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A former gangster morphs into a lawyer who helps troubled kids

A path to progress

Once known as 'Red,' David Lee Windecher is now one of Atlanta’s hottest young lawyers. His message: Too many Americans buy into a myth that youths are a lost cause.

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    David Lee Windecher went from being a teenage gangster to helping young offenders.
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When David Lee Windecher comes to court, he cuts a striking figure: His well-curated red beard is part of his signature look, as is his pomaded fade haircut. He wears socks with the American flag on them. Intense and erect, he lays out his defense motions to the judge.

But when meeting with his clients, Mr. Windecher can change, chameleonlike, incorporating the rhythmic slang of the street, where young men often deliberately slur their speech so only their friends get their message. Clients’ suspicions often give way to intrigue about the red-headed lawyer who talks about what it’s like on the streets with such authority.

Conversant in Spanish, Portuguese, and English, Windecher might roll up his sleeve to show his tattoos, including the phrase, “i am what i am.”

Once known as “Red,” a notorious North Miami gangster, Windecher has come a long way even though “Red” is still with him, as indelible as the tattoo of his old gangster name on his ankle.

Yet the drug dealer and larcenist who had been arrested 13 times by his 20th birthday – and who once faced 15 years in a Florida state penitentiary for felony aggravated assault – has morphed into one of Atlanta’s hottest young lawyers. Only four years into his law career, the founder of the Windecher Firm uses his own gripping memoir – “The American Dream: HisStory in the Making” – to give troubled kids a road map to putting their adolescent mistakes in the rearview mirror.

His message: Too many Americans – prosecutors, citizens, and even gangsters themselves – buy into a myth that youths are a lost cause. Those sentiments were cemented into law in the 1980s and ’90s, the era in which young Windecher careened around North Miami in a jacked-up Mazda, wore long white basketball shorts with a gun tucked in the waistband, threw gang signs, and tried to prove his mettle in a desperate, wrongheaded bid for notoriety and money.

“Second chances come hard,” he says. “The problem is that everyone, even the gangsters, looks at the worst, not the potential in other people. But the fact is, you are not a victim of circumstance. You have a choice.”

It’s a motto forged from his own life. Born in Los Angeles to Argentine parents, Windecher spent much of his early childhood in Buenos Aires. The grinding poverty he encountered there caught up with him again when the family moved to North Miami, where his house, he says, was right in the middle of gunfights, drug dealing, and gangbanging.

After watching a young man being shot and killed at a movie theater, Windecher, barely a teenager, vowed that it would not happen to him or his siblings. He needed backup and money. He needed a gang.

The Star Creek Gang ruled parts of North Miami in the 1990s, running a profitable drug-running and car-fencing business. The gang ran a car theft ring, once stealing five new cars out of a dealer lot by using a sixth car as a battering ram to break down a barbed-wire fence.

After badly beating a rival gang member for stealing his phone, Windecher had a collapse of faith in himself and surrendered to the police. “David had been such an idealistic fool,” he writes of himself. “But he was gone. Life had devoured that smart kid with dreams bigger than his circumstances.... I was Red, and I was destined to live on the wrong side of justice.”

It took watching his brother and two sisters turning to gang life, finding faith in a higher power, and meeting an aspiring FBI agent who became his girlfriend for Windecher to see that there was a way out. He was also shaken by a poem titled “The Monument,” about how God gives each person a unique set of problems to resolve. It says, “no one else may have the blessings that these problems will bring you.”

His turnaround began. Even though he had dropped out of high school early, he graduated with a 3.97 GPA from American Intercontinental University. He took a job with the Miami Dolphins. He applied to dozens of law schools: Only two would consider him, given his criminal past. Finally, John Marshall Law School, the lowest-ranked of Georgia’s five major law schools, took him. (“They study the same Constitution there as at Harvard,” he says with a shrug.)

After graduating near the top of his class, he went to work with Atlanta criminal and entertainment lawyer Manny Arora.

In 2011, Windecher secured an internship with the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office – a regular stopping-off point for aspiring criminal trial attorneys. But a few weeks after going to work, someone tapped him on his shoulder as he sat at a hearing. His stomach sank. He was told that he had to go: His felony charges had come up in a background check (he had already disclosed them in his interview). “You can’t work for the government,” he was told.

But several days later, District Attorney Robert James agreed to meet with Windecher, largely as a courtesy. Mr. James has made his name as a champion for second chances, a tactic critics sometimes call “hug-a-thug.” What was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting became two hours, then three. The two men bonded over their faith. James put Windecher to work in the juvenile division, where he began to strengthen the county’s diversion programs aimed at keeping first-time offenders out of long-term detention.

Windecher embodies a shift taking place in the US criminal-justice system, James says, fueled by events such as videotaped police shootings and the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

“What David reminds us [of] is that no one is beyond redemption,” James says. “With the crack epidemic and the implosion of urban and rural America in the 1980s and 1990s, what you saw was mass incarceration, mandatory minimum sentences.” Some of the lawmakers who imposed those laws were “well meaning ... but 30 years later the chickens have come home to roost.

“The effect is that all these young people with criminal histories, who are full of potential, are being limited. Now, how do we fix what we broke in the 1980s and 1990s?”

Today Windecher has spun his book into a movie deal with Atlanta-based producer and director Tyler Perry. He appears regularly on “Nancy Grace,” a crime show on the HLN cable network. He has worked with the Georgia governor’s office on a “ban the box” initiative, which guarantees that job-seeking former inmates get at least a sit-down job interview as opposed to being automatically rejected because they’ve listed their crimes on their job application.

Windecher’s nonprofit RED Inc. provides counseling for inmates, which includes a chance for young men to write their own memoir but save the ending for after they leave prison. He is planning a flag football fundraiser at the Georgia Dome that will feature graduates of the diversion program.

At STAR House, a free after-school program that meets at the Esther Jackson school in Roswell, Ga., a roomful of grade schoolers are at the end of a long day. Yet even the most boisterous are mesmerized by Windecher as he tells his story. His talk is studded with matter-of-fact details – he’s been both shot and stabbed – that make his tale compelling and authentic.

At the end, dozens of hands go up; several kids ask thoughtful questions. Some are intrigued by his tattoos, his scars, and the movie deal.

It also becomes clear that at least two boys have relatives who have been involved in gangs. One boy recalls crying when he visited his uncle in jail. He says his uncle once was stabbed in the chest. The 10-year-old points to the spot.

“What’s the first mistake your uncle made?” Windecher asks him.

The boy doesn’t miss a beat: “He joined a gang.”

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three organizations that aid youths and those imprisoned around the world:

Plan International USA works in 50 developing countries to end the cycle of poverty for children. Take action: Provide identity documents to those without birth certificates.

• Let Kids Be Kids is an advocate for those who are poor, homeless, sick, or displaced. Take action: Help death-row inmates communicate with approved family members and supporters by phone.

• Peter C. Alderman Foundation seeks to help survivors of terrorism and mass violence. Take action: Help to heal the emotional wounds of former child soldiers in Uganda.

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