From lawless
to lawyer

David Lee Windecher was on the road
to prison until he turned his life around.

David Lee Windecher didn’t try to hide his past when he applied for an internship with the DeKalb County district attorney’s office. He knew the prosecutors would vet him and likely discover that the eager young law student standing before them had a criminal record. So when he was asked whether he had ever been in trouble, he replied honestly.

I have been in so much trouble, you wouldn’t believe it if I told you. It would literally take the entire afternoon.

He mentioned having been in a gang, but the conversation moved on before he could volunteer any details. He and the interviewer hit it off, and he was hired with no more questions about his “trouble.”

A month or so later, the new intern was sitting through an armed robbery trial when the DA’s chief investigator slipped into the courtroom and tapped him on the shoulder.

Mr. Windecher, will you come with me?

He was ushered into an interrogation room, where the senior assistant district attorney was waiting.

David, she said, we have to let you go.

A belated background check had disclosed that David hadn’t just been in trouble; he had been arrested 13 times before he turned 19 and had spent eight months behind bars.

You cannot work for the government, the assistant DA continued. Not in any capacity.

David surrendered his ID and was escorted from the DeKalb courthouse in a ritual that reminded him of all the times he had been led through the corridors of justice in south Florida as a defendant. He had worked so hard to overcome his background, and in this one moment of white-hot shame, it seemed like none of it mattered.
He was insulted, defeated, angry.

There was a time when such emotions would have triggered his animal instincts and propelled him toward mindless retaliation. But he was a different person now. That night as he tossed in bed, he resolved to do something else about his dilemma — something in keeping with the adult he had become.

2

A young life of crime
In the living room of his Buckhead apartment, on the shelves that hold his law books, David keeps a souvenir of his former trade.

“These are my brass knuckles,” he says, fitting the metal rings over his fingers. “I keep them to remind me that I don’t have to use force anymore. I can use my mind.”

He reaches into a box and pulls out some snapshots of himself as a teenager. One of them shows a skinny redheaded kid with baggy pants sagging well below his underwear, a revolver stuck in his waistband. They called him Red.

“That young man,” he says, “was headed for life in prison.”
David was born in East Los Angeles, the oldest child of Argentinian immigrants. His father was a painting contractor who sued a client over unpaid work and never collected a penny. The financial reversal forced the Windechers to move back to Argentina and inspired an early ambition in David to become a lawyer so his family would never be taken advantage of again.

The Windechers returned to the United States in 1990, this time to the opposite coast, settling into a working-class neighborhood in North Miami Beach. They lived in a two-bedroom house, David sharing a room with his little brother and one of his sisters. It didn’t take long for him to run afoul of the law. He was only 11 when he was first arrested, for lifting merchandise from a bicycle shop.

“I was angry that other people had so much and we had so little,” he explains. “So I decided to take what I wanted.”
It was the heyday of drug dealing in Miami, and many of David’s friends were peddling weed. He met a gang member named Ortiz in middle school and started hanging out with his crowd, learning how to hustle. David knew what that sort of life could lead to; he saw it in gruesome detail when he went to the movies one night to see “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and witnessed a gang fight in front of the theater. A young man was shot in the stomach and bled to death, moaning pitifully, as David looked on in horror.

Despite that scene, David asked to join Ortiz’s gang. After enduring a “jump-in” — an initiation ritual that required him to take a brutal beating and get back up to take another, over and over again — he learned how to sell dope. But he was still small time, making modest amounts of money.

When he turned 16, David dropped out of high school and recruited some of his friends to form their own gang. He wanted to make more money on pot sales and figured he had to have his own team of people he trusted to do that. They called themselves the Star Creek gang, after an apartment complex they used as a distribution center.
They were versatile criminals. In addition to dope, they stole cars, fished money out of vending machines, broke into U.S. mail trucks to swipe checkbooks and commit check fraud. Several times, they went all the way to New York to buy marijuana.

Not surprisingly, run-ins with the law were common.

Once, when he was 16, David and some friends were trying to make a marijuana sale in a parking lot when they realized their would-be clients were planning to rob them. David struck one of them in the jaw with his Smith & Wesson handgun, knocking him out, and they sped away. Something told him to get rid of the gun, and he instructed the driver to pull into a strip mall, where he threw the pistol into a dumpster.

