No Exit: The Long Road to Parole

San Francisco Chronicle

After 25 years of waiting behind bars, killer Julius Domantay couldn't grasp the news.

The two commissioners deciding his fate had filed back into the tiny, windowless room at San Quentin State Prison after deliberating for a short time - and granted Domantay parole.

"He was in so much shock, I had to keep telling him where he was. It took me almost 15 minutes to really reach him," said John Stringer, Domantay's San Francisco lawyer. "I almost had to lift him from the chair and tell him three times, "You've got the date' - and then he broke down."

Domantay landed in convict blues as a cocky 17-year-old, and came of age behind iron gates. While serving a sentence of seven years to life, he has become a powerful evangelical preacher - and prison staff say his religious path led to a maturation. Those who've known him for years describe him as humble, diligent.

One man, however, stood between the 42-year-old convict and freedom: Gov. Gray Davis, who has the final say over whether a killer can rejoin society. That power was reaffirmed by the state Supreme Court last month, despite arguments that Davis' record amounts to an illegal no-parole policy for murderers.

Early in his term, Davis said no murderer would go free on his watch and, almost without exception, he has kept his word. He says he reviews each case on its merits.

Some changes an inmate makes are clear-cut: Documents prove the degrees earned, the skills acquired. But there is no ledger for recording other lessons learned. Humility. Self-respect. Resisting the urge to settle a score.

Says Earl Smith, a prison chaplain who has known Domantay for 10 years, "He didn't change because the parole board said, ÔIf you change, we'll give you a date.' He changed because he knew it would be the best thing to do - whether he was leaving prison or not."


For Domantay, San Quentin was the last stop after years of confinement - starting at youth centers and coursing through six state prisons.

"I played the gangster role so good it cost me 25 years," said Domantay, his sinewy arms etched with tattoos.

In a series of interviews with The Chronicle over the last two years, Domantay was contrite and articulate, neither excusing nor minimizing his past.

Transcripts from his Board of Prison Term hearings, about 1,000 pages dating back to 1983, document his transformation from a violent killer to a remorseful man.

At 11, Domantay arrived in the United States from the Philippines. His father, who had said his mother would be joining them here, instead introduced him to his new stepmother when he got off the plane. He grew up a "knucklehead, " roaming the streets angry and unhappy.

He and his twin, Cesar, resorted to their wits to escape the quick fists at home. Their dad, raising seven kids, didn't know how to deal with the hell- raising twins, and sent them to juvenile hall for some harsh lessons.

"We started gang-banging at 13," Cesar said. "We were both bad. We were trying to impress our friends. We didn't take nobody's crap."

Their eldest brother, Albert, said the kids often felt like misfits, teased for their poor English and for speaking Tagalog at home. Julius' education sputtered out after sixth grade.

His first crime was at age 13, followed by a string of bad choices that escalated from truancy to auto theft to armed assault. He initially landed in a San Francisco rehab facility for minors, then at California Youth Authority facilities in Stockton and Sacramento.

On Jan. 22, 1977, Domantay was cruising down San Francisco's avenues with some buddies when he decided to swipe a six-pack of beer from a tiny Judah Street shop. He was on the lam, having escaped from CYA roughly one month earlier. He admits to initiating the robbery, coaxing along the three Filipino gang members.

"We was drinking and we wanted to get some beer. So, the next thing you know, we decided to rob a store," he said. "It was an instant thing."

As store owner Salem "Sam" Totah, 52, reached for his gun, Domantay fired a .22 Magnum at his head.

"I knew if he made the wrong move and he didn't comply with me, I knew what I was going to do. So I'm not going to try and make any excuses," Domantay said. "It was going to either be him or me."

After he shot Totah, Domantay and his friends ran, without even grabbing the beer. San Francisco police arrested him three days later.

Relatives in the shopkeeper's family say that Totah was killed execution style. Members of his extended family - including a San Francisco prosecutor who shares the same name - said the corner store was a retirement haven for Totah, who had owned shops in the notoriously rough Western Addition of the 1960s.

"Uncle Sam was known as a quick draw, God rest his soul," the prosecutor said. "His death was a tragedy."


On May 24, 1977, 17-year-old Domantay arrived by bus at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, where newcomers entered the prison system. As a young convict, he skirmished with guards, running up eight disciplinary memos for fighting, drugs and other offenses.

Albert Domantay, who lives in Daly City, recalls visiting Folsom Prison when Domantay was 19. His brother, he said, had no goals beyond survival.

"When I talked to him, he wasn't concerned about his future," Albert Domantay said. "It is like he had nothing going for him."

Early psychological reports described Domantay's "anti-social personality." At his first parole hearings, prison commissioners repeatedly kept him behind bars because of "the cold-blooded and senseless killing" with its "inexplicable motive."

"To a lot of my homeboys, they think it was like I was being glorified. They think it is a cool thing to do. Julius is 'bad,' and is in prison, he's this and that," he said. "Well, I knew the reality, there was nothing cool about being in prison, to tell the truth."

