Charles Cain says football and Gene Autry helped him escape a life of street gangs and drug dealers in south-central Los Angeles.
Sports led Cain to Las Vegas, where he played football for UNLV, and horses kept him here through a 28-year career as a Metro Police detective. He’d grown up watching cowboy movies and hanging around horse barns whenever he could, including at a sprawling stable complex located, believe it or not, smack in the middle of Compton.
As a Metro officer, Cain said tending horses kept him sane while dealing with the violence of fighting the same type of crime he’d faced growing up. When he retired from the force last year, he went to work inside the stables of a casino.
Cain is known as the "barn concierge" of South Point, where he will play host to more than 1,600 horses and their owners during the coming weeks. South Point is the site of the World Series of Team Roping, one of two $6 million purses at stake in Las Vegas, along with the National Finals Rodeo. The South Point and the NFR are closely tied together, with the resort being home to a number of NFR-related events and the hotel of choice for many competitors and fans.
South Point barn concierge Charles Cain is seen in the South Point Arena's stable area Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012.
As trailers arrive around the clock in the South Point parking lot, Cain will make sure the horses and their owners have a place to bed down. South Point features climate-controlled indoor stables as a part of its resort, adjacent to the competitive riding arena. Cain will coordinate deliveries of tons of Utah hay. He'll help riders check in without having to leave the stables and have their bags delivered to their hotel rooms.
"Charles literally sleeps here in an office during that whole time," said Steve Stallworth, director of the South Point arena. "We roll in a bed for him. During big events, his wife doesn't see him unless she comes down here."
What the cowboys and cowgirls don't realize is that Cain will take the paycheck from South Point and use it to buy food and clothes for at-risk teenagers. Those teens benefit from a foundation the former detective and his wife, Angela, set up to help them escape the violence he avoided many years ago.
Cain says the Western lifestyle was a lifesaver for him. He'd grown up around horses near his grandfather's farm near the Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas border. But by age 13, Cain had moved with his family to Los Angeles, right in the middle of a place where West Coast street gangs were born during the 1960s and '70s.
"A lot of guys I went to high school actually became the godfathers of the gangs, the Crips and the Bloods," Cain says. "If it wasn't for the horses — the equestrian avenue, which gave me an out — I would have gotten swept up in all that. Plus, football."
"I went to Jordan, Charlie Sampson went to Locke, and they were rivals, but we all went to the Hill," Cain says. "A lot of us went there to escape inner-city gangs. We had all grown up, like most kids in the '60s, watching Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on television.”
It would be football that took Cain out of Los Angeles in 1979, just as the gangs were taking over the cocaine trade. Cain got scholarship offers to play for USC and UCLA. But he chose UNLV.
"I wanted to be far enough away from that environment in L.A. but close enough to where my family could come and see me play," Cain says.
South Point barn concierge Charles Cain loads hay bales onto a forklift Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012.
He learned Las Vegas had a different kind of gang members. He remembered one stopping him as he came out of the locker room at UNLV after one game.
"I won't say his name, but he was a real-deal mobster. He pulled me aside and said, 'You know, Charlie, the most important thing is to not get 86ed in Las Vegas,' " Cain remembered. "I said, 'What do you mean, 86ed?' He said, 'That's where you get driven out eight miles and buried six feet deep.' "
Cain joined Metro in 1984 and would watch Las Vegas shift from the mob to street gangs. His history in Los Angeles helped him deal with the violence of young men who wore colors and carried guns, often with quick tempers and touchy trigger fingers. Cain estimates he made some 4,000 arrests during his career on gang task forces.
"I never looked at it as danger because I could relate to them," Cain says. "I could relate to the pain and suffering in their lives, the lingo and the language. I could speak to them, and I could also give them outs and direct them in other ways, as far as sports and academics. A lot of the guys even gave me — I hate to use the word 'props' — but they understood where I came from."
On the streets, teens called the detective "Preacher" because he was always trying to lead them to the straight and narrow. Cain and his wife coached youth sports, buying players meals and clothes they couldn't get at home. The detective heard gang members were saying, "You can't hang around us if you play for coach Charlie."
Cain didn't leave the stables, however. For the past dozen years, he’s worked with horses and events organized by Paula Gaughan, whose husband, casino executive Michael, would eventually own South Point. Quarter horse cutting and rodeo events helped relieve the stress of police work for Cain. He says that saved his life, too.
"There's a high turnover, suicide and divorce rate among police officers," Cain said. "Working with Mrs. Gaughan's events gave me an out so I didn't just think about fighting crime all the time or let the job change me."
Some of the young men Cain coaches are children of gang members he sent to jail. He's also taught some of them about horses. Cain brings them to rodeo events and to work in the stables. He's teaching a couple of them to rope.
"A lot of it is exposing them to the rural lifestyle, how to care for horses," Cain said. "Some of these kids have anger management issues, and we have to reprogram their minds so they don't blow up as easily. A lot of times, if the kid has responsibility for caring for something, like an animal, that feeling is transferred to people."