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In my early 30s, I once found myself conducting interviews with the gang members in a small reservation community. There was only one road into this particular community. It had 2 cops, and believe me, everyone who might pay attention to that sort of thing knew when one of them drove a suspect out to the detention facilities out of town, leaving just one officer to keep the peace. Word was that the gang members pretty well ran this town. Word might have exaggerated the issue, but in this case, the claim seemed at least plausible.

I noticed, for example, that the name of a youth gang had been set in white rocks on the hillside on one side of town, accomplishing a pretty fair imitation of the way townships sometimes put their own names up on a hillside.

…only in this case, the name on the hillside was that of the gang.

In the year or so that I spent going into and out of this township, no-one took the gang’s name down. I do think that means something.

Other indications of the relative power (or at least the audacity) of the local gangs could be found. They had burned down the courthouse, and at one point a group of them had gone up to the motor home of a prosecutor and woke him up by shaking it and shouting things. The probation officer for the town had already told me that he was reluctant to file revocation requests in view of the relative power of the gangs. He would do it if given sufficient cause, but perhaps not as readily as he might if he were working under more stable conditions.

The courts and I had made arrangements whereby I could pay someone for setting up interviews with the gang members. We didn’t pay the members themselves, at least not for doing an interview with us, but we did could pay someone for setting up the interview. So, I went straight to the known leader of the local gang and he agreed to set up interviews with several members from his own set. I assume, he kicked some money back his homeboys, but that was all between them.

At some point in the afternoon, the gang leader asked me to give him a ride over to see his probation officer. He had an appointment, after which we could go see if we could find a few more people to interview.

A minute or so after he went in to see his probation officer, they opened the door and asked if I wanted to be present for the meeting. I eagerly agreed and joined them for about a half hour session. What followed was one of the most fascinating discussions I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. I don’t have my old notes with me, so this is not going to be exact, but as best I can remember, this is how the meeting went down.

The main gist of the conversation was a series of questions about whether or not the gang leader was meeting his obligations. He was making his probation meetings, alright, but was he meeting with his substance abuse counselor? Was he making restitution payments?

Perhaps you are wondering how this individual ended up on probation?

Let me tell you!

One night, he and his buddies had shot up a convenience store which happened to be located just on the other side of the reservation line on that road, the only one into and out of town. This was also the only store in the community. It also served as a make-shift bank and a post office. After he and his buddies had fired off all their rounds outside by the gas pumps, the owner (so I’m told) simply walked out with his own gun and held them there till the police arrived. This was what landed the gang leader on probation. Since he had been drunk when he did it, this of course gave his attorney an angle to claim the real problem was alcohol addiction, hence the substance-abuse counseling requirements mentioned earlier. In any event, the restitution money his probation officer wanted would go to this store.

Only the gang leader hadn’t made a payment yet. He dutifully fished a hundred dollar bill out of his pocket and offered it to the probation officer.

“Now you know we only take money orders.” (I’m pretty sure, I got that wording precisely.)

The gang leader shrugged and put the money back. He agreed to go get a money order and bring it back that afternoon.

Dd I mention that store also served as a bit of a make-shift bank?

He would be getting the money order from the very store he had shot up.

Yes, everyone in the room seemed a little amused by this matter, if also a bit nervous about it. It was just one of the facts of life in this very small community. A major city sat within an hour’s drive, but that wasn’t going to happen on this day. The money order would be coming from the local store, and each of us knew it.

What I wasn’t sure about, and perhaps I was the only one who wasn’t, was whether or not the hundred dollar bill had really been a mistake? Or was a ploy, an faux attempt at payment, he knew the probation officer wouldn’t accept. I had my suspicions, but I really couldn’t tell.

Next, the conversation turned toward the subject of gainful employment. The probation officer asked if the gang leader had done anything to secure a job? Had he put in any applications with any businesses? Made any inquiries?

No.

After an awkward pause, the gang leader asked if the probation officer had talked to the manager of the store in question?

It took me a moment to wrap my mind around that one, but this too made sense, in a fashion. There really weren’t a lot of jobs in the area, and everyone would know why this individual was on probation anyway. What little employment was to be had would be government work, and under the circumstances, he wouldn’t be getting any of those jobs. If he was going to get a job, this store was one of the few options viable options in the area. Possibly the only one.

So, the request made sense.

…sort of.

“Yeah,” the probation officer began, then hesitated.

“No?”

“Not just ‘no’.”

All three of us laughed.

(And I’m pretty sure I remember that part of the conversation exactly as well.)

The interview ended with a return to the subject of restitution. The gang leader agreed to go with me right to the local store and get a money order before returning to the probation office. With that, we said our goodbyes and headed out.

As we climbed into the tribal vehicle…

“So, we’re going to the store now?”

“Nah. Let’s go up this way. I’ll get you some more interviews.”