MODESTO — When you meet Joshua Daniel, the two things that stand out most are his big smile and his gentle demeanor.
You never would suspect the Modesto man has spent nearly half of his life in prison, or that his appearance once caused twinges of fear.
Raised by a hard-working single mom who held two jobs to support them, Joshua spent too much time on his own. Later, when his mom married a man who clashed with her son, Joshua began lashing out. His search for acceptance and a substitute family led him into a neighborhood gang, and then to prison as a teenager.
But he said he found his real father God behind bars, and that has transformed his life. Now 31, he has a good job, a girlfriend and a church family, and he is studying to become an attorney. He also is reaching out to help juvenile offenders and new parolees.
Joshua's story begins in Stockton, where he lived with his mom.
"I had an absentee father; it was just my mother and I," he said. "I was an A and B student while in elementary school. I played lots of sports, baseball particularly. I did a lot of drawing.
"But by the time I was 13, I was into gangs. Not having access to my mom because of work, and then not feeling welcome by her new husband, I looked elsewhere. In the neighborhood, (gangs) were a common thing. We were going to the mall looking for trouble, spray painting, selling drugs, drinking alcohol, getting into fights."
His mom, he said, tried to stop his slide into gangs. "She did everything she could to save me, but I wouldn't have it," Joshua said.
By the time he was 15, he wasn't going to school and had run away from home a few times.
"It made it hard on my mom," he said. "She was literally on the streets, looking for me at all hours of the night."
One of those nights, in December 1997, Joshua was standing on a levee next to Interstate 5, throwing rocks and pieces of cement at passing big rigs. He hit a few of them.
"It wasn't part of my gang activity," he said. "Rock throwing was very common at the time. It was just foolishness, just something we did in the neighborhood because of how close the freeway was to our homes."
This time, though, one softball-size piece of cement went through a truck's front window and struck the driver in the head. Billy Collins, a longtime trucker from Sacramento who hauled freight between Stockton and Medford, Ore., flipped his big rig on its side. The 49-year-old survived, but the cement dented his skull and caused severe brain damage. He was in a coma for weeks, was put on life support and wasn't expected to survive.
But Collins lived nearly 13 more years, confined to a nursing home. He lost his sight, never spoke a word or walked after the crash, was fed through a tube and needed constant medical care until his death in 2010. His wife, Barbara, said in 2008 that he no longer recognized her voice.
Joshua was charged with attempted murder and nine other felonies. At his preliminary hearing, a detective testified that Joshua had said he was throwing rocks because he was upset at the death of a close friend and over problems with his stepfather. The detective said Joshua was smiling and flashing gang signs during his videotaped interview. His mother said he had been locked out of the house that day and came home crying after the incident.
Eight months later, Joshua pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and to committing an attack that resulted in the victim becoming comatose. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He had to serve an extra year after he was caught with a prison knife made from a disposable razor.
He was sent to the California Youth Authority until his 17th birthday, when he was transferred to a maximum-security prison and placed with fellow gang members.
Prison gang 'much different'
"The prison gang is much different, a whole different ballgame, than gangs on the street," Joshua said. "It's like going from T-ball to the major league."
But a couple of the men, he said, watched out for him.
"There are a lot of predators in there. There were two gentlemen, in there for murder and drugs, who protected me," Joshua said. "A lot of times, you hear all the bad stories (about prison life), but they actually made me go to school. They wouldn't let me cuss. They kept me out of trouble. They treated me like a son."
Joshua was part of a prison gang for six years before he decided to drop out and move into protective custody.
"I can't narrow it down to one thing," he said when asked why he left. "What stands out in my mind was that I overheard a conversation between two gang members. They were talking about who they were going to kill and hurt, and in the middle of that conversation, one of them said, 'Hmmm. I miss my daughter.' I didn't want to turn out that way."
He easily could have.
"In prison, your senses are dulled," he said. "You see people treated badly every day. But even in there, the guards had a nickname for me: the best of the worst. I always tried to protect my humanity.
"One line I would never cross is I would never use a weapon, even though they (gang leaders) made us carry them. I didn't want to use one and have one used on me. It's one way I didn't agree with the gang."
One day, he said, gang members gave him a heads up. "They told me, 'Tomorrow morning in the yard, some people are going to ask you if you want to get married' that means become a gang member for life," he explained. "They said, 'Tuffie (tough little guy), just say no. You have a release date. You've never driven a car. You need to get out and get married and have children.' They wanted me to make the best of it."
Leaving the gang life, he said, "was a big step for me."
"You could be vulnerable to attacks or abuses of all kinds," he said. "But I had wised up by then. I knew I could take care of myself. I went in skinny as a stick, but I came out muscular, covered in tattoos."
The change also meant Joshua could read his Bible openly and attend prison church services.
