Thursday, May 26 , 2016, 6:59 pm | Fair 68º

Gang-Prevention Documentary Features the Stories of Those Spending ‘Life Facing Bars’

The 40-minute film, commissioned by the Santa Maria Police Department, debuted this week and is already garnering national attention

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

An audience of 350 packed into the Edwards Stadium Theater in Santa Maria this week to hear from a set of unique voices cautioning young people not to get involved with gang life.

Those voices belonged to former gang members who are now spending their lives behind bars, and whose stories are the centerpiece of Life Facing Bars, a 40-minute documentary commissioned by the Santa Maria Police Department.

Prosecutors, judges, City Council members and school district officials all showed up for the screening.

Lt. Daniel Cohen produced the film, and said the reception has been huge, with gang-prevention officials from as far away as North Carolina contacting him to use the film to show to young people in their area.  

The film's YouTube page had more than 10,700 visits as of 9 p.m. Thursday. Scroll down to the bottom of this page to watch the film, which is the creation of Matt Yoon, a 2013 Cal Poly journalism graduate.

If the film, which Cohen said he hopes will be shown to young people throughout the region, causes them to pause and think twice about joining a gang, it's been successful, he said.

"We can try to arrest our way out of this problem. ... But we're not going to stop it," Cohen said. "The purpose of this film was as a catalyst for conversation."

The film features former gang members from various parts of Santa Barbara County talking about their lives and experiences on the street and life after their incarceration began.

More than 1,000 documented gang members live in Santa Maria, and 88 percent of the city's murders are gang-related, the film states.

Several gang members from all over the county were interviewed for the film, showing their tattoos and recounting their time in prison. Some have spent only months outside of prison since being jumped into gang life at 11 or 12 years old.

"If you truly think there's any loyalty in street life, you're in an illusion, because at the end of the day, it's every man for himself," said Jeremy Wallin, known as "Casper" in the Northwest Gang of Santa Maria.

Wallin is facing a life sentence in prison for murder, kidnapping and robbery in the 2004 killing of Jeremy Grinder.

The film puts a spotlight on people such as Wallin, who reflect back on feeling dispensable, a lack of loyalty from fellow gang members, and poor decisions that separated them from their families and communities.

Behind bars, they talked about having children who barely know them, and missing out on birthdays and holidays.

Perhaps the most moving moments of the film come from an interview with Wallin's tearful 8-year-old son, who is only allowed to see his father every three months, and will never spend time with him outside of prison.

The film shows footage of a gang member jumping in as a young man, as well as footage from local gang crimes, including a police pursuit and armed robberies in the area.

Also spotlighted are many of the community's high-profile personalities who work with gang members in the justice system, such as Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores, who runs a gang court in Santa Maria, as well as Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, who prosecutes many gang cases.

Both speakers remind the viewers that time for a crime can double or even triple if gang allegations are brought, and the person accused of a crime doesn't have to be a gang member himself to face those allegations — association is often enough.

Children involved in perpetrating gang crimes will often be tried as adults, as in the case of 14-year-old Ramon Maldonado Jr., who is facing first-degree murder charges along with other adult defendants in the torture and murder of Anthony Ibarra.

Other high-profile cases involving children are also highlighted.

Footage shows an interview with Kathy Clark, the grandmother of 15-year-old Dystiny Myers, who was murdered in 2010 after she ended up at the home of a methamphetamine dealer. The woman ordered several young men, including her son, to kill Myers, who was beaten and bound before her body was set on fire.

"She always told me, 'It's OK, Grandma, my homies got my back'," Clark said. "Obviously, it wasn't OK. It's destroyed our family. … These gangs took her from us."

While highlighting sobering stories, the film also touts some successes, like that of Samuel Marin, who jumped into the Northwest Gang in Santa Maria, but eventually pursued higher education and a career in legal services.

Education as a solution to a lack of opportunity is stressed throughout the movie, and local educators such as Pete Flores, assistant principal at Santa Maria High School, is one of them.

"You only have one life," he said. "If you get involved with gangs, you may not have a second chance."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook


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