Board of Prison Terms Commissioner Jones Moore, one of the two who granted Domantay parole, has watched him change over the years. He and Domantay first crossed paths in 1977.

Domantay was "a young man then . . . what I like to term as young and dumb and wild," Moore said.

The convict has his own words to describe himself during his early days in prison.

"I hated myself, very much so. I had no respect for myself. I didn't care about my life. I had this mentality coming in here of being a bad ass, excuse my language," he said.

He bounced through a half-dozen prisons - including one nine-month hitch in 1984 with Cesar, his twin, and a younger brother, Eric. The brothers now live in the Bay Area.

On June 14, 1993, Domantay landed at San Quentin, a windswept bluff that seems to mock inmates with its tantalizing mix of air, light and water.

"When he first came in," said San Quentin's Lt. Vernell Crittendon, "he was anti-social, standoffish."


Rash and impulsive punks arrive every day at San Quentin. Bunk-dope dealers and petty hustlers swap cigarettes, curse the "cops." On the yard, Domantay glances knowingly at the angry fighters, the ones hungry for power. Ages ago, he was one of them.

"You got to humble yourself. You got to say, 'I don't want to fight with you, man. I don't need that,' and then walk away," Domantay said, with a rueful laugh. "But, it takes time to learn that. Sometimes, you got to learn the hard way."

He shrugs his shoulders, almost oblivious to the bars and razor wire on San Quentin's upper yard, where nearly 400 men huddled in tight clusters at dawn on a recent day. One tugs a wool cap over his ears. Another starts doing push- ups near a laundry bin.

An impudent Latino flashes his Sureo gang sign before ducking into the cafeteria. He's followed by a river of men clad in orange jumpsuits. Each convict grabs a dirt-brown mug, fills it with coffee and picks up a tray loaded with grub.

Sneakers squeak on the floor. A correctional officer points with his chin, directing an inmate to his seat. Meal time is danger time: Most "sticks" with homemade knives happen during the bustle. Men hunker over their food as a cathedral-like light bathes the room.

"Let's go, gentlemen," yells a correctional officer just outside the cafeteria. His eyes slide past the men from behind his Ray-Bans as they file resignedly toward their morning jobs.

Domantay left the world outside before it bustled with e-mail and cell phones. Now, his nephews are taller than he is, and the correctional officers are younger.

"Anybody who tells you it isn't scary walking into a penitentiary is a liar, " Domantay said. "You can't show people you're weak or they'll take advantage of you. So, you put a mask on and let them know that 'I've already killed and if I have to I'll do it again.' You have to show them that attitude, even if deep down in your heart you're really scared."

Newcomers are sized up, watched closely and then pressured into joining gangs. In exchange, they get tutored in the unwritten rules that govern life inside - where not to stand in a prison rife with racial tension, how the blind alleys in the 149-year-old prison provide cover for deft bladings that will never be seen by a guard.

"They welcome you and reel you in. They'll bait you," Domantay said. "Then, it is favor for favor."

Some inmates are forced into doing the dirty work for gangs, with shanks - homemade knives - pressed in their hands and orders given. Many end up in a special disciplinary prison-within-prison known as "the hole." Others, like Domantay, who remain aloof from any prison gang, still need protection and rely on a buddy to watch their backs when brawls erupt.

Amid San Quentin's knifings, racial riots and sly hustles, he has learned that survival has less to do with one's fists and more with an insider's acumen.

"Anything that you do in prison - any job that you have - you can always do favors. It is small to the outside community, but it is big in here," Domantay said. "It is all like circles, everyone is turning the twist on everybody."

The cacophony on his cell block escalates. The din is pierced by a disgruntled convict who hammers on the metal bars, quickly raising a ruckus in the cavernous tier.

"Hey, grow up!" comes a shout from the lowest floor, followed by taunts of "Hey youngster, hey mother-."


Outsiders and prison sources say that Domantay has matured and grown inside prison - and he hasn't had any discipline problems since Sept. 9, 1992. He received his high school equivalency degree in 1984 and wrapped up his auto vocational training in 1987. He has gone to therapy, anger management and other self-help courses. He does volunteer work with troubled youths. Parole records note his job plans, his strong family ties, his remorsefulness for his crime, his work with the Protestant Garden Chapel and its drama ministry.

"Prison changes you because of the violence and all of the killings that your eyes witness," said Domantay, fidgeting as he sits in a hard plastic prison chair. "There are times when it comes back to you - how can I be alive today?"

His transformation started, Domantay said, after he witnessed a fatal inmate shooting at Soledad State Prison in 1986.

He said he came to his faith one July day in 1993, when he was invited by a friend to a religious revival in the yard. He heard the preacher's voice telling him, "Tomorrow is not promised to you, you could die tomorrow," compelling him to the altar to receive Christ.

"I have a lot of pride, so it was hard for me to be in the middle of the yard crying and asking God for forgiveness," he said. "I started letting my homeboys know that I'm not in the game no more. If you want to kick it with me,

come to church."

Faced with constant testing from violent peers, it took a while for his actions to fall in line with his new beliefs - but finally the changes surfaced.

