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Former Boyle Heights Troubled Teen Now An LA County Probation Commissioner

Tomorrow, Oct. 14, will mark the anniversary of the day Azael “Sal” Martinez Sonoquí was shot by a Los Angeles Police Department officer, after stealing a car and joyriding with friends. The bullets went in through one side of his neck and out the other, he told EGP during a recent interview.

Read this story IN SPANISH: Ex Adolescente Delincuente Ahora es un Comisionado del Departamento de Libertad Condicional del Condado de LA [1]

Today, Martinez is the newest member of the Los Angeles County Probation Commission, appointed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. He credits a now deceased probation officer for turning his life around, a favor he hopes to repay many times over.

Martinez told EGP that after he was patched up he was sent to a juvenile detention center, a place he had been in and out of since the age of 14. By 17, he had already been shot twice and stabbed three times—during one of those incidents one of his friends was killed.

Martinez, now in his 40s, recalled how at the time he though he would be dead by the age of 18, or get arrested for a major crime and spend the rest of his life in a prison cell.

“I was ready to be the best gangster I could be,” Martinez confessed.

His friends back home sent him letters telling him his street status had been elevated because of the “badge of honor” scar now permanently embedded on his neck.

All that would change, however, when he met Los Angeles County Probation Officer Mary Ridgway in 1988, on the same day he was released from jail.

Los Angeles County Probation Commissioner Sal Martinez in June 2011 during the renaming ceremony of the East Los Angeles Probation Area Office in honor of Mary Ridgway. (EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo)

Ridgway, who had been assigned to him, informed Martinez about the terms of his probation and quickly set in motion a plan to give him a new beginning, despite the huge odds he would have to face. “She didn’t know my parents were drug dealers,” Martinez said.

He took her advice because he knew deep inside, leaving the structure and safety of Camp Mendenhall where he had earned the distinction of being named  “mayor,” was the saddest day of his life, he said.

Now, all these years later, Molina calls her nomination of Martinez to the county probation commission “an honor.”

“He was once a probation youth himself, who has overcome the challenges that many of our at-risk youth currently face. He was one of many minors under the supervision of Mary Ridgway, the legendary Probation Department officer who we recently named our East L.A. facility after. Martinez credits Ridgway with changing his life for the better, and I know he will do the same for other Probation youth,” Molina told EGP in a written statement.

Earlier this year Martinez co-chaired the committee that renamed the East Los Angeles Probation Area Office in honor of Ridgway.

As a commissioner, he wants to pay tribute to the life of Ridgway, who was his friend and mentor, and who he credits for breaking his curse.

“I come to this body with [juvenile detention] after-care in mind. because mine was excellent,” Martinez said.

“Okay, they’re already locked them up because they did something [wrong], let’s do something that will make them better citizens,” he adds.

Specifically, he wants to ensure that juvenile probationers meet their probation officers and go over their conditions before they are released, and that these at-risk youth are tracked to small schools where they can make progress before being allowed to integrate and graduate from a local high school. He also wants them to be guided toward jobs and offered job training.

Martinez doesn’t brag about his past, in fact he opened up for the first time about it at Ridgway’s funeral in 2009. For years he even tried to hide it from his children.

“I’ve dealt with my past, put it behind me,” he said.

Living a gang lifestyle tends to be glorified, but Martinez plans to open up and share more of his life through a book he is writing specifically with juvenile detainees in mind. “[The gang life is a] shackled lifestyle, inside or out, you’re still shackled,” he said.

Martinez is an active resident of Boyle Heights, including the Resurrection Neighborhood Watch since 2001. He has been a member of the Hollenbeck Community Advisory Board, the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, a parishioner at Victory Outreach in Boyle Heights, an LAPD volunteer since 2007, and a member of the Gang Reduction Youth Development contract review board.

He is currently a 2011-2012 California 46th Assembly District Delegate. He is the operations manager for a local soda distributor. He is married and has two children.