Julius Solis and his older brother had been hanging out with Imperial Gangsters since before they could walk.
As toddlers, Julius and his brother, Javier Solis Jr., stood with members of the East Chicago-based gang at the corner of 139th and Elm streets. The gang members tilted the boys’ baseball caps to the side and taught them to throw pitchforks — the Imperial Gangsters’ hand sign.
It seemed inevitable the brothers would follow in the footsteps of their father, Javier Solis Sr. The elder Javier was a leader of the Imperial Gangsters, though he was in prison at that time.
Julius and Javier Solis Jr.’s mother, Nora Perez, struggled to separate herself from gang life.
She started dating her friend, Hunly McCarty, shortly after her third son was born in 1993. The family moved from East Chicago to Texas in 1994, leaving behind the danger and pressures of life with the Imperial Gangsters.
In Texas, Nora gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter named Jovette.
But financial obligations brought the family back to East Chicago in 1996. Hunly and Nora immediately fell back into the same crowd and started partying, drinking and doing drugs. Their home was the Imperial Gangsters’ new hangout.
While the parents partied, Nora’s oldest son, Javier Solis Jr., became his siblings’ caregiver. He was 8 years old. Javier fed his baby sister, Jovette, and changed her diaper, and he made sure his brothers, Julius and Isaiah, ate breakfast, showered and went to bed on time.
Nora and Hunly’s wild lifestyle soured their relationship.
They engaged in explosive fights that ended with bite marks on Nora’s body and Hunly having black eyes.
Hunly sometimes took his rage out on the boys’ room. He knocked over TVs, broke bunk beds and punched holes in the walls. When that happened, Javier grabbed his younger brothers, Julius and Isaiah, and they would sit on the top of the bunk bed together, hugging and crying until it was over.
Hunly felt guilty afterward and cleaned up the mess he created, but the psychological damage to Nora’s children couldn’t be wiped away with a mop or a broom.
Not for the first time, Nora questioned herself and her choices. She said she held on to Hunly out of hope she could be part of a family and be loved.
“I would say ‘Lord, I’m tired. I don’t want to do it, anymore. I want to sleep. I want to be at peace. Someone rob my home and put a bullet in my head just so I can be at peace,’ ” Nora recalled. “I knew I couldn’t kill myself, but I don’t want to do it anymore. Who am I doing any good? My children? No, not doing them any good, myself any good. What’s my point?”
Hunly, who fathered Jovette and reared Isaiah as his own, said he also tried to be a father to Javier and Julius. He coached the boys’ Little League team and urged them to stay away from gang life.
But Hunly’s actions told a different story.
Though he left the ranks of the Imperial Gangsters after enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1992, Hunly continued to party with them. He started doing cocaine. He also drank heavily, which impeded his ability to hold down a job.
“We both was messed up, mostly me,” Hunly said of his relationship with Nora. “I tried to please her and the streets, and it didn’t work.”
Nora said she decided to leave Hunly in 1998 but got shot in the side in a gang-related shooting outside Highroller Nightclub in East Chicago. Hunly took good care of her while she recovered, so she stayed with him.
They married a year later.
But Nora and Hunly’s wedded bliss was short-lived; in 2001, they broke up, the first of many times. The couple would drift in and out of each other’s lives for the next seven years.
The volatility in Nora and Hunly’s home took its toll on her children.
Jovette was too young to understand much of what was going on. Isaiah isolated himself, preferring to spend time alone or with a close friend.
Julius said he and Javier looked to the streets as a reprieve from their tumultuous home life. They started hanging out with Imperial Gangsters.
“Yeah, I had a choice joining a gang,” Julius said. “You know it’s wrong, but it’s like the police are wrong, too. Basically, this is your life, your neighborhood.”
Julius said he and his brother weren’t deep in it at first. They just thought it was cool. He said gang members protected them and gave them things, while police were brutal.
“In the movies, you see the police, ‘if I could change someone's life.’ It ain't like that out there,” Julius said. “It's like you see them, and they mess with you. They messed with me and my brother because of our last name.”
Javier and Julius were bullied by members of the Two Six gang starting in middle school.
“Going to school, it’s a fight every day, or people getting jumped or stabbed,” Julius said. “You’re safe in the neighborhood — sometimes — but at school, you get jumped by a lot of gang members.”
Nora said the boys initially tried to stay out of trouble.
Javier wanted to join a basketball team but needed the vice principal’s permission. Nora said the vice principal told Javier to stop by her office after school. Javier went to the woman’s office every day for a week, but she never was there.
Gang members jumped Javier and Julius on Julius’ second day of middle school.
When Javier was 16, he got charged with a felony for carrying a handgun without a license on school property.
Nora said her family bailed Javier out of jail against her wishes and coddled him. Frustrated, Nora sent him to live with her parents in Texas. She hoped distance might keep Javier away from the Imperial Gangsters.
Her idea worked at first. But when Javier was back in Northwest Indiana to attend a court hearing, he snuck out his bedroom window and disappeared. Nora reported Javier as a runaway but couldn’t find him.
Javier lived on the street for nearly a year. He slept in walkways and sold weed to pay for things.
Eventually, Julius, who had been sneaking out of the house to see his older brother, told Nora where to find Javier.
“Mom, Javo’s hungry,” Julius told her.
Nora called the U.S. Marshals Service, and they picked up Javier. He spent some time in jail and then moved back to Nora’s house.
Javier and Julius moved in and out of her house for the next couple of years. They also were in and out of jail.
When Julius came home, so did Javier. The boys got high and hosted parties while Nora was at work. They’d disappear for three days, then leave a mess.
Nora yelled at the boys, telling them it wasn’t a hotel. She was infuriated when Javier complained.
She issued an ultimatum that would eventually become her biggest regret: Follow the rules or leave. Javier and Julius left the next morning, each with a bag of clothes.
Isaiah said he considered joining the Imperial Gangsters with his brothers, but fear of his mom’s wrath and an aversion to trouble kept him from doing so.
“There were thoughts in my mind where I wanted to join,” Isaiah recalled.
“But other thoughts in my mind were, ‘Do I want to go to jail? Do I want my mom to cry? Do I want my mom to yell at me? Do I want to live on the streets?’ That’s just not what I wanted. I preferred to be at home with my mom and sister.”
Julius and Javier only got deeper into gang life.
“When you live in the street, you ain't got no choice,” Julius said. “People come over, they'll shoot at you just for being in the street. They sometimes kill innocent people just for chilling on that block, thinking it's a rival gang member. Now you got people shooting, now you've got to protect yourself, you know what I'm saying? That's when it snowballs. You get deeper into it. You've got to protect yourself.”
When Julius bought a gun for protection, Nora called him a coward.
“I’m just going the opposite way than where she’s trying to lead me,” he said. “She’s disrespecting me, that’s how I’m seeing it.”
Javier and Julius reconnected with their father, Javier Solis Sr., who found out they were living on the streets.
Through everything, the two brothers were always together.
Nora’s sister, Francis Trevino, the boys’ aunt, said she questioned Julius when she found a notebook with Imperial Gangster stuff in it. She also complained to Nora when she saw Julius hanging out at the corner near a known drug house. At the time, Francis said she felt she was doing her part. She later regretted not doing more.
“Julius and Javier never felt important to anybody,” Francis said.
“They never felt like a priority. That’s what the problem is. And it’s not them being a brat; it’s the lifestyle that they lived. Nobody ever made them feel that way, and I’ll include myself. Because, if they were a priority to me, I would’ve done something. I would’ve fought for them. There’s something I could’ve did.”