"Prison is a game, it is all a game," Domantay said. "Pride is No. 1. Prison is a game that never stops. It gets worse, if anything."

Earl Smith, the chaplain, says that Domantay swapped violence for spirituality - and that he is now "probably the most gifted evangelistic speaker" in the prison.

"He fought back until he realized through a maturing process to fight from within," Smith said. "That is how the changes evolve."

Domantay, who captivates inmates at his weekly Bible class, was the emcee at a recent church revival held at San Quentin, his voice a sing-song cadence.

"The spirit of the Lord is here tonight and I know you'll feel it when you go home to those cells," he said, standing behind the red-draped pulpit. "I ask that you touch every heart and mind, Father God, that they leave this place with the Holy Spirit."

Domantay also uses his oratorical skill in a program intended to scare troubled kids straight. Wayward youths are locked up inside cells, winked at by burly inmates and grilled by convicts who see through their tough-guy veneer.

Typically soft-spoken, Domantay changes into a force to be reckoned with and treats each teenager as a son gone adrift.

"What I like about it is when I . . . look at their faces and tell them how long I've been locked up," Domantay said. "I tell them I've been here for 20- something years, and they look at you and say, 'Man.' "

Retired San Francisco Police Officer Ed Collins, 54, often took problem kids to San Quentin.

"Domantay is dynamic, he's forceful and he's insightful. He reads the kids, especially the Filipino and Asian kids," Collins said, adding that the convicts find the volunteer work cathartic. "Some inmates would dearly like to erase their crimes, but you can't call back the bullet."


Domantay said members of his large family, who mostly live in the Bay Area, visit him monthly.

"When you're doing time, your family is doing time, too," he said. "Everyone in my immediate family - four brothers and two sisters and 24 nephews and nieces. It is very, very hard when you go out there to the visiting room."

His younger brother, Eric, a lab technician who lives with his wife and six kids in Fairfield, said Julius' absence bores a hole into family gatherings.

"There is always a piece missing," he said. "It is not complete without him. "

His twin, Cesar, who lives in Antioch and runs a cleaning service, said their birthday is a hollow celebration. Each visit to prison is hard.

"It hurts me to say goodbye when he has to stay there," he said. "I would put my life on it, my brother would never, ever go back to prison. It is just like me, I would die before I go back. There is no life there."

Inside San Quentin, word spread quickly when Domantay won his date for release last April 23, at his 14th parole hearing.

"There were many employees who wished him well, from the chief deputy warden on down," Crittendon said. "He has lived an exemplary life here inside the prison setting for over 10 years. He has been a role model for other inmates. He is well liked by the lion's share of the correctional officers."

It was a tough hurdle to clear - the Board of Prison Terms has approved release in just 1.6 percent of the homicide cases it has reviewed.

"I wish you good luck," Commissioner Moore said at the hearing. "You've made some positive changes in your life. I hope that you'll maintain that."

A psychiatric report stated that Domantay "has matured greatly" and no longer exhibited anti-social behaviors. A San Quentin prison counselor said that Domantay "would pose a minimal degree of threat to public safety if released at this time."

But on Sept. 20, Davis scuttled Domantay's hopes. Of the 165 murder cases sent along to him during his tenure, the governor has blocked all but three exits - including Domantay's.


In reversing the board's decision, Davis said he found the psychological assessments "less than convincing." He noted that Domantay never held a job and pointed to his violence-ridden youth. Domantay's parole was an "unreasonable risk."

After hearing of the governor's reversal, Domantay said, he knelt in the corner of his cell where he prays and told God he wouldn't question the decision. But it took him a week before he could tell his family.

"Honestly, I thought I was going to walk," he said. "But the governor's got his hands tied - it is politics and he got caught up in his promise that no murderer would go home on his watch. . . . There is no doubt in my mind that I will get home, but it will be on God's time."

Smith said this will be the true test of how Domantay has changed.

"What is cruel is when you find a guy suitable to leave and then, at the eleventh hour, the government changes its mind," the chaplain said.

"We should look at how these men respond when they find out they couldn't go home," he said. "That is when you find out if it is an internal change or just part of a prison program. If it was an act, the guy would just give up."

Domantay keeps a few pictures of arcing dolphins taped to a wall opposite his narrow bunk in the sour-smelling tier. One day, he hopes to see them in the ocean. But he has long since quit counting his days in prison.

"I made a lot of mistakes in my life. And I regret - I'm very remorseful for killing the man," he said. "He didn't have that coming.

"Most of the time when I'm out there on the yard, I look at it and think it is a crying shame to see all these old men still playing the little kids' game . . . with pants sagging and talking like a gangster. It's very, very sad, you know?"


This series looks at what it is like to grow up behind bars with little chance of getting out - and at how life can become a prison of another sort for those who survive crime.

Today: A defiant teenager was sent to prison for murder. Twenty-five years later, has he changed and earned his grant of parole?

Monday: A woman whose family fell apart after her father's 1980 murder questions why his killer should have anything less than a life sentence.

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