‘Moment I realised I’d lost control’
IT TOOK just one moment of unimaginable madness for a former Australian street gang member to see how badly his life had spiralled out of control.
That moment was when Phil* watched one of his closest friends pick up a sawn-off shotgun and shoot another close mate dead in an early-morning drug-fuelled gathering in his home.
Speaking exclusively to news.com.au, the 26-year-old Melburnian revealed how the death has triggered guilt about his lifestyle choices every day and how he wishes he could change everything.
The descent into the chaos of gang violence, ice addiction and gun crime began when Paul was still at high school in suburban Melbourne.
"Being young, you are easily led along a path and I guess I just fell into the wrong group of people in high school," he said. "I started picking up charges of car theft when I was 16 and from there it went up from burglary to possession of firearms and stuff like that when I was 18."
From an Italian migrant background, Phil said he committed the crimes as part of a group of first and second-generation migrants from across the world.
In the beginning, Phil didn't consider that he was part of a "gang" but added that there was a definite "mob mentality" among the unruly teenagers he began to associate with.
"We were little teenie bopper thugs," he said. "We loved the notoriety. People knew who we were. And, when we made the news, it was something we were proud of.
"I found it hard to find direction in life at that age especially. I started doing badly at school and you feel like you belong in that group. You find strength in numbers.
"I didn't come from a well-off family and committing crimes to make a quick and easy dollar was appealing. Once someone who has had nothing in life experiences this, it can be rather addictive.
"One thing leads to another, and eventually you start moving onto more serious crimes such as large scale drug trafficking, kidnappings and shootings."
It was in 2010 that Phil first tasted life in prison and he said the experience changed him forever.
"I started to meet different kinds of people in prison and I learned a lot more about crime," he said.
But there was another destructive influence which crept into Phil's life when he was aged 18 - ice.
"I was just drinking before then, but I pretty much went straight onto it from when I was 18 through to when I was 23," he said.
"I started getting introduced to a lot of the older guys in the area who were using it. A friend offered me it one day and that's how it starts."
He started to smoke a gram and a half a day at his worst, aged 20.
"At first, you get an amazing rush off it and that's why people continue to do it. But the long-term effects are catastrophic. You start to fire up over trivial things and you find it hard to rationalise anything.
"Something that would be insignificant to everyone else - would make me flare up and I would become completely irrational."
His habit worsened during his time behind bars and, within a couple of months of leaving prison for the first time, Phil was locked up again. This time he had a "mile-long" list of violent charges - including assault with a firearm.
Phil said people he knew would deliberately target homes of licensed firearm owners to take their guns. Using boltcutters, they would simply break padlocks and steal the firearms which they would then swap for drugs or money.
But in early in 2013, shortly after being released from his second stint behind bars, one day changed Phil's life forever.
"I was at home with a group of friends and at the time I was in the drug scene and I was a bit of a gun nut," he said. "I would always have guns in my possession.
"On this particular morning, me and three friends were smoking ice and I had a .38 caliber revolver and a sawn-off shotgun at my house.
"You had four people, two high-powered firearms, the worst narcotic known to man, you're in a concealed space. If you had a camera in that room, you would have seen something bad was going to happen from the start. But in the moment, you don't see it that way.
"One of my closest mates picked up the shotgun and shot another one of my friends dead."
Phil said the moment happened "very quickly" - but he still thinks about it every day.
"That day is forever stuck with me, it's ingrained in me. It's a constant reminder of my mistakes that I will forever live with," he said.
"I live with the guilt each and every day. If it wasn't for the choices and decisions I made, my friend wouldn't have died. Her daughter would still have a mother. I hate that it had to come to that to wake up to myself."
However, for Phil, the change didn't come straight away.
"I started smoking twice as much," he said. "I basically hit the self-destruct button. I became a cold, dark person who hated the world."
A few months after the incident, Phil was arrested after breaching his parole conditions was locked up again two years for firearm and drugs possession charges.
In prison, Phil said the guilt began to kick in and he began treatment for his ice addiction.
"I met some of the older inmates, their experiences were similar to mine, and I started to think that I didn't want to be there in 30 or 40 years time," he said. "There's more to life than that crap.
"This life is a road that leads to nowhere. There was no future. Not one worth living anyway. I decided to cut the excuses I was using to justify my behaviour - despite them being legitimate.
"Some people walk into the cracks now and again, I fell into everyone I stood on. Even to this day the system finds a way to fail me from time to time, but as I grew, I realised you can't justify these things with 'poor me'.
"Some wake up, some don't. I have no doubt most that were in my circle are still doing the same thing."
Phil decided to share his story to try and inspire young people not to make the same mistakes he did.
"Sometimes it takes something seriously bad to happen for some people to snap out of it and wake up to reality," he said.
"I learnt from my mistakes, everyday I try to learn a bit more to further better myself.
"These kids need to learn and understand there is more to life than what they are doing. I now have a career and earn a decent crust, an honest one."
He also regrets the impact his behaviour had on his family.
"I remember my mum being in tears because she was sick of wondering when she was going to get that call to say I'm either dead or in jail and never coming out," he said.
"I have three beautiful babies that are literally the light of my life, a new hope. There is always a way out. It's not always easy, that's life. But the rewards are worth it."
*News.com.au has withheld Paul's surname to protect his identity.
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