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Little Village couple take stand against gang-bangers

The Latin Kings in Little Village wanted to kill Robert and Amy Castaneda.

Thugs ruling the corner of 30th and Drake twice tried to burn down their house — soaking the porch with gasoline and setting it ablaze while the young couple slept inside — because Rob had called the police after a shooting and showed investigators where gang-bangers had stashed the gun.

But it wasn’t until one particular Latin King — a short gang-banger with a loud mouth — chucked a bottle through Rob and Amy’s front window on a frigid Sunday in February 2000 while shouting drunken threats — “Die, m-----------. die!” — that any of them got caught.

The bottle chucker pleaded guilty and spent three years in jail. The others spent up to six years in prison for aggravated arson. Some were charged under the Mireles Law, which aims to protect community volunteers from gang intimidation.

They considered moving to a safer neighborhood. They even put their house up for sale. Ultimately, they decided the Latin Kings would not scare them away. So they stayed.

More than that, Rob and Amy dedicated themselves to helping Little Village kids have a place to play and a chance to stay out of gangs.

They started an after-school basketball program, Beyond the Ball, and it became popular with kids who might otherwise be hanging on corners like the guys who set their front door on fire. Thousands of kids have played in their leagues and practices.

Nearly a decade after the damage from the fires and that bottle had been repaired, Rob and Amy found themselves face-to-face with one of their attackers.

They were not afraid.

The Gang-banger — the loud, drunken one who wished them dead through the hole in their front window — needed their help.

Latin Kings, like tulips

Rob Castaneda grew up in South Chicago around the time steel mills had started to close. He was just a boy when layoffs hit. The shops shut down, and his neighbors moved away. Finally, his own family packed up and fled to suburban Bolingbrook.

Rob’s future wife, Amy Tuga, was raised in Brighton Park, near 35th and California.

She was a city girl whose father kept her focused on school and sports rather than boys. She went to school in the suburbs — riding in the church van to Marquette Manor High School in Downers Grove.

In homeroom freshman year, Amy met Rob.

“I chased after him,” she said with a soft, teasing giggle.

“Yeah, right. Let’s just say it was the other way around,” Rob said.

The high school sweethearts got married on July 13, 1996, four years after graduation.

Amy worked as a Chicago Public School teacher and coached girls basketball. Rob worked for Ameritech and volunteered as the boys basketball coach at Amy’s school, Eli Whitney Elementary.

They dreamed of owning their own home and finally found the perfect place they could afford — a modest A-frame on a quiet block at 30th and Drake.

At least the block seemed quiet in the dead of winter, gently covered in a billowing blanket of white.

They bought a house and closed on the deal after the Great Blizzard of 1999 that dumped more than 20 inches of snow on Chicago over three days.

Then the snow melted — exposing the broken beer bottles and trash on the parkways. Soon, Latin Kings, like early spring tulips, sprouted on their corner.

Oh, the things Rob and Amy would see from their bedroom window — none of it very peaceful.

‘It wasn’t a game’

The Gang-banger was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Little Village. The Chicago Sun-Times has agreed not to identify him because doing so might put him in danger on the street.

As a boy, The Gang-banger struggled with a learning disability and didn’t do well in school. When he was supposed to be a high school freshman, he dropped out and started hanging on the corners with Latin Kings.

“I was young and stupid. I was exploring,” he said. “I started hanging with the wrong crowd. There were a lot of girls. I did it for the party. After a while, though, I realized it wasn’t a game.”

The things The Gang-banger was asked to do and the things he did for money were illegal.

Shootings happened every day. He had to watch his back. A lot of his friends were killed or thrown in jail.

He won’t talk about life on the street in detail. What he did was gang business.

You don’t talk about gang business if you want to stay alive.

‘What are we doing here?’

Rob and Amy became enemies of the Latin Kings in Little Village on Jan. 4, 2000.

About 30 Latin Kings on the corner near Rob and Amy’s house terrorized the block more than usual — throwing up gang signs at passing motorists and taunting rivals who dared to drive through their turf.

Shots rang out. Rob called the police. At the first sign of sirens and lights, the Latin Kings scattered.

From an upstairs window, Rob spotted one of them stashing a gun near a tree.

When it looked like the police wouldn’t find the gun, Rob went outside to point it out.

While he talked to the investigators, a squad car pulled up with two Latin Kings cuffed in the back seat.

In that instant, Rob went from being an anonymous tipster to a cop-calling rat. The Latin Kings told him so from the back of the police car.

Two days later, while Rob and Amy slept, someone doused their front porch with gasoline and set it on fire.

