SUFFOLK COUNTY, NY — For Casey Diaz, the days are now peaceful, spent working hard at his sign business and as a youth pastor in Los Angeles. But the present is a far cry from the past, when he was a violent gang leader whose hands were left bloodied after dozens of brutal crimes and attacks — many with a screwdriver.
Diaz has written an eye-opening book, “Shot Caller,” which details in horrifying clarity the shocking truth about what it’s like to be on the inside of life as a gang member — with an eye toward helping to educate how society can begin to understand and “stop the madness” as gang violence continues to escalate across Long Island and nationwide, and gangs including MS-13 inflict blood-curdling carnage.
And it’s a truth that needs to be shared, he believes, in order to stem the violent tide sweeping the nation: According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, there are 33,000 gangs criminally active in the United States today; two out of five gang members are under the age of 18.
In his book, Diaz, 47, who now lives in Burbank, CA, depicts his life in painful detail: Arriving in the United States from El Salvador with his parents, who were not married, when he was two years old, he ended up living in poverty-ridden downtown LA. Living with a man he said was a violent and abusive father and a mother who worked long hours and two or three jobs to keep food on the table, Diaz found himself finding solace and the family he yearned for — on the streets.
His family, he said, settled in the Rampart District around MacArthur Park in 1974: “It wasn’t the best neighborhood, but it wasn’t the bad gang situation that it was in the 80s.”
Diaz and his younger brother live with their parents in a small apartment, where murderous ghosts shaped the harsh reality of their hardscrabble existence. His father, Diaz said, was only 8 years old in El Salvador when a gang of masked men burst into their home, executing his parents before his eyes.
The violence simmered inside his father, Diaz said. “We hardly got to see my mom; she left at 4 a.m. and wasn’t home until 11 or 12 at night. We’d only see her on Sundays. My father was a drunk and very violent. Here my mom was, busting her tail, and when she got home she came home to a beating,” he said. “He did a number on her — and I’m talking about brutal beatings.”
In his book, Diaz, who wrote “The Shot Caller” with Mike Yorkey, described the horror: “When my father wasn’t telling me what a piece of @#$% I was, he would physically assault my mother — sometimes after one of their frequent arguments or sometimes for no reason at all. He’d grab her by the hair and beat the crap out of her. He’d smack her face on furniture or tables and punch her on her back and shoulder.”
After one attack, Diaz came home to find drops of blood leading to his apartment, a bloody palm print on the front door, his mother in a fetal position in the closet, “crimson blood” on the walls, his father asleep.
Diaz paused, his voice quiet. “Seeing violence in the home affected me. And the fact that there were no real adults to look after me — after school, I’d end up going out and to the neighborhood, hanging out. At first, it was all innocent, playing baseball or football outside after school. It was very innocent.”
Until it wasn’t.
When he was about 11 years old, Diaz said he was introduced to gang life. “It intrigued me, because at home, I didn’t have the family aspect, dinner at a certain time, going out for a walk — even simple things didn’t exist. I embraced the streets — and the streets embraced me.”
From there, the curtains parted, revealing a new life: A man nicknamed “Clown” introduced Diaz to a gang, the Rockwood Street Locals. “I was kind of curious and I asked him what a gang did; he made it sound so good, because I’d always seen him with a lot of guys picking him up, I saw the partying, there were always girls around. So that enticed me.”
Diaz asked “Clown” how to join a gang. “Shortly after, I got jumped in.” Being jumped in, Diaz said, means individuals jumping and beating a new member. “It’s a period of 13 seconds,” where the new recruit is beaten. After that, the new member, Diaz said, will be assigned a mission “or end up in rival territory to shoot or stab a rival.”
Right after he was jumped in, at 11 years old, he was introduced to a gang leader from the Rockwood Street Locos, “Rabbit,” who took Diaz under his wing, taught him the streets.
While he said he may have been scared initially about being jumped in, “When it was over, there was that sense of pride, sense of belonging,” Diaz said. “Them embracing me, giving me that street love, it did something to me.”
Diaz witnessed his first triple murder when he was just 8 years old, from his fire escape. “That image lives with me,” he said. “You look at those moments and you think, ‘This is how the streets are. This is how you handle business.'”
