Teachable moment

Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office Investigator Marcelo

It’s July 30, 2008. Port Arthur native Damon West is sitting in his apartment in Dallas on the phone with his dealer trying to score some meth. He’s “high as hell” and telling his associate he’s feeling the heat; he’s worried the police are onto him, that they know about his illicit activities.

Just as he’s describing his paranoia to the methamphetamine merchant, he hears the crash of glass and looks up to see a small, metal canister rolling across the floor in front of him. He has a split second to register the fact that the canister looks just like stun grenades he’s seen before in movies, then “BAM!” — it explodes with a flash and a bang. The next thing he knows, he’s on the floor staring down the barrel of an automatic rifle with a boot on his chest and a SWAT officer telling him to stay down.

“They were saying, ‘We got him. We got the Uptown Burglar,’” West recalls. “They had me. They got the Uptown Burglar. They got me that day.”

West was offering his account of that fateful day to area students. He and Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office Investigator Marcelo Molfino have teamed up to bring home a message about making good choices or suffering the consequences. Sept. 16, the didactic duo spoke to the Lamar University men’s basketball team, telling the student athletes just how severe the consequences of poor decisions could be.

LU Coach Tic Price said he invites speakers about once a month to educate his students on various life lessons. “If our athletes graduate from Lamar University just as better players, we’ve failed as coaches,” Price said during the assembly at McDonald Gym. “They’re called student athletes for a reason.”

According to Price, he hopes West’s “powerful message” will help the team members make good choices in life.

Price introduced Molfino, and encouraged the players to take the message seriously.

Molfino told the students to stay away from drugs, which are “way too prevalent” on the streets of Southeast Texas and in cities across the nation. Not only could the illegal narcotics negatively impact them physically and get them into legal trouble, but they also often lead to other crime, he warned.

He said that the team would be in the limelight, and he urged them act as positive role models and all-around good citizens.

“People are going to expect more of you, and you should expect more of yourselves,” he said. “Make the right choices.”

He then asked the students to listen to West, whose story “is like none I’ve ever heard.”

Before West found himself on the wrong end of a SWAT officer’s AR-15, he was a star athlete turned broker. He was a quarterback at Thomas Jefferson High School, and following graduation, he headed to the University of North Texas to play football there. Everything seemed to be going great until a shoulder injury sidelined him Sept. 21, 1996. While recovering from that setback, he sliced his Achilles heel during an accident at home. His football career had come abruptly to an end.

West was at a crossroads, one of many “forks in the road” he warned students they would inevitably come to while navigating life’s path.

“I did not handle it well,” said West. “When I hit that fork in the road, I went in the wrong direction.”

West said following the accident, he was drinking and getting high on cocaine and marijuana quite often. After a while, he recuperated and mostly focused on his studies, except on the weekends when he was still “smoking blunts” and partying with his friends.

In spite of his carousing, West went on to graduate and ended up working for Congress in the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. West later worked on a presidential campaign in political fundraising before taking a position as a stockbroker at a prominent Dallas bank.

One evening after a particularly tough day at the office, he was approached by a coworker in the garage outside the bank. West was coming to yet another fork in the road.

“This dude handed me a glass pipe,” West described, “and he said, ‘Hey man, pick yourself up a little bit. You’re dragging today.’ So I smoked this meth.”

It was the worst choice he’s ever made, he said.

West revealed that he formed his bad habits early in life after a traumatic childhood experience.

 “What do they tell y’all the gateway drug is? Marijuana. Wrong – it’s alcohol,” West related. “Alcohol is the first drug you’re ever going to do. It’s a drug, and it’s very addictive for the most part. Not many people go to marijuana first. But if you drink before the age of 21, not only is it a drug you’re using, but it’s illegal. You’re into criminal addictive behavior at a young age.

“For me, it all started with alcohol. By 10, I was drinking and smoking cigarettes, but I hid it from my parents. As an addict, you learn to be a really good manipulator. I was smoking blunts with my buddies by the time I was 12.

“This is my life, guys. This is what’s going on in my life. But I have no clue the beast that I’m feeding.”

So, when he was offered the glass pipe in the shady garage, he thought he could handle it. He thought he could put it down, just as he had with so many other substances he’s abused in the past. He was wrong.

“I mean, I’d done all the drugs, man. I know what I’m doing. I did all these drugs. I kicked cocaine. I kicked all these other drugs. I still smoke blunts, because smoking blunts doesn’t hurt anybody. Right? Wrong. I learned this behavior when I was 10 and 12 years old. What I’m telling you is, all that drinking and smoking blunts and all that stuff, it leads to a different place, a dark place.

“If y’all don’t listen to anything else I say today, listen to this part: methamphetamine is the devil.”

West rapidly went from trading on Wall Street to living “on the pavement” in Dallas. He eventually shared a house with several other addicts but found it difficult to pay rent or bills. No one was working. They were all too busy getting high. With no money coming in for necessities or, more importantly to West and friends, for meth, they formed a burglary ring and started breaking into storage units and cars.

“When that wasn’t enough, we started committing home burglaries,” admitted West. 

They weren’t just taking property. “I was taking away their sense of security,” he said.

He said he remembers one woman who testified at his trial that she now has to sleep with the lights on because West burglarized her home.

When you’re an addict, he said, “You’re creating victims all the time, but the biggest are family.”

West told the students about calling his parents after his arrest in 2008. He’d never heard his father sound so hurt, and his mother told him he would have to have faith in order to overcome the obstacles he was going to face. He heeded her words, and turned his life around from behind bars.

West told the students he received a 65-year sentence for his crimes, and he gave a sometimes grisly account of his experiences while incarcerated. He told them about a brutal fight in the shower during which he used a fan motor in a commissary bag like a “medieval weapon” to beat a man who was trying to rape him. He described the painful way he overcame racial barriers to play basketball in the prison yard. He told the students that for him, it was faith that led him to the path of happiness he is on now, and he cautioned them to learn from his bad decisions rather than making their own poor choices.

“People always say, learn from your mistakes,” said West. “I think it’s foolish to choose to learn from your own mistakes when others around you have made those same mistakes ahead of you. Why not learn from them? I’m here today because I hope you can learn from my mistakes.”