Wingin' It

Fledgling Guardian Angels get the call from gang-riddled Lake Worth

He's paid his fines, done a year on probation, and behaved himself since then, other than issues with paying his traffic tickets and a small problem controlling his dog.

"It was something I did when I was 22 years old. I am 33 now. Enough said," Siew says. "Since then, I have never been in trouble. I got a good life. I help the community. I don't have to defend myself."

Although Sliwa wasn't aware of Siew's criminal history (veteran Angels are not subjected to background checks), he says that perfection is not required.

"We will accept people who have had problems with the law," he says. "Obviously, if you've been responsible for arson, armed assault, armed robbery, sexual assault, pedophilia... phew. You don't qualify."

Sliwa says the Angels will give felons a chance to serve the community as long as they can operate in a structured and disciplined environment.

Before we can embark on our neighborhood patrol, Siew must pat down each member to make sure we aren't carrying any weapons.

First up is Carl Wood Jr., who lives in Palm Springs and asks us to call him C.J. He chooses "Handsome Joe" as his street name. Because he's so hefty, patting him down takes longer than most. The 32-year-old redhead with a freckly complexion, a gargoyle tattoo, and a Tennessee patois is too big to fit in an Angels' T-shirt, so he wears his own, which displays a confusing slogan: "Don't think twice the first second time."

"Whenever I get into a conversation with someone and they look at the shirt, it completely wrecks their train of thought," he says with pride.

When asked what he does for a living, C.J. pauses, then says he contributes to his family's income with disability checks. "It appears I might have a few mental problems," he says. "Major depression. Dysthymia. Obsessive-compulsive disorder."

Being part of the group works for him because "if I'm not having a good day and I don't want to go on patrol, I don't have to," he says. "It's not like a job where they'll fire me if I don't." So far, though, C.J. has been the most loyal Angel. He's used to sitting at the computer a lot, playing solitaire, and downloading music, so the patrols have been a good way to get him out of the house. That pleases his wife, he says. He also really likes the idea of cleaning up the streets and making a difference.

Is he afraid of confronting criminals? Well, depends when you ask. "Half the time, I'm suicidal anyway," he says, half-joking.

Next up for a frisk is Gary Ryan, a 55-year-old with ice-blue eyes who also lives off disability checks. His chosen street name: "Wolf."

An avid reader, Ryan can pontificate on any given subject, and he would probably stun any criminal with his encyclopedic knowledge of Costa Rica. He receives the disability checks because of back problems. His constant pain, due to his many years of weightlifting, is apparent in the careful stiffness of his gait. He's also a black belt in karate, and he likes to sell rare books on eBay. He joined the Angels, he says, as a favor to friend Sean Kelley, a karate instructor who's also the South Florida coordinator of the Guardian Angels.

Then there's Kelley's nephew, Ray Guthrie. He's a stocky, blond surveyor who has also joined the Angels as a favor to Kelley. He's the youngest recruit and slightly shy, but he's not afraid to fight crime on the streets, he says.

It's doubtful we'll start with anybody tonight, though. We'd be outnumbered and undertrained, Siew explains. Still, he gives orders like a combat-hardened master sergeant.

"All right, let's fall in, guys," he says.

We head south on South N Street, single file. We're dressed alike, all in some variation of the traditional Angels ensemble — black boots, black cargo pants with handcuffs on the belt loops (for making citizen's arrests), flashlights in the back pockets, white T-shirts with the angel emblem — an eye inside a red, winged triangle — on the front. Atop our heads are the signature red berets, puffed up on the left and sloping down over the right ear. Many of the Angels adorn their berets with various war pins and buttons that say things like "I Heart Guardian Angels" or "Just Say No."

Bad Karma explains that, should we encounter bad guys, we all need to know our roles in a takedown. The leader takes out the biggest guy. The rest of the gang is up to us. No matter what, we always need to have each other's backs. Another thing — no cowboys. We are a unit.

Right off the bat, Siew points out a broken window at a vacant house. Probably a drug house, he says. That's the most suspicious thing we encounter. The runner-up is a woman walking her cat.

An ice cream truck makes the rounds as we jump in our cars and head out to Lantana Cascades, a trailer-park community in Lantana. There, we find just one example of graffiti. In red letters, someone has scrawled "Southside 13" on the side of an empty trailer. Siew snaps a picture on his cell phone, and we march on.

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