The Fast Life and Near Death of Nica

Revered by followers, feared by rivals, and targeted by police, the gang leader known as Nica is alive today because of a brush with death

The end of Nica's gangland career came just two months later while he looked for revenge on La Familia. Sunrise police still haven't determined who was driving the black car that struck Nica as he dashed across University. Some, like Nickerson, suspect it was a gang member, waiting for revenge. Others, like Pineda, believe it was a random, likely drunk, driver. Nica figures police didn't really want to find the culprit. "The police probably thought it was a community service," he says, laughing.

Whoever it was, he or she put an end to Nica's exploits. But only by virtually stripping him of his entire identity.

When Nica woke up from the coma, he didn't know who he was -- didn't even know he was in a gang. Oddly, he could speak English but had forgotten Spanish, his native tongue. His face was a scarred mess. Three of his front teeth were knocked out, and his entire face looked lopsided. His right eye lay lifeless in its broken socket.

A life in pictures (from left): Nica as a boy in Nicaragua, before the war ripped through his town; as snapped by the gang task force not long before the hit-and-run (note the scar over right eye caused by a rival slamming him with a car); near death, after the hit-and-run; Nica with his new face  --  and a new life
Joshua Prezant
A life in pictures (from left): Nica as a boy in Nicaragua, before the war ripped through his town; as snapped by the gang task force not long before the hit-and-run (note the scar over right eye caused by a rival slamming him with a car); near death, after the hit-and-run; Nica with his new face -- and a new life
A life in pictures (from left): Nica as a boy in Nicaragua, before the war ripped through his town; as snapped by the gang task force not long before the hit-and-run (note the scar over right eye caused by a rival slamming him with a car); near death, after the hit-and-run; Nica with his new face  --  and a new life
Joshua Prezant
A life in pictures (from left): Nica as a boy in Nicaragua, before the war ripped through his town; as snapped by the gang task force not long before the hit-and-run (note the scar over right eye caused by a rival slamming him with a car); near death, after the hit-and-run; Nica with his new face -- and a new life

Two days after his hit-and-run, his ex-girlfriend gave birth. But Nica couldn't even hold his son. His arm was in a sling, while his shoulder healed. Nica required special training to learn how to speak clearly and how to do menial tasks, such as counting money. Memories came back to him slowly.

Oddly enough all the fellow Crips, who had revered him as a gang leader, disappeared from his life. All that talk about love between soldiers was bullshit, he decided. They hadn't cared about him; they'd cared about his power. And when he needed them most, they were gone. "Nobody wanted to take me out because of the way I looked," he says. "I felt like a monster."

The Broward Sheriff's Office recruited him for an educational video, in which he served as a grotesque example of the results of gang life. In the video, Nica, with his infant son in his lap, says he's done with the gang forever and vows to see to it that his son grows up right.

But it wasn't easy. He hit rock bottom when, in a desperate attempt to win back the mother of his son, he was charged with domestic violence for pushing and hitting her. "I did hit her, but you know why? I thought it was right," he says. "I saw all my family beat their women. The men beat their women in Nicaragua, and they didn't get in any trouble. Then later on they were lovey-dovey again. But you don't hit women in America. It was always wrong, but I didn't know better. Now I do."

The first time he went back out with some Crips, the results were equally disastrous. That was in July 1995, nearly four months after he was hit by the car. Nica says he was just happy to get a chance to go out, to drink, to see girls, to feel less like a monster. But the other gang members had violence on their minds. They brutally beat a fellow Crip named Nick Harrison, who was a witness in a robbery case against another member. Nica maintains that he was drunk and half passed out during the beating. Pineda interviewed Harrison in the hospital and, a full year later, in July 1996, arrested Nica and several other Crips for the Harrison beating.

The local media treated his arrest as big news -- the "godfather of the Crips" had finally been brought to justice. The truth was Nica had already covered his pitchfork Crip tattoo with a Tasmanian Devil and had officially quit the gang. Without his leadership the Crips had begun to fade into obscurity.

"I didn't even care when the gang went down," he says. "I look at me now, and then I look at me then, and all I can think is how stupid I was."

Nica was sentenced to probation, which he successfully completed this February. Amazingly Nica never spent a day in a Florida prison for all his gang activity.

Now, at age 25, he's engaged to a woman named Rebecca and lives in a tiny house with a big yard in central Broward. He doesn't want to reveal the exact location, fearing possible reprisals from old foes. "He's not Nica anymore," Rebecca says. "He's only Wilbert now."

He still hears about his old compadres. This one was jailed on a drug charge, that one has become an alcoholic. There's even one guy who's trying to revive the gang. Nica can only shake his head and laugh.

Even if he wanted to go back to fighting, he knows he can't. With two metal plates holding his skull together, one good punch in the right place would kill him. He still gets horrible headaches and falls into dazes. Nica says he only hopes his son, whom he visits regularly, doesn't end up like him. The black-haired boy, who looks like his dad, just turned five, a little older than Nica was when civil war tore through his town. Nica also occasionally visits his parents and his uncle Atila, who now sells pool screens for a living, in Miami.

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