In the mid-1990s, Darrius Higgins may have been the most dangerous man in Chattanooga. An original gangster running a Gangster Disciples crew, Higgins, known on the streets as "Minnie Mooch," surrounded himself with a small army of trigger-fingered men, kilos upon kilos of imported cocaine, and a street ethos of blood and violence.
"We woke up every day to hurt somebody," he said.
Outside his Woodlawns home, 30 bodyguards kept watch. When Higgins did go out, he rode in a car swollen with guns and bullets.
"One thousand, maybe 2,000 rounds," he said. "The whole city wanted me. I was a target."
But that was then.
And this is now.
Today, Higgins, 43, is a new man — transformed and redeemed — in a sort of gangland resurrection story.
Most mornings, he's at the temp agency by 6 a.m., clocks out by 3:30, then goes to voc-ed classes, where he's 800 hours into becoming an HVAC-certified technician. His paycheck goes to child support, some food and utilities, and saving up to start his own business.
He weeps easily and writes poetry. His armor and shield — once vengeance and automatic weapons — are now scripture and prayer.
"Every day, I used to wake up thinking I would die, with a pistol and drugs in my pocket," he said. "Now, I wake up and feel a change. I feel like somebody, when I used to feel like nobody."
The story of Darrius Higgins represents what happens when a city doesn't give up on one of its very worst.
When a city believes the human heart — yours, mine, a gangster's — is always capable of change.
Higgins grew up in the Westside; his dad was gone, so to fill the void, Higgins turned to gang life.
Things soon fell apart. One evening when Higgins was 10 or 11, his mother — a strong woman who cleaned houses in the day, then did hospital work at night — staggered home, collapsing on the couch. Higgins, who cherished his mother, took off her shoes and began rubbing her feet. Seconds later, she was asleep.
"That's when I lost it," he said.
Raging at the dying light — no father, an exhausted mother, and all around, normalized black poverty — Higgins began stealing car radios, slipping the dirty money to his sister, who then helped their mother pay bills.
Years passed. Crime begat crime. Possession. Assault. Murder. In and out of jail, Higgins became a stronghold for a Gangster Disciples crew in the Woodlawns. Drug money flowed. He shipped dope to the farthest horizons.
"All around the world," he said.
The feds began watching.
Arrested in 2000, Higgins entered a prison system that would facilitate his turnaround. Old-timers serving life counseled him: Son, you keep hustling and you'll end up here — forever — with no family, no freedom.
Something shifted in Higgins.
He took a prison janitor job; sweeping and cleaning up, he eavesdropped on work-study classes. Inmates shared leftover books and lessons. Higgins enrolled in prison classes on construction work.
Released in 2005, Higgins was assigned a tough-love parole officer — "Janet Landers," he said, "please mention her" — who found him an $8.50-an-hour job at a local restaurant.
"I wanted to change. I wanted my family to see I could work," he said.
Three steps forward, one step back. Old temptations appeared. In 2009, Higgins was arrested again.
Then he got a call from Paul Smith.
Smith, who leaves Chattanooga this week to take a job in New York, has been a leader in the city's Violence Reduction Initiative, and knew Higgins from childhood.
He invited him into the VRI program and propped him up with daily bread: bus passes, prepaid VISAs, jobs, courses at Chattanooga State Community College, even an audience with a local philanthropist who bought Higgins a new set of HVAC tools.
"Darrius was somebody who not only deserved a chance, but looked like he would make the most of it," said Pete Cooper, former head of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. "And I'm very pleased with what he's done."
This isn't just feel-good; Smith says VRI has done this for hundreds of folks in an act of social investment, anti-crime rehabilitation.
"I vouch for 15 to 20 of my friends who've made major changes, going to school, getting a job," Higgins said. "The program helped us all."
At one point, Higgins was working a VRI job doing demolition, and all around him were former gang members: Crips, Bloods, Vice-Lords, Gangster Disciples.
"And skinheads," added Higgins.
"All working together," finished Smith.
As criticism for VRI continues — some of it obtuse, some of it not — we should not forget the fact that we have, perhaps for the first time, intentional city policy aimed at rehabilitating gangbangers into honest, redeemed, nonviolent men.
And much of it is working.
What is the value we can place on Higgins' story — from original gangster to HVAC technician — alone?
One week ago, on Palm Sunday, Higgins texted Smith: bring me to church.
I want to be baptized.
Dressed in snow-white robes, Higgins followed the Greater Emmanuel Church pastor into the baptismal waters. Moments later, the man whose life was once a cocaine-and-bullets horror story emerged out of the water, soaking wet, arms raised to heaven and the God whose mercies are endless.
"He brought me back," Higgins said.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and teaches at McCallie School. He can be reached at email@example.com or 423-757-6329.