He Killed a Man. Then This Gangster Changed His Life.
Katrina Trinko / Daniel Davis /
At 16, Casey Diaz went to prison for killing a man. The son of an alcoholic father, Diaz grew up in a rough neighborhood and first saw three men killed when he was 8. By the time he was 11, he joined a gang. But after years in prison, Diaz, the author of new book “The Shot Caller,” had a religious conversion—and inspired others to change their lives as well, including a founder of MS-13. Read the transcript, posted below, or listen to the podcast.
We also cover these stories:
- President Donald Trump is now saying health care will have to wait until after the next election.
- House Republicans want to protect babies born alive after abortion–and on Tuesday, they launched a discharge petition effort.
- Democrat senators introduced new legislation to expand government-controlled health care options.
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Kate Trinko: We’re joined today by Casey Diaz, the author of the new book “The Shot Caller: A Latino Gangbanger’s Miraculous Escape from a Life of Violence to a New Life in Christ.” Casey, let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell us about growing up and how you ended up joining a gang when you were 11?
Casey Diaz: I was brought here by my parents when I was 2 years old. Our family comes from El Salvador. They came here legally. But unfortunately, we landed in an area which is called the Rampart District of Los Angeles. And some of you might know with reference to the Rampart scandal that made the news, so that’s the area I grew up in.
My mom was a seamstress, so she would get up early in the morning, four in the morning and go out to work. I wouldn’t get to see her until about 10, 11 o’clock at night.
My father, on the other hand, was very alcoholic, abusive physically and vocally, or verbally. Here comes my mom from pulling two shifts to getting attacked physically by my father. Violence started very early in my house, in our apartment. Then, at the age of 8, I witnessed a triple murder right before my eyes.
In L.A., in these older buildings, they have fire escapes, kind of like the ones in New York. I would go outside, we lived on the third floor, and I’d kind of sit there and dangle my feet from the fire escape. That was kind of like my routine as a kid.
On this particular day, it was broad daylight, and the car pulled to the side, three males were walking up an alley and the guy driving simply gets out of his car, doesn’t run, doesn’t scream or anything. Just walks up to these three guys and puts bullets in each and every single one of them.
Then, once he’s done with the bullets, he reloads. He takes out the shells, and then reloads and finishes his execution of three guys in that alley. I was there watching the whole thing. You got violence in the apartment, then you got violence outside.
Trinko: … I can’t even imagine being 8 and seeing this. Did you go inside? Did you cry?
Diaz: I didn’t.
Trinko: How did you react?
Diaz: That was the surprising thing. … I remember seeing one of them yell. He was actually yelling for his mother, and he was holding his abdomen and he was under a carport. He kind of struggled his way to try to get away, but he fell a few steps under a carport.
There they are, and you kind of get desensitized in a way because you’re just seeing brutality and as a kid, you kind of look at that incident and what’s going on in the home, and you go, “Well, I guess this is how you handle matters when someone steps over you.”
At 11, I got introduced into this local gang. I found a gang leader that took me under his wing, very popular guy. He was very violent himself. I got introduced to the gang, jumped into the gang, and then normally what happens is you’ll end up having an assignment. That would mean it could be anything from a robbery, to a murder, to anything.
Because I was with him, he took me to an area where rival gang members were at, specifically to 18th Street, where we captured one of them. We beat him, and he did most of the work. He stabbed him. He stabbed him and then when he was finished stabbing him, he kind of just gave me the screwdriver and said, “Now, it’s your turn.” And so my first stabbing was at 11 years old as well.
Daniel Davis: Wow, so five years you were in a gang, from 11 to 16. What was it like during those later years, what kind of stuff were you involved in?
Diaz: Many robberies, break-ins of homes, but more than anything else it was just the violence was what drove me. I explained my story. In many ways, there’s different rankings within every gang, especially the ones that are organized.
You have the guys that are just kind of drinking beer at a liquor store. They’re harmful but they’re not doing really anything. They like to play the part more than anything else. They like the parties. Then, you have the gang leaders or the potential gang leaders that are out there and what we call putting in work, and that meant going out there and looking for rivals. For me, it was very easy, it became very easy at that age to … My preference was the violence. I went out there and always looked for rival gang members.
Davis: So mostly against other gangs?
