By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Three alleged armed robbers captured Friday night after barricading themselves inside a South Union Street convenience store worked with the city’s public works department courtesy of an $800,000 anti-crime grant.
The trio, who are suspects in seven recent city armed robberies, were placed in the DPW to clean parks and pick up litter through the “Safe and Successful Youth Initiative Grant,” officials confirmed last night.
The program is managed by Art McCabe in the city’s Community Development Department. Two months ago, Michael Tesaun Alicea, 19, Richard Mora, 18, and Ruben Saldana, 18, started working at the DPW, said John Isensee, acting public works director.
Isensee said he was aware all three teens were part of the grant program “for at risk and troubled youth,” he said. None of the men were paid with budgeted DPW funds, he said.
“As far as I was concerned they were free labor,” Isensee said.
The grant program is designed to curb crime and violence committed by 18- to 24-year-olds, officials said when the $800,000 in federal money was awarded and the program unveiled last spring. Those in the program would clean the DPW yard on Auburn Street and pick up trash at various spots around Lawrence.
“Menial tasks at best,” Isensee said.
The grant workers are not allowed to drive DPW vehicles and their supervisors are Joel Chalas, DPW street foreman and former city recycling director, and Jorge Jaime, DPW parks foreman and former receptionist to Mayor William Lantigua. McCabe said they were scheduled to work 24 hours weekly, arriving at the city yard at 7 a.m. to start their shifts.
Every young man in the program is referred through the trial court system or state social services agencies said McCabe, adding Lantigua has no influence over who gets into the program or where they are assigned to work.
“He’s been extraordinarily supportive and has never tried to influence anything we’ve done,” McCabe said last night.
Alicea, Mora and Saldana were “actually doing reasonably well” in the program, McCabe said.
“I’m actually kind of stunned. In the past week, we just put together a life plan with one of the these kids. He seemed really into it,” McCabe said.
Isensee said it’s not unusual for the DPW to welcome such workers. In the past, the department has worked with county jail inmates and juveniles and adults on probation referred through the trial court.
“We will take anybody. We are that desperate,” Isensee said.
The grant money was earmarked to help 80 young men with criminal records or known to be members of gangs. They are provided job training, GED classes and anger management counseling. McCabe, during the unveiling ceremony last spring, said the goal was to bring stability to the young men’s lives.
Friday night, after barricading themselves in the convenience store, police said Alicea, Mora and Saldana tried to shoot their way out of a locked back door, but failed and surrendered when police surrounded the 280 So. Union St. market.
Police are still looking for a suspected getaway driver who was seen pulling away in a maroon, four-door, American-made car, possibly an Oldsmobile, when police arrived.
Alicea has also been charged in a Jan. 9 robbery. A man said he was robbed of $300 when he arranged through Facebook to meet someone to buy an iPhone.
Tomorrow, Alicea, Mora and Saldana will be arraigned in Lawrence District Court on the following charges: armed and masked robbery, kidnapping, unlawful possession of a firearm, discharge of a firearm within 500 feet of a dwelling and unlawful possession of ammunition.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.