Ex-con teaches troubled teens

Sometimes, jailhouse conversions stick.

Well into adulthood, Leo Otero lived a twisted existence as a drug-smuggling, heroin-dealing, heroin-addicted member of a Chicano street gang called the Mexican Mafia. His rap sheet stretching back to the early 1980s includes convictions for armed robbery, escape from a county jail and vehicle theft. He served a combined 13 years in Ohio and Texas prisons.

But people can change, he said.

"The reality is I've done a lot of wrong in my life, and God turned me around," Mr. Otero said. "That's no longer who I am."

Now 49, Mr. Otero is a mild-mannered landscaper and devout Christian who spends his spare time mentoring teens who have gotten mixed up in crime. On Monday nights he teaches a class at a south Augusta youth prison for drug and alcohol abusers. As the aftercare manager for Full Circle Refuge in Martinez, he's the right-hand man to Devon Harris, the ministry's executive director who's taking on Augusta's gang problem through interventions and seminars.

"I've been shown a lot of love and grace in my life, and I want to give it back," Mr. Otero said. "I was brought out of that lifestyle for a reason, to help others out."

Looking back, he said, he had the same weakness that so often pulls youths into gangs and drug dealing: He wanted wealth, status and independence, but didn't want to work for it.

Mr. Otero grew up in Toledo, Ohio, raised by a single father after his mother left home when he was eight. At age 16, he said, he quit school and became a full-time dealer. He smuggled hundreds of pounds of marijuana across the U.S.-Mexican border several times per month, earning thousands of dollars with each trip. He drove a Corvette and attended wild parties with bathtubs full of beer and lines of cocaine and heroin on tables.

But then he started using his own product and became hooked. To support his habit, he robbed jewelry stores.

When his partners came to his home to pick him for one heist, he remembers putting his 1-year-old son down and picking up his gun and nylon mask. He remembers a pregnant woman almost fainting during the robbery.

He was tracked down and arrested five hours later. At the time, he was a suspect in 33 other cases, Mr. Otero said. After a failed jail escape, he spent seven years in prison, then went right back to dealing.

It was a deranged, bizarre way of life, he said.

He moved to Texas, thinking a change of scenery would help him stay out of trouble. There, his mother's side of the family couldn't have reunions because of gang rivalries. His stepfather was in the Mexican Mafia, his uncle was with the Texas Syndicate and he had cousins who were Latin Kings.

He and other dealers would stuff heroin in balloons and put them in their mouth, spitting them out to make a sale or swallowing them if police approached. Once when he got locked up in a county jail in San Antonio, other inmates surrounded him and asked whether he was "holding," Mr. Otero said. They wanted him to regurgitate the balloons so they could snort the drugs.

His criminal ways got him "blessed" into the Mexican Mafia at age 30. In prison, his gang superiors once ordered him to beat up another inmate. Gang bangers have a reverence for religion, and the man had a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his back. So during the beating, when the man kept curling into a ball on the floor, Mr. Otero and his cohorts had to keep pulling him up so they wouldn't strike his back.

After being caught in a shoplifting incident and ensuing police chase in San Antonio, Mr. Otero was facing 25 years to life. He called his mother, and she told him to pray to God.

"I'll talk to him later," he replied.

But his mother had planted a seed. He was weary of his lifestyle, and he wanted a change. As he laid on his bunk that night, he prayed for God to make himself known to him.

Mr. Otero started reading the Bible at night, finding comforting sweetness in the words. He gravitated toward inmates who prayed and held Bible studies, agitating his Mexican Mafia buddies.

Instead of a long prison sentence, Mr. Otero was sentenced to six months in a Wackenhut-run parole violators' facility in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Kenneth Copeland Ministries, based in Fort Worth, held classes there.

Mr. Otero got out in 1996 and moved to Augusta in 2000 to be near his father and sister.

He connected with Mr. Harris three years ago after hearing a radio advertisement for one of his workshops.

When he interacts with troubled teens, it's clear that he has a connection to the boys that other well-meaning volunteers might not have.

At a recent session of his weekly Promise group at Three Springs of Augusta - a Department of Juvenile Justice contractor off Mike Padgett Highway that treats juvenile delinquents with substance abuse problems - the boys talked openly about their crimes and self-destructive decisions. A beefy, thick-necked teen continually brought up that he's in a gang and so is most of his family.

Mr. Otero listened, knowingly nodding his head.

"The way to beat the law is not to break it," he told the group. "If you're doing right, the law doesn't apply to you."

Three Springs Program Director Nisha Gandhi said Mr. Otero not only conducts the class, but he also works one-on-one with the boys and stays in touch with them after they're released.

"He's made a lot of positive connections with the boys," Ms. Gandhi said. "They relate to him. They like being here."

Mr. Otero has driven to Dalton and Rome, trying to stay in their lives, and he's planning trips to Alpharetta and Gwinnett County.

"I see where a lot of them are at now. They're heading in the right direction if they want to be a gangster," Mr. Otero said. "That's why it's important to do an intervention. A lot of them think they want to be gangsters, but it's not really what they want."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

LEO OTERO

Age: 49

Occupation: Landscaper, owner of Lawns by Leo

Family: Wife, Gladys; a daughter, 30; a son, 26

Volunteer work: Aftercare manager for Full Circle Refuge, a ministry that mentors incarcerated juveniles and educates parents and teens about street gangs