Guard and eventually made sergeant, though he was still gangbanging on his own time. He got a general discharge when he was 26 for what he calls "messing up," mostly fighting with other soldiers.

Two years later he was in Texas picking up 500 pounds of marijuana destined for Chicago. He was caught and did three years. "That was a rough-ass prison," he says. Four years after that he began serving a three-year sentence in an Illinois prison for his part in shooting and wounding three people.

Orozco had watched other guys grow out of the gang. He'd watched friends do time, friends die. But after he got out of prison he went back to drinking, smoking reefer, fighting, shooting, defending the home turf, displaying the colors. "Every day, every week, I had a fight or was in a shoot-out," he says. "Not to mention my many women. Oh, boy." By then he had six children--the first was born when he was 19--by four different women. He never married any of the mothers, never even lived with them. And he never had a relationship with any of his children.

"He was a hard-core gang member into his 30s," says Joel Perez. "It's kind of like the guy who can drink just three. Then you have the guys who can't drink just three--they have to have as much as they can stand."

On March 18, 1992, Orozco, then 34, was at a bar drinking and playing pool. That night he told a friend that he was through with the gang, that things were going to change for him.

He left with another friend and began walking home. He lived nearby, in an apartment on 18th Street he rented from his sister Janie. A car pulled up, and three men got out. The friend ran. Orozco stood his ground.

Ignacio Perez was in the penitentiary at the time, serving a sentence for homicide, but he's heard the story many times from friends. "Danny stood there with his fists up and tried to fight," he says. "But they had tire irons, clubs, and knives and just beat him--stabbed him in the neck, kicked him. Danny was a pretty boy, but he was aggressive--100 percent gangbanger--and this is what got him."

Orozco lay on the sidewalk bleeding and unable to get up. A neighbor called the police. Two friends came out of the bar and covered him with a blanket.

He tried to speak but couldn't. He remembers the blue and red flashing lights of emergency vehicles and then darkness.

"They took him to Cook County trauma," says his sister Maria, "and for a time he was a John Doe, because the guys who beat him up took his wallet. But then the detectives came, and they were able to identify him through his gang tattoos."

Orozco lay in a fetal curl in intensive care, says Maria, his head swollen like a melon. The family was devastated. "It impacted everyone enough to make his nephews stay away from gangs," she says. Those nephews, Janie's kids, both became police officers, and a year after Orozco was beaten Maria became one too.

At first dozens of friends came to visit--old friends from the neighborhood, Ambrose gang members, and women. "They were lined up," says Maria. "There were women who said they were his wife--but he's never had a wife."

Yet soon the friends and the women stopped coming. "One friend said it was too difficult to see Danny in his condition," says Maria. "Can you believe that? Too difficult for him to see Danny!"

After a month and a half at County, Orozco was moved to Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, then Oak Forest Hospital, then the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He was still in a coma, being fed through a stomach tube and breathing with the help of a ventilator. There didn't appear to be much hope.

Almost six months after the beating, Maria visited Orozco on her birthday. She brought her daughter, who'd been born a month before he was beaten. "I said, 'Today is my birthday, Danny. Aren't you going to wish me happy birthday?'" she says. "And I saw tears roll from his eyes, and he tried to verbalize that birthday greeting." It was the first time he'd showed any sign of recognizing her.

Gradually the world seemed to come into focus for him. He had a television in his room and during a Martin Lawrence comedy routine, Maria saw that he was trying to laugh. "He was laughing at the punch lines," she says, "at the right places."

His family transferred him to Sheridan Shores, where he got intensive therapy. He came out of the fetal curl, slowly regained the use of his left arm, and began learning how to cope with his new limitations, how to drive a wheelchair, and how to use a voice synthesizer.

Maria says it was hard to watch him struggle. "We were always prepared for Danny's death," she says. "It would have been painful, but we would have accepted that because of his life. But he had been shot and stabbed so many times we thought he could survive anything. We were not prepared for him to be incapacitated."

