From a marked man to a changed man |

From a marked man to a changed man

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Luis Sanchez reflects on his gang life before going into one of the last treatments to remove the three dots tattooed next to his left eye which signified his affiliation.

The pain was worse when Luis Sanchez used a staple, lead powder and toothpaste to repeatedly poke his face in forming three green dots near his left eye.

It was a gang tattoo. He was 13.

The pain in shedding the homemade face tattoo via a laser in a doctor’s office is more of a discomfort, perhaps proving his path to a better life, a reincarnation of sorts, is more rewarding than an existence previously marked by violence and drugs and incarceration.

The three-dot tattoo on his face and left hand represents “my crazy life” and involvement in the Southside Cyclones 13. The gang, he says, was dominant in South Lake Tahoe about a decade ago.

Sanchez, 26, said he first tried methamphetamine when he was 11 or 12. His parents were hardly seen, constantly working. But Sanchez doesn’t blame them, he blames his tendency to follow.

During his freshman year of high school he excelled on the varsity soccer team as a forward.

“I really had a future in soccer,” Sanchez said. “I knew I could make it.” But outside influences derailed his prospects.

Junior varsity coach Joe Winters saw something in the teenager from Guadalajara, Mexico, and took him under his wing, even allowing Sanchez to live at his house.

“As a soccer player he was a phenomenal talent,” Winters said. “He played well above his years. It’s just a shame he got hooked up with the wrong crowd.”

During the six months at Winters house, Sanchez went to school and received good grades. When soccer stopped, Winters said the teenager “just disappeared.”

After his freshman year the serious trouble began. High for about a week, Sanchez saw a rival from a Salvadoran gang walking down his street. Grabbing a table leg and hiding it by his side, Sanchez went looking for a fight.

“I don’t think he was suspecting it … I got him pretty good,” he said. The rival gang member escaped the attack but not before receiving a cut that needed stitches to close. Sanchez said he tried give chase but was too weak, so he punched himself, punishment for what he thought was failure.

“It was a heartbreaker to see him fall off the deep end,” Winters said.

Sanchez spent more than five years imprisoned in California Youth Authority. He shaved his head and eyebrows. Fights were frequent. Sanchez said his nose was broken while sleeping. His right hand was smashed when he cracked it into a wall during a riot at a Los Angeles facility. His stomach was sliced by a razor blade. He was kicked in the face.

Bright light helps remind him of those hard times.

“I get headaches with the light,” Sanchez said.

After his release, violence soon sent him back behind bars. Sanchez was given a lenient sentence of two years in El Dorado County Jail instead of seven years in prison.

It turned out to be a blessing.

“It was a favor from the court,” he said. “They saw something different.

“I know I would have become a more violent person,” Sanchez added. “That’s what prison does to you.”

El Dorado County District Attorney Hans Uthe knew of Sanchez from prior years. The prosecutor said he felt something different about the tough brawler.

“It just seemed like he was ready to step up and be an adult,” Uthe said. “Sometimes you get strong feelings like this.”

While in jail he was visited by Jerry Howard and others from Lake Tahoe Christian Fellowship. Sanchez was raised Catholic but not was not religious, but he gravitated toward the Christian teachings.

“I used to pray a lot and just repeating things … I never knew God. Now I know God,” he said.

Howard, jail pastor for the fellowship, said he got to know Sanchez by seeing the inmate twice a week for Bible study and Sunday services.

“It’s pretty radical,” Howard said. “He was a pretty tough nut … It was the lord that reached out to him through me.”

Sanchez also credited jail staff in helping leave his past.

“This is more like a recovery center,” he said of the county jail in South Lake Tahoe. “The best thing about this jail is the people. They treat you like a human being.”

He also received letters from his soon-to-be wife. When talking about her, Sanchez shakes his head at his luck.

“She is the opposite of me. She is just a church girl, you know what I mean?” he said.

Out of jail, clean from drugs and out of the “crazy life,” Sanchez wanted his homemade tattoos removed. Uthe and Dr. Martin Salm helped make Sanchez’s goal a reality.

“Hans Uthe wanted me to go to jail for two years,” Sanchez said. Now he’s helping me. He’s the one who made it happen.”

But Salm is the one who has a high-density laser capable of removing only tattoo ink without burning skin.

Salm, who has dermatology offices at Kingsbury Grade, Minden and Incline Village, has been removing tattoos since 1985 but has been removing unwanted ink in the Tahoe area since 1995.

Called Q-switch laser, pin-point energy is delivered in a billionth of a second on the skin.

“The heat doesn’t have enough time to burn the skin,” Salm said.

Salm and his staff have removed tattoos from numerous youth, including those from places like China Springs Youth Camp. He often does it for free. He often receives letters of appreciation.

The most memorable to remove are unsightly creations covered by another tattoo, Salm said. But those who do get them off are typically please, he said.

Sanchez is happy. He wants the tattoos off before his wedding, about a week away. When probation period ends Sanchez envisions himself enrolling in school to become a preacher. He already speaks well, both in Spanish and English, about his travails and journey in finding God. Besides working construction, he spends time visiting jail inmates and hospital patients.

“I know there was good in his heart there somewhere but he really had to realign his life back to walking in a straighter path than going in the wrong direction,” Winters said.

Sanchez also looks upon gangs in South Lake Tahoe with distaste.

“If you’re going to be a gang member in Tahoe you’re not very smart,” Sanchez added.

– E-mail William Ferchland at

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