NEW ORLEANS — Alonzo Defillo Jr. was known as Pee Wee by his family because he shares his father's name. But as he grew up, the name stuck because of his small stature.
“I think the name Pee Wee does a really good job of describing him, physically. He was tiny,” said Cheri Deatsch, an Orleans Parish juvenile public defender who has known the family for years.
Pee Wee was the oldest child in a loving and supportive family, but in his early teens, hardship struck with a vengeance.
When he was 14, he found his grandmother dead at their home. Pee Wee was already diagnosed with mental health problems, and when he turned 15, darkness descended again.
“He found his mother dead, as well, in the bathtub,” said his uncle Marlon Defillo. “Only to find out later that his father was in dire need of a liver transplant.”
Debbie Defillo died suddenly of a brain aneurysm at age 45 at about the same time that Alonzo Sr. was diagnosed with liver cancer and placed on a waiting list for a transplant. The oldest of four siblings and the only boy in the house, Pee Wee did not handle the situation well.
“It's painful to talk about, but he lost it,” Alonzo Sr. said, fighting back tears. “He cut up. He acted out.”
Pee Wee started getting into fights at school. Then came car break-ins, and later he found himself in the juvenile justice system for driving a stolen car. His family said he borrowed it, not knowing it was stolen.
“It was all petty stuff,” he father said.
But it was enough for a juvenile judge to put Pee Wee on an ankle bracelet, a move that his family welcomed, especially his three uncles, who were all career New Orleans police officers. Marlon Defillo had once served as the NOPD’s Deputy Chief of Field Operations.
“He was this goofy kid with this huge smile and a family that supported him so much,” Deatsch said.
Pee Wee began seeing doctors for his mental health issues. Medication seemed to help, his family said. His school grades, which had hit rock bottom, started climbing back up.
“He kind of settled down. He went back to school and he did very well,” Alonzo Sr. said.
Then, over Memorial Day weekend in 2016, everything collapsed.
“That day he left, he hasn't been home since,” Alonzo Sr. said.
Pee Wee and three other juveniles were accused in a string of carjackings and robberies in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. Prosecutors decided to try all of the kids as adults. Pee Wee was 15. One police report listed him as 5-feet 2-inches tall, 113 pounds.
Juvenile justice advocates say that once kids are prosecuted as adults, families find themselves powerless. Rehabilitative services fall off a cliff.
“He's not getting the mental health resources that he needs. He's not getting the education that he needs to be rehabilitated,” said Kristen Rome, co-director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, a juvenile justice advocacy group.
Gina Womack, who was spent decades advocating for kids as the executive director of Family and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, said it is common for juveniles to get lost once they get shipped off to prison.
“Once you get into that system, it doesn't really care who you are. You're in the twilight zone,” Womack said.
With his father given months to live unless he got a new liver, Pee Wee quickly accepted the same global plea deal as the other defendants: 20 years in prison.
“He really didn't understand what he was pleading guilty to,” Marlon Defillo said. “He wasn’t a 15-year-old who understands that 20 years means 20 years. He was thinking, I’ll be home next week.”
Pee Wee’s family says he Pee Wee was a tag-along in the spree, which was described as threatening, but non-violent. The ringleader, another 15-year-old, used a toy gun.
“It was a plastic toy gun that the boy had. It shot those Nerf pellets,” Alonzo Sr. said. “I don’t know what those kids were thinking. They could have gotten killed.”
Marlon Defillo added, “No one was injured. That the weapon involved was not a real gun. And the cars were taken specifically for joy-riding.”
As soon as the juveniles were sent to Dixon Correctional Center, Pee Wee’s situation was precarious. Coming from a family of cops, he became a target of other inmates, his family said.
“Alonzo Jr. has been beaten, he's been stabbed, he has been pepper-sprayed, he’s been thrown in a cell with no clothes on,” Marlon Defillo said.
After Alonzo Sr. got a liver transplant in 2018, he visited his son as much as possible. He was shocked by what he saw.
“They beat him so bad he lost hearing in this ear,” he said. “The left ear. When I went to see him, his face was all swollen.”
His family and attorneys say the prison's answer was to move Pee Wee to solitary confinement.
