Three young men scheduled to be arraigned in Lawrence District Court Tuesday on charges stemming from a Friday convenience store armed robbery were participants in a state-funded program that is aimed at curbing youth gun violence in Massachusetts.
Michael Tesaun Alicea, 19, Richard Mora, 18, and Ruben Saldana, 18, face multiple charges from the robbery at South Union Market in Lawrence, Police Chief John Romero said Monday.
All three were participating in the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, launched in Lawrence less than a year ago. The program paid them to work basic labor jobs in the city’s Department of Public Works, said Art McCabe, who directs the program for Lawrence.
The city received an $800,000 grant from the state and set up its program in April, said McCabe, a community development manager in Lawrence’s Community Development Department.
He said the three men who were charged had “made a good progression in our program,” and that one recently worked with street and case workers to put together a life plan.
“This stunned me, frankly, because these kids were doing very well in the program,” McCabe said.
A hold-up alarm called police to the convenience store a little after 10 p.m. Friday, Romero said. Initially, police thought it was a hostage situation because the owner of the store and his wife had escaped and said a clerk was still inside.
After hearing shots, Romero said, police used a loudspeaker to talk to those inside, and the three men surrendered by backing out the store’s front door, hands on their heads, less than an hour after police arrived.
Romero said that an investigation showed someone tried unsuccessfully to shoot through a locked back door.
The clerk was found hiding in a freezer, he said, and while no one was physically injured, the clerk “obviously was very distraught, and understandably so.”
The three men face kidnapping, robbery, and firearms charges, Romero said, and Alicea and Mora face additional charges related to a Jan. 9 robbery. Romero said police are investigating possible links between the three and other robberies.
All three participated in the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, which employs a variety of strategies to deter those at “high risk for becoming perpetrators or victims of gun violence,” the state said in May 2011.
McCabe said some previous participants in Lawrence have been arrested, including for outstanding warrants, but no case was as high-profile as what happened Friday.
“We’ve had some really great kids who came into this program, and I know it really changed their lives,” McCabe said. “I would hope this wouldn’t stigmatize the program.”
The state announced in 2011 that it would distribute nearly $10 million to 11 communities with elevated levels of youth-related murders.
“These initiatives will help us work more closely with local leadership and at-risk youth, to end the cycle of violence that devastates communities,” Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement in October 2011 when the awards were detailed.
Alicea, Mora, and Saldana were among 80 young men and male teenagers chosen for the Lawrence program and had been participating for three to five months, McCabe said.
He said police, courts, and officials with the state Probation and the Youth Services departments refer potential participants.
McCabe said Mayor William Lantigua asked him to run Lawrence’s program. He added that the mayor does not choose who participates and has not tried to influence the program.
“We operate independent of the city,” McCabe said. “The mayor’s been very, very supportive of this program from the beginning, but he’s let us run the program.”
McCabe said that he, a codirector, and street workers employed by the program choose participants, who range in age from 14 to 24.
Neither Lantigua nor John Isensee, Lawrence’s acting public works director, could be reached for comment.
McCabe could not offer specifics about what Alicea, Mora, and Saldana did for public works but said that program participants might pick up recycling and trash in city parks, cut grass, and do weeding.
Participants are required to show up for work at 7 a.m. “and we monitor them very closely,” McCabe said.