On the breezy patio of an upscale Brazilian steakhouse overlooking Redondo Beach, Ricardo Sapienza celebrates his 46th birthday with 30 close friends and family members. Presents pile up, balloons float in the air, meat is carved from rotisserie skewers, and later, feather-headed Samba dancers will shimmy through. Forty-six is not a milestone for most, but this is the first time in 25 years Sapienza is celebrating his birthday as a free man. For a quarter century he was inmate #H28469. Convicted of second-degree murder and attempted murder at the age of 20 in 1991, he was paroled on April 8, 2016. Tonight he also celebrates his last weekend in a six-month court-ordered transitional housing program.
He's wearing a light blue suit that was given to him by a cousin, like most of the other clothing he owns. It hangs from his compact frame as he makes his way through the crowd, greeting friends, some for the first time since his release, with a mustachioed smile. They fist-bump and hug one another. He makes sure his mother has a seat of honor at the head of table. She touches his face, saying how handsome he looks, adding, "some people have told me you look like a detective." He moves with a soft-spoken confidence, without the puffed-up exterior of some who have done hard time. "This is the second time in my life I've ever worn a suit," he laughs. "The first time was when I took my girlfriend to her junior prom." That was when he was 18, a year after he joined a gang and dropped out of high school — a year before his life would drastically change.
Ricardo Sapienza celebrates his 46th birthday with family and friends | (Isadora Kosofsky/Courtesy Narratively)
Sapienza grew up in the Gateway Cities area of Los Angeles, a kid who was into drawing and sports. His dad returned from the Vietnam War with a drug problem and left his mom with three kids when Sapienza was 13. That's about the time he got into graffiti, running the streets with his crew while his mother made ends meet as a bank teller and check cashier. His family bounced around from place to place, even living in a motel at one point, using the nearby public telephone as their own.
By 19, Sapienza was a member of a gang in Bell Gardens, a largely Latino city in southeast Los Angeles County. He had already fathered two children, been arrested once on a domestic violence charge and survived two bullets to the head from a rival gang, leaving him deaf in his left ear. On August 16, 1991, he and his fellow gang members rolled up to a public park in San Pedro in five cars, looking to settle beef with one gang when they accidentally ran into another. Words and bullets flew, and at the end of it all one 16-year-old lay dead and another, an 18-year-old, was injured.
"When shots were fired, everyone scattered — that's gang mentality; you do your thing and then you leave," says Sapienza, who was picked up and questioned by the LAPD's gang unit the next day. He says he understands now why they assumed he was the shooter. A gun was never found and nine eyewitnesses put him at the scene of the crime. He lied at first, saying he wasn't there, but he "wasn't a very good liar." He says two other gang members saw who did the shooting, but when they went to trial they decided they didn't want to be snitches. Sapienza lived by the code of the streets, too. It's what drove him to serve time for crimes he maintains he didn't commit. (The court records for his case were sealed by a judge in Long Beach, but parole board hearing transcripts state Sapienza was "shooting into a crowded area," which he denies.)
He says his first mistake wasn't that he didn't leave the scene of the crime soon enough that day, it's that he was there in the first place. "Even though I didn't actually do the shooting, I had to ask, 'Am I innocent?' I didn't pull the trigger but I was there. Our intentions weren't to have a picnic that day. It wasn't planned to murder someone, but we were ready to retaliate if something happened." He says he wrote to the Innocence Project once but withdrew his request once they asked him for names of the guilty to help with his exoneration. "Because of my dedication to the neighborhood, I got convicted and had to live with that. It's crazy because now I look at it with a bigger perspective and can't believe I was willing to spend the rest of my life in prison before saying anything."
It was a long road to this epiphany. Sapienza was sentenced to 25 years to life. His gang promised to "have his back" on the inside. He says they sent him $15 — once. Sapienza tried to go the other way. He steered clear of prison gangs, kept his body tattoo-free, became a Christian, attended AA meetings, and discovered Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous (CGA) meetings, all of which helped him clean up what he calls "polluted thinking."
In 2010, he went before a parole board and told them he was living a clean and sober life. His hearing transcripts showed only three write-ups for rules violations, all minor infractions made within his first few years of incarceration. Someone on the board asked him about the 12-step meetings and which step he liked the most. Sapienza was stunned. He couldn't recall a single one. "I was such an idiot and told them I didn't know any steps but at the next hearing I would. I realized I had just been going to meetings for the certificates and not utilizing the program," he says. He was denied parole and told he could try again in five years. "I realized I had more work to do."
Sapienza spent the next five years trying to better himself with trade courses and more self-help groups. He also credits in-prison visits from the Victims' Awareness Program, a nonprofit educational program designed to teach offenders about the impact of their crimes by having victims and victims' families share their stories. "These are people from the streets who themselves or someone in their family were victims of violent crime. They didn't have to do this — they hate us — but those people said, 'I'm going to put away my feelings and I'm going to come to prison and share my story and see who I can help.' It's really emotional to see."
Not long after the parole denial, he learned his estranged father had died of a heroin overdose. On November 4, 2015, he faced the parole board again. He told them about his childhood, about his absentee father and "getting love from the streets." He admitted gang life was a choice. He used the full names of the boy who was killed and the one who was injured and showed empathy for their families.
"I have to accept that I was convicted and no matter what, the victim's family will forever know my name as the one who murdered their son," he says now. "That's hard to swallow. They'll always think that, so I have to accept that."
He was nervous when the board took a 40-minute break. "I was praying, thinking there was a lot of stuff I should have brought up that I missed," he says. He knew there was no formula for earning parole and that prisoners have no guarantees in the process; most state law books explicitly call parole "an act of grace" and not a right.
When the two parole board members and the Commissioner came back to the room, they announced they had unanimously found him suitable for parole. Sapienza remained there in his orange jumpsuit trying to sit up straight. "I wanted to say 'Did I hear right?' I kind of looked at my public defendant and I think he smiled and blinked his eye. I was truly amazed."