"You couldn't do that in a gang," he said. "It was seen as a sign of weakness. I would read my Bible in secret."
Joshua earned a General Equivalency Diploma in prison. "Top of my class," he said proudly. "I became a tutor to other inmates who wanted to earn their GED. I started course work on an associate's degree."
'Looked like Christmas to me'
Then, in October 2010 coincidentally just a month after Collins died Joshua was released.
"My family was there at the gate my mother, my uncle and my cousins," he said. "They had visited me every other month. Mom never let distance keep her away. That made a big impression on me."
He remembers his first taste of freedom.
"It was poignant," he said. "Tears welled up. When I took my first steps outside the gate, I was afraid of someone grabbing me. I remember things like seeing car headlights in a line as we were driving home. It was a normal, everyday thing, but it looked like Christmas to me."
He returned to Stockton and got a job at a thrift store, thanks to a friend of his mother.
"They said I was a good worker, but I scared people because I had tattoos on my face and hands. When I earned some money, I got them removed. I was very happy to do that. The impression I was making on people and the person I was on the inside were two different people."
Joshua also began attending Heald College. When he got out of classes on his first day, he was greeted by four cars full of gang members from his old neighborhood.
"I thought I was in trouble because I had dropped out of the gang (in prison)," he said. "But they were just happy to see me. They said, 'Why are you in college? You could join us.' They had drugs and thousands of dollars. I told them no, that I had been down that road and wasn't going there again. They thought I had changed a lot."
He had, but there was still an emotional attachment to his old buddies.
"They wanted to worship me, treat me like a god for as long as I'd been in (prison)," he said. "I loved them. We grew up together. It was hard to turn my back on them. I was happy to see them, but I didn't want to go back there."
Joshua moved to Modesto a few months later to make a fresh start. He graduated from Heald's campus here in July with an associate degree in applied science and business administration.
Cathy Barnett, the learning resource coordinator at the college, said she was impressed by Joshua.
"He was very friendly, very professional and very approachable," she said. "You could tell right off that he had a really good heart. He's an awesome person."
She said she knew about his criminal past, but added: "The Josh I know is not the Josh that he once was. He is very remorseful, but he can't turn back the hands of time, so he is continuing to move forward."
The Rev. Shaun Bryant, pastor at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Modesto, said people who meet Joshua now "would never guess he was the kind of individual who would be part of gangs." He called it a "pleasure" to know someone who talks with all age groups in the church, wants to discuss Scripture and is open to correction, "which is something you don't see so often.
"Christianity is not just a compartment of his life, something he does on Sundays," Bryant added. "He's seeking to live his whole life for Christ and to share his faith with others."
Joshua can't erase the damage to trucker Billy Collins and his wife, Barbara, but he did testify in 2008 for them in a civil lawsuit against the state, the California Department of Transportation and the truck's manufacturer. He was told the family appreciated him testifying but didn't want ongoing contact.
Demeanor appeared changed
Barbara Collins told a reporter after that hearing that Joshua's demeanor appeared to have changed since his trial 10 years earlier. "I at least feel now that he has a little remorse," she said.
The family lost the lawsuit, but later settled with the state for an undisclosed amount. Earlier this year, an appellate panel ruled the original trial judge erred in his jury instructions and sent the case against the truck manufacturer back to the lower court.
Joshua, meanwhile, has begun working toward a law degree at Humphries College in Modesto. He believes it's his responsibility to "reach out," and so he's begun a business to prepare inmates who will soon be paroled.
He also has begun to work with young people who are flirting with or into the gang life.
"The real reason I joined the gang is I was looking for family, looking for acceptance," he said. "In II Kings (a book in the Bible), when David had his son, Solomon, David was old and ready to pass away. He was asking God, 'Who will raise him?' God said, 'I will be to him as a father and he will be to me as a son.' Finding God as a father was the most fulfilling thing to me. So many times I prayed and asked him to close the door behind me to keep (me safe), and he did.
"I think I was forced to grow up quickly in there. I was faced with ethical and moral dilemmas that people outside will never face. God led me through all of that."
Those lessons are what he has to share with young offenders.
"I like reaching out to cases that most of the world has turned its back on," he said. "I know what that feels like. I can go into the muck and salvage what I can, whether it's a kid in gangs who doesn't have a good family or it's an inmate who doesn't have anyone outside."
To help others avoid his mistakes, Joshua has been working with Youth for Christ's juvenile hall chaplain and volunteered for Project Ceasefire, a program coordinated by the Modesto Police Department and other agencies to give straight talk to young gang members.
"I relate to the juveniles who are in that lifestyle," he said. "It's important for them to see good examples of someone who has turned away from gangs. Someone like me."
Bee information specialist Karen Aiello contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.