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Been there, done time
by Jessica Garcia
Jul 21, 2009 | 4453 views | 17 17 comments | 50 50 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<a href=>Tribune/Debra Reid</a> - Roberto Nerey went to prison for two years for conspiracy to commit murder and now counsels at-risk youths to steer them away from gangs.
Tribune/Debra Reid - Roberto Nerey went to prison for two years for conspiracy to commit murder and now counsels at-risk youths to steer them away from gangs.
The bus ride to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in 1991 wasn’t long enough for Roberto Nerey to contemplate the next year of his life. The cuffs around his hands and feet were tight and he was already missing his parents and fiancée back in Reno.

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.

The confrontation

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.”

Death Row

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.”

Almost home

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.”
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Dereck Beter
June 28, 2010
Roberto was someone I met during my middle school years and even as a student, youngster I remember how he use to take care of his people.. Every time a silly white boy like me would make a latino remark he would check me, as if he wanted to know if I was playing or if I was serious. Ofcourse we were all kidding around I mean, we were friends. Roberto did track, cross country, wrestled and played on the basketball A team with coach Penaluna. I just wanted to comment a little about him because ever since I can remember, he has been a leader, a leader on the sports team a leader for his people and a leader for his community. I am glad that Roberto is doing well, here is a man that deserves to be happy and if anyone needs to be rewarded for the humanitarian work anyone has done is him.. Thank you Sparks Tribune for highlightening a brief caption of a good man. Roberto, I hope you remember me and I hope you are well. Your amigo from Vaughn Middle School Dereck Beter
Steve Garcia
April 28, 2010
Hey, I know this guy.. I just ordered a book about him.. I met him during a local meeting in Reno where students, activist and concerned citizenz who are against the new AZ SB 1070 gathered to plan this weekends national protest. I know his name is Roberto but every one calls him CHICO. I just want to say that as a person, he is a big teddy bear and second that he was really helpful with his ideas and comments that he made. I am glad to know we have famous people like Chico here in Little Ass Reno. I am excited about having the opportunity to have met him and I am really looking forward to reading his book. By the way, nice article. Now I can say I know some what more about him. Thank you.


Coach Borba
February 04, 2010
21 years ago, Roberto "Cheeko" Nerey had a bright future, after graduating from Procter Hug High School in Reno, excelling on the wrestling match as well as in the football field, readying to enroll in college. But young Roberto or "Cheeko" as he is called lived in another world: that of youth gangs. When he tried to extricate himself - he encountered violent resistance. If his life challenges had seemed difficult up to then, they seemed nearly impossible in the aftermath of one nights tragic events that landed him in the penitentiary.

Looking back, however, that was just the beginning of Roberto's inspiring story. Instead of ending up in society's trash heap, he bucked the stiff odds and came out of prison a stronger man. - One intent at steering inner city, barrio youths from a life of gangs, violence, crime, incarceration, and early death. This is what I call a local heroe and we are very lucky to have him.


Washoe County School District
Derek Mathers
January 26, 2010
I just wanted to say that I've never felt so in, so there with anything that I have read. The story of this young man

from beginning to end is marvelous. I am not saying that I am happy for what he went through, we all make mistakes and freedom is something that could be taken from all of us. I'm just grateful to have experience this man's story as if it was me on that bus ride. All I want to say is that if there were more people like him, who came out and cared for the misfits of our communities, this world would be a much better place. Congratulations to the writer for giving us a taste of truth and reality. I'm glad to know that regardless of his struggles he is alive and surviving. As a Christian, I will pray and ask God to help the program. Where could I find Roberto, maybe I can start by calling the paper?


City of Sparks
Mary Stevens
January 20, 2010
What a wonderful story of triumph and hope. I really enjoyed the article. I hope the gentleman continues to do well, but most importantly he finds support and assistance for his wonderful program.

Rita Carr
September 06, 2009
I recently attended a community gathering where I saw Mr. Nerey and not only was I shocked, I was very excited to see him. Like always, he is full of light and fire. He stated that he had been gone, away from Reno due to a burn out and a seperation that he was taking very hard from his wife. I just can't help but love this person who truly fights for the under dog, especially the kids in our community and nation wide, as he speaks nothing can break him but when you sit by him, when you speak to him as one to one, he is nothing more than the biggest teddy bear you have ever met. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am glad he is back. At first, I really didn't understand and honestly didn't really care about what he represented and achked about but when he was no longer visible, when there was no more Roberto Nerey in our streets helping kids, or in the board rooms giving the police hell for the way they treated people of color, I honestly began to miss him. So, I just want people to know that this person is real, he is full of passion and aside from being a hard core gang member, (in the past) he is now the best person that you will find working towards a better life, not just for children but for those of us who live in the very same space he cares for so much as well. He tells me that once his record is sealed which is something he is working on now, and he becomes a citizen of this country, which will be in a couple of months, he will than attempt to run for office. I don't know about you, but I can't wait for that to happen. Talk about an American story, an American dream.. I for one, will surely vote for him. Will you?


Health Profesional
Amy Hills
August 28, 2009
What a sad but wonderful story. I sometimes wonder why life has to be so cruel and hard for people. Who knows, maybe this was his purpose, so that once older he could do the same exact work he is doing? I am glad to know that regardless of what Mr. Nerey has gone through, he is now doing better. I love to read about this young man, how tough it was for him and yet he has made it, becoming a better person. I've never read so much about anyone with such passion. Thank you Sparks Tribune for this touching and wonderful story. God bless him.

Amy Hills

Julie Foster
August 11, 2009
I really never knew that prison could be such an awful place. I mean you see movies but than you say, um, well, "that's just Hollywood."

