Requiem for a featherweight

Somehow, after a life in the ring, on the needle and behind bars, Richard “Trino” Savala has survived. He’s here to tell his story and keep others away from trouble.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Talented boxers, at the height of their personal power, get into the ring and beat other talented boxers brainless. For this, these well-paid champions are heralded as warriors, the epitome of physical perfection. But when they get tired, that brutal, glamorous life—the only adulthood they’ve known—dissolves. Money dries up; friends and women attracted to celebrity disappear. What remains?

Sacramento, in the recent past, raised an army of talented boxers who fought for sold-out crowds at the Memorial Auditorium. World-title holder Tony “the Tiger” Lopez later became a bail bondsman, and his brother Sal Lopez became a prison counselor after college, but Tim Harris found his passions uncontrollable; he’s doing time for murder.

Richard “Trino” Savala began adulthood as a charismatic contender with a mean will to win, but in the 1980s and 1990s, he became someone very dark and dangerous. Savala digressed and became a ruthless drug dealer and addict and, eventually, a local street legend in the toughest neighborhoods of Sacramento and West Sacramento. He continued his nightmare journey as a gang member behind prison walls.

In 2000, faith in God, regret and the fear of a lifetime in prison came together to transform him. Recovering from a long heroin addiction, Savala now helps his old friends detoxify and counsels young men away from the lure of gangs by explaining that the beautiful brotherhood myth he once promoted is a pack of lies designed to snare a new generation of “soldiers behind the wall.”

By helping people escape the cycle of addiction and crime, Savala is fixing a little of what he helped wreck and is bringing hope to a population that badly needs it.

Savala recently sat outside Cafe Bernardo in downtown Sacramento still awed by its upscale clientele of attorneys and lawmakers. He looked like any young professional in his pressed button-down shirt, spiky black hair and black-rimmed glasses. But on his arms were the unmistakable signs of what separates him: his former gang activity. A large eagle on one shoulder, a more abstract eagle on his hand, and letters and symbols that can be read like constellations. “They are all prison stuff,” said Savala, looking at his forearms. “This means I’m an elite soldier,” he said, “you know, Aztec warrior.”

He pointed at a star and said that it proved he’d “put work in” for the gang. Though Savala refused to elaborate, other past gang members claimed that “putting work in” means committing violence. “Stabbings,” said one.

Today, Savala appears naturally open and warm. Though he’s no longer a star athlete, he’s still trim and compact and possesses a good-natured celebrity-like charm. He’s always been a magnet for women and kids, and his old boxing photos show him with permed hair and frank eyes—a pretty boy. But within his recovery community, Savala’s face can harden. And in tank tops, baggy shorts and ball caps, there’s a hint of the old gangster.

“I was bad,” Savala said, while telling the short version of his life story, the synopsis that every recovering addict uses to testify to the power of God and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

“My father’s Trino Savala,” he said, “and my family was called the Savalas, OK? My father had three sons: Richard, Mario, Danny. I’m Richard, but when I got clean and sober, I turned my name into ‘Trino,’ after my father, OK? But I was an undefeated professional fighter here in Sacramento. … I was ranked in the world. I was one fight away from fighting for the world championship against Bobby Chacon, and I made a wrong choice.”

Savala’s testimony is peppered with short verbal punches, as if he’s perpetually warning you not to repeat his mistakes.

“I chose to go out and snort cocaine and drink,” he said, “and threw my whole career out the back window. That’s when I turned into a drug dealer, became my best customer.”

Drugs were a constant temptation as the Savala boys grew up in the tough town of Broderick, now part of West Sacramento. They idolized their father, who taught them early how to punch. Richard was the only one who didn’t want to fight professionally. “I was a mama’s boy,” he said.

While the boys were still young, Trino Sr. was severely injured in a fire and confined to a wheelchair. His family got unexpectedly rich from the lawsuits, and drugs quickly became part of the family culture.

Richard’s mom moved her husband and sons to Mexico in the 1970s, and the boys practiced street fighting in corner bouts, where Richard started to like it. “He started knocking dudes out,” said his brother Mario.

When the family returned to Broderick after a year-and-a-half (Mario said they were deported for causing trouble), a couple of local trainers snatched the boys off the street and got them into the gym. “Imagine,” said Richard, “three brothers competing, trying to be the baddest.” Eventually, cousins joined in, and at one time, there were seven Savalas all training together.

Richard was the first to go pro. He was 18, already married and rejected by the military because he hadn’t finished high school. He fought 21 fights, undefeated.

“The best thing you can say about a fighter,” said his old promoter, Don Chargin, is that “he had the ability to go all the way.”