The gangbangers who'd beat Orozco had been quickly caught, and two years later they finally went to trial. It lasted about a week. None of his former friends attended. "I was the only one able to show up as the victim's family," Maria says. "The defendants' friends and other gang members filled the other side of the courtroom. They never said anything to me, but one day one of them sat right next to me, as if to intimidate me. I was alone. Then one of the police officers there began sitting next to me. I guess the cops thought I was crazy, sitting there alone with all of those gang members. The guys who did it got convicted of aggravated battery, and I think they got seven years. So maybe they served three and a half."

After the trial Ignacio Perez and some of the other Ambrose members wanted revenge. "I used to not go see him," says Perez, "because I would get angry and say, 'Let's go get those guys.'"

Orozco wanted revenge too, but eventually that feeling faded. "Now," he says, "I am just glad to wake up each day."

Every other Sunday Orozco's family gets together in Pilsen, and he's always there. "He unites us," says Maria. "We all make it a point to be available. It brings the family together." She adds, "But we know he has hurt a lot of people, and what gets us through this is that maybe it is God's way of punishing him."

Orozco's gang life, says Ignacio Perez, "turned into a nightmare. His gang is now the old people, the people in wheelchairs who can't walk or talk anymore."

Pat Love says Orozco has become something of a protector for the ailing and wheelchair-bound residents of Sheridan Shores, dishing out candy to the elderly and sticking up for those even less able than himself. "That's my homey," she says. "He looks out for a lot of people here."

Orozco, who seems to try hard to stay upbeat, sees it as one of the small ways he might be able to redeem himself in society's eyes. His large bills are all paid by medicare, and he says he knows many people might think he doesn't deserve to be taken care of by the state given all the damage he's responsible for.

"From what his life used to be and what it is now, he is a very good person," says Love. "The amazing thing is he never seems to get depressed."

If Love is at Sheridan Shores in the morning she bathes and dresses Orozco. "He tries to talk to me," she says. "He's very intelligent, very aggressive."

She says once she gets him going, Orozco pretty much does everything else himself. He shaves and feeds himself, sorts his laundry, and goes to rehab. He does his own shopping and rides around outside when the weather's good. He's also made friends in the neighborhood.

He's written numerous poems and has started writing a book about his life, typing it out with one finger. A line from it reads, "Anyhow, as time went on, I still was the sort of guy that would always find a way to get lucky with life and women."

When Joel Perez first contacted Orozco last spring, he'd been working to keep kids out of gangs for nearly two decades. In 1984, a year after leaving the Ambrose, he'd started a weight-lifting program for gang members--"God's Gym"--in a church basement. Later he was hired by the city of Elgin and started a second program, run out of the Elgin Recreation Center.

Orozco had wanted to talk to kids about gangs long before he hooked up with Perez. "I owe it to young people to do it," he says. He didn't know how to make it happen, but Perez did. And last August, Perez drove Orozco out to Elgin to speak to a group of 50 elementary and middle school kids in Perez's summer program for at-risk youths.

Orozco had seemed uncertain at first. "As I saw all of those young faces," he says, "as I saw all those kids, I saw my past." He says he was suddenly keenly aware that he could never have imagined that he would wind up sitting helpless in a wheelchair telling kids to stay out of gangs and off drugs.

The second time he spoke was before a group of 40 adults at Willow Creek Church. He seemed to find it harder to answer their questions. "I think maybe it was his own mentality about what they were thinking rather than what they said or did," says Perez. "Going to a big, wealthy church like that is intimidating."

But Orozco seemed determined to keep trying--and to do more than just answer questions. "I have hopes of someday becoming a motivational speaker," he says. "But I will always have the keyboard. I know I will never speak again."

Perez pulls the van into the parking lot of Kimball Middle School in Elgin. The kids at this school will be different. They're 13- and 14-year-olds, so they're more discerning. And there are a lot more of them.

Perez lifts Orozco out of the front seat and places him in the wheelchair. Orozco straps himself in and puts the keyboard around his neck. He'd grown quieter as the van approached the school, but he doesn't hesitate as he heads toward the two-story brick building.