A few minutes later, a police cruiser pulled up. It was his second arrest, for battery and grand theft, but it could have been much worse and life altering if he had been caught with the gun.

By the time he was 18, he had been arrested for battery, grand theft, possession of marijuana and a host of traffic violations. He was lucky; none of the charges was serious enough to put him away for a long time. Still, he was starting to get weary of it.

Like many a wayward boy, David’s life trajectory changed because of a girl. Nichole wasn’t part of the drug scene and normally wouldn’t have fallen for someone like him, but she recognized his intelligence. She listened when he confided his dormant ambition to become a lawyer and encouraged him to take the GED exam and go on to college. They dated for three years.

During that time, David noticed his family was changing. His little brother, Christian, was beginning to sell pot and carry guns like he had. His sisters, Giselle and Karina, were dressing like gang chicks. His father was working himself to death for peanuts at a warehouse, while his mother was worrying herself sick, her hair going gray.

On the night of his 23rd birthday, in 2001, David tried to fall asleep but suffered a panic attack thinking about the way he was destroying the people he loved. The next morning, he did something he hadn’t done in years: He went to a Catholic church, fell on his knees and prayed for himself and his family. He promised God he would do better.

3

It could have been him
David is sitting in his apartment one day last month when his cellphone rings. It’s Joey Torres, his best friend from childhood.

“Hey, man, what you doin’?”

“I’m doin’ time,” the voice from the other end shoots back. “What you doin’?”

Joey had been a fellow gang member who provided muscle whenever muscle was needed in their criminal enterprises. He’s calling from the Jefferson Correctional Facility in Monticello, Fla., where he is serving a 15-year sentence for robbery with a deadly weapon, using a phone inmates aren’t allowed to have but manage to score anyway, no doubt paying off guards.

For David, Joey is more than a former running buddy; he’s a cautionary tale about the ditch his life could have fallen into.

“If the cops had ever caught me with a gun,” he says, “I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be in prison like Joey.”

Joey was one of the first people David told when he decided to leave the gang. He gave David his blessing but warned that others might not be so understanding.

They weren’t.

David knew that quitting the gang meant that anyone he’d fought with over drugs or turf might come looking for revenge, secure in the knowledge that his former associates would not be there to protect him. Some of them thought he had become the most unforgivable thing of all: a police informant. He was on his own.

“I was looking over my shoulder for five years, afraid that someone with a score to settle was going to attack me,” David says.

One day he saw a gang rival named Merlin loitering in front of his family’s home.

I heard you ain’t down with your boys no more, he told David.

They exchanged punches, and Merlin vowed to return that night with reinforcements.

David and his father parked cars in front of their house as barricades and gathered bats and tire irons to use as weapons. Joey came over to help. Around 10:30 p.m., Merlin and some of his tough guys arrived. A round of insults quickly grew into an all-out rumble: body blows, haymakers, rocks and bloodied faces.

“It was terrible,” remembers David’s mother, Laura Windecher, who watched from inside. “They were all fighting in front of our house, and my husband was trying to separate two of them. I looked out and saw this guy beating him in the head.”

Even after he left the gang, David continued selling pot for several years to make spending money and pay for books as he pursued his education. He earned his GED, enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College and then transferred to American Intercontinental University in Fort Lauderdale. He didn’t stop dealing until Joey was convicted on the robbery charge in 2003. Seeing his friend put away for the same kinds of stunts he had been pulling for years finally scared him straight.

Not long before he graduated in 2005, David visited Joey in prison. They talked about Joey’s 4-year-old son, Anthony. David was the child’s godfather, and he promised to carry the boy with him to the stage when he received his college diploma.

Back in his Buckhead apartment, David reaches for a thick stack of correspondence from his inmate friend. He finds a letter from 2005 and begins to read aloud:

“He’ll have you to look up to as a father figure, cause (you’re) the only one I could trust with a piece of myself for the simple fact ... that you made something of yourself, you cleaned yourself up while I was still doing the same (bleep).”

David’s voice chokes up and he pauses to dab his eyes. Joey isn’t the only one of his old pals doing hard time. When he thinks about them, he can’t help but feel guilty.