LCCR Co-Director Aaron Clark-Rizzio said, “When you put a vulnerable child or someone dealing with mental health issues in that environment, it's a form of torture.”
The worst was yet to come.
“At 5 a.m. one morning, when Alonzo Jr. turned 18, he was on a bus headed to Angola,” Marlon Defillo said.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola has largely shed its label as the nation's bloodiest prison. But it remains a grim place, with more than 70 percent of the inmates doing life. Yet somehow, while only serving 20 years, Pee Wee was sent there. Corrections officials told the family it would be easier to protect him.
The issue of sending teenagers to Angola has been a point of controversy recently after the state moved some juvenile offenders there who were deemed too dangerous to be housed in juvenile lockups. In a federal lawsuit that unsuccessfully tried to block the transfer, even U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick expressed reservations.
In her 64-page ruling, Dick wrote that “while locking children in cells at night at Angola is untenable, the threat of harm there, youngsters present to themselves, and others, is intolerable. The untenable must yield to the intolerable.”
Deatsch, the juvenile public defender who once represented Pee Wee, was surprised when she got a telephone call from him out of the blue after his transfer.
“I was actually glad to hear from him, until he started talking,” she said. “Then I realized the horrific situation he was in. He had been pepper-sprayed in his cell. And the guards were not allowing him out even to wash the pepper spray out of his eyes.”
“He was really broken,” Deatsch added.
WWL-TV reached out to state corrections officials but did not get a response. The station specifically wanted to ask about a recent stretch in Pee Wee's stay at Angola in which he was locked up on death row.
“I called up there and said, “Why is my child on death row?” Alonzo Sr. asked. “They said they couldn't find somewhere to put him.”
“It's infuriating,” Womack said. “No child should end up in the adult system, let alone death row.”
Pee Wee shared the death row camp with about 60 men condemned to die. No physical contact. All meals are served in the inmates' cells. Lock down for 23 hours a day.
I called up there and said, ‘Why is my child on death row?’ Oh, we couldn't find anywhere else to put him.”
“You have a 15-year-old, now a 21-year-old, who has a date of release. Not a date of death,” Marlon Defillo said.
Pee Wee was recently moved off of death row now. He is still locked up most of the time in solitary confinement, but some phone privileges have been restored. During these calls, the family tries to sound positive, but that’s not what they hear coming from the other end of the line.
“There are times when I can hear that he's lost hope,” Marlon Defillo said. “Most recently he said, ‘I don't think I'll ever get out of here.’”
“He's fighting for his life,” his father said.
His uncle said he once tried to send his nephew books, using the third-party Amazon delivery required by the prison system. They were sent back.
“You have a young teenager put in a confined space for 23 hours a day for seven years, with zero education,” Defillo said.
Alonzo Sr. said he has tried to call prison officials, wardens, and even the FBI after one especially bad beating his son suffered. He said the calls have not done any good, in fact, they may have been detrimental.
“Every time I call there somebody notifies one of the guards. Then they go after him about me calling up there. And it got the point where he was like, ‘Dad, don't call up here no more.’ “ Alonzo Sr. said, breaking down in tears.
“I spent my whole life in law enforcement,” Marlon Defillo said. “So I’ve called a number of people. Only to hit brick wall, after brick wall, after brick wall.”
Pee Wee’s father said that when his son gets out – if he gets out – he worries about what person may emerge. He said he’s already seen a disturbing transformation, an angry young man, sometimes raging incoherently, his body covered with crude self-made prison tattoos.
“He’s got to fight for his life,” Alonzo Jr. said. “He’s being taught to hate. And hurt. I don’t want that for him.”
The family says they feel paralyzed about what do next. So they reached out to WWL-TV and enlisted legal help from civil rights attorney Caroline Gabriel. She does most of the calling to the prison now.
“I've had a lot of communication with the prison. It's difficult to make any real change because we do get a lot of pushback,” Gabriel said. “This case is a terrible example of bad it can go when we treat children like adults.
Gabriel said that Pee Wee’s legal options are limited because he entered a guilty plea, but she is trying to craft an appeal based on humanitarian or civil rights grounds.
Alonzo Defillo Jr. turns 22 in December. He is seven years into his 20-year sentence.