The dog started barking, wildly. Rob awoke, smelled smoke and went downstairs. That’s when he saw the bright flames devouring his front door. He got Amy and called 911. They ran outside.

After firefighters struck the blaze, a policeman told Rob and Amy they had made a potentially fatal mistake that night.

“He told me we’ve got to be careful,” Rob said. “You rush outside and they could be waiting there to shoot you.”

Two weeks later, their porch was on fire again.

After firefighters put those flames out and packed their gear Rob heard one say to another, “Let’s go, I don’t want to be standing around out here.”

Most people would have moved away. Rob and Amy wanted to leave, too.

“We’re thinking now we’re the target of gang violence,” Rob said. “They shoot people. They kill people.”

Behind enemy lines

On Feb. 4, 2000, the fateful bottle smashed through Rob and Amy’s front window, breaking the glass and bending the frame.

“This is the guy who calls the cops!” someone yelled from the street. “Die, m-----------, die!”

It was the first time Rob saw The Gangbanger — his face shining in the street lamp light. The police quickly arrested him. Rob would identify him to police.

The Cook County assistant state’s attorney handling the case wanted to charge The Gang-banger with misdemeanor criminal damage to property for breaking the window.

But that bottle did more than $1,200 in damage to that window — above the amount needed to bring felony charges.

“A misdemeanor? That’s not justice,” Rob said. “The system was failing us.”

So, Rob and Amy called the TV stations and the newspapers. Their story got attention at City Hall and police headquarters. Police made arrests.

The bad guys went to jail. But Rob and Amy were still scared for themselves and their neighbors.

During those tense times, Amy was coaching basketball at Eli Whitney. Girls on the team who lived in the neighborhood came to Rob and Amy’s house. They pleaded with them to stand their ground, to not run away from the gang. The girls said they needed Rob and Amy — good people with kind hearts — to stay in Little Village.

“They didn’t want me to leave. They encouraged me to stay where I was,” Amy said. “Rob and I asked each other, ‘What do you want to do?’ ”

Separately, Rob and Amy had already started to change their minds about moving. They hadn’t told each other, yet.

“After the girls left,” Amy said. “It was easy to say ‘We can’t leave.’ ”

A common purpose

With their attackers in jail, Amy went back to school to get her master’s degree and started teaching at Little Village Academy, a Chicago Public School not far from their house.

Rob quit his job at Ameritech and started his own home electronics installation business. He volunteered to coach boys basketball at the school.

The boys couldn’t shoot, dribble or play defense very well. And they didn’t have public hoops in the neighborhood where they could practice to get better after school. So, Rob opened the gym at nights and on weekends. The kids asked if they could bring their friends to scrimmage against. Soon, dozens of local kids showed up. When school closed for the summer, the teens collected about 50 signatures in an attempt to leverage Rob into running a summer basketball league.

“It just fit in that this was a way to help our community,” Amy says. “We still love sports, and it brought people together in a positive way. We wanted kids to have a safe place to play.”

And they played — with the blessing of the Little Village principal and under Rob and Amy’s watch — seven days a week.

The group of kids grew from about 50 to more than 200. Some of the players were gang members — even from rival gangs. But inside the gym there were rules: No fighting. No gang-banging. No trouble.

The basketball program faced a setback when the new principal at Little Village Academy took away gym privileges.

They needed to find a new place for the kids to play, and it wouldn’t be as easy as saying, “Hi, we’re Rob and Amy. Can we borrow your gym?” Amy said.

So, they started a not-for-profit organization, Beyond the Ball. They applied for grants and found a new gym.

When Amy got a new job teaching art at Ortiz De Dominguez Elementary School, the principal there asked them to start a program for grade school students. In exchange, Rob and Amy could use the gym and the school grounds for their programs.

“Bitty Ball” was born. After school the gym fills with the endless energy of cooped-up grade-school kids furiously trying to control a running dribble, steal passes and make awkward lay-ups. And at every session, Rob and Amy keep a watchful eye on Little Village’s most important resource — those kids.

“People talk about heroes. They are heroes. I think Little Village should be very proud to have them,” Ortiz principal Angelica Herrera-Vest said. “Most people wouldn’t do what they’ve done. Most people would take care of their family and get out of the community.”

They don’t have children of their own — even though their parents gently pressure them for grandchildren.

Maybe one day. They’re not sure yet. For now, helping neighborhood kids works for them.

“It gave us a common purpose. Sometimes marriage is more about him having a job and her having a job and you see each other a few hours a day before you go both go back to your jobs,” Amy said. “We both have a passion for our community, and what we want to do made our marriage even better.”

