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Special Report: Escaping A Gang
HOLLAND, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - The recent arrests of more than two-dozen suspected Latin Kings gang members in Holland are just the latest effort by law enforcement to curb violence in the city.
31 men have been charged on a federal level, and police hope that taking out leaders of the city's largest gang, more than 20 years old, will serve as a warning for those newly involved.
While police are focused on those with a long standing criminal history, others are targeting youth, and helping them escape gang life.
They say starting at the bottom is the only way to end the ongoing problem for good.
Many young teenagers find themselves introduced into the gang circle because they have no other options.
As Holland Police target the city's gang problem, they hope for further funding for community programs.
Another man, tied up in a violent lifestyle for decades, wants them to realize that there's a way out.
We talked to Josh Thompson, 18 years old and starting a new life.
He walked away from his troubled past a little more than a year ago.
"I was sick of having to look over my shoulder every time I left my house," Thompson said. "I didn't feel safe anymore."
He joined a gang at 12, and was beaten on the streets of Holland when he chose to leave at 16.
He said it was a risk he was willing to take for a better life--one he had never known.
"We all grew up together and we thought that was the thing to do--to get into a gang for protection and family and to feel like someone was there," he said.
Thompson, like some other young people his age, had no male role model other than those caught up in the gang circle--a circle some weren't able to escape early on.
Starting in Chicago and eventually moving to Holland, Willie Watt has been tied to gangs for more than 30 years, his father a well-known leader.
Even as a middle school football coach, Watt couldn't leave his violent past.
He is still angry at the memory of watching his best friend thrown in front of a train and killed at just 13.
"Seeing people killed, being asked to shoot people while they were begging for their lives, it's something you just can't shake," Watt said.
After decades of hiding his guilt and battling depression, Watt was finally pushed to the edge.
"Everything came to a halt for me in 2007 when I tried to kill my wife, because she caught me cheating," he said.
It was then that he tried to commit suicide for a third time.
He found himself homeless, and then in jail, before hitting a turning point.
Watt discovered his first male role model, at age 40, in a pastor, who helped him finally break free of gang ties.
Watt has now devoted his life to those who, like Josh Thompson, are chasing a similar path, and giving them the support he never had.
With his gang legacy and the safe haven he's created in founding Escape Ministries, Watt has pulled 21 young gang members from the streets of Holland by giving them new choices.
"It is commonly know if you put opportunity--if you put a job--in an individual's hands, you take the drugs and guns out," Watt said.
While Watt starts at the bottom, police are starting at the top.
A gang sweep last week took out nearly 30 of the Latin Kings, in an effort to curb city violence.
Despite the necessity of these recent arrests, police say the key to ending Holland's gang problem is a team effort.
"It is an everyday approach," said Capt. Jack Dykstra, with Holland Public Safety. "Law enforcement is good at the enforcement aspect of gangs and holding them accountable from the criminal law standpoint, but we really need the community to get involved from a prevention and intervention standpoint."
Watt has now dedicated his life to getting involved, so that others don't share his story.
"By saving one life," he says, "you save a generation."
For proof of that, you need only look at young father Josh Thompson.
"I don't want him to go through anything I went through," he said, holding his infant son.
Watt and police both agree that the goal is to end gangs in Holland for good, but acknowledge that it may not be a realistic goal.
They plan to continue to promote programs that are there, and work on creating more, pushing the community to become involved.