Diaz: Yeah, mostly against other gangs throughout Los Angeles. It just became a pattern to the point where I really couldn’t sleep unless I went out there and did something. I didn’t like the drive-by shooting thing, unfortunately, I was more of a hands-on guy, and so stabbing was what I preferred to do with these guys.
Trinko: What besides the violence do you think attracted you to life within the gang? What did you enjoy?
Diaz: It gave me a false sense of family, of belonging, of being respected, of being validated by them, and not having a father figure or a mentor at that young age. The streets has a habit of embracing you very quickly in those times of where you need to be told what’s a good direction to take. Unfortunately, I ended up in this kind of lifestyle.
Davis: You were 16 when you were arrested. Tell us how that happened.
Diaz: In this particular day, back in the ’80s, you were able to drive trucks, and you were able to hang out in the back of the truck. No seatbelts were required or anything like that. It was not against the law.
Trinko: Wild time.
Diaz: Yeah. It was a wild time. I happened to be at a little burger joint when … some members of 18th Street gang came by, they recognized me, and a fight ensued inside the little burger joint. I ran to the vehicle that was outside. Unfortunately, I ended up killing … the first guy that approached me.
Davis: So were police on the scene? Did they arrest you then?
Diaz: No, I was a fugitive for 21 days after that. I ended up living in abandoned apartment buildings, construction sites. One of the moms from one of my gang members, she took me in for a few days. I was just trying to keep a low profile, I kind of disappeared for a minute. Then, I got captured by the Los Angeles Police Crash Unit, that’s their gang special unit.
Trinko: Was the guy whose life you took, was he a gang member of a rival gang or what did you have?
Diaz: He was one of the leaders of 18th Street at that time from a clique called Colombia, which that was the headquarters of 18th Street in Los Angeles.
Trinko: And that was a rival gang to yours? I’m not familiar with the gang world.
Diaz: That’s good. 18th Street was a gang that we used to get along with. We had fathers, sisters, brothers that were in the same gang. I never liked them, so I was the one that called the shot to go against them. I didn’t like them. I didn’t like how they did the business out there.
I’m young, but violence was just my thing. I was the one that made the decision to go against them and to take over their territory, and which we ended up doing eventually. It made big news because of a lot of us from my gang, unfortunately again, it was a lot of spilling of blood throughout the streets of L.A.
Davis: What was your trial like and how did you feel when you heard your sentence?
Diaz: I didn’t really care. That’s what’s expected of you. I don’t know of a gang member that journals, and says, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” No, we all had the mentality and everybody was trying to up do the other person.
Every gang leader in this gang was just trying—if you’re going to do three murders, we’re going to do four type of gunning. The blood shed in Los Angeles in the ’80s, I mean, you see the reports from back then, and it was vicious. It was a lot of violence.
Trinko: What was prison like for you? I believe you said you were in solitary confinement?
Diaz: Yeah. … CDC has this point system from one to 100 and so the higher you score, the more security level that is needed for you. At that time, I don’t know how they do it now, but at that time, the higher you scored, more security.
I ended up going over there with 97 points, which meant going to the SHU program from the bus to the SHU, no questions asked. And just sort of an undetermined sentence, meaning I have to finish my whole sentence in solitary. I was prepared for that. I didn’t care.
My first meal served in Folsom was served by the Hillside Strangler, so these are the guys that we heard in the news and I lived with, the Menendez brothers …
Trinko: Oh yeah, the ones who killed their parents, right? Or allegedly.
Diaz: He was there in the A yard. You’re surrounded by nothing but like-minded people. You really don’t care about your actions, you really don’t. It was on my third year of solitary confinement where … this little Baptist church came, and a little lady, a little black lady by the name of Francis Proctor, she was very, very bold and requested to approach my cell.
You got to understand that in the SHU, you got Pelican Bay, you have the Corcoran SHU, which made the news big time, and you have Folsom. Those are the three major prisons to go in California. … If there’s any influence in you, this would be like your Harvard, Yale, and Penn State in the street world.
Here we are, and here’s this lady coming into one of the most darkest places in the prison, and she is so bold with this correctional officer.
By the way, the CO is telling her, “You really don’t want nothing to do with him.” I didn’t know that they were talking about me until the very last approach with her, “Jesus came for everybody. Can I have permission to approach his cell?” And she was granted the permission to do that, and the guard said, “That’s Diaz in there. You’re wasting your time.” That’s when I knew that it was me.