“I hate reading this stuff,” he says, regaining his composure. “Joey is a human being. I know what kind of person he is, and he doesn’t have a malignant heart. I just can’t imagine being institutionalized like that for 15 years and then trying to come out and re-enter society. I’m going to do everything I can to help him.”

Photo: David works out regularly at LA Fitness in Atlanta.

4

Right side of the law
Given his record in Florida, David thought it would be a good idea to seek a legal education in another state, so he applied to five institutions in Georgia and was accepted by the least prestigious one. He moved to Atlanta in 2009 to attend John Marshall Law School. As he was finishing his second year, a mentor suggested he might dispel any doubts about his background by serving an internship with a district attorney. That’s how he came, in the spring of 2011, to apply for a position with the DeKalb DA’s office.

Once his rap sheet came to light and he was discharged, David overcame his anger and embarrassment and filed the only appeal open to him: He sent an email asking for an audience with District Attorney Robert James.

David felt like his entire future was riding on the meeting. If his record disqualified him for this job, he wondered whether he would even be allowed to take the bar exam. He wanted to be a lawyer, not a paralegal.

James was sympathetic.

“I started thinking about it, and it felt hypocritical on my part not to see him,” he says. “We talk about second chances. Here was this young man who had left a criminal background and lived a clean life for quite some time. What would it say about me if I didn’t hear him out?”

David asked for five minutes; they ended up talking for a couple of hours. They shared their personal stories, the DA confiding that he had friends and family members who had fallen on the wrong side of the law and served time. They talked about their faith and prayed together.

He offered David his job back and assigned him to the juvenile division, where he thought the intern might help inspire other young people.

“I told him I wasn’t just giving him a second chance,” James says. “He was giving me a second chance to live up to what I believe.”

David worked as an intern with the district attorney’s office for a year while he finished law school. He graduated in 2012 and passed the Georgia bar exam on his first try that year. As triumphant as that was, it wasn’t enough. He wanted to close the circle and prove himself in Florida. He passed the bar exam there in 2013 but had to fight for months to persuade the board that he deserved to be a licensed attorney in a state where he had committed so many offenses.

One of the proudest moments of his life was when he was sworn in to practice, as his family looked on, at the Miami-Dade Criminal Courthouse, where he had once worn an orange prison jumpsuit.

While he was in law school, David clerked for Arora & LaScala, an Atlanta criminal defense partnership, with whom he later practiced as an associate trial attorney. Now he has his own firm, specializing in juvenile law and expungement procedure. He usually represents young people who are in the kind of trouble he used to be in.

But not always.

In the summer of 2014, as he was handling a case in an Atlanta courtroom, David noticed a woman sitting in the gallery intently taking notes. She seemed out of place, so he introduced himself and asked whether he could help. She was there for her daughter, Emiley Cox, who was contesting a traffic charge. David told them he would be happy to represent her and understood what they were going through because he had been a repeat offender as a teenager.

“It was kind of shocking at first,” Emiley says, “but there’s something appealing about a bad boy turned good.” After that first encounter, she told her mother she thought the young lawyer might be “marriage material.”

After David got the charges dropped, the two began dating. They’ve been together more than a year and plan to marry some day. Both are fitness buffs and work out together in the predawn hours at a Buckhead gym. Emiley, who runs an online clothing boutique called Emillia Rosee, is a preacher’s daughter and shares her boyfriend’s religious faith; they often attend services at Buckhead Church to hear the Rev. Andy Stanley preach.

“I’m so glad he was honest about his past with us,” Emiley says. “Can you imagine if he hadn’t done that and we found out some other way?”

5

Sharing his story
David cuts a dynamic figure in the courtroom. At 37, lean and intense, he wears a blue suit with pointy black shoes and star-spangled socks that display the stripes of the American flag on one ankle and its stars on the other. He has a full red beard and ginger hair swept up like a rooster’s comb.

He has seven tattoos that tell his story like panels from a graphic novel. On one forearm is a depiction of Jesus on the cross, testament to the religious faith that centers his life. On an ankle there’s a bar code, a visual pun celebrating his passing the bar exam. The word “discipline” is emblazoned across his upper back, a reminder of the drive and determination it took to go from the streets of Miami to the courthouses of metro Atlanta.

