Locked up: An inmate's journey from gangbanging to praying
By BY GHENI PLATENBURG - GPLATENDBURG@VICAD.COM
Sept. 17, 2011 at 4:17 a.m.
Updated Sept. 18, 2011 at 4:18 a.m.
Annette Yancey knew from the time her son was a child that he had a special anointing on his life.
Although he did not come from a particularly religious family, a few Easter Sundays spent listening to hearty sermons by lively Southern preachers made a lifelong impact on the then young boy.
"There was always a calling on him," Annette Yancey said about her son Albert Yancey. "But if a mother doesn't know how to protect that spiritual calling, it can really hurt."
At 37, Yancey has seemingly matured into the Christian man his mother hoped he would become, having accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior, applying Biblical Scriptures to his life, and most importantly, sharing his life testimony in hopes of leading others to Christ.
But not everything about Yancey's life is quite how his mother envisioned it.
He teaches others about the Biblical principles of forgiveness and doing unto others while serving a life sentence in prison for the first-degree murder of Frankie Sanchez.
Yancey, an inmate at the Jester state prison unit, committed the murder when he was 17 years old.
"I'm not a pastor. I'm a teacher," said Yancey, who said he is now a changed man. "My prayer is that kids idolizing Li'l Wayne and Lady Gaga understand prison is a place that is real."
Sept. 7 marked the 20th anniversary of Sanchez's murder.
THE ROAD TO PRISON
Growing up, Yancey routinely told police he would never go to jail for drugs or guns, but rather for murder.
He was the oldest of three children being raised by a single mother who fled an abusive relationship with her children's father. She worked multiple jobs just to take care of her children's basic needs.
Trying to fill the vacant patriarchal role in his family, Yancey would often mow yards to earn money to help his mother with the bills.
Although his father was not in his life on a daily basis, Yancey would spend summers with him.
The visits came to an abrupt halt, when Yancey turned 11.
His father, who was an alcoholic and drug addict, was found dead in the Colorado River.
His father's death started the downward spiral in the pre-teen's life.
"Every child has a hero. Even in his absence, he was still my hero," said Yancey, as he leaned back in the chair of an empty visitation room at the Jester Unit in Fort Bend County under the watchful eyes of a stern-faced prison guard looking for an excuse to restrain the inmate.
The troubled youth soon began developing a rap sheet and becoming a familiar name among law enforcement.
"He was just a kid when I knew him, a really likeable kid," said Pama Hencerling, chief juvenile probation officer for Victoria County.
Hencerling was Yancey's first probation officer.
"He took advantage of the fact that his mother was not always around to give him supervision," she said. "He had too much freedom and no parental involvement."
He was influenced by movies like "Colors," "New Jack City" and "Boyz in the Hood" as well as gangster rappers like Ice Cube and N.W.A., all who portrayed gangster life as being cool.
Yancey, who excelled in academics and as a star athlete at Stroman High School, became one of the original members of the Under the Hill gang, South Side Posse, whose members were recognizable by their uniform of Los Angeles Raiders clothing and Addidas shoes.
As a gang leader, Yancey committed countless burglaries and sold drugs.
"It was the thrill. The high that came with doing wrong," he said. "I was hurt on the inside over my dad's death, but I didn't know how to express it on the outside."
Despite a brief move to Bastrop, a few conventional fast food jobs and his mother's futile attempts to discipline her son, the lure of fast money continued to draw him deeper into the gangster lifestyle.
Yancey's rule as a gang leader came to a violent end the night of Sept. 7, 1991.
While hanging out in front of The Last Word nightclub in south Victoria, he saw a Jeep carrying four men, including Sanchez, come slowly down the street pulling a boat.
While Sanchez's family contends the men had gotten lost during a traffic detour, other theories say the men were in the area for other reasons.
"It was a known drug area. If you saw a car going at a slow pace, you were going to ask them if they were looking for drugs," said Yancey, as he explained why members of his gang initially stopped the Jeep.
After two brief stops, members of the South Side Posse, excluding Yancey, mobbed the Jeep, attempting to rob the men of their gold chains around their necks and the beer from coolers in the boat.
Shots rang out as the Jeep turned north onto Depot Street from East Second Street.
Yancey admitted to shooting rounds in the direction of the Jeep.
Unknown to Yancey, Sanchez, who was in the backseat, had been shot.
Several hours later, 25 to 30 cops stormed the Yancey home and arrested him.
As cops dragged her son away, Annette Yancey said she grabbed her son's wallet, only to be surprised by what she found folded neatly inside of it - a yellowed, brittle newspaper clipping about his father's death.
Friendly. Outgoing. Best friend.
That's how Odlia Sanchez, 67, described her son, Frankie Sanchez.
Although the two were always close, their relationship strengthened after Sanchez's older sister left for college, leaving the two alone while Sanchez's father worked the late shift.
Odilia Sanchez said her son not only participated in catechism classes, Little League sports and school plays, he also excelled in academics.
After graduating from Stroman High School in 1988, Sanchez attended Victoria College with dreams of one day becoming a corporate lawyer, but money problems prompted him to join the U.S. Army Reserve and work at various fast food restaurants and Walmart.
The night before the shooting, she was not happy to hear that her son had planned to go to Coleto Creek Reservoir the next day with three of his best friends.
"I had a feeling something was going to happen," the mother said.
Unable to change her 21-year-old son's mind about the excursion, she recalled her son telling her, "Mama, I always listen to you, but this time I have to go."
About 8:30 p.m. Sept. 7, 1991, the worried mother's worst fears came true.
She received a call informing her of the shooting.
By the time she arrived at the hospital, she said she saw the family's priest with a rosary in his hands and her son lying on the hospital bed covered in blood.
