David Lee Gonzales has one thing he'd like to say to all those gangbangers and would-be gangbangers out there who feel a need to answer every insult and right every slight.

"Stay out of it, man. It ain't worth it."

Gonzales voiced this sentiment as he stood in the bright sunlight across from the house where 7-year-old Mari Menchaca was shot and killed Sunday evening by a drive-by bullet that was presumably intended for someone else. Police reports suggest that little Mari was playing in the wrong place at the wrong time when one set of gang members drove by looking to fill rival gang members full of lead.

Gonzales, 44, lives around the corner, on Dalton Avenue. It's the only house he's ever known — "I've had the same phone number for 44 years," he brags — but it's not the only residence he's ever lived in.

He spent 14 years and eight months behind bars.

It started when he was 14 and got caught in a car full of stolen stereo equipment. He later took a guard hostage and escaped jail. Another time he pushed a woman out of a car. You can fill in the blanks from there. Half of David Lee's grownup life has been spent in one kind of jail cell or another.

"I've been through stuff that has buried people," he says. "I thought about suicide, a lot."

His last parole was in April of 2006, when he returned to the house on Dalton Avenue determined to never lose his freedom again. "I'd rather they shoot me dead right here on this street," he says, "than go back."

"This is home," he adds with visible affection. "This is my neighborhood. Not in a gang sense. This is where I live. This is what I know."

And it pains him to see the next generation buying into the kind of gang mentality that before long will land them in the same sad places he's been.

"I could never turn the cheek, you know," he says.

And neither can "hardheaded gangbangers."

"They feel they've got to stand up to everybody or they'll lose respect. They'll be called a punk," he says. "But punk is just a word. It don't mean nothing. You need to walk away, that's what it takes a real man to do. Now, I'm strong enough to walk away, because I know I can put one foot in front of the other, don't look back, and the next thing I know I'm far enough away it don't matter."

Gonzales shakes his head ruefully as he looks at the makeshift memorial filled with flowers, stuffed animals and notes of condolences stuck to the fence in front of Mari's old house. "Little girl gets a bullet because somebody else ducked," he says. "It makes no sense. It makes no sense at all."

He says he wishes he had the ability to talk to every teenager in Glendale and warn them not to get caught up in having to look tough.

As it is, he's talking to as many as he can, including his own son, whom he says has a chip on his shoulder and wants to fight him half the time. "I love my son, he's my pride and joy," he says. "I've got to get through to him."

"You've got to be a man," says a man who has already been through hell and doesn't recommend the trip. "If you don't, you'll be stuck like Chuck all your life."


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.