From fighting gang life to fighting fires
Victor Tovar ducked bullets as a gangster and charged into blazing buildings as a fireman, but nothing prepared him for this monumental task – addressing a sleepy bunch of troubled children. As a teen, Tovar beat people up and capered around with the Elmwood Street gang in Burbank. He turned his back on his family and regularly spent time in the back of police cars. A lengthy stint in a probation camp turned him around. More than 10 years has passed since he last felt the fear of the streets, but he still paced nervously as the kids at the alternative school in North Hollywood filed into the auditorium. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREStriving toward a more perfect me: Doug McIntyre As they settled in, he steadied his voice and began to speak. When he was 15, he told them, he was just like them. “I found myself getting jumped,” he said. “I found myself getting into fights. I found myself riding in a car on the way to a drive-by. And pretty soon, I found myself getting jumped in.” Now, he’s 28, a homeowner, married and a father of two. For the past two years, he’s worked as a Los Angeles city firefighter. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Juvenile Justice, which once locked him up, recently gave him its annual Outstanding Achievement Award. And the Los Angeles County Probation Department hopes to use him as a pilot in a mentoring program. The road to success, however, was not terribly easy. He dropped out of Burroughs High School. Bullets killed a couple of his friends and paralyzed two more. Plenty more ended up in prison or hyped on heroin. “I was jacked up,” he said. “I had tattoos on my neck and my arms. I was smoking weed every day. My family disowned me. Society disowned me. I felt like I was on my own.” While in the care of the county, he met his arch nemesis, Probation Officer Paul Vinetz. The loquacious, bespectacled Vinetz tried to get Tovar to go to school, to quit banging, to come back to his family. Nothing worked. Every other week, it seemed, Tovar was back before a judge. Fed up, Vinetz got his charge put in a probation camp for six months for the final half-year of his youth. If Tovar reoffended when he got out, he’d face incarceration as an adult. As he lay in bed at the rural camp, Tovar reflected. His mother cried and prayed for him constantly. His fellow gangsters were still living at home, working bad jobs and scraping for dollars. Tovar served his sentence and returned to Burbank, but not to the same life. “I felt like I’d put in enough work for the gang, so I stopped hanging around with them,” he said. “I got in some fights, even with my close friends, but eventually, they saw I was trying to do something different.” He moved to a different part of Burbank and got a job at a Glendale frame shop. He stopped associating with the guys who’d gotten him into trouble. Vinetz didn’t see him again for four years. “I’d completely forgotten about him,” Vinetz said. “I didn’t know what had happened to him and I wasn’t concerned, frankly.” Then Tovar showed up at his probation office. He’d grown a few inches, gained 40 pounds and put on a suit. He apologized for all the trouble he’d put Vinetz through and asked for a letter of recommendation. He’d finished his high school diploma in adult school and wanted to get into a Fire Explorer program. Vinetz wrote the letter with one condition: Screw up and I’ll track you down. Tovar spent the next four years volunteering with the Glendale and Montebello fire departments and living up to his end of Vinetz’s bargain. In 2005, he joined the LAFD and went all over the city before landing at Station 88 in Sherman Oaks last year. He hopes to become certified as an engineer and is undergoing urban search-and-rescue training. “He’s been quite an asset for us,” said Capt. Tom Haus, Tovar’s supervisor. “He’s a hard-charging individual… Whatever issues he had as kid, he’s got a great idea of right and wrong now.” Today, Vinetz and Tovar are friends. The slightly built probation director with the busily patterned tie and the rangy firefighter make an odd pair, but Vinetz says the kid he used to drag to school has become “a hero in our community.” “Victor needed to find some hope in his life,” he said. “He didn’t find that through me. Victor found that through himself.” The two finished their address to the group of students, who sat mostly quietly, save one who approached Tovar after the others had gone. He wanted to be a firefighter, he said. He wanted to follow Tovar. “But I don’t think I can,” he said. “Because of my record.” “Hey, man, I had a dirty record. I’ll show it to you sometime – it’s this long,” Tovar said, stretching his long arms to their full span. “But I made it.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!