I'm thankful for the insight, even though it leaves me with so many questions to be answered. One thing I do want to ask is, "If this is what goes on inside our prison walls, than what does the state mean, when it tells us it's rehabilitating our law breakers? This place sounds more like a jungle where it's clearly survival of the fetus and only the strong survive. If I'm a bit right about my conclusion, than why is it hard for us to believe, that convicts come out more animalistic than when they went in?

I'm just not understanding our system and someone should give us a clear picture, the truth about how they can say we are literally rehabilitating when in all actuality, we are not.

Julie Foster
Don Butler
August 04, 2009
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.

I can't help but wonder how tough growing up must have been for you Roberto, but this write up on your really helps me understand who you were before you disappeared on us. I saw you at Theresas, sons service, (Josephs) and I have to admit that I was really happy to have seen you. You can't imagine, how many of us realized you were such an asset once you were gone, things just weren't the same. It's kind of funny because, no one ever really spoke of gangs or were doing anything about them until what I think was your return. We need you in Reno Roberto, you seem more diplomatic, strong, you are still the same courages bull we know but no one can get it done like you can. I hope to be of service and or assistance to your worthy cause. Thank you again for being you but most importantly for returning home. I don't care what Law Enforcement feels or thinks about you, they are replaceable and you are not. So, hang in there kid, with a little help from your real friends, we can do this!

The Rev.
Rita Cummings
August 04, 2009
What a tremendous story with regards to how sometimes peer pressure can sometimes get a person into a lot of trouble. What amazes me however is how this fourteen year old boy, was able to convince and direct the mind of an 18 year old, young adult. I guess that there are some younger minds out there much stronger than older ones, and who out there could explain the cause of this? How is a 14 year old boy able to manipulate and control the mind of someone five years older?

Very, very interesting.

Rita Cummings

Spanish Springs
David Cortez
August 03, 2009
I use to wonder how it would feel to know how it was like to knowing you were going to do hard time. Not jail time but prison time. I must admit that your introduction really grabbed me, it caught my attention like nothing else and well honestly, I had to finish reading what was written. How can there be anyone out there who hears this man and not get an understanding of what prison is really like.

“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.”

I have never heard anyone describe the feeling of how it's like going into prison they way I have heard this man do so. I tell you this much, I'm 35 and still out there sometimes causing wreck, I've been told that it would only be a matter of time before I too went in there and you know what, after this guys story, I want to get my shit together.

What am I saying, if Roberto was able to get my attention at age 35, I can just imagine how powerful he is with the young ones.

My name is David and up until today, I wanted nothing more than to be a HELLS ANGLES. Well, for some good reason, I feel that God has something better stored for me.

David Cortez

Carson City
Rodney Webb
July 26, 2009
I'm glad to know Roberto works with all kids and not just Latinos. I use to read about him a lot in the early 2000 via the Reno Gazette Journal and than suddenly after 2006, he somehow disappeared. Many were saying he had died, some that he had gone back to Prison and others that he had moved to Las Vegas to work for the Barack Obama campaign. I later found out that the third rumor was the truth. When I knew he was gone, I was not only bothered but sad for us because, I knew he was real and like no other local activist. I really enjoyed reading about his cause, and about the passion he had for a better world. One thing I will say, when he was gone, his gap would not and could not be filled. No one once ever took his place, because they couldn't but what I am saying is that not anyone has or could do the things Roberto has done for this community. I was right, since he was gone, I have heard nothing about peace walks, community unities, carshows, alternatives for youth and of course a voice for the community. Now that he is back again, I see things have not changed and good for him. I am glad to see someone so deserving of it, be back on the spot light. Hopefully, now that he has returned, we will honor, thank and support who he is, not just as a friend, father but a back bone to our communities.

Pastor Webb
Bill Penaluna
July 26, 2009
Hey, isn't this guy on the picture with Mr. Nerey one of the Tongan Crip members who retaliated for a previouse shooting not so long ago? Wow! See, I've heard stories about Nerey but nothing as great as what I've read. According to those that know him, he is very good at what he does, many have called him a local Cesar Chavez but the one concern they have from him is that he only works with Latino youth. Well, judging from this picture, and from what I have seen and read, that comment is a lie and I am glad to know differantly. I am glad to know we have a street soldier, like him who is courages and strong. I now beleive he is honestly making a differance, even though he literally works for nothing.

Mr. Penaluna

Robert Shefield
July 26, 2009
What organization does Roberto represent, who does he work for? I wonder why the police department doesn't take advantage of his wisdom and knowledge of gangs. Oh, I know. He is an X Felon, that's right. Bull shit! He is more than that. Aside from being a wonderful person, he is an expert, a leader and a model for many.

I don't know, but I'm sure that if they would somehow get him involved, in their suppression methods and or tasks, I would guarantee that they could at least get something accomplished.

Robert Shefield
James Sprits
July 26, 2009
I don't know this young man, but through your articles, I really feel as though I know him. What a great person, and a beautiful friend to the community. He literlly deserves the valid assistance he so desperately searches. I pray to God he gets it.

Glenn Sprits
July 24, 2009
What an amazing story Roberto! I'm glad that you have this opportunity to tell it and to hopefully help bring more attention to the growing gang problem. I know that you have been working hard for many years to help keep kids out of gangs. Keep doing what you're doing - If you are able to help even just one child, then your time and efforts are not wasted. God bless you!
Angelloko montello
August 09, 2012
this cat is a snitch,the real story is tito shot a member of chicos own gang montello st locos.dont belive everything you read,and he just got busted for selling dope,see the light.

the real montello street locos.
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