Demario Jefferson can tell you about vendettas and gangs and guns.
His credentials catch the eye when he walks into a room.
There's the twisted bullet scar on his leg, a memento of the time police say a rival shot him in 2015, looking to avenge an earlier attack. And the jagged front tooth, dislodged by a policeman's baton when he stole his first car at the age of 14 and led officers on a chase through north Minneapolis. Faded tattoos cover his arms with the names of friends and relatives lost to street violence.
But he'd rather not talk about that now, Jefferson says. That's the old him. He's grown now, pushing 30.
"I'm trying to distance myself, without never being too far because they won't let me," he said, as he tugs on one of the dreadlocks framing a pudgy face that long ago earned him the nickname "Fat Cuz."
He says he's retired, but it hasn't come easy.
Jefferson, 28, offers himself up as Exhibit A in how difficult it can be for aging gangsters to break free, their lives constantly in peril, as they try to get jobs and raise families. Even if they overcome the pull of the life, past misdeeds are not soon forgotten — not by rivals whose homes and cars were sprayed with gunfire nor by police, always ready to pounce the minute he steps out of line. So it might seem unlikely that Jefferson, 28, could walk away from a lifestyle that has sent many young men to jail or the morgue.
But Jefferson says he's ready.
He is one of the early members of the Tre Tre Crips gang, an offspring of the Shotgun Crips. The crew first popped onto law enforcement's radar a decade ago, earning a reputation for unrestrained violence. Strong-arm robberies were their specialty.
A series of federal indictments landed some of the group's leaders in prison. Others were lost to street violence.
But time has changed the crew's surviving members, Jefferson insists.
Some are confronting the realities of adulthood: starting families, opening bank accounts, paying taxes and finding jobs — no small feat for those with long criminal histories like Jefferson, with domestic assault and drug convictions.
At the same time, older gang members seem to hold little sway over younger, more volatile members carrying on the gang's violent legacy.
Police see it differently.
They contend that the Tres are as active as ever, pointing to several recent shootings as proof.
In one incident last August, two Tres shot a man affiliated with a rival crew outside of a party on E. Lake Street, apparently over a bitter dispute that police say dated to 2001. A ricocheting bullet hit a bouncer who was working the door that night, according to court filings.
And several of the gang's members have come under investigation by the U.S. Marshals Service North Star Fugitive Task Force. They're also the target of a separate probe for allegedly selling "large quantities" of crack, heroin and marijuana around Minneapolis.
The issues of gangs and gun violence loomed over Minneapolis last year. Citywide, 287 shootings left 344 people wounded, the highest number since 2007, and about 56 percent of those gunshot victims had suspected ties to a known street gang. By one estimate, the city has between 1,200 and 1,500 active gang members and affiliates in 30-40 gangs. In some ways, they defy preconceptions.
They are the sons and nephews of bus drivers, machinists, nurses, preachers and government workers. They take their children back-to-school shopping and tearfully nod at friends' funerals when community elders call for an end to the bloodshed. Some dream of graduating from college.
But, police say, they have shown an alarming willingness to settle differences with gunfire.
Chief Janeé Harteau said last month that most of the violence is the work of a small number of young men with easy access to firearms who give little thought to spilling blood over old neighborhood beefs and disrespectful YouTube videos.
Part of the problem stems from a lack of proper guidance, said Manu Lewis, an outreach worker for at-risk youth. "They don't have anybody to take them and say, 'Look, I apologize for bringing y'all into this B.S., because it holds nothing but death and destruction for you,' " Lewis said. Reformed gang members need to be supported, even when they occasionally revert to their old ways, Lewis said. Many do relapse into crime, he says, pointing out that the language, the style and the swagger from years on the streets doesn't disappear just because they lay down their guns.
Remorse and learning
Jefferson took an unusual path to gang life.
He was born to a middle-class Baptist family. From a young age, his parents made sure that he and his seven siblings never missed a church service, and stressed education. One of his brothers, Delamonte Pratt, flourished and today works as a bank manager. Another was slain.
"Everyone makes mistakes, but how are we supposed to turn our lives around if the mistakes that we made in our past continue to be used against us?" Pratt said.
Jefferson isn't sure how his life took the turn it did. He recalls falling in with a group of neighborhood kids. Over time, out of boredom and seeking camaraderie, they formed the Tres.
Now, he feels remorse, and not just for the robberies and shootings. His mother, who always visited him when he got locked up and put money in his commissary account, for years held out hope that her son would straighten his life. She died in 2015.
Things changed after that, Jefferson says. He isn't as quick to anger as he used to be, and tries not to carry grudges. He had volunteered with a local youth group warning kids about gang life. The father of five yearns for normalcy.
"I wanna go to a parent-teacher conference," he said.
But the draws of street life are constant.
"Every day, something's going to happen where it's gonna try to pull you back into it," said Jefferson.
He's lost loved ones. Last year, he buried a childhood friend, Jaquan Oatis, who police say was fatally shot on a North Side street corner on a muggy August night.
Jefferson has been shot twice. Other times, rivals missed their mark. Barely.
Police doubt that Jefferson, whom they considered the Tres' second-in-command as recently as last fall, has left his life of crime behind. His name remains on an internal department watch list, next to gang members, terror suspects and other serious offenders.
Jefferson says that police seem to follow him everywhere, regularly pull him over with guns drawn, turning his vehicle inside and out. Since he turned 18, he has had 55 police contacts.
After bouncing around from one friend's house to another, Jefferson said that he has since moved out of the Twin Cities.
Leaving only half the battle
Mike Martin, a past commander of the Fourth Precinct, who serves as president of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association's Minnesota chapter, said that for Jefferson leaving the gang is only half the battle.
"It is really tough for somebody who's been involved in that much activity, because he's going to need protection, because people know who he is, because he's been kind of a flamboyant gang member," said Martin.
James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University, said most gang members are involved for only two to three years. "Standing around on the street corner at 25 years old in the pouring rain is not as exciting as it was when you were 16," he said.
"Once they've made that decision for themselves, they have to make sure the broader community accepts that," he said, for example by removing tattoos that signal gang affiliations and distancing themselves from their fellow gangsters.
While Jefferson says he wants out, he isn't ready to fully leave his "brothers" behind, many of whom he considers as close as family.
"These people are who I call when I can't feed my kids," he said. "I'm not trying to distance myself from my friends; I'm trying to distance myself from what we're known for. I'm trying to distance myself from the crime."