On the streets, even though he was only 11 years old, Diaz said “Rabbit,” took a liking to him. “My first stabbing was with him,” Diaz said. “It was a guy from the 18th Street gang that he initially stabbed. He gave me the screwdriver and said, ‘Now, it’s your turn,’ and I did it. It was a little weird, the guy was already screaming in pain on the floor. But I grabbed the screwdriver and I partook in that stabbing.”
That was the beginning of a years’ long crime rampage, of brutal stabbings, home invasions, carjackings, of robbing drugs from rival gang members.
“Violence was my drive. I wasn’t one of gang members that just stood against wall with a 40 oz. drink in my hand,” Diaz said. “For me, it was ‘putting in work.’ I liked hunting rival gang members, particularly 18th St. I was just going out there on a daily basis, walking into 18th St. gang territory and stabbing whoever I could get my hands on, to the point where they knew me from South Central LA to the Rampart District. Rival gang members called me ‘The Famous Casey’ because of all the stabbings.”
When asked how it felt, perpetuating such violence said, Diaz was brutally honest: “I liked it, because it let out my rage. I pictured my father’s face on every single one of my victims.”
The gang became his life. And it didn’t dawn of him to feel guilty about what his actions might mean, to his mother, Diaz said. “Unfortunately, I was spending way more time with the street gang than with her,” he said.
“It let out my rage. I pictured my father’s face on every single one of my victims”
But his love for his mother kept him, Diaz said, from harming women or even sleeping around; he also never became involved in drugs. “It was just the violence that drove me,” he said.
When Rabbit was stabbed to death, just 16 years old himself, Diaz was shattered. “That’s your street mentor. That really did something to me.” The rage, rage that was long brewing “from watching my father violently beat my mom,” exploded in a series of shankings and stabbings that continued to earn him a reputation as one of the most violent gang members on the streets.
When he was 16 years old, Diaz was eating chili cheese fries on Pico Boulevard — during a time when a war on the streets had broken out between the Rockwood and 18th St. gangs — and a crowd of bloodthirsty 18th St. gangbangers burst in, looking to take him down.
He raced to his car, an attacker behind him, and when he got there, leapt through an open window on the driver’s side, grabbing an H&R single shot, break-action shotgun from under the seat.
When the opponent tried to attack him with a crowbar, he pulled the trigger, he wrote in his book. And then, he shot him again. “If he wasn’t dead before, he was now,” he wrote.
Diaz was arrested and sentenced to nearly 13 years in state prison, charged with second degree murder and 52 counts of robbery. After two years, he was sent to New Folsom State Prison and placed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
Breaking through the misconceptions: “There was absolutely no remorse.”
Diaz said he set out to tell his story, hoping to dispel, with blunt truth, the myths often perpetuated by society, the misguided belief that gang members deserve sympathy for the hard lives or heartbreaking stories of their childhoods that may have led them to the streets.
“Once that gang member has become full-fledged and is a title holder, you don’t care who you hurt,” he said. “There are meetings being held, hits being done, people being killed, businesses being taxed — and there was absolutely no remorse.”
He added that regular folks, elected officials, the media, have “no clue. You’re dealing with predators. We were predators. That’s what we were. These human rights advocates, they have no clue. These guys would wring your neck and would have a cup of noodle soup right after taking you out. This is what we did.”
Even placed in one of the most violent prisons in California, Diaz was a shot caller, running the entire tier, respected for his street cred, a leader among criminals who controlled the shanks, or handmade weapons, used to kill and maim behind bars.
“Shot callers are running everything from the inside,” he said. “You’re the one who decides who lives and who dies. There was no questioning my authority.”
Outside on the streets, shot callers can go into any business and demand, for example, 60% of the profits. “And you had to have that money — or else,” Diaz said.
Ultimately, he said, he was placed in solitary confinement because of his leadership status amongst the prison population.
At Folsom, he was living amongst the most violent of murderers, he said. The man who served him his first meal was the Hillside Strangler; the Melendez Brothers, convicted of killing their parents, “were also in that yard. I was in there for second degree murder myself. You’re amongst your own kind,” Diaz said. “Now, today as a family man and as a business owner and pastor, I can tell you those meetings were nothing but brutal. People were going to get hit.”
