By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Whoever it was, he or she put an end to Nica's exploits. But only by virtually stripping him of his entire identity.
When Nica awakened from the coma, he didn't know who he was, didn't even know he was in a gang. Oddly he could speak English but had forgotten Spanish, his native tongue. His face was a scarred mess. Three of his front teeth were knocked out, and his entire face looked lopsided. His right eye lay lifeless in its broken socket.
Two days after his hit-and-run, his ex-girlfriend gave birth. But Nica couldn't even hold his son. His arm was in a sling while his shoulder healed. Nica required special training to learn how to speak clearly and how to do menial tasks, such as counting money. Memories came back to him slowly.
His fellow Crips, who had revered him as a gang leader, disappeared from his life. All that talk about love between soldiers was bullshit, he decided. They hadn't cared about him; they'd cared about his power. And when he needed them most, they were gone. "Nobody wanted to take me out because of the way I looked," he says. "I felt like a monster."
The Broward Sheriff's Office recruited him for an educational video, in which he served as a grotesque example of the results of gang life. In the video Nica, with his infant son in his lap, says he's done with the gang forever and vows to see to it that his son grows up right.
But it wasn't easy. He hit rock bottom when, in a desperate attempt to win back the mother of his son, he was charged with domestic violence for pushing and hitting her. "I did hit her, but you know why? I thought it was right," he says. "I saw all my family beat their women. The men beat their women in Nicaragua, and they didn't get in any trouble. Then later on they were lovey-dovey again. But you don't hit women in America. It was always wrong, but I didn't know better. Now I do."
The first time he went back out with some Crips, the results were equally disastrous. That was in July 1995, nearly four months after he was hit by the car. Nica says he was just happy to get a chance to go out, to drink, to see girls, to feel less like a monster. But the other gang members had violence on their minds. They brutally beat a fellow Crip named Nick Harrison, who was a witness in a robbery case against another member. Nica maintains he was drunk and half passed out during the beating. Pineda interviewed Harrison in the hospital and, a full year later, in July 1996, arrested Nica and several other Crips for the Harrison beating.
The local media treated his arrest as big news -- the "godfather of the Crips" finally had been brought to justice. The truth was Nica had already covered his pitchfork Crip tattoo with a Tasmanian Devil and had officially quit the gang. Without his leadership the Crips had begun to fade into obscurity. "I didn't even care when the gang went down," he says. "I look at me now, and then I look at me then, and all I can think is how stupid I was."
Nica was sentenced to probation, which he successfully completed this past February. Amazingly he never spent a day in a Florida prison despite his gang activity.
Now, at age 25, he's engaged to a woman named Rebecca and lives in a tiny house with a big yard in central Broward. He doesn't want to reveal the exact location, fearing possible reprisals from old foes. "He's not Nica anymore," Rebecca says. "He's only Wilbert now."
He still hears about his old compadres. This one was jailed on a drug charge, that one has become an alcoholic. There's even one guy who's trying to revive the gang. Nica can only shake his head and laugh.
Even if he wanted to go back to fighting, he knows he can't. With two metal plates holding his skull together, one good punch in the right place would kill him. He still gets horrible headaches and falls into dazes. Nica says he only hopes his son, whom he visits regularly, doesn't end up like him. The black-haired boy, who looks like his dad, just turned five, a little older than Nica was when civil war tore through his town. Nica also occasionally visits his parents and his uncle Atila, who now sells pool screens for a living in Miami.
He survives on $520 per month, his disability payment. But he's still hatching ambitious schemes. Now he dreams of starting a career working on auto electrical systems.
On a recent Friday night, he got cleaned up and went out in some bright-red pants. His face still bears scars, but time has been kind to it. He's managed to retain a certain rugged charisma. "You know, I couldn't wear red before," he says, smiling at the color of his former enemies, La Familia and the IN/P. "It looks good, man. I like red."