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Gangbusters Tony Monroe and his steed use horse sense to share faith with gang members.

BY: Diana Marcum, THE FRESNO BEE, January 21, 2002, Monday

The man on the horse clip-clops down Fresno's roughest streets, urging gang members to find a better way to live.

He doesn't represent a church or the police. He's just one man doling out hope from horseback. He's not even a cowboy. As a matter of fact, Tony Monroe had never ridden a horse when 10 years ago a picture flashed in his mind of him and a steed and gang kids. Monroe believed it was a vision from God.

They say the Lord works in mysterious ways, so Monroe didn't question why God thought a man in a Stetson on a shiny bay gelding was an answer to inner-city violence. When an unexpected $2,000 came his way a couple months later, he went out, bought a horse and hit the streets -- after he read a couple books about how to ride.

These days, Monroe is as easy in the saddle as the Marlboro man, and his one-man-on-a-horse ministry seems to be working. On a gray-as-cement winter day, Monroe and Max, a former racehorse, amble into a southeast Fresno apartment complex. Four buildings with peeling brown paint face a pool filled with concrete. The makeshift courtyard is empty, but soon children tumble outdoors as if called by an equestrian pied piper.

The small children come first. They usually do. Monroe gives them alfalfa pellets to feed Max. The older boys slink up later. This is Bulldog gang territory, and most of them have a red Bulldog cap or T-shirt under their hooded sweatshirts.

"Do you want to feed the horse?" Monroe asks. As they hold their hand palm-flat to offer Max a pellet, Monroe wastes no time getting to his point.

"I'm out here to talk to gang members about the Lord giving them a way out," he says.

Gregory Furch, 24, hustles out of an apartment. Despite a missing tooth, he has a grin that can flash across a gray day.

"Tony! Do you remember me?" he asks.                                                                        

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The Fresno Bee January 21, 2002, Monday

Furch and the man on the horse met once before, when Furch was an 18-year-old street fighter, angry and violent. Six years ago they talked for a half-hour about God and leaving the bad behind, as Furch stroked a horse's nose.

"There hasn't been one day since I saw Tony and his horse that I haven't had a smile on my face. He inspired me to take things day by day," Furch says.

Furch mostly fought gang members who were trying to jump his younger brother into a gang. His brother, Jabari Gomez, is standing with three gang members, but both he and the others say he never joined a gang.

"Nah, man, he's a wrestler. He goes to school," says a 16-year-old Bulldog with what sounds like pride.

Furch, a mechanic, credits his outlook and his brother's coming high school graduation to meeting Monroe that day. So does Cheris Sullins, 30, Furch's fiancee.

"Gregory used to be oh-my-God bad," she says. "A lot of things were there -- not a good home foundation and he was getting into heavy stuff. Then one day he pets a horse -- and he starts changing."

Faces appear in a second-story window, peeking through a torn screen.

"Tony! do you remember me? " asks 20-year-old Mai Bang. "I petted your horse when I was little."

Monroe rides over, stops below the window and launches into fluent Hmong.

In the courtyard of a low-rent apartment complex, a preacher in a cowboy hat on a tall horse jokes in Hmong with a girl peering out a window.

Monroe's work with gang members began with his ties to the Hmong community. In 1981, Monroe was working at a funeral parlor. One day at a funeral, he noticed some Hmong kids playing basketball across the way at Radio Park. He'd read about the families who fled Cambodia and ended up in Fresno. He started playing basketball and volleyball with the Hmong children.

Soon they were taking him home, where he used his handyman skills to help their parents patch up their falling-down apartments. Five years later, two Hmong pre-teens told him gang members came to their school and said they could join the gang or be hurt badly.

"I just found myself saying, 'God's not afraid of gangs. Let's pray,' " Monroe says.

The gang members didn't come back to that school, but Monroe started bicycling to the gang members and telling them they needed to change.

He didn't really want to do it. In the '70s, he was a Fresno reserve police officer and later a sheriff's deputy in Santa Cruz. From what he'd seen, gang members weren't going to be receptive to preaching. But Monroe has a habit of talking to God like someone he's debating across a kitchen table.

"I didn't think it would work, but the impression that I kept getting was God saying, 'Don't you care?' "

Then came what Monroe considered the suggestion from God that he trade his bicycle for a horse.

