Antonio Reza’s future revolves around one number: 71.5 percent. No, it’s not what he needs on a final to pass a class. As a violent offender, this is the likelihood that Reza will return to jail within five years. After leaving prison in 2013 for armed robbery, Reza refuses to be a statistic. Reza is graduating USF in the winter of 2018, and, as his arresting officer said, “I’m telling you, that is such an anomaly.”
Reza grew up in Newark, Calif., a landlocked city across the Bay in Alameda County. Coming from an Irish-Mexican background, Reza would spend the weekends at his grandmother’s house in North Oakland. He tried his first beer and blunt at the age of 12. By the time he was in high school, he was hanging out with what he called a “rough crowd.” “You’d see them on the news,” said Reza.
After graduating from Fremont Christian School in 2010, Reza got into a argument with his mother and was kicked out of the house. He ended up living in motels around Newark, but eventually found himself studying music at Expression College in Emeryville. Things went downhill from there.
Multiple friends of Reza’s died between 2009 and 2010, two from gun-related incidents. “I knew these guys since I was 12. Everybody was dying,” said Reza. His GPA slipped from a 4.0 to a 2.96, and because his scholarship required him to keep above a 3.0, he had to withdraw from Expression.
Working at a liquor store in Oakland, Reza moved into a rented room with a friend who had been homeless. One day, Reza’s friend pulled out a gun and said, “I’m tired of being hungry, I’m tired of being homeless.” Reza saw nothing for his future. “So we went and did some stupid shit,” Reza said.
Reza was the driver for three armed robberies, which were part of a wider string of crimes across the East Bay in July and August 2011. Michael Gebhardt, a senior homicide and robbery detective for the Fremont Police Department, said, “The robberies were very violent. They would come in armed with a firearm. In some of the robberies, the suspect put the gun to the clerk’s head. It was all 7/11’s, convenience stores, fast food places.”
The Fremont Police Department eventually tracked down a total of eight people connected to the robberies, including Reza. Reza was arrested in September 2011 and charged with three counts of armed robbery with a deadly weapon. Detective Gebhardt, Reza’s arresting officer, noted how Reza’s criminal history was blank considering the crime. “In my experience of 13 years of being a police officer, normally you don’t start by doing stuff that bad,” said Gebhardt.
Before going to jail, Gebhardt said to Reza, “Your story is not written. You’re a young man who has got so much ahead of him. You need to use this time constructively.”
“I was facing a life sentence,” said Reza, who was now known by the name BIT141 by his jail guards. “It was grey on grey on grey with a silver toilet sink thing. That was my kitchen and my bathroom. And the one window that I had was three inches wide, about 24 inches long… it was horrible.”
Detective Gebhardt, who had resided over Reza’s case, offered to keep in touch with him. “When you get out [of jail], I want to be a resource to you,” Gebhardt told Reza.
Through a lawyer, Reza pled his count down to one count of second degree armed robbery. By early 2013, he was out of jail on felony probation and a 100 day house arrest. Reza started to call Detective Gebhardt, the officer who oversaw his case, to check in. The two would see each other when Gebhardt was off-duty.
Gebhardt and Reza share a hopeful, if not ironic connection. “We’ve had a relationship like friends,” said Gebhardt. “And I don’t view our relationship at all as detective and suspect. I legitimately consider him a friend of mine. That’s a beautiful thing that I keep with me all the time.”
Reza then applied to Ohlone College in the fall of 2013, a community college in Newark. “I owe a lot of the success I have today to that college,” said Reza. Coach Scott Fisher, the men’s basketball coach at Ohlone, hired Reza as the team manager. “That was one of the first times someone ever trusted me. He gave me keys to the locker room.” However, Reza omitted his felony from his application. “I lied, I did not check the box that included that,” Reza said.
By his third year at Ohlone, Reza had become tutor of the year and student of the year for the communications department. He decided to come clean to Coach Fisher. This meant getting permission from Dean of the Communications Department Mark Lieu to continue being basketball manager. Reza was successful and graduated with three associates degrees and a 4.0 GPA. He then set his sights on USF.
Reza was accepted on a full ride scholarship for the fall of 2016. His first semester at USF wasn’t easy. “I was scared. How are these people gonna react to me? I don’t have the fancy new iPhone, I don’t have this, I don’t have that,” Reza said. He also worried about negative stereotypes associated with former felons.
Junior Nikita Weber, who is in the same communications research methods class with Reza, admitted to her preconceived notions. “When Antonio first shared that he had gone to jail, I was definitely surprised. Seeing how one of the most engaging and articulate students in my class was someone with a criminal record really made me realize I had judgements and preconceived ideas of what a felon is,” Weber said.
Reza would like to attend USF’s School of Law after graduating in the winter of 2018, but even this isn’t certain. To pass the California State Bar, applicants must pass the moral character determination, which felons have historically had issues with. “We don’t want a situation where someone wastes three years of their life to then not pass the bar,” said Dean of USF Law John Trasviña. It is uncertain whether USF School of Law will be admitting Reza because of these issues.
Kimberly Richman, a sociology and legal studies professor, had Reza in a criminology class and has been advising Reza on the parameters of a felon entering law school. Although Richman has seen Reza struggle with a future in law school, she is proud of the progress he has made. “It’s very impressive and a great joy for me to see him have grown in even just the very short period that I’ve known him. It’s just a real… I don’t believe in God so I’m not going to say blessing, but it’s just an absolute joy,” said Richman.
The 28.5 percent is only the likelihood that Reza will not fall back into old habits, but he wants more: redemption. One of the co-defendants in Reza’s case was in and out of jail after his arrest with Reza, and eventually was involved in a shootout with police in April 2017 where he committed suicide. “Some of the people in my case fell victim to that,” Reza said. “I’m gonna show I’m not gonna be that statistic.”