Even prisoners who claimed to have found religion or blamed their sad childhoods were “trying to make it look good for the parole board,” Diaz said. “They wanted to give the sob story and look good. That all happens. It is a circus of lies, a circus of manipulation. Gang leaders have absolutely zero heart for what happens to the next person. We put green lights, or hits, on our very own. One minute you can be sitting at a table with guys playing pinochle and the next, a hit is being ordered on you because you said the wrong thing or talked. We didn’t have a problem taking out our own. That’s the reality of it.”
God’s life-changing moment
Then came an older woman, who, along with a group of others, dedicated their lives to prison ministry. She stood outside his door in solitary confinement, telling him that Jesus loved him and that God would use him one day.
At first, Diaz scoffed.
“I thought, ‘Has this lady lost her marbles?’ Do you know who I am? Where you’re at? I was baffled by her boldness and, from what, I thought, her stupidity. I thought, ‘You’re talking to someone who is in charge of the entire prison here.'”
But then, Diaz said, came a moment in his cell that was life-changing. “It was a life-changing moment that got my attention.”
Just like in a movie, his life was projected onto his cell wall; Diaz saw himself as a child, during his early gang days, things he said only he could have known. Then he saw a long-haired man carrying a cross with a mob yelling at him; the man was nailed to the cross and placed between two other men who were left to die. The man on the cross, Diaz said, looked at him and said, “I’m doing this for you.”
The moment changed his life. God told him to see a chaplain, who gave him a Bible and a path to salvation — setting Diaz’ new course. Suddenly, he was a man “overwhelmed by God’s miraculous extremes to reach the worse sinners,” he said.
“Christianity isn’t a fairy tale,” Diaz said. “It isn’t gold and glitter, it’s a tough walk for people. I have seen big, broad-shouldered Marines weep as they come to Christ, I have been there as a Mafia members sob as they witness change in their own hearts, and I have seen men and women who were raised in the church finally come to repentance and surrender to Christ.”
Beyond writing the book to share his experiences and shed light, Diaz hopes readers “put down the book and come to Christ. He not only saved me but He spared me while I turned my back on a dangerous organization while still in prison.”
Today, Diaz owns a sign shop, is married, and has three children; he also teaches God’s word as a pastor at the church and shares his story nationwide.
His goal is to warn against taking a “broad, sympathetic look at the upbringing of certain gang leaders and softening the reality of what gang life really is. The choices I made were my choices, horrible choices. You can’t blame how you grow up or your neighborhood. At some point, you’ve got to take ownership of those bad decisions.”
For those released from prison, Diaz said certain factors were key, including a job. “One of the things that helped me personally was the desire and the want to really continue with what God had started.”
Over the past 20 years, Diaz has mentored those released from jail, bringing them to Christ in church — church is critical to helping someone find a new path, he said.
As is work, he said. “I deal with guys that get out and can’t see themselves flipping burgers. But the reality is that you need to flip burgers. You start from the bottom. And when you get a minimum wage check at the end of two weeks, it’s honest work, and that feeling surpasses any fast money I was getting in the past. Idle hands will always get you in trouble.”
Programs that offer trade skills in high schools are important, as are after-school programs.
In his book, Diaz outlines ways parents can keep kids safe from gangs, including being on the lookout, as gangs recruit kids young. Parents should be aware of kids wearing certain colors and what they are saying on social media. In addition, mothers and fathers, he said, should examine work-life balance and try to be there for their kids; explain the consequences of being in a gang; ask themselves what types of role models they are; paint over graffiti in the neighborhood; take an interest in kids’ sports or hobbies; encourage academic success; be approachable as a parent — and realize that even if a child is in a gang, there is still hope.
Diaz said he has spoken to his own children about the dangers of gangs; even in private schools, kids are faced with the threat of drugs, bad company and other challenges in today’s world.
“I always say this to them: ‘Be a leader. You are a great leader. There’s leadership inside you and God will bless you.’ And I pray for them,” Diaz said.
As a man of faith and child of God, Diaz said, “It’s one of the most fulfilling moments when you physically, with your own eyes, see someone change. God’s hand was upon me while I was in their grips. He has preserved my life, up until this moment. It’s been such a dramatic blessing.”
“The Shot Caller,” published by Thomas Nelson/Emanate is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be available from all major booksellers on April 2.
Patch photo courtesy Casey Diaz.