He also has a scar on his elbow from a knife wound he suffered in a gang brawl. When he got the crucifixion tattoo, he instructed the artist not to cover the slash mark because he wanted to see them both and never forget.

Standing before a judge, David hides his tattoos and scars beneath his lawyerly attire. But he’s hardly trying to conceal his past. He’s proud of his metamorphosis and wants the world to know about it. That’s why he wrote a memoir called “The American Dream: HisStory in the Making.”

The book, self-published in paperback last spring, has led to good things for David. Shortly after its release, he auditioned for Nancy Grace’s crime-and-punishment show on HLN and landed a spot as one of her regular legal commentators. The autobiography also attracted the attention of Atlanta’s best-known movie mogul, Tyler Perry, whose studio signed a “shopping agreement” with him, giving it a year to commission a screenplay and find financing to turn the book into a film.

“We’re always looking for inspirational stories like David’s,” says Matt Moore, an executive vice president and producer with the Perry studio. “This felt like a good fit for Tyler’s brand. He had his struggles growing up, too, although he took a different route. We’re going to do everything we can to push this forward.”

After he met David, Moore wondered how Ryan Gosling would look in the lead role.

The hero of the story has another deeply personal motivation for wanting to see a biopic materialize. David would like to pay off his astronomical student loans and buy his parents a new home. He’s been trying to persuade them to leave North Miami Beach, where they live in the same house they occupied when he was a street punk. He worries about them. Earlier this year, police carried out a drug bust across the street at 4 a.m. — a full-scale assault that involved flash grenades, a battering ram and a helicopter. Gang members still occasionally drop by the house asking for him.

“I’ve got to get them out of there,” he says. “If something happened to my mom, I don’t know that I would be calling the cops.”

6

Speaking from experience
It’s Friday morning at the DeKalb County courthouse, and David is making an appearance, not as a defense attorney, but as a motivational speaker. He regularly mentors young people in trouble with the law. This morning, he’s part of Superior Court Judge Asha F. Jackson’s Project Pinnacle, a pretrial diversion program for nonviolent offenders, ages 17-25.

David usually talks to at least 20 people who have signed up for months of counseling and education. Today, only two have shown up.

“The number doesn’t matter,” he assures the judge in her chambers. “If I reach one person, it’s enough.”

They walk into the courtroom, where two young men sit waiting in the gallery with their arms crossed. One of them is accused of stealing copper from a warehouse, the other of a residential burglary. They look bored.

“Uncross your arms,” the judge orders.

She asks whether they’ve finished the book they were assigned to read, David’s memoir.

The two shake their heads no.

“Well, you should read it. All the stuff you’ve been talking about, he did it. And now he’s here to talk with you.”

As David tells them about his lawless past, the young men begin to show a flicker of interest. At one point, he lifts his right pants leg and exposes a tattoo with his gang nickname: Red.

“I got that in jail when I was 16. Another prisoner gave it to me with a needle and India ink.”

The young men lean forward to take a closer look. One of them smiles slightly, the way you smile when you recognize something familiar.

The redhead in the blue suit finally has their attention.

Behind the story

David speaks to young offenders Luis Rangel and Donsheldon Lowe in the courtroom of Judge Asha Jackson as part of Project Pinnacle, a program for nonviolent, first-time offenders under the age of 25.


HOW WE GOT THE STORY
When David Windecher’s book, “The American Dream: HisStory in the Making,” landed on my desk, I knew his story of bad-boy-made- good was a Personal Journey just waiting to happen. I just needed to find the right writer. I never had the opportunity to work with Jim Auchmutey when he was one of the AJC’s premier features writers, and I had been looking for an opportunity to change that. When I offered him David’s story to tell, he read the book and met with David before agreeing to the assignment. That kind of thoughtful care is apparent in his artful telling of this gripping story about second chances.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jim Auchmutey is the author of the recent book “The Class of ’65.” Read an excerpt from the book and see an interview with Auchmutey here. He was a reporter and editor for almost 30 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he specialized in stories about the South and its history and culture. He was twice named the Cox Newspapers chain’s writer of the year and was honored by the James Beard Foundation for his food writing. He’s now working on a book about the history of barbecue.


ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. He has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.