Mario and Danny followed Richard into the profession, and the three young sports stars took to cruising the neighborhood in three matching 1963 Impalas: Danny had a red one, Mario a white one, and Richard a green one.

Trino Savala Sr. taught all his boys to box at an early age, including Richard Savala, pictured here with his parents.

“But I never took care of myself,” said Richard, who was an early and dedicated partier.

Sal Lopez, who also went pro in 1978, said he and Richard would train side by side for four to six weeks before fights. He remembers arriving at William Land Park at dawn and waiting in the cold with his trainer until Richard cruised by and parked half a block away. When Lopez trotted up to the car, he found Richard changing out of his nightclub clothes and into his gym clothes. He would then join Lopez on a six-mile run.

In spite of his bad habits, Richard became known as Mr. Knockout for the 13 fighters he floored. At 126 pounds, he fought as a featherweight, a tough kid who avoided flamboyance or loudmouthed threats.

Lopez remembers Richard as an aggressive boxer always looking for the knockout opportunity. “He was a thinking power-puncher,” Lopez said.

“I thought I was invincible,” Richard remembered.

But while Richard’s career was growing, so was his drug habit, and the boxer began to wane. Soon, his stamina weakened.

Lopez remembers Richard preparing for a shot at the world title. Between him and that final match was a “main event” bout in July 1982 at the Memorial Auditorium against Refugio Rojas, a good, ambitious fighter.

Before a fight, a boxer usually spends weeks eating right, abstaining from sex and alcohol, and then starving and dehydrating himself to make weight. Richard struggled into his weight class before the Rojas fight but entered the ring with the familiar feeling of invincibility.

The bell rang, and it was obvious to Lopez, sitting in the front row as Rojas punished the undefeated local boy, that Richard was already spent. Just as the referee considered stopping the fight to avoid permanent injury, Richard landed a punch that dropped Rojas to the mat. The crowd leapt up, hooting and hollering. But Rojas got up on his feet, too.

Again, Rojas was all over Richard. But again, Richard landed a punch that knocked the stronger fighter down. By now, the fans, including the girls, were worked into a frenzy.

When Rojas got up a second time, Richard, with no energy left, finally succumbed. His first professional loss was by knockout.

A fight that started among the female fans then turned into a full-scale brawl that spilled into the streets. According to Richard, there were 12 injuries, and the cops had to be called.

Richard was tested for drugs and then suspended from fighting for a year, after which, an attempted comeback failed. Richard’s brothers’ careers also fizzled, and while fighters like Tony the Tiger went on to earn world titles, Richard took the money he made in boxing and sank it into cocaine. By 1982, Richard was using more than he was selling. By 1983, his addiction had progressed to heroin.

His brother Mario went with a young local girl named Frances Monasterio while his own boxing career was soaring. Monasterio was 14 at the time; she grew up during the worst of Richard’s drug-dealing career.

Monasterio, who dealt methamphetamines before following Richard into recovery, now looks healthy and clear-eyed, with long, dark curls. She remembers Richard “ripping and roaring” for years, until her good-looking brother-in-law resembled a “beady-eyed alien.”

The ex-boxer used to repeatedly rob people for money and drugs. “He would beat people up over $5,” said Monasterio. “People were afraid to tell on him.”

Monasterio remembers one drug connection who laid out pounds of dope on her table. Richard came to visit, took the drugs and the man’s money and his jewelry, and then beat him up, eventually leaving with the man’s girlfriend and his car. Monasterio had to start yelling, “Richard’s here!” every time her brother-in-law showed up, so her friends could gather their belongings and run. She also took to warning her girlfriends: “My brother-in-law’s coming,” she’d say. “He’s fine, but don’t be with him. He’s a dog.”

Asked how long this period of Richard’s life lasted, Monasterio replied, “Forever!” Throughout the 1990s, Richard gravitated toward family members like Mario and Monasterio whenever he was on parole.

Monasterio said she would wake up in the morning and find Richard on the couch, a syringe still in his arm, full of heroin. Or she’d find him in hotels, nodding out with a gun on his lap and thousands of dollars’ worth of heroin in front of him. Near the end, she said, he was slamming two needles full of heroin into his arm a few times daily.

And not only did he love to get loaded, but Richard also liked to turn other people on to heroin as well, said Monasterio. Crank was one thing, she said. “Sticking a needle in your arm is a whole different thing. … Women don’t prostitute for crank. For heroin, it’s almost a necessity.”

