You have six chambers and one bullet. You do the math
-1977 World Freestyle Skateboarding Champion, Dennis Martinez
Writer: Chris Ahrens Photos: Bil Zelman
By the age of seventeen, Dennis Martinez had achieved his dream of winning the top honor in skateboarding, the World Championships. By eighteen, the drug he was addicted to, cocaine, was wrecking his hard-won skills. Within a year, one of the sport’s most promising talents had graduated to methamphetamine, a heart stopping substance that he would shoot into every available vein for the next sixteen years. He had gone from a fat wallet and luxury cars to a notorious criminal and drug addict, living beneath a bridge. Robbing people at gunpoint and dealing drugs for America’s biggest gangs, he nonetheless remained penniless, using every cent to feed his insatiable habit. Friends died young—one, a young girl shot through the neck with a bullet meant for him, gasped her last breath as he held her in his arms. Another lost a game of Russian Roulette. Yet Dennis held the line, constantly flirting with disease, insanity, and death, his only hope that he might once again achieve the rush of that first high. The natural high of his youth had been replaced by a powder that no longer delivered. Next came needles, then a gun to the head—six to one it will bury you. A perfect metaphor for the poison running through his mostly collapsed veins—load the chamber, spin it, look your opponent in the eye. Click. Welcome to eternity, Mister Martinez.
Risen Magazine: Your drive as a kid was to become a top pro skateboarder. What did that take?
Dennis Martinez: You need a love for something to have that drive to become the best. I listened to those who were the best and they told me to practice and sacrifice. While my friends were out having a great time in junior high and high school, I was focused and had a plan to accomplish what I said I would, to become the best skