The story of three Lawrence teens who are suspects in seven armed robberies while also participating in a grant-funded jobs program for “at-risk” youth illustrates everything that’s wrong with the way the justice system and social service programs treat youthful offenders.
According to police, Friday night Michael Tesaun Alicea, 19, Richard Mora, 18, and Ruben Saldana, 18, burst into a South Union Street convenience store, roughed up an employee and barricaded themselves inside. They tried and failed to shoot their way out of a locked back door and surrendered when police surrounded the building. Police are looking for a fourth person, a suspected getaway driver who fled the scene.
Police found the employee hiding in a freezer after the robbery.
“That woman was extremely traumatized. She hid inside the refrigerator,” said police Chief John Romero.
Romero said those arrested are thought to be members of a gang and are suspects in six other armed robberies. In one of those incidents, the robbery of a Prospect Street market, a man in the store was shot in the leg.
The three were arraigned in Lawrence District Court yesterday and each was ordered held on $500,000 bail.
The three alleged armed robbers also had another source of income. They were participants in an $800,000 grant program aimed at at-risk youth. Two months ago, the three were placed in maintenance jobs in the Department of Public Works under the “Safe and Successful Youth Initiative Grant.” The jobs entail picking up trash at the DPW yard and at various spots around Lawrence.
The grant program in Lawrence has been run since its inception last spring by Art McCabe of the city’s Community Development Department. The grant program is designed to curb crime and violence committed by 18- to 24-year-olds. Every participant in the program is referred through the trial court system or state social services agencies, according to McCabe.
Alicea, Mora and Saldana were “actually doing reasonably well” in the program, McCabe told reporter Jill Harmacinski.
“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.
Was armed robbery part of their “life plans”? It seems these young men were not “at risk.” They were “already gone.” It was the public that was at risk from their behavior. If they took any lesson from this program, it was likely that waving a gun at people and taking their money is a lot easier than earning it on your own.
With three alleged armed robbers to its credit in less than a year, the “Safe and Successful Youth Initiative” is not living up to its grandiose title. It illustrates the futility of throwing grant money and taxpayer dollars at people already established in a life of crime. There are plenty of kids in Lawrence who are doing the right thing — going to school, starting out in their working careers and obeying the law. Where’s the $800,000 grant to give them a well-earned hand up?
People like Alicea, Mora and Saldana have had every chance to lead upright, useful lives. Instead, they spit on that chance and laugh at those of us foolish enough to offer them a helping hand.