After working with Richard Savala, Raymond Richer discovered that men who were his enemies in prison could be his friends and confidants in recovery.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Monasterio remembers much that was crazy about her youth: police raids where men with masks padded across her roof and came through her windows; Richard driving with her and the kids at 100 mph before nodding out; parties where people overdosed and ambulances were called. But she also remembers feeling protected with Richard around, and in the risky business of dealing, she needed that.

“She used to sic me on people,” Richard explained.

Richard said he went to prison for the first time in 1988. His public criminal record shows drug offenses and possession of stolen property, as well as involvement in a combination knife attack and drug robbery in the mid-1990s. “I was in Old Folsom, New Folsom, Tracy, Susanville,” said Richard. “I’ve been in a lot of prisons, OK?”

Because he was a Latino man who’d grown up in the United States, Richard said, he was immediately labeled by the criminal justice system as a “Norteno,” a member of Northern Hispanic prison gangs. Richard said he’d had no gang affiliation before prison, but once inside, he accepted the label. That’s when his love affair with Nortenoism took off.

The prison gangs held up an image of brotherhood and ethnic pride, and their members were seen as warriors fighting for a better life in America. It was a beautiful image, easy to sell to the young and the uninitiated. But it masked the truth—that gang members were manipulated into violence and drug addiction, used as soldiers are used in a war, and forgotten when their usefulness waned.

Theodore Frank Jimenez was an incarcerated gang member when he heard that Richard was locked up for the first time; Jimenez knew the Savala family and knew Richard as a good fighter. “His family used to move a lot of heroin,” said Jimenez. “When we see a kid with potential, with heart, we grab them. We test them, mentally and physically.” If a guy was smart, the gang would woo him with promises of education, security, power and status. They’d teach him to make weapons out of prison provisions. Jimenez’s main job, he said, was to get people hooked on heroin.

Richard’s blossoming heroin addiction grew stronger in prison. Drugs, said Jimenez, were smuggled in balloons that were hidden in the mouth. A kiss passed the balloon from visitor to convict. The convict swallowed the balloon and retrieved it from his own excrement later. Women kept heavily addicted prisoners “well” by providing drugs inside, and family members made up networks of drug dealers outside.

“While I was in prison,” Richard remembered, “my kids thought, ‘Wow, my dad’s all that.’ You know, they used to glorify that stuff.” When Richard got out, he used to court youngsters. Fight to protect your turf, he’d tell them. Support the gang; sell drugs for us.

Richard’s face clouded up when he thought of the youths who bought into his rhetoric. “I’m not proud of what I did,” he said, “but that was the life I lived at that moment.”

In 2000, Richard went free for the final time; he’d recently severed all gang ties.

The transition from drug addict to drug counselor didn’t happen overnight. When Richard got out of prison, he finally looked like the addict he was. Monasterio remembers him hiding out at his mother’s house. He cried a lot, she said. He was scared, trying to get off heroin and failing. Jimenez hinted that gang dropouts like he and Richard wouldn’t be safe if they ended up back in prison. It was questionable whether they were even safe on the street.

In spite of Richard’s violent gang history, an early parole agent offered him drug treatment instead of incarceration for violating parole.

Richard joined a voluntary detoxification program called The Effort: “Encouraging Friends Facing Our Recovery Together,” a 14- to 21-day program that helps addicts kick the worst of their physical habit.

Richard smuggled in heroin and stayed in his room getting loaded. He didn’t really want to be there, and he didn’t want to get clean. On top of the heroin, he was taking the “Mickey Mouse meds” recovering addicts got through the program. And both stashes were dwindling fast. In his final days of treatment, he learned to pray his way through the pain of detox.

Lying in bed one evening, Richard said, another recovering addict, whom Richard described as a “big old Viking,” came in and kicked his bed. Richard was going to get up, said the Viking, and he was going to attend an AA meeting.

The intimidation tactic worked, and Richard found himself staring at people he knew from the streets, hard-core dope fiends, all trying to turn their lives around. When he saw that even the most serious addicts were clean, he realized he could do it, too. The group immediately embraced him.

“They loved me until I learned to love myself,” said Richard, who uses many of the idioms of the great-big recovery community.

Richard now has a habit of introducing almost everyone in his new life with the phrase “he [or she] was a very big part of my recovery,” including co-workers; Richard is now a detox counselor with The Effort.

Lillian Regalado, also with The Effort, was an addict while Richard was earning a reputation for robbing people of their money and their drugs. She remembers the women prostituting not just to keep themselves afloat, but also to feed Richard’s addiction, and she remembers herself, skinny, with missing teeth. When she had money, she hid so that Richard wouldn’t find her and take it.

