Until Spokane cops hauled him in on 14 counts, R.J. Mulvey was probably one of the city’s most accomplished 13-year-old burglars.
Alex De La Pena was a car thief at age 11, stuffing coats and cushions under his butt until he could see over the dashboard enough to drive the hot wheels away.
Fifth-grader James Young was a chronic school-skipper who ignored his parents and ran wild with a bad crowd. Ray Clary was a 95-pound playground bully who beat hell out of anyone who got in his way.
Losers, all of them. Dead-end delinquents tumbling into deeper and deeper trouble.
Then along came a tireless Roman Catholic priest who thought he could teach lost kids something about the value of hard work and how to respect themselves and others.
Today, Mulvey, 42, is a deputy sheriff who has nabbed more than a few burglars.
De La Pena, 43, is project manager with a big construction company. Young, 35, sells real estate.
Clary, 38, is an attorney who does his fighting with words in a courtroom.
Ask what made the difference in the lives of these one-time punks and they will answer in a few words:
Father Joe Weitensteiner and the Morning Star Boys Ranch.
“If it weren’t for Morning Star I’d probably be sitting in the Walla Walla penitentiary right now,” says De La Pena, who works at A&B; Asphalt in Kennewick.
“About a year after I was there, I was sweeping the floors one night when I realized, ‘Hey, Alex, you got to make up your mind. Do you want to be a bad guy or a good guy?’
“I decided I wanted to be a good guy. From that day until this day I never stole another thing. I had it better at Morning Star than I did at home.”
Since it opened on Jan. 2, 1956, Morning Star has been a refuge and a turning point for some of the city’s toughest young cookies.
Not all of the 1,111 boys who have bunked at the ranch south of Spokane have responded to the counseling and structure provided by the group home. That would be too good to be true.
Some Morning Star alumni ended up in prison, never exorcised their personal demons. Others never amounted to anything.
Enough, however, turned out like Mulvey, De La Pena, Young and Clary to demonstrate what a valuable asset the boys ranch is to this community.
Imagine the ultimate cost to society had Morning Star not been there for these angry boys.
Unfortunately, Washington’s bean counters have come up with a cost-cutting plan that could slash as much as 70 percent of Morning Star’s annual budget. Money that for years has gone to the non-profit program will instead go to for-profit institutions on the other side of the state.
Weitensteiner is optimistic as always, vowing to continue serving as many of the area’s troubled boys as he can.
He tells encouraging stories about the shaky beginnings of Morning Star, when the milk and heat bills went unpaid.
The inescapable reality, however, is that Morning Star needs $99 a day for each young resident. There is no shortage of kids who could benefit from a stay there.
If the state won’t help, it’s in every Spokane resident’s best interest to keep this program alive and vital through donations.
The mission of Morning Star has always been to “improve society,” says Clary, a Spokane attorney who spent two years of his youth at the ranch and now serves on its board of directors.
“It sends young boys out into the community with a sense of discipline and determination.”
Mulvey, the former burglar who is now a Spokane County sheriff deputy, couldn’t agree more.
“I get so frustrated when I deal with kids on the street and I can’t do anything with them,” he says. “The boys ranch is an opportunity for some of them to learn how to be proud of themselves.”