Robert O'Quinn, the school's police liaison officer and the man who arranged the visit, is waiting for them inside and leads them to the auditorium. He and Perez wonder whether Orozco should be up on the stage, then decide he should stay on the main floor. Orozco takes a brush out of his fanny pack and runs it through his hair.

The students file in, filling the auditorium with low-volume chatter. O'Quinn stands up to introduce Orozco, who sits watching the students as if sizing them up. "We want you to talk to someone whose life has been affected by gangs," O'Quinn says, "someone whose life has been totally damaged, who has lost everything because of a gang."

Perez stands up, and the students become quiet. "Danny is an old friend of mine from Chicago," he says. "He was a tough guy out on the street. Things are different for him now. But it takes a powerful man, a brave man, to come here and share with you what he is going to share."

Then Orozco is on his own. He moves his chair so that he's sitting directly in front of the assembly, then pauses for a moment, looking at the young, expectant faces. He taps on the keyboard. "Hello. How are you?"

"Fine," they say. "Good." "OK."

He taps again. "Please be patient as I type in my responses. First of all, I am very happy to be here." The odd, disembodied voice seems to catch the attention of the students.

"I want to offer suggestions for avoiding a life in a street gang," he continues, the clicking of his keyboard strangely loud. "If you want to ask me questions, please do."

A student raises his hand. "What kind of gang was it? Was it older or younger guys?"

Orozco smiles and taps out an answer. "I was in a gang at 13 and stopped at 34."

"How did you get involved in gangs?"

"By the pressure of stupid friends."

"How did you get injured?"

"I was jumped by three men and beaten with pipes and stabbed in my back."

The students whisper. A few say "Wow."

"Why?" asks one.

"Because I was in a gang and refused to run."

"Did your family know you were in a gang? What did they say?"

"My family was very good. They hated that I was in a gang, especially my mother."

"How did you get out of the gang?"

"Well, this is how. It took me almost getting killed before I opened my eyes. How I am now is not temporary. I have been in a wheelchair ten years. So as you see me, just think that this could happen to any of you also. So it is very important that you live a good, honest, and positive life."

A student raised his hand. "Have you ever killed anyone?" he asks.

A murmur runs through the audience.

"I'm not sure," Orozco responds, his face grim.

There's an uneasy silence, then the questions start again.

"Have you ever wanted to get married?"

"Many times," he says. "I'm still a ladies' man."

Someone asks the question most kids do at some point: "How do you go to the bathroom?"

The students giggle.

Orozco smiles, and taps out "Very, very carefully."

Everyone laughs, including Orozco, who makes a sound that's half laugh, half moan. His face crinkles into a grin.

Afterward, several students approach him and shake his hand. They ask more questions and check out his wheelchair and keyboard.

"He's an amazing person, a brave person," says a 13-year-old named Irene. "I don't think I would have the courage to do it if it were me. And it is very annoying that people would ask him questions like did he kill anybody."

On the long drive back to the north side through rush-hour traffic Orozco seems to want to talk. He says he wishes he could drive and work again. He wishes he had a relationship with his children, whom he almost never sees. He feels guilty about hurting other guys in gangs. Suddenly he says, "At times I wish I was dead."

But he comes back to the idea that maybe he can inspire kids. "If others can see me pushing hard through life, they might try themselves," he says. "If I can do this, why can't they?"

Back at Sheridan Shores, he moves slowly through the crowded hallways. Two years ago, as the state's mental health facilities continued to downsize, the center began accepting psychiatric patients, and some are wandering the halls. An elderly man leans against a wall mumbling angrily to himself. Two people--one dressed in fatigues, gold chains, and sunglasses--are arguing.

At the elevators Orozco pauses to say good-bye. He turns off the voice synthesizer and looks up at Perez, his eyes suddenly desperate. He types out a message, the words glowing in green letters on the keyboard screen. They say, "Life here every day."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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