She approached and she asked me a very vibrant question. She said, “How are you doing?” And she had a very Southern accent. “How you doing?” She was just being her, and I said, “Couldn’t be any better.” And she says, “Pretty stupid question.” I said, “That’s right.”
She invited me to this Bible study thing to listen to this Bible study and I told her, I was very respectful, and I just said, “I’m not interested. Thank you, but no thank you.” She said something after that that caught my attention. She said, “I’m going to put you on my hit list.” That’s a word that you might not want to use in solitary confinement. She says, “I’m going to pray for you. You’re going to be on my prayer hit list and Jesus is going to use you.”
I thought at first glance, at that answer, at that statement, I thought, “This lady’s crazy. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She doesn’t know where she’s at.” Then, she asked for my permission—they came once a month—if she could approach my cell and just say hi to me and pray for me. I said, “You can do whatever you want. I’m just letting you know that I’m not joining your Bible study.”
So this continued for over a year and a few months where she was just consistent to stop at my cell. She would always end the conversation with, “I’m praying for you, and Jesus is going to use you.”
I had an experience in that cell that challenged me in my life to change, and it was very real, very raw. And I had a moment, an encounter with Christ in there, in which I had to make a decision whether I would continue in this organized crime life, life of crime, or I was going to make that change.
I knew that what I had experienced in that cell, in that 8-by-10 cell was authentic. It was real. It brought me to my knees. I had never heard the gospel. I had never opened the Bible, never went to church.
The church, or Christ, or anybody, it just wasn’t in my radar and so I’m finding myself in the middle of this cell and weeping like a kid, saying to God—and this is going to sound a little odd but, I think that when you come to the lord, you need to just be you. For me, it was that and I remember just being very open with him and saying, “God, I’m so sorry for stabbing this person, and I’m so sorry for stabbing that person.”
It just went on, and on, and on. I say this to folks when I’m sharing my story, I have never tasted freedom like I tasted freedom in solitary confinement that moment because it changed my life. Then, I got some instructions a few days later where I needed to make a decision to step down from my leadership there, which I did.
Trinko: Your leadership in the gang?
Diaz: Yeah. By doing that, it would cause a green light, meaning a hit would be put on your life. A hit was put on my life, and for the next two years it was a little rough.
We have this phrase that we use in California in the prison system, it’s called “the hard candy.” That just simply means we’re going to beat you close to your death every time we get a chance to. That happened to me and to others like me over the next two years. But the guy that came to do the hit, he became the first guy that I led to Christ in there, and then he joined me.
Now there’s two of us with hard candy, and then two other guys. One of the founding members of MS-13 came to Christ through my testimony. Very shortly, a very short time, you have a guy from Florence 13, which had big heavy ties to the Mexican Mafia, and you had a guy from Watts, a gang leader from there. Here we are, four or five of us and we’re willing to lay down our life for the gospel, and it didn’t matter. We knew that God had touched our hearts.
Trinko: For you and these others, you mentioned that the Baptist lady had asked you to join Bible study and you weren’t interested. Before you had your conversion experience, did you open a Bible? Did you have any familiarity or … you just sort of unprompted went to God? And how about for the other men you led to conversion?
Diaz: For me, I had never opened the Bible. It wasn’t part of my life. But for them, I knew that we have these things, we called them kites, or another word for that would be wila, W-I-L-A. It’s a short term for a note. Usually a kite or a wila was once something that you would pass to another gang member, like a trustee, or through anybody else. And most likely on that kite, it would be the name of a hit that needed to be done or stuff that needed to be done outside the prison walls or within CDC.
I knew that if I wrote something, my testimony on these notes, and if they took it from me, they would read because we have another phrase and these are all prison slang, words that we use. Taking out the trash meant killing somebody and taking them off the yard.
I knew that they couldn’t hang out with somebody that was the trash. But if they took it from me, I was 100% sure they were going to read it and that’s how I was able to reach every single one of them when I caught them by themselves, kind of slipped them the note. That’s how I ended up witnessing to the first four, and they became Christians from that point.
Trinko: What did the note say?
Diaz: It was easy. One of the notes, one of the first notes was, “Look at me, and why would I give this power away? Why would I surrender my leadership in this place unless something really happened in that cell?”
