The life of former Omaha gang member Latron Louis, 27, could make a book. But not yet — because he is trying to write a new chapter.
For the past 15 months, he has served as the anti-violence coordinator at the social service agency Girls Inc., working with girls 13 to 18.
"What I enjoy," he said, "is just walking through the door and knowing I'm able to be a positive male role model in some of these ladies' lives."
He is turning his life around, he said, with help from a number of people, including Girls Inc. board member Susie Buffett, whom he said "has been like a second mom to me."
Until four years ago, Louis — whose nickname is "Chrome" — played a role that few would model. As a member of the Gangster Disciples, he compiled a police rap sheet and lived the life of the streets.
As he put it: "Shooting, fighting, having sex with different women. We weren't supposed to be doing any of those things, but we all ended up doing it."
For many newspaper readers, the latest north Omaha shootings are merely sad and regrettable. For Chrome, they hit home.
He knows at least two dozen people who have been killed, he said, and many more who were shot but survived.
"It could have happened to me," he said. "I was shot at many times. ... Every individual doing the shootings is lost. They've been through something, and they want to express it through violence."
Chrome himself survived a difficult upbringing. His parents fought violently, he said, and he was exposed to gangs by age 8. By 13, he was "rebellious."
He didn't graduate from high school, though he wound through regular and alternative schools: "North, Northwest, Blackburn, Parrish. Trouble."
His police record started with a juvenile court referral for allegedly carrying a concealed weapon.
He received fines, jail time or probation for shoplifting, disorderly conduct, false information, trespassing, failure to disperse and possession of marijuana.
In 2007, he was jailed for alleged involvement in an ATM robbery, a felony charge that eventually was dropped. But he sat in jail for three months, he said, because the gang didn't bail him out.
"That was a big eye-opener," he said. "As much as I was on the front line risking my life for these guys, they wouldn't buy me out for $500?"
He calls it a turning point, and he did what is said to be very difficult: He walked away from gang life. He says he took classes and rode buses to the library to begin searching for jobs to "get my life together."
Around that time, he met Susie Buffett, whose Sherwood Foundation provides resources to combat crime, poverty and lack of education.
Buffett said she attended a north Omaha meeting, arranged by community leaders, of about 20 ex-members of gangs. Louis was well-spoken, she said, and she noted how kindly he acted toward his two young children, who were with him.
He sought her out later, and she concluded that he truly wanted to change his life.
"Chrome genuinely knows he did bad things, and he's deeply sorry," Buffett said. "He can't undo what happened in the past, but he can move forward in a positive way and be a good role model for his own children and for the girls at Girls Inc."
Louis, who is single, says he has three children — two biological and a third he treats like a daughter.
State Sen. Brenda Council recently said a high out-of-wedlock birthrate profoundly influences poverty among blacks in the Omaha area — unwed mothers accounted for 76 percent of African-American births in the Omaha area from 2008 through 2010.
Council, who is black, said society needs to "take the blinders off" and provide young people the tools and knowledge they need to be sexually responsible.
Louis, though himself the father of children out of wedlock, said he agrees. He and Buffett have discussed the topic.
"It's a real big issue," he acknowledged. "Susie said she doesn't have a problem with babies being born, but she has a problem with babies being born to parents who cannot take care of them. I think she's correct. There's a lot of babies having babies."
Not everything has gone smoothly for Latron Louis since he left the gang.
"I told myself I would never go back to gang-banging," he said, "but there have been trials and tribulations."
Dan Clark, a retired Omaha police officer who now is a security consultant for, among others, Susie Buffett's father, Omaha investor Warren Buffett, said he has spoken with Louis about the cycle of gang and unlawful activity.
"To see someone like Latron making an obvious effort to break that cycle is very refreshing," Clark said, "and I'm hopeful he continues."
But he has advised him that he needs to keep maturing and to understand how police officers view situations. Officers were upset earlier this year, Clark said, when Louis took it upon himself to try to break up a disturbance and didn't obey their commands. He was not arrested.
Two years ago, Louis performed a good deed. He found a wallet near the Old Market downtown and, seeing identification, drove to the person's home near Elmwood Park. No one was there, so he left his card and a note.
The owner of the wallet was Janet West, associate professor of economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She called him, retrieved the wallet and thanked him.
Besides her ID and some cards, the wallet contained $20. She wanted to give him a larger reward than that, but soon became ill. After recovering, she said, she called his number, but it was disconnected and she couldn't locate him.
Two or three months ago, she was listening to KIOS-FM radio and heard a panel discussion from the Film Streams art movie house. On the panel, to her surprise, was Latron Louis.
She learned that he now worked at Girls Inc. and arranged to surprise him there. He was called to the front desk, where she greeted him and thanked him again — this time with a card and $100.
"I was in total shock," Louis said. "That was my first time ever feeling touched like that."
Said West: "Just to have the fortitude to turn one's life around at this point, he deserves all sorts of accolades."
At Girls Inc., Louis counsels girls about many topics, including boys, bullying, domestic violence and the streets, and he brings in speakers. Away from the agency, he advises young men who are trying to break away from gangs.
He is working on a high school-equivalency degree and can foresee attending college. But whether Chrome's future is shiny depends on him. In turning his life around, he knows he must keep making progress.
"It took years to corrupt my life," he said. "It's going to take years to rebuild it."
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