I heard the cheers and claps of my admirers vibrated through the room. I was in seventh grade and had just won multiple tournaments in the card game Yu-Gi-Oh! I stood undefeated; I was a king among kings.
The attention was addicting. During childhood, I was used to feeling “not enough.” I wanted to feel valued. It was like a sweet delicacy I couldn’t get enough of.
But I needed more than a card game to satiate my hunger.
In eighth grade a friend asked me to join him shoplifting from Target. My eyes lit up as he told me about the glory of his adventures. I envisioned myself sitting on a throne with all my worldly desires beneath my feet, and I said yes. When I walked out through the automatic doors — pockets full of stolen merchandise — and tasted the fresh air of freedom, I was filled with relief and criminal pride.
The next day I walked into school with my head high and a bright yellow Sony Walkman in hand. My peers quickly flocked around, bombarding me with questions. Pleasure consumed me. I was drunk on the attention.
I relished this new image of myself as “the cool kid.” At this point, the attention I got from my peers eclipsed all else. I never wanted this altered state of mind to end. I cast away the life lessons my parents had taught me and started living by a new philosophy — that I would use any means necessary to get what I wanted.
The next victim of my newfound addiction was Bockman’s Liquor Store. I could feel the excitement build as I entered the doors. My friend advised me to wait until the cashier was ringing up a customer. I stood in the candy aisle, raring to go. When my friend gave the signal, I put box after box of candy in my backpack. Before the customer’s receipt had even begun to print, I was out the door with a backpack full of stolen candy.
Around the corner, we celebrated with a soda and a bag of Skittles. When I arrived home, I became a ninja, silently hiding from my family in the darkness. Once in the safety of my locked room, I dumped out my bag to bask in the glory of my treasure. I then tucked it deep in the corner of the closet under some clothes, trying to hide the wrong I had committed.
The next morning I laced up my Nikes and threw on my backpack, now rectangular from all the boxes inside. My peers flocked around me, asking about my backpack. I baited them: “You’ll see at lunch.” The first few classes dragged on. When the bell finally rang, I burst out of my seat toward the cafeteria, tailed by about 20 other students.
I loved how there were so many kids around me. When I got up to leave, I looked back and saw the entire table get up as well. I felt like a crime boss from one of my favorite yakuza or triad movies. Down an empty corridor, I emptied my backpack, spreading box after box across a bench to the sweet “oohs” and “aahs” of my audience.
This was what I wanted. I started to distribute the treasure to my peers, treating them like they were part of my personal crew. I saved the best for my closest friends. Their words of gratitude were intoxicating. Then they asked for more. I told myself these people needed me. I would have done anything to keep fueling this image of myself, and soon I headed out for round three.
By age 13, I had already begun cultivating the belief that my worth was based on what I did and provided for others. This began way before my delinquency.
At first, this was a way for me to protect myself from mistreatment at home. I had a way to contribute to the lives of others so that I would not be abandoned. At that time of my life, it worked. This became my identity.
I may have been a juvenile then, but the beliefs that I formulated in my younger years went on to play a role in causing a lifetime of pain and suffering for so many people. The mantras “by any means necessary” and “my worth is based on what I do” kept repeating in my head.
Twenty years later, I am wearing a blue jumpsuit with the words “CDCR Prisoner” emblazoned on the back, serving a 16-to-life sentence for murder. When I first came through those prison gates, I wondered how I got there. That question no longer occupies my mind. This story of my longing for self-worth as a child was what set the foundation for the choices I made as an adult.
On the tragic night of Dec. 21, 2012, the desire to prove myself burned so brightly, I murdered a hero. All I hear now is a somber, roaring thunder that drones on ceaselessly, and the cries of those who I hurt. I wanted to be “that” guy, but “that” guy was a monster.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.