From prisoner to paralegal: Former Aurora gang member now crusades against gangs

SHARE From prisoner to paralegal: Former Aurora gang member now crusades against gangs

Leonardo Lechuga, a former gang member, after a lecture at the Aurora Police Department. | Maria de la Guardia | Sun-Times

In 1996, Leonardo Lechuga shot an Aurora police officer — just like his father did 22 years earlier.

Lechuga was 24, with a long rap sheet, when he wounded a cop during a car chase.

He and his family were in the Insane Deuces, a street gang with a reputation for violence. Now, he tours the country, speaking about the ills of being a gang member.

Lechuga, now 47 and living in Georgia, recently returned to Aurora, stepping in to the police station for the first time since he was arrested for attempted murder nearly a quarter-century ago.

Brought in by school officials through his nonprofit organization Word in the Hood, he shook hands with an undercover gang officer before speaking with a roomful of Spanish-speaking parents about how to keep their kids away from guns, drugs, prison and death.

Lechuga repeatedly used the Spanish word verdad, or truth, as he offered insights into how gangs recruit kids.

“What’s important is that they hear the truth,” he said afterward. “I know the lies being told because I used to tell them. You know: ‘We’re a family, and, if you join us, you can have the money, the girls, the nice cars.’ ”

He said he has credibility with parents and their kids because he’s been a criminal.

“When they’re hearing officers telling them this and that, they already view them as the enemy, so they’re not listening to them,” Lechuga said. “You know, I basically tell the parents, ‘Put your kids in soccer. Or football. Or some activity.’ I didn’t have anyone grab me by the ear and take me off to wrestling practice.’ ”

Lechuga said he was able to go straight with the help of a defense lawyer who gave him a clerical job. He said he became a paralegal and got involved in prison ministries through his church in Georgia. He started out providing books to inmates. That led to his outreach to kids and their parents about gangs.

“One of the things I preach to kids: Police officers have a job. They’re not out there to harass people. If they pull you over and catch you with weed, their job is to remember you. So next time they see you, they’re probably going to pull you over, wondering if you have weed again. So if you’re out there gang-banging and they see you, they’re gonna investigate.”

Lechuga knows. He was regularly in trouble with the Aurora police when he was younger.

At Lechuga’s trial for shooting and wounding Officer Joe Groom in 1996, a prosecutor said Lechuga was “driving through the streets of Aurora in gang territory, rival gang territory, looking for a conflict, a war.”

“A car flew up alongside of us and stopped abruptly,” Groom testified. “The passenger window was down.”

When Lechuga fired at Groom and his partner, the partner fired back through the windshield of their unmarked police car. Groom couldn’t shoot because he’d been shot in the hand.

Lechuga testified he fired at the officers in self-defense and says he still believes that.

“But I’d rather help them out now than talk bad about them,” he said.

Lechuga did 10 years in prison. Groom became a police commander. He died in 2015.

Aurora police Cmdr. Joseph Groom, who died in 2015. In 1996, Groom was shot in the hand by Leonardo Lechuga during a car chase. | Provided photo

Aurora police Cmdr. Joseph Groom, who died in 2015. In 1996, Groom was shot in the hand by Leonardo Lechuga during a car chase. | Provided photo

After his lecture in Aurora, Lechuga chatted with a couple of officers. He joked about hiding in a cemetery to avoid the police. They talked about the candy stores where the kids used to hang out. They didn’t talk about his criminal past.

Police spokesman Dan Ferrelli said, “If Mr. Lechuga is using his energies for the good of the community, we wish him well.”

The gang Lechuga was once a part of took a hit a decade ago when Aurora police and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives put its leaders in federal prison on racketeering charges. One of Lechuga’s brothers was convicted in the second case and sentenced to a prison term that ends in 2023.

Lechuga said he’s proud he guided his own children to stay out of the trouble he got into.

“I have one kid in the Army, another one on a football scholarship and another in law school,” he said. “So, I mean, I have a happy life, you know?”

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