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GO KIDS Articles

Ex-convict helps kids get lives in gear

By Jeremy Roebuck/Special Contributor
The Dallas Morning News
08:57 PM CDT on Saturday, April 22, 2006

Irving resident hopes bicycle program gives students a firm handle on their future

Bicycle repair has always come easy for Eddie Maldonado. Putting his life back together has proven more difficult.

But after spending almost half his life behind bars, the 41-year-old Irving resident who was once a featured criminal on America's Most Wanted wants to keep teenagers from making the same mistakes that led to his incarceration – and he's using his bike to do it. AMY CONN-GUTIERREZ/Special Contributor Eddie Maldonado approached an 18-year prison term with a plan to change his life, and his skills put him on the right path.

"I see these kids starting down the same path, and I feel sorry for them," he said. "I want to give them other options."

Since starting his Bicycles Most Wanted program at Garland's Bussey Middle School, Mr. Maldonado has become an unlikely mentor for teens who once clashed with police and spent many after-school hours in detention.

Students eagerly fill the school's shop room as Mr. Maldonado walks them through adjusting handlebars, tightening brakes and replacing chains.

"In the long run, what he's doing is not just helping the police or helping the school," said Garland police Lt. Gary Mork. "He's helping these kids learn a trade."

Now, administrators and civic activists in Carrollton and Irving are seeking out the former inmate to produce the same results in their schools. But Mr. Maldonado aims higher than teaching trade skills or keeping kids out of trouble. He hopes to show them that fixing a bike is much easier than rebuilding a life.

For Mr. Maldonado, the path to federal prison and the road that would eventually lead him out both began at a bike shop. At 14, he took a job repairing bicycles in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a neighborhood plagued by drugs and gangs. In his youth, he managed to stay out of trouble by staying busy among spoked wheels, handlebars and well-greased chains.

His mother, a New York City teacher, did her best to raise him and his younger brothers, Anthony and Albert, in a Christian environment, Mr. Maldonado said. Anthony, now 25, is a SWAT team member, hunting down and arresting gang members in New York City. Albert, now 23, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Eddie Maldonado took a different path. Also Online bicyclesmostwanted.com

When his family moved to Dallas in the early 1980s, he took a job at Carrollton's Bicycle Exchange. His affable manner won over customers. But he soon befriended one that introduced him to other ways of earning money.

"Someone I met there got me into moving guns from Texas to New York," he said. "It was little by little. You start doing small things for a friend. Then, it turns into doing it for the money."

Within months, Mr. Maldonado was smuggling guns for a Brooklyn-based drug ring. When federal agents took down the organization in 1988, he got caught in the dragnet.

His story aired on an early episode of America's Most Wanted.

"Watching that video, I had to disown some of my own actions," he said. "It was painful to think how my family would react."

But he had more to worry about from his friends. Several testified against him at his trial, leading to an 18-year prison sentence at Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution in New Jersey.

"I didn't become bitter against the system. They were just doing their job," he said. "I became bitter against the gang."

Mr. Maldonado went into prison with a plan to change the direction of his life. Relying on skills he learned in the bike shops of his youth, he corralled other inmates into fixing bicycles that they later sent to needy children.

The project caught the attention of America's Most Wanted co-executive producer Phil Lerman.

"There are not a lot of fugitives that would have anything to say to us that we could air," said Mr. Lerman, who no longer works on the show. "Most fugitives have exactly two words for me."

Mr. Maldonado, on the other hand, may be the only fugitive ever featured on the show to credit it as an inspiration. He borrowed the Fox show's name for his budding program.

Mr. Lerman sent a crew to Fort Dix to film a follow-up.

"There's a quality about that man that's fairly unusual," Mr. Lerman said. "He can get people to do things for him purely by dint of his character."

Released last year, Mr. Maldonado headed back to the Dallas area, hoping to build on the momentum of his national media exposure. He approached Susan Meyer with the Old Downtown Carrollton Association for help setting up a program in local schools.

"I didn't know anything about Eddie's background," Ms. Meyer said. "I thought he was just another guy looking for money. I kind of blew him off."

But Mr. Maldonado persisted and eventually found the help he needed in Garland. Lt. Mork, a school resource officer at Bussey Middle School, thought the former convict might have credibility with the school's troublemakers.

"A lot of times if these kids have any experience with the police, it's been negative," he said. "I think they can identify with Eddie because of his experience."

They shopped the idea around school and found 22 students who wanted to join. On the program's first day, Mr. Maldonado played the tape of his first appearance on America's Most Wanted.

"If I were some guy in a suit telling them to stay out of trouble, they would have laughed at me," he said. "But if you show them this visual – this reality – they can react to your story while you stand in front of them."

From the beginning, Lt. Mork wanted to take an active role in managing the bike program. He intentionally scheduled sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays – days when teachers held detentions. He promised the students, many of whom didn't have bicycles of their own, that they would become eligible to keep one of the refurbished bicycles if they came to 20 consecutive sessions.

The possibility of a new bicycle was enough to entice 14-year-old Reybel Ignacio. Before he joined the program, he didn't have much to do after school.

"I went home, I watched video games and got bored," the seventh-grader said.

Since November, the group has rebuilt almost 80 bikes and donated them to charity. There is now a waiting list of students hoping to join. Crime at the school and a nearby park has practically disappeared, and student behavior has improved, Lt. Mork said.

"They're a different breed of kids when they're working in here," Lt. Mork said. "When they're here, they're not worried about the attitude."

Leaders in other cities have noticed the program's success. Ms. Meyer, who once shook off Mr. Maldonado's request for help, hopes to launch a sister program at Carrollton's DeWitt Perry Middle School next month. And Mr. Maldonado hopes to take his program nationwide in the next few years.

"Why are the cops working with a convict? I'm sure that's a question that a lot of people are asking," Lt. Mork said. "He's going to be a part of our community. Why shouldn't we support the good thing that he's trying to do?"

Ms. Meyer, who chokes up while telling Mr. Maldonado's story, sees the trade he's teaching as an extension of his own story.

"This is a guy who was broken," she said. "He fixed himself, and now he wants to fix the rest of us."

Jeremy Roebuck is a Dallas-based freelance writer.

E-mail jeremy.roebuck@gmail.com