"I had flashbacks for years," his mother said. "I would see him covered in blood right before my eyes."
Sanchez, whose spinal cord was severed by the bullet, died three days later.
"He just killed him," she said through tears. "He didn't do nothing to deserve to be killed like that."
"If I had any doubt about whether he was guilty, I would not have proceeded with the prosecution," said George Filley III, the former Victoria County District Attorney who prosecuted the case against Yancey.
Yancey's murder trial began on Dec. 27, 1991, and ended on Feb. 5, 1992, during which time the state called close to 30 witnesses, while the defense called none.
Although Yancey had admitted to his court-appointed attorney Steven Ross that he had indeed shot a gun that night, he said, he was advised not to say anything because of the lack of gun powder residue on his hands or the lack of fingerprints on the bullet shells.
It was a plan that Yancey said proved to be detrimental almost immediately.
"Once I saw my friends get on the stand and testify against me, I thought my chances of winning had gone straight out the window," said Yancey, as he described hearing testimony that put him at the scene with a gun in hand. "I wasn't expecting a betrayal. I thought you lived by the street code. You don't snitch.
After the trial, Yancey filed two appeals, both were denied.
LIFE IN PRISON
For Yancey, the past 19 years in prison have been far from a cakewalk.
"It's day in and day out mental and psychological torment," he said.
Being away from his family and the constant thoughts of what happened the night of the shooting have kept Yancey not only physically in prison, but also a prisoner of his own mind.
"Having to live with that in my psyche, that I took a life, something I haven't brought into this world, it's not something I take lightly," he said. "Knowing my actions caused so much collateral damage not only to my family, but also to Frankie's family, is not easy for me. I can still see my mother for my birthday or the holidays even if it is just for a two-hour visit. The Sanchez family can't do any of that."
Although he is serving time for the shooting, he is still unsure whether he was truly the one who shot Sanchez that night.
Testimony given during the trial by a former Travis County medical examiner showed the bullet that killed Sanchez was either a .38-caliber or a 9 mm.
Yancey, who said he didn't aim to shoot anyone, had a 9 mm.
He credits the re-introduction of religion into his life as being a saving grace.
"On April 6, 1994, I gave my life to Christ," said Yancey, as he described slowly making his way from the back of the Terrell Unit prison chapel to the front pew.
"At first I was afraid to embrace it. I was afraid to walk away from the life I had succumbed to."
Today, Yancey serves as a praise and worship leader at the Jester Unit where he occasionally preaches sermons.
He also shares his testimony about his path to destruction with others through his organization, Prisoners Making Changes, a faith-based program designed by inmates to prevent youth from engaging in violence, drug abuse, gang involvement and other actions that could lead to prison.
Since last year, Yancey said he has made contact with 15 organizations to get his story out, including the Victoria County Juvenile Probation Department.
The department regularly shows juveniles in their care a taped interview Yancey did with Trinity Broadcasting Network, Hencerling said.
"Once a kid who doesn't have a lot starts making a little bit of money, it's hard to say 'go to work for minimum wage' when they are making thousands of dollars," said Hencerling. "The message means more knowing he is from here and not just someone on TV."
She hopes once he is out of prison, Yancey continues to create more programs.
Since gaining a new lease on life, Yancey has not only obtained his high school equivalency, but also a diploma in Biblical studies from Grace Bible College and an associate's degree from Alvin Community College.
Additionally, he has obtained vocational skills such as desktop publishing and machine washer.
He hopes to one day obtain his MBA as well as study civics to become an entrepreneur and at-risk youth counselor in Victoria.
When he is not in the chapel, he busies himself writing letters to family and friends and making personalized leather goods to raise money to buy products from the commissary.
"I can't even identify with the person I used to be," he said. "I was on the path to destruction. Had I continued to live my life the way I was living, I wouldn't have seen my 18th birthday.
"I like to say I wasn't arrested. I was rescued."
"I survive on pills. That's how I've coped with life since my son died," said Odilia Sanchez, as she opened up a black, purse-sized bag full of medicine bottles. "(Annette) can go see her son in prison all the time, and I have to buy flowers to take to my son's grave."
Since her son's death, the grieving mother said she has suffered two nervous breakdowns.
Coping with the whole ordeal has also been taxing for Yancey's family.
"For 20 years, I've been going up and down the highway. I wonder how my old car has made it," said Annette Yancey, who said she has had to lean on family, friends, church members and God to make it through the years. "I'd say it was more emotionally draining."
Despite the establishment of Yancey's program and things he has said in media interviews, including his recent admission of the probability of his guilt, Odilia Sanchez has found little comfort.
"If he had not denied killing him, I would have found a little relief, but I think he's not under God's grace," she said. "It's just a cover up. He's very manipulative."
The rift between the two families also remains, as both mothers admitted to seeing each other around Victoria through the years, but not speaking.
Annette Yancey shared advice for mothers whose children may be heading down similar paths as her son.
"Be truthful, even though sometimes the truth hurts, and hold them accountable," she said.
Yancey's parole hearing could be any day now.
His friends and family have rallied to advocate for his release, creating both a Facebook page and T-shirts donning Yancey's picture and the words, "Free Albert."
The emotions of both families continue to run high as the day approaches.
"I want him in. He didn't give my son a chance to achieve his goals. He cut off our name," said Odilia Sanchez. "I believe in God and His justice. I don't wish him harm, just that God helps him."
Meanwhile, Yancey's family remains confident he is now an upright man, not the troubled 17-year-old gangbanger who walked into prison so many years ago.
"As a mother, I don't think he's going to leave Jesus on the bunk when he leaves. When God walks Albert out of prison, he will be the man God created him to be, and he won't go back," his mother said confidently.