A gangster’s life: As task force works to steer Sacramento kids out of gangs, one missed opportunity sits in jail

Oak Park rapper Daniel ‘Poppy Chulo’ Bush says police labeled him a member of the Bloods at age 13

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the April 20, 2017.

Trying to remember what he had seen on TV, Daniel Bush got to his knees and pressed his mouth against his dying brother’s.

Blood, warm and dark, rewrote the fabric of Robert Haynes’ shirt, tattered from where the bullets swept in. Bush, 15 then, blew into his big brother’s mouth and pumped his chest, but there was no bringing Haynes back. The guns in the hands of kids like them had done their work too well.

Nearly a decade later, Bush, 24, sits in a Sacramento County jail cell, his present and future laid out by that moment. He’s been in jail for three years now, waiting as a felony firearm possession case from 2014 slowly works its way through the justice system. Once upon a time, though, he was precisely the sort of “at-risk youth” the city of Sacramento wants to reach through its Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force, which was scheduled to deliver its first progress report to the Sacramento City Council on Tuesday.

The task force was dreamed up by former Mayor Kevin Johnson in 2011, but it wasn’t funded to do anything until 2015. Last year the task force dispensed $1.2 million to 18 community organizations charged with preventing gang involvement in Sacramento’s hardest neighborhoods.

The results of this nine-month pilot effort show that grantees contacted more than 2,800 youth, most of whom were deemed at risk of being snared by criminal street gangs. Only 3.3 percent had documented gang involvement, the task force’s report says. Nearly half of the kids were black, while another 29 percent were Hispanic.

While the report references the types of services provided—organized youth sports, cooking classes, mentoring and tutoring programs—it’s too early to say whether these efforts are bearing fruit. More than half the providers said they experienced attendance issues, for instance. Still, task force director Khaalid Muttaqi expressed optimism prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

“It seems we have made some significant progress towards instituting an infrastructure that can address youth and gang violence in a real way,” he wrote SN&R in an email. “The new community grant program is one way we are doing that. Partnering with community-based organizations allows us to serve high-crime areas in creative and strategic ways.”

Muttaqi said he is also working on a five-year plan that will plug the task force’s goals into a broader framework. Those goals include improving childhood literacy rates, decreasing the number of ninth-graders who identify as gang members and lowering the number of juveniles who are arrested for violent felonies.

More than half of the kids the task force’s grantees served were under age 13, reflecting the belief that these children need to be reached early, before it’s too late.

According to Bush’s former defense attorney, David Bonilla, Bush and his brother Haynes were at a house party in Oak Park nine years ago when trouble sparked. Recalling the police report, Bonilla says that rival gang members showed up, there was an altercation and Haynes was shot in the kitchen.

“I don’t think Daniel did anything wrong,” Bonilla said.

Bush rushed to his brother’s aid, but the damage was done. Later, an assault charge landed Bush in juvenile hall, where he says he learned how the outside world perceived him.

“They told me I was a gang member,” Bush said. “This is what they put in my head.”

Bush says the file referenced an encounter he had with police when he was 13. He was with some friends, which authorities considered gang members, which got him added to the same database. There was no notification, no process for appeal. There didn’t need to be. Bonilla thinks there should be some sort of due process in place for kids labeled gang members. He fears that law enforcement has too much discretion otherwise.

“If you’re from a certain area, you just happen to have certain friends, you’re on a whole different track, you know what I’m saying?” Bonilla said. Then he put it more plainly. “If you’re in Oak Park, good luck to you.”

Asked what effect his gang validation had on him, Bush hiked his shoulders. The faded crucifix tattooed between his eyes wrinkled.

“Man, I started believing it,” he said.

Bush caught his first adult cases in 2010 and was convicted of pimping and pandering three years later, around the time he picked up unrelated gun charges, the ones he’s still waiting on. Back in the world, Bush rapped under the moniker Poppy Chulo, an identity he hopes to return to one day.

“This is what I like doing. This is what I’m good at,” he said.

Then Bush put the phone back in the cradle and returned to his pod on the fifth floor of the east wing of the jail, where they house the other Bloods from his neighborhood.