"I thought, 'Am I tripping? Did I watch one too many cowboy movies?' "

Monroe says he began to grasp the logic one day in a neighborhood near Freeway 180. A drug deal had gone bad and a dead man was still in the driver's seat of a van cordoned off with yellow police tape. When Monroe rode through, young kids in gang garb came out to pet the horse.

"There's neighborhoods in Fresno with gang activity where the kids are used to seeing just about everything. But you have a cowboy come riding in on horseback and they're not used to seeing that. It changes the atmosphere," he says.

Monroe has faced gunfire. His horse was once hit by a car. When gang members run, thinking he's law enforcement, he gallops after them. When he catches up, he says, "Do you want to feed the horse?"

Usually, they do.

He rides Sunday through Wednesday, afternoon into night, concentrating on high-crime areas such as "The U" in southwest Fresno, a curve of road near Martin Luther King Boulevard where there are frequent shootings.

"I'm seeing older gang guys there using the young Hmong kids to run their drugs. I ride over to them and tell them the Bible says, 'Woe to the man who causes a younger person to sin.' I do it nicely, but I lay it straight out that they better make some changes before they meet God, because he doesn't make plea bargains."

His first horse, Cinnamon, died six years ago. Now he has three horses: Max, Gumby and Impact, all donated when he went looking for a replacement, offering to make payments because he didn't have enough money up front. He doesn't solicit donations, but Jensen's Armstrong Stables, where he keeps Max and Gumby, lets him work off part of the bill doing handyman chores. Once in a while, someone will pay part of the boarding as a gift.

He works part-time at Sugarpine Camp's thrift store in Oak'hurst, managing to pay for the $80 street horseshoes and other upkeep on the horses by living at the thrift store without paying rent. He almost married a few years back, but comforts himself that maybe the reason it didn't work out was so he could afford his ministry. He doesn't own a horse trailer or even a pickup truck. He makes the trip to Fresno in a Hyundai.

"I'll tell you the truth: There's been numerous occasions when I thought about hanging it up," he said. "It's physically demanding. There's never enough money. You're always out in the cold, at night, in the heat. I've said, 'God, are you sure you want to keep doing this? Isn't there a desk job somewhere?' "

For now, the man on the horse still rides.

Self-identified gang members on a beer run are ditching into a McKinley Avenue mini-mart when they catch sight of him.

In street language, one says something that translates roughly into "Heavens! Is that a horse?!"

"Do you want to feed the horse?" Monroe asks them.

They do. He tells them he's here to let them know there's a way out of gang life. He tells them God can forgive anything they have done, but if they don't change, God can't help them.

A 16-year-old who wishes only to be identified as J. strokes Max's nose, and listens respectfully, although afterward he says he doesn't agree.

"There's no way out. They start you off real young. They mess up your head. You do heavy things you don't leave behind. I have a 1-year-old daughter now and I know it's not all about gangs, but the best you can do is try to keep it cool.

"Still, it's a crazy world, and Tony is a dude on a horse trying to help. I appreciate that."

Monroe straps on battery-powered flashing lights to his belt and horse so they'll be visible in the darkness.

Maybe someday he and one of the horses will run into J. again.

Monroe says that if they do and J. shouts out, "Tony, do you remember me?" the answer will be yes.

"Who knows?" Monroe says, "Maybe he's the reason God wants me to ride a little longer."

The reporter can be reached at dmarcum@fresnobee.com or at 441-6375. GRAPHIC: PHOTOS BY JOHN WALKER -- THE FRESNO BEE Stopped with Max at a McKinley Avenue minimart Wednesday, Tony Monroe talks with Ernest Garcia, left, Epi Fanio and Gregory Furch. Tony Monroe leads Max across a crosswalk on McKinley Avenue as he witnesses Wednesday night in southeast Fresno. FAR LEFT: Gregory Furch, with Max, says Tony Monroe turned him around. ABOVE: Kids flock to Monroe and Max on Wednesday at a southeast Fresno apartment complex. LEFT: From their apartment window, Mai Bang with kids Breanna Lor, 2, left, and Anthony Lor, 3, right, listen to Monroe, who speaks Hmong fluently.