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How a former Sacramento gang member went from a life in crime to rocket science at Cal Poly

Jeffrey Aparicio probably couldn’t have envisioned a career in the aerospace industry when he was younger and a Sacramento-area gang member.

A future in prison seemed more likely, he thought.

But as he sets foot on Cal Poly’s campus for a second year after transferring from Cosumnes River College, his ambitions are sky high.

Aparicio’s journey from the age of 14 has come with many bumps — that’s when his father died, ultimately leading to him falling in with the wrong crowd and eventual incarceration.

But he has come out, amazingly, on a path to academic success. Aparicio, 27, earned mostly As and Bs in his first year at Cal Poly and hopes to work someday for NASA or Boeing.

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Jeffrey Aparicio is a former gang member who is now studying aerospace engineering at Cal Poly. Photo by Joe Johnston 09-14-18 Joe Johnston

‘My innocence was lost’

It all started in his hometown of Sacramento — where education was highly valued in his household.

His father, a Mexican immigrant, slept in the fields in Salinas when he first came to America and then shared an apartment with seven people, later working two jobs as a cook and raising a family of three kids along with Aparicio’s mother.

But, because of family pride, it wasn’t until just before his father’s death on Oct. 13, 2005 that Aparicio knew the full extent of his dad’s alcoholism. Aparicio knew his father was in the hospital from alcohol poisoning, but he only found out a month before how sick he was.

“My mother wanted to shield me from that,” Aparicio said.

Despite his family’s hardships, he looked up to his father as the head of the household — a protector.

Crying over his death bed, Aparicio begged his dad not to leave the family behind.

“He was my hero,” Aparicio said. “From that point on, my innocence was lost.”

Aparicio’s mother and two siblings pushed on. But he was at a loss emotionally and searched for male role models in his life, he said.

Aparicio started spending time with cousins from the Bay Area, gang members who began coming to Sacramento more often to visit.

They introduced him to other gang members in the area.

“I was looking for acceptance, and pretty much all of those guys came from broken homes, where their father left them at a young age,” Aparicio said. “Instead of being a man and taking care of my family, I decided to join a gang.”

Over the next few years, Aparicio didn’t attend much school, bouncing between four different high schools. He spent time in a youth detention facility for carrying a knife and later brandishing a gun on the street at an undercover police officer, whom he mistakenly thought was a rival gang member.

On more than one occasion, his home was fired upon by other gang members because his family happened to live in a rival gang territory.

He was involved in armed robberies, burglaries, assaults and batteries, he told a recent audience at a SLO Chamber of Commerce Good Morning SLO event, a monthly gathering of businesspeople and other community members.

But while doing stints as a juvenile behind bars, Aparicio realized he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in jail.

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Jeffrey Aparicio is a former gang member who is now studying aerospace engineering at Cal Poly. Photo by Joe Johnston 09-14-18 Joe Johnston

A surprise message

Despite the turmoil in his life, he managed to earn a GED after attending continuation school and worked for Fed Ex.

He went to community college, before a call in 2011 from the gang interrupted him; a residential burglary led to eight months behind bars, according to Sacramento Superior Court records.

“All it takes is one call,” he said. “That call can change everything.”

Aparicio was involved in three fights in jail, one of them a riot that led to isolated confinement in “the hole.”

Only a few weeks before his release, Aparicio was summoned by some of the gang leaders facing murder charges who controlled his fate.

“Generally, when you get called to a leader’s cell, it means you either messed up and you’re going to get beat up, or you’re going to have to carry out an order that can keep you in jail a lot longer, like years longer,” Aparicio said. “I thought they were mad at me because I shared food with someone outside my race. I was really nervous.”

Instead, the message was a surprise — the gang leaders advised him not to follow in their footsteps.

“They told me not to be like them and do things that would make me keep me in jail for a long time,” Aparicio said. “They wanted me to get out and make something of myself.”

Upon his release, he attended Cosumnes, where he gained new-found passion for school.

Inspired by his new direction in life, he completed seven associate degrees in subjects including math, physics and arts (he took all 12 math classes the college offered) and kept a grade-point average over 3.5 — earning admissions into UC Davis, Sacramento State and Cal Poly.

Michael Carney, Cosumnes’ director of the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement, said “(Aparicio) maintained quality relationships with his professors, advisers and counselors. He always had encouraging words for other students.”

Aparicio was selected to speak at Cosumnes’ graduation and he “became a face of (Cosumnes), appearing in publicity materials on billboards, buses and movie screens,” according to university officials.

Cosumnes engineering teacher Brandon Saller was a big influence and recommended aerospace, Aparicio told The Tribune. He didn’t know much about it, but the idea sounded good. One of his favorite movies is the 1998 film “Armageddon” that involves a space mission to save the planet from an asteroid the size of Texas.

A new outlook

That’s how he decided on Cal Poly, where he was one of three minority students in his first-year aerospace class.

It hasn’t always been easy at Cal Poly.

Aparicio got a D+ in Dynamics (a class he plans to take again) and struggled to adjust to a new environment, gradually finding his way socially in the university’s MultiCultural Center and getting involved in clubs.

But he did well in other courses, such as Intro to Aerospace, Manufacturing Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, earning As and Bs.

He said he doesn’t mind being one of only a few minority students in the program, saying it will help him prepare for an industry that’s predominantly white.

“I study a lot,” Aparicio said.. “I read, and then I re-read my books. I have two notebooks for every class, and I’m keeping notes all the time. ... I want to be able to give back to my mom and my family one day.”

His career goal is to one day work on rockets, missiles or defense systems. He wants to work on a space craft that, if he gets a chance, he’ll name Bruce Willis in honor of “Armeggedon’s” star.

“I would say to anyone who was in a similar situation to me to dream big and never settle for less, and never let anyone put you down,” Aparicio said. “I’m very blessed and very thankful to be where I am now.”

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