An Ex-Gang Banger Who Blows Minds

How do good kids turn into surprising killers?

by Larry Wilson

Once one of those good kids, Tim McGee, tells the story every mother dreads: How he became one of the most feared cop shooters in Seattle. It’s a story more of hope than fear, he reassures, but be warned. He’s still praying for great confrontations. Just not the kind you might think.

Throughout his childhood Tim McGee had heard about Jesus, gone to church, been prayed over and prayed with. His mother had even moved their family from inner-city Chicago to the safety of the Seattle suburbs, where McGee became one of the few high school sophomores to make the varsity basketball team.

So what went wrong?

It’s the kind of question you might put to 25-year-old McGee with a bit of apprehension. At 6-foot-4, he can be pretty intimidating. More intimidating still is the size of his record: assault, burglary, drug possession, manslaughter. By police accounts he’s been one of the most feared gang members in Seattle.

So maybe McGee’s answer is no surprise, not in a year when too many headlines have told about good kids resorting to violence. And yet, despite the six shootings the past 12 months in white, suburban neighborhoods and on school grounds, it’s still an answer that’s unsettling and mysterious.

For McGee, simply: Rage happened.

It didn’t start so dramatically. First there were small frustrations. Looking for more belonging than what he felt at home in Chicago, 9-year-old McGee found identity in the neighborhood gang. At 13 he was angry for being forced to leave his friends and family in Chicago, and angry that his father wasn’t there. Within a year McGee was enraged at a world that told him he couldn’t be anything but a dangerous loser. In June 1991 he was charged with shooting a Seattle police officer in the leg (he beat the assault charge when it couldn’t be proved who fired); in 1992, when attacked by a group of sailors after a football game, he gunned down three of them. One died.

Serving 18 months in a Washington State prison for killing the sailor, Tim McGee had his greatest confrontation.

"Jesus won that battle," he says.

Now Tim McGee is seeing to it that others at least have the opportunity for that same great confrontation. He goes to college, works in maintenance, serves as an evangelist and youth worker for Mount Calvary Christian Center, speaks as a volunteer chaplain to kids in policed detention centers, and represents Mothers Against Violence in America as a spokesperson.

God has given him something the gangs never could, he says in this interview – "a future." Before it’s too late, he pleads with parents, talk to your kids about theirs.

For most of your youth you had the reputation of being a dangerous gangster. How bad were you really?
If I said "Let’s go do this shooting," the gang would do it. I held a lot of power in one of the original gangs in Seattle, the Black Gangster Disciples. We grew from 20 people to 2,000 in two years. In the 11 years I was in gangs, I was well known by the police and judges for selling a lot of drugs, shooting a police officer, gunning down the three sailors – one died. But these were just the things that got publicized. I got away with a lot of other things: fights, drugs, messing up people’s property .... A lot of people expected the worst of me. I did too.

All I knew was street life. I’d get frustrated or angry and mess around and end up in trouble at school, in the neighborhood. I hit a kid over the head with a pop bottle once. I got into drugs.

Why were you growing up on the streets? Did you have a bad home life?
No, my mom was good to me. She tried to teach me right. She took me to church. She’d always tell me she was praying for me and tell me about God. She loved me and I loved her, but I can’t say we were close. We didn’t communicate a lot. I wish she would have sat down, talked to me and encouraged me more, not just when I was in trouble, but on a consistent basis.

Did you ask these things of her?
My mom isolated herself. She’d come home and go to her room and that was that. Because she wasn’t more open with me, I didn’t tell her my problems.

Looking back what do you think was the greatest problem?
Fear. In the gang, first you feel fear. Then, because you can’t live with that, you harden yourself to it. Things get out of hand.

How is it, after things got so far out of hand, that you turned your life around?
Ultimately it was God tugging at me. Because He’s so good and merciful, God knew if He could get me out of all the drugs, violence and gangs that I’d be His positive role model.