Now, Regalado looks respectable and matronly. Manicured and neatly dressed, she wears a gold chain with a pendant that reads, “Freedom.”

After walking away from white-pride groups with Richard Savala’s help, Joe Brown refers to his experience in recovery as “lovely.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Recovering addicts like Regalado make the work of recovery sound tougher than getting through college: learn to accept that loved ones will still use drugs, surrender control to a “higher power,” learn to be a responsible parent and partner, find jobs even with a criminal record and learn not to rely on violence to deal with anger. Recovering addicts even have to learn to pay taxes, clean a house and use the Internet.

To help with the challenges, Richard now attends a high-profile AA meeting on Friday nights with his family: his new wife, Lahoma, and his surrogate mom and pop, Dr. Jerome and Becky Lackner, both of whom are well-known for supporting and advocating for recovering addicts.

At a recent meeting, Richard put his hands in the pockets of his big shorts and told the room that he had three years, 10 months and some number of days sober. He also jokingly referred to his wife as his higher power.

“God has a plan for everybody,” said Regalado. “It used to be there was an ulterior motive if [Richard] talked to you.” Now she sees real love in him. “He’s not trying to rob you, get your car, sexually use you.”

What’s left of the old boxer, she said, is the authoritative toughness with which Richard confronts other addicts. Though most employees at The Effort had to be sober for two years before being hired, Richard was hired after 13 months because of his commitment to keeping other people clean.

Richard’s boss, Leslie Parker, says he’s particularly good at stopping frustrated people who are about to ditch the program and go back to using. “He stops about half of them,” she said. Addicts can tell when someone’s been through hell and survived it. So, when Richard tells them they can live without drugs, they have to believe him.

According to Regalado, of the hundreds of addicts and dealers she used to run with, approximately half have come through treatment. “A lot sure have tried,” she said. “Out of 10, maybe two or three make it.” Some, she said, can’t get past feeling unworthy.

Jimenez was still in prison when he heard that Richard had gotten clean, and he was skeptical. Maybe Richard, fearing a third strike, was faking it to please his parole officer. “You’re going to have people such as I looking to see what he’s done,” said Jimenez. Richard would have lost respect, even in prison, if he’d faked sobriety and abused the recovery system.

But Richard’s sobriety, according to everyone, including the Lackners and his parole agent, Victor Lopez, was genuine. Both Victor and the Lackners said they never saw evidence of a relapse.

To stay clean, Richard relied on AA, The Effort, residency programs and a unique mentoring program called Volunteers in Parole (VIP), which pairs parolees up with attorneys for friendship and support.

Bruce Cline, assistant city attorney for Folsom, had just finished a term as president of the California State Bar Association when he met Richard, a supposedly tough case. “They typically don’t use violent offenders,” said Cline from his Folsom office.

Cline remembers wondering what he, a white lawyer and former cop, could do to help this Hispanic gang member, but the two quickly developed a sincere friendship. When Cline’s own son tried drugs, Cline found himself asking Richard for help.

In return, when Richard suggested that the VIP board of directors needed the parolee perspective, Cline nominated him for membership, and he became the first parolee ever to sit on the board.

“The guy came out of prison three years ago with literally nothing,” said Cline. “Now, when he speaks, everybody listens.”

Richard claims he’s succeeded because God looks out for him now that he’s doing the right thing. He hasn’t even had to fight, he said, since 2001, when a guy at an Oak Park gas station recognized the tattoos and popped Richard in the nose. Just like in the old days, the former boxer fought back. He then went straight to an AA meeting, where he heard how he should have defused the situation.

Jimenez can relate. When he got out of prison, tired and unhealthy after years of drug abuse, he missed the fellowship of prison and fought a lot on the outside. But he also followed Richard into recovery, and with Richard as his AA sponsor, he’s reaping the rewards. “I can tell my wife, ‘I love you,’ and really mean it. We can communicate. … A lot of people come to me. I can give advice now.”

Jimenez also studies Richard’s strategies with young men. He laughed as he recalled chasing through the city after a new “mentee” took one look at Richard and fled. The kid hopped a fence, said Richard, so he gave chase, because he needed to communicate his commitment to this kid, that he cared about him, wouldn’t give up on him. He caught the boy on Franklin Boulevard, hyperventilating and ready to bolt again. Richard explained that the boy could call him any time. They could go see the River Cats or go bowling. “I’ve never had a kid do this to me,” said Richard, befuddled. Within a few weeks, the mentee made his first tentative phone calls to his new mentor.