‘A redeeming situation’

The Gang-banger got out of jail in 2003. For a while, he worked loading trucks in Joliet. He met a lady and fell in love. They had two kids, a boy and a girl.

“When she was born, she took my heart,” The Gang-banger said of his daughter. It was enough for him to retire from the gang.

“I gave that up. I have my kids. [The Latin Kings] don’t bother me. I got kids to worry about,” he said. “But me hanging out doing illegal things, that’s not me anymore. My kids don’t need to take a bullet for me.”

He later split with the mother of his children, but continued to take care of the kids.

Public aid payments and food stamps sustained them. For extra cash, The Gang-banger did yard work and washed cars. In warmer months, he sold ice cream from a pushcart.

The Gang-banger met a new woman — a single parent with two kids of her own. Their relationship got serious quickly.

“Everything happens for a reason,” The Gang-banger says.

They merged their families and moved into a one-bedroom apartment together. She works. He takes care of the kids.

Every school day The Gang-banger walks each of the children to school, gently holding their hands as they cross busy streets through his former gang’s territory. They all have to be there at different times for different activities. Sometimes, he makes six round-trips a day.

A few years ago, The Gang-banger was struggling with the demands of fatherhood. He asked a woman from the neighborhood he trusted — a teacher at Ortiz, where his children go to school — for help. The teacher said she knew exactly who to call.

“It was us,” Rob says. “When we saw him we knew who he was. He knew who we were.”

“I felt like this could be a redeeming situation,” Amy said. “I was overjoyed. We wanted guys like him to know we’re here for the neighborhood. We were never trying to put guys behind bars. If you do something, obviously there are consequences, but they don’t have to be permanent. You can come back and change your life.”

‘That’s not normal’

Sometimes, Rob and Amy would run into The Gang-banger in the hallway at Ortiz School.

For a while, they’d exchange silent glances with him or offer meaningless small talk.

Amy teaches The Gang-banger’s kids in her art class, and they play Bitty Ball after school. Rob and Amy knew The Gang-banger had nice, respectful kids who need a good father.

A few weeks ago, Rob decided it was time to talk to The Gang-banger about all the things that had been left unsaid for a decade.

They made a lunch date. Rob picked up The Gang-banger and went to a local taco joint, The Green House of Steak at 27th and Millard.

It was a sunny afternoon. Beams of bright light poured through the taqueria’s upstairs windows where the men sat at a small table in the nearly empty dining room.

Mexican music played over the house speakers. Rob and The Gang-banger felt a little nervous about what would come next.

The Gang-banger said he was glad to have a chance to have this talk.

He said he was sorry about what the Latin Kings did to Rob and Amy so long ago, but he denied being involved despite his guilty plea and three-year stint in jail.

That’s when Rob stopped the The Gangbanger from offering an alibi — what’s done is done.

“For me, I don’t need him to admit it. I told him the only reason he was in that situation is that I identified him. I told him what I tell everyone we work with: ‘By choosing that lifestyle you put yourself in that situation.’ ”

The Gang-banger told Rob that he just wanted a better life for his kids, maybe in a safer neighborhood.

He admitted that he’s worried that one day his own son might be tempted by gang life. He needed to be a good example. He needed a job — a second chance.

“I could see he put the gang part of his life behind him. I see him out there in the neighborhood selling ice cream. That’s not normal. Guys do not go from gang-banging to selling ice cream on the street while they hold their kids’ hand,” Rob says. “And because I see that and I know him better now, it made me want to see him succeed.”

Over steak tacos, Rob told The Gangbanger that he and Amy wanted to help him. He pledged to try to find The Gang-banger a job and one day get the felony conviction — the biggest road block to getting a job — expunged from his record.

‘I could have died’

On the first day of spring, The Gang-banger waited for his daughter outside Ortiz School. Rob approached with hope in his hand.

“Get this back to me today at basketball,” Rob said, handing The Gang-banger a job application. “They’re going to be interviewing soon.”

The Gang-banger smiled, shook Rob’s hand and tucked the papers in his daughter’s backpack.

Later that afternoon, The Gang-banger talked about his future while his daughter nibbled on a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

“I want to get help so I can learn how to read and write. I want to read a book to my little girl,” he said. “I want to cook, to be a chef. My girlfriend wants it, too. She says, ‘You’re a smart guy and you can do it.’ I want to do it for her, too. I want to be a good dad.”

And he knows he’s lucky to have neighbors like Rob and Amy. They probably saved his life 10 years ago.

“They are some beautiful people, and I appreciate what they are trying to do for me,” The Gang-banger said. “There was a lot going on back then. A lot of shootings. I could have died. If I didn’t go to jail I would have been dead by now.”



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