I didn’t know the Bible. These are just words, but I believe that the Holy Spirit was the one that was behind these words and it was the simplicity of the gospel, written just handwriting, and giving them to these guys that understood where I was coming from.
What other reason, what did I have to gain from stepping down from a high position like that inside the SHU program? When they took it, I knew that it would affect their life and these guys became born again through my testimony there.
Davis: Wow. What’s happened with you since you left prison? Tell us about that.
Diaz: Well, it’s been over two decades. I’ve been married to my wife, just celebrated 20 years with a believing wife. I got three kids all in private school. I’m a pastor now, and God has blessed my life.
Trinko: That’s such an unusual conversion story, to put it mildly. How do you think it shaped your life since, and does it change how you look back at your past?
Diaz: Yeah. One of the things is … it makes you grateful. Somebody asked me in another interview, do I feel like I deserve to be out here? My answer will always be no. I know that what I’ve done, and I know that I sinned before God. But I also know that God gives second chances. I also know that the blood of Christ covers all sin, including what I did. I wish I could rewind time. I wish I would have never done that. I wish I would have never gotten involved in gangs.
Unfortunately, that was my case. What do I do with the time, the second chance that God has given me? The only thing that I can find to do is to educate people, to be a voice in low-income families, low-income cities, and to tell them that there is still hope.
You could be in my position right now, and Christ is still there with an outstretched arm ready to save. If you call on his name, the Bible tells us that we’ll be saved, and everything that comes after that, I’m grateful.
Every morning that I wake up, I got these French doors in my bedroom, I always wake up at three in the morning and open those curtains, and it’s still dark out there but that’s when I wake up. I look outside and I can’t believe where God has me and what God has me doing in this time of my life. The story wasn’t told for two decades, and it wasn’t the right timing.
We look at what’s happening here in Washington, D.C.; Virginia; Los Angeles; New York with all the gang activity, and all that across America. I think that the story needed to wait until this time to come out.
There’s a lot of crime books, and true crime stories, but I think on our end is we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just being raw for the sake of being raw and real, but we wanted to make sure that people, when they finished this book, that they would have gone to the lord, and really do a change in their heart by accepting him.
Davis: You mentioned inner cities and gangs being a growing problem in America. What would you say to parents who are concerned that their kids might get involved in gangs?
Diaz: I think that I can only recommend what worked for me. For me, the only thing that, or the only person that worked for me was the lord. I would say, find yourself a local church, a Bible teaching church, and get your family involved. It’s never too late. There’s youth ministries that are in these churches that are vital, that’ll be helpful, that where young pastors, young youth pastors have a heart for these kids and they’ll mentor. They lead them in a right path.
Get them into sports, and absolutely, if you can, by all means, get them out of that neighborhood, by all means, and then start over. I think those are so important. I talk about that in the book as well at the end. There’s some advice for parents and single parents as well. It’s something that’s dear to my heart.
Trinko: You mentioned that the issue is newly relevant right now. Of course President Trump has talked a lot about MS-13, which you’ve mentioned. There’s other gangs. What do you think the U.S. should do?
Diaz: I think I’m in full agreement with what he’s doing, and what he intends to do with the border and border security. There’s so many people in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Central America and all that.
I think there’s noble people that really want to come here in pursuit of their dream. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think that there’s a system in place that they need to respect, and that’s coming through the turnstiles in the right way. Let us check you out. If all turns out well, by all means, pursue your dream here. This is the only place that gives you the opportunity to build a dream in this place, like no other place.
Let’s say these caravans that are on their way right now, I can tell you, and I can tell you from experience, that from an 8-by-10 cell, there is much activity and shots are being called to Mexico, to Guatemala, to El Salvador, and they are being prepared to come in here by all means. If that means disguising themselves in these caravans, they will do that.
I think that it’s important that we listen to what the president is doing right now, and if that wall needs to be built, or the border be shut immediately, then it needs to do that. The safety of America is at hand and we need to pay attention to that and not be naïve to the dangers of gangs and predators that want to come here and harm Americans.
Davis: Well, Casey, you have a powerful story of God’s grace, and thank you for coming in and sharing.
Diaz: Thank you guys so much for having me on your show.
Trinko: Thanks for coming on, and of course your book is called “The Shot Caller” if anyone wants to check it out.