Awaiting his fate, Nerey’s attention didn’t run to the sign of the facility in Carson City. He was struck more by the dismal scenery of the prison.
“It was the fencing, it was the towers,” he described. “It just looked so cold and lonely. … Never in my life I’d been so awake and at the same time felt I had collapsed or fainted without having to close my eyes. The impact was that strong.”
As the vehicle pulled up to the gates and the shackled prisoners stepped onto the grounds of the penitentiary for the first time, officers were calling out to the “new fish” as inmates threatened, “Yeah, you’re going to be my bitch!”
His emotions were in turmoil. He knew he had to serve this sentence and that he would have to be tough. This was a harder place, unlike the Washoe County Jail where he had just spent the night. Ordered to strip down, shower and pick up new clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, the reality of his surroundings slowly sank in.
He walked into the “fish tank,” a holding cell to be processed and have health checks done on him, to be tested for intelligence and classified by crime. Prison guards and inmates were angry with him because he got off with just two years for conspiracy to murder.
All the while, all Nerey could think was, “Man, here it goes.”
Nerey is now comfortable sharing his message as an anti-gang activist. His message to teens is saturated with the impact of his life experiences that led him to the path he now walks to help Reno-Sparks teens choose a better way for themselves. He has created a foundation to garner assistance from the community and urges them to assist financially and with time to be proactive in the lives of young adults who need guidance.
He happily speaks to what he felt as a gang member the night that brought judgment upon him because he feels it’s important that others know his mistakes. But his prison experience is an imminent shadow in his mind and it even rekindles some anger he felt in the early 1990s — not at the other people involved in his case but at himself, for making the wrong choices.
The roots of the anger
Nerey was born in 1970 to a father who worked as a bracero, a field worker, in Mexicali on the U.S./Mexico border. The culture, he said, is very similar to east Los Angeles, and because he grew up in an area where violence occurred in the colonias, or housing developments. On gang-infested streets, he experienced the tension between the cops and the citizens.
“When I was in kindergarten, my oldest brother was 12 and he would come home beat up every day and that would scare me,” Nerey said. “When I started getting older and started realizing, man, I want to help him, I want to protect him and not be able to do nothing about it and be vulnerable, he’d get angry.”
Nerey recalls a Student Day in Mexico when his mother had to fight off a police officer because he was beating up his brother, who falsely believed the boy was a gang member. Memories of the corrupt Mexican police followed Nerey when his family moved to the United States in 1978.
Already dealing with the fears that came with being an immigrant, Nerey, a self-described trouble-maker for “all the right reasons,” constantly felt he had to watch his back to keep from any run-ins with the law.
“All I did, whenever I would hear a siren, is run,” Nerey said. “I’d run and I realized I had urinated myself because I was so scared. At an early age, I was not only angry, I was afraid. I learned how to protect myself in a ‘survival of the fittest’ type of environment. I didn’t trust police. Law enforcement was just someone who wasn’t on our side.”
But life in Washoe County wasn’t much easier with the perpetuation of Reno’s socioeconomic problems for Hispanic and low-income families. Nerey’s parents had moved to northeast Reno along Ninth Street. Learning about who he was while learning to speak English made it more difficult for him to adjust in his teen years, a time of innocence when he started out wanting to help and ended up behind bars.
His association with certain friends automatically resulted in the labeling of them as the Montello Street Locos gang, the troubled kids who hung out around one of Reno’s most gang-populated areas.
Nerey said it was like leading a double life while he was discovering his own identity as a Latino and dealing with teenage troubles, including drinking and falling in love. He was graduating from Hug High School and had been told by his high school sweetheart that she was pregnant. That’s when he knew he needed to stop gangbanging with his Montello Street friends.
The young man’s life was in the crossfire. He’d already been arrested once for obstruction and resisting arrest and once because he’d been in a car in which open beer cans were visible — though he swears he and his friends didn’t have those drinks — and was arrested a second time. He could only guess it had to do with breaking curfew, but he never understood why that arrest happened.
He was ready to fall away from the gang scene.
But the night of Aug. 10, 1990, would be the fateful beginning of the rest of Nerey’s life.
On Aug. 10, at the age of 18, a friend told Nerey that his parents’ house had been shot by a rival gang with his sister nearly being killed. His friend, Tito, 14, a member of West Los, egged Nerey on to take revenge, along with another friend from Reed High School named Tank. They wanted Nerey to take a gun, provided by a friend named Travis from the Hug HighSchool football team at Hug High, and get back at the shooters.
“Tank is white. Tank had the car, I had the stupid gun and Tito had the idea,” Nerey said. “I’m sitting there mad as hell. They say, ‘What the hell? That’s what you want? They almost killed your sister.’ ”
It didn’t take much convincing once Nerey’s friends said part of the gang code is “doing what needs to be done,” he said.
He grabbed his .22 from the house and said a quick prayer, but Nerey’s idea of revenge was throwing chingasos, or insults, and physically beating up someone. Tito, however, had a different idea for the gang mission.
The three teens caught up to the shooters.
“When they were heading west, they crossed Montello and made a left on Sutro. Right when they stopped on Sixth Street, we pulled out,” Nerey said. “This wasn’t planned. I thought we could have at least talked about it. But we were going on a mission. We were all in our own separate minds in separate thoughts. Tito wanted to do what he wanted to do. He wanted to pull the trigger on people we knew who could get killed. I was angry and wanted to get back at them.”
Tito’s zeal for revenge, however, outweighed Nerey’s approach.