Richard does his best work with 17- and 18-year-olds, he said, guys impressed by his criminal past. “They start asking me questions, and we bond. That opens their minds.”

By helping kids and recovering gangbangers, Richard is actually aiding his own recovery. Following the 12 steps of AA, he’s obligated to tell his story, make amends for his wrongdoing and help addicts who are still suffering.

Without a university degree, Richard sometimes gets in over his head, such as when kids need psychological treatment. But because Richard’s criminal past is extensive; because he’s now befriended law-abiding people, landed a job and married a woman he respects; and because he now passes for respectable himself, he has instant credibility when telling people they can come out on the other side of addiction.

Richard Savala says his wife, Lahoma, and many others from the couple’s recovery community, are integral to his success.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Richard also uses connections to get kids jobs, because employment is such a challenge for teenagers with records and with young families to support. He also advocates for them at court hearings, helps settle arguments between them and their girlfriends and takes them out every once in a while for fun.

Larry Chavez, a 17-year-old parolee from the California Youth Authority (CYA), recently sat with Richard over frothy coffee drinks at a Starbucks.

Chavez, in his white tank top and close-cropped hair, seemed awfully shy and sweet for a boy so tough—he’d been paroled as an adult on multiple gun charges. He didn’t cuss, and he didn’t have any tattoos. He’d been recruited by gangs in CYA, but he never cared to join. Still, when he was encouraged to fight a Southern Hispanic, he did, and he was beaten up in return.

Sitting with Richard, Chavez fidgeted and sipped his coffee and answered his mentor’s rapid questions quietly.

“When’s the last time you called your parole agent?” asked Richard.

Chavez dropped his hands and averted his eyes. “I don’t remember,” he said.

“That’s why they call me,” Richard chided. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to be scared of.” He recommended regular “courtesy calls.”

In talks with his young mentees, Richard discusses crime and violence openly and frankly, without any queasiness or judgment.

“Does it bother you that you can’t get a job?” Richard asked Chavez. The young man’s record will make employment difficult for years. “Does it make you want to sell?”

Richard then walked Chavez through the toughest part of an interview. When employers asked him about his criminal record, said Richard, he just looked them in the eye and said honestly that he was turning his life around. “Eye contact is the most important thing,” said Richard.

“I know what you’re talking about,” Chavez said quietly, but he only looked attentively at Richard when the pair discussed the National Guard.

“You’re a soldier out in the streets,” said Richard. “Why not be a soldier for the U.S. military?”

On top of the lecturing, Richard showed a lot of sympathy and established a camaraderie. Over and over again, he hit on the same points: keeping the boy’s young family together (Chavez has a new daughter), keeping a job and accepting help when it was offered.

In prison, said Richard, it was all about fighting the white man, the system, to create a better life for Northern Hispanics. That was one of the lies, he said. It’s the white man who’s helping him recover. Ethnic clashes, which are the basis of hostility in prison, have faded for him on the outside.

Twenty-year-old Joe Brown associated with the white-pride groups in CYA and has experienced this, too. One of Brown’s best friends is now his mentor, another ex-con named Raymond Richer, who dropped out of the same Northern Hispanic prison gang as Richard.

The three sat around in the heat one afternoon swapping stories. Asked what recovering at a residential treatment center was like, Brown smiled. “It’s lovely,” he said. “I got to know who I am.”

Richer literally glowed when he said that recovery helped him explore his feelings for the first time. Now, he said, sitting next to Brown, he’s amazed to find himself talking intimately with a guy who would have been his enemy in prison. The transition makes men like Richer want to follow in Richard’s footsteps, and Richard encourages them.

Altogether, Richard has amassed approximately half a dozen former gang members like Richer and Jimenez. They’re considering a cohesive recovery program of their own for young men out on parole. Richard’s successes seem to be sparking that old sense of invincibility.

Richard has convinced people from every level of society—kids, longtime drug connections, attorneys, college professors, doctors, employers and his recovery community—that he’s completely committed. But the joys of legitimacy still seem new to him.

“I married a cop’s daughter!” he said, adding for the record that Lahoma’s family also has been a big part of his recovery.

Though victories seem to pile up the more he works, it was while lecturing at California State University, Sacramento, recently that Richard’s whole journey seemed to come into focus.

Richard closed his eyes, he said, and remembered being strung out and in the hole in prison four years ago—nothing but loneliness and misery. And then, he opened them and looked out at a class of graduate students. He was a professor for a day, using his knowledge of the streets to train other counselors. He also was a onetime self-involved ex-con, a recovering heroin addict and a former professional boxer. This was his chance to now be remembered as the former, a man who did some good for somebody else.