Rival gang leaders are putting aside their differences and pouring themselves into a project that has the potential to decrease violence in Wilmington.
HOW IT STARTED
The murder of a teenager on Castle Street planted a seed of an idea in George Taylor's mind.
When Shane Simpson was killed in a gang-related shooting in 2015, Taylor, an entrepreneur (National Speed, Untappd, JOMO), began to look into Wilmington's gangs and ways to stop the violence.
"At the time, I had no idea the gangs even existed in Wilmington," Taylor said. "I started looking into it and found out that it had something to do with this Bloods group that I knew nothing about."
Taylor said he called District Attorney Ben David, who put Taylor in touch with the Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff's Office Gang Task Force.
He asked to be introduced to some of Wilmington's gang leaders.
"That was in February of last year," Taylor said. "I spent the next eight months hanging out with these guys, trying to understand what is driving them, what was driving the violence and what opportunities there were to maybe have an impact."
Taylor said he found there are many misconceptions that exist about the gangs and their members.
"I began to believe that it was much more of an economic issue than it was racial or social and that's where we had the idea: 'What if we could create a business and hire gang members, as absurd as that might sound?'" Taylor said.
The idea started to take shape and today, TRU Colors Brewing has nine gang leaders on the payroll. The men are from different sects of the Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples. Their goal is to open a brewery that will employ other gang members, giving them job and growth opportunities.
The nine men first went through a six-week boot camp that started in June called the Hero Project. It focused on business skills, life skills, brewing beer and brewery operations.
Part of the program was to get the gang leaders to agree to stop the violence from the top down. Taylor said that's been a success.
"The really important part to us was, 'Do you have influence over the hundreds of gang members who are underneath you guys?'" he said. "So, the deal was, in order for us to succeed and have this brewery, you have to learn, you have to be disciplined, but you also have to show me you have control so no shots fired from the moment you come on. As long as I'm paying you, no shots fired in your group. We weren't really sure what was going to happen but since then, there hasn't been a shot fired by our group…by anyone in our group or any of their members."
Now, they're in the next phase of the program, which includes weekly challenges like skydiving, and giving back to the community through volunteering their time.
They also organized and worked with future entrepreneurs with The Battle of the Bosses.
Six people pitched businesses ideas in a Shark Tank style event held last month.
The three winners get $200,000 in financial backing and support from the TRU Colors team to get their businesses up and running.
As a result, two restaurants and a laundromat are coming to three communities on the north, south, and east sides of Wilmington.
Meantime, the TRU Colors team is coordinating plans for the brewery.
THE MEN OF TRU COLORS
Cory Wrisborne, who also goes by Blanco Dinero, was one of the first TRU Colors hires.
"I met George Taylor a year ago and he told me that they wanted to start this brewery. And he wanted gang leaders to come in and be a part of it," he said. "I thought it was pretty crazy."
Wrisborne first started working at Untappd, a craft beer app where Taylor's son, Kurt, is the CEO.
Wrisborne worked in the sales department, where he broke some sales call records.
This was part of what showed George Taylor that his plan could work.
When Taylor was ready to launch TRU Colors, Wrisborne started working with the company.
Wrisborne opened up about what drove him to be a part of the project.
"A lot of things," he said. "My son. My biological father wasn't there for me. I didn't meet him until I was 13. I want to make sure that I'm that much better than he was for my son.
"So, this opportunity, I know how important it is. My mother was killed when I was 16 and that was like my heart, the soul of my family and me. So, since I was 16, I've been going at it to make her proud. I also lost a close friend when I was 22 years old, a very close friend, and a lot of close friends, they got a lot of time. One friend is doing 26 years in a federal penitentiary. Knowing all those things that happened, my life could go either way. That's something that keeps you moving forward."
Johnnathun Smith, who is known as Beezy, said he has too much to lose to ever commit another crime.
"I'm looking for better ways to be successful," he said. "I don't want to be running around with the police on my back everywhere I go. Now, it's like, I'm comfortable."
He said when he was involved in crime, it was driven by money or retaliation.
"I got friends that died and I felt like it was my honor, like I had to try to do something about it when some things, you can't control and I realize that now," he said. "The violence has to stop. You are never going to progress in life if you just stick to violence. It's either death or jail. That's the way I see it. So why not work and become something that you never thought you could be?"
He said because of TRU Colors, he sees a different future for himself, one that does not involve violence or jail.
"I've always thought about starting a shoe company," he said. "Now that I'm working with George, I'm learning the ways that I could possibly do that and he's encouraging me to do that."
Bruce Hall also sees the opportunity ahead.
He's been a gang member since he was 15, the same age he was when he was charged with attempted murder. He spent five years in prison for the crime.
"A lot of people don't have this chance in life," Hall said.
Dacious Smith, Erik Marshall, Jovon Genwright, William Lane, Xavier Hall and Stephen Barnett are also part of the TRU Colors team.
Hear more about Barnett's story on Tuesday on WECT News at 11.
The men said although they've come from different gangs, they have been able to put aside their differences.
"How can I sit in a room with these guys when I know some of us really don't like each other? But are you going to let that come between your future? It's not worth it," Smith said.
He said a new bond has formed between the old rivals.
"We got our own brotherhood," he said. "We stick together."
"Opportunity is the greatest equalizer," Wrisborne said. "Whenever we were all given the opportunity, I think we were able to look past where you were from or different things that made us different and look at a common goal that all of us want to achieve."
The common goal is providing jobs and opportunities to other gang members.
The plan is to recruit up to 100 gang members for the brewery and restaurant, which does not have a set location just yet.
Taylor hopes to open in the first quarter of next year.
If it works in Wilmington, the TRU Colors concept could expand to other cities.
TRU Colors is also working on a construction company to give even more gang members jobs.
That's why Taylor does not want the gang leaders he has on staff to leave the gangs.
"Part of their requirement, if they want to remain part of TRU Colors, is they have to stay in the gang because we want influence. They leave the gang, they lose influence," Taylor said. "We want to have some conduit to send a message to all the guys on the streets of what's coming and what the opportunity is and be patient."
Wrisborne said that's another reason he wanted to be part of the company.
"I always wanted better for where I'm from," he said. "I have a son. He'll be 5 in November. There's a lot of kids out there that look up to me so my mind was never to turn my back and look out for myself. It was always to build more opportunities. Now we have that opportunity to not only build ourselves up but to lead the way. Turn your back and lead the way."
Taylor said if it goes as planned, the start-up will encourage gang membership.
"Gangs are like fraternities," he said. "We see an opportunity to flip the whole thing upside down and make them a really positive part of the community. We have this idea that sometime next year, if things go as we expect, we want to open the Bloods entrepreneurial center in the northside and the Crips in the east side and the GD over on the southside. Completely flip it upside down so being a Blood is like being in Kiwanis."
Taylor will talk more about the plans for the brewery as part of the Cucalorus Film Festival. His keynote address is Thursday, Nov. 9 at 4:15 p.m. at Cape Fear Community College.
WATCH OUR SPECIAL REPORTS
Our Ashlea Kosikowski has been following the start-up business and interviewing the members of the TRU Colors team.
Watch for the second part of her special report on WECT News at 11 Tuesday.