“Tito was only 14 years old,” he said. “At 14, he was more mature than me in many ways and, trust me, I’ll never forget the look in his eyes when he shot and he shot into a vehicle that had six or seven individuals in the car.”
As one of those bullets penetrated a passenger in that vehicle, it also made its mark on Nerey.
“I was somewhat confused because I didn’t make my choices in terms of who I was hanging out with,” he said. “This kid shot (a bullet) and didn’t even think twice about doing it.”
It pains Nerey to think about the impact the mission had on his family, his fiancée at that time and his young son. He wanted to be a better example for his child, who was 1 year old at the time, and to keep him from following his wayward path.
“I know my dad didn’t want a kid to be in a gang and I’m sure when I went to jail, based on the circumstances of things that occurred, they suffered,” Nerey said. “I didn’t want to give that to my parents, but it happened. You know, it’s kind of like being in a web and you’re trapped.”
After Nerey’s sentencing, he was sent for rehabilitation to NNCC, where things began to unravel. He spent three months in the fish tank, far longer than most inmates spend for processing and health exams.
“It was like they were punishing me, as if I were some sort of snitch or did something wrong,” he said.
The NNCC officials eventually told him he would be shipped to Stewart Camp, a minimum-security work camp. It was odd to Nerey, and rightfully so because he had been erroneously classified. The night he arrived, he was relocated once again to Ely State Prison, where inmates who have committed violent crimes go for maximum security.
“It was a little easier for me,” he said. “I was on the inside but I knew it was going to get harder.”
He’d been sent to death row because he was classified as a violent offender. He remembers every detail of walking into Ely, where he was under the vigilant watch of the guards.
“From the moment they can spot you they put a shotgun on you,” he said. “I remember taking that walk. I knew I wasn’t going into a regular cell. When the door opens, you pull your hands back, they take your shackles off and you have to strip all over again. You put your clothes back on, go into the facility, which is death row, and the first thing they tell you is, ‘We don’t know who you are and we don’t care, but there are no second chances if you try to escape. If you hurt one of us, you get killed. There is no warning shot.’
“Okay, I heard that!” he recalled with a laugh.
Life in prison, or the “madhouse” as he calls it, was nearly tolerable, he said, except when his family came to visit him. He had the chance to talk with them face to face at a table, but he couldn’t embrace them.
“The first thing I wanted to do was run to them and feel them, but you can’t have physical contact,” he said. “You never know what you have until you get taken away from those you love and depend on.”
Eventually, he asked them to stop visiting because it was becoming too painful.
“I was very happy and glad that I was still alive, regardless of the punishment I had been given,” he said. “I wanted to have a good conscience and know I had paid my debt to society so I could sleep at night. I wanted life, and life was to be free. To me life was to have a kid in my house, spend time with my son and have the experience of literally getting married, to have a beautiful ring on my finger so I would cherish it and it would mean something. But I didn’t want to hurt them; I didn’t want to worry them.”
Still among the gangs
Even behind bars, Nerey couldn’t avoid the gangs. In Carson City at the NNCC, the Sureños dominated among the inmates. When he transferred to Ely, in addition to more Sureños, the Paisas and La Aguila all were fighting for control, even though they were all Latino gangs, he said. Sure enough, they began pursuing Nerey, who wanted nothing to do with them. The gangs began attacking him with shanks and through other means.
“Three different gangs have power, but destroy one another,” he said. “There’s no sense of leadership.”
Nerey had to be careful during prison fights. If he snitched even once, worse things could have happened to him.
It took nine months, but he finally earned respect from the gangs at Ely through small interactions, like showers or meals. The other prisoners finally decided to leave him alone and believed in his integrity.
It was a powerful moment, he said, “when I was finally free of the frustration, the confusion, the having to look over my shoulder and I could finally sleep. I remember sleeping that night.”
His liberation from the prison gang oppression freed Nerey to help others in need of tutoring. Since he already had his high school diploma, he devoted himself to other skills for self-improvement, such as typing.
Before he knew it, his sentence was at an end.
“Before I knew it, I was on the bus and I’m crying,” he said, with tears swelling up. “It was the most wonderful feeling in my life because I didn’t want to come home to the same shit I grew up in, which is why I try to fight every day to make things better.”
But that bus ride wasn’t as beautiful as he hoped because he immediately received a call at home from his counselor telling him that immigration officials had a hold on him because he was not considered an American citizen.
“I thought, ‘This is home,’ ” he said. “But I had forgotten that I only had a green card and because of that they wanted to deport me. So I didn’t get to see freedom (for another seven months). They came and they got me. I wanted to leave the country but my parents told me, ‘Don’t be stupid.’ ”
He was taken to a minimum-security facility in Carlin, awaiting a federal deportation hearing with a new attorney and judge. The district attorney argued he was a menace to society and should remain locked up. Nerey’s lawyer argued that he was, in fact, an American citizen and had already served his time.
In September 1992, the judge saw it Nerey’s way.
“The judge says to me, ‘Son, it must be tough,’ ” Nerey recalled. “ ‘You’re here now and you’re going to be home soon. I hope you can understand why our laws exist. I don’t think I’ll ever see you again. You’re free to go.’ ”
The judge was right.
“As I started looking back, not only did I break the barriers and skepticism as well as I didn’t ever want to become a statistic, I tried to become a model on the outside,” he said. “They can say whatever they want, but I’ve never been back. And people like me usually do (go back) not once, not twice, but for life.
“I’ve never been back.”