What do you mean?
I always knew right from wrong. I always knew I was a better person and wanted to change, but couldn’t seem to figure out how.

When I was in prison, a church choir came and sang for us. One of the women warned: "God is giving you a chance. This might be your last chance."

It was like God talking to me. I decided when I got out of prison I would go to church, and I did go seeking God.

Then one of my friends accidentally shot himself and died. I went to his funeral at Mount Calvary Christian Center. I had been to 56 funerals in 11 years, but for the first time I wasn’t there high.

About 800 gang members were there. Pastor Reggie Whitherspoon was preaching and kept hitting on no matter who you are, no matter what other people say you are, you have a purpose. "It doesn’t take a special purpose to shoot someone, deal drugs and die young." he said. "Gang members aren’t who you are. That’s who you become. You can do anything you want if you try. Just trust God. He’s given you a purpose."

I was raised in church and never heard anyone of God say that without condemning me. Pastor Reggie Witherspoon was the first man who said I could be something different. Instead of talking about me, he was talking to me.

How did that change you?
Before I left gangs I was ruthless. I was everyone’s worst nightmare. When you meet me now – the way I dress, my demeanor the way I speak, the way I carry myself – if I didn’t tell you, you’d never know I was an ex-gang member. A lot of people knew the old Tim. Now they see the new Tim and it blows their minds. Instead of leading kids into gangs, I’m going into the same area where I gang-banged, leading kids to Christ. All the credit goes to what God did in me through the church.

What have you seen God do that means the most to you?
I’ve watched more than 500 gang members change their lives because of what they saw God do in my life, but Monche Hunter is special. Seven or eight years ago I led him into gangs. Monche had always idolized me, looked up to me as a big brother. When I changed my life I witnessed to him. It didn’t sink in right away. He had to go to jail first. While he was in jail God began to work in him. He began to seek God, pray, read the Bible. He remembered everything I told him about my life. Today he’s a born-again Christian, going to church.

Who are these kids, like Monche and you, who have turned to gangs and violence?
A lot of them are regular people, average kids. They have good families and good parents. But most parents don’t even know their kids are out doing these things, and the streets begin to have more influence on the kids than the parents do.

Why do you think that is?
Because these kids don’t have a sense of purpose or a vision for their life. When you don’t know who you are, you go through life defining yourself by what other people call you.

It’s a process, too, years and years of believing what other people say about you. Inside, you’re hurting and dying because you feel the world has let you down. To cover up your pain, you rebel more. You sell more drugs. You shoot people. You aren’t born a criminal, a gang member, a drug addict or violent overnight. You become that.

How can parents tell when their kids are slipping away, into those things?
Children are going to be a product of their environment. If parents want to know how their children are going to turn out, look at their environment: the things they see, things they do. Don’t just send them to school. Find out what’s in the school, know who they hang around. If your kid’s friends are drinking, dying and going to jail, chances are your kids are going to drink, die and go to jail too.

What can parents do to keep their kids from turning to gangs or violence?
Pay close attention. Don’t wait for the problems to come. Set up a consistent relationship now. Encourage on a daily basis. Make them feel confident and free, like they can share anything. Also find out what your kids’ vision is. Show your kids who they are; then put them in that environment, monitor them and make sure they stay on the right path.

That sounds too simple.
Maybe, but a lot of parents don’t know their kids. They may know their kids have this kind of habit or like that type of food, but they don’t really know their kids’ hurts and pains and how they’re making sense of those things.

Really knowing your kids and making it safe for them to tell you things takes constant conversation with them – not just about surface things, but about deep things.

What if your kids seem unresponsive? Can you be in their face too much?
In the beginning kids may not come out, but if they see their parents are understanding and really want to know about them, really care about them, then one day when life is too hard to handle, they’ll know they can go to their mom and dad.

How many things would be different if you had the chance to talk about it first?

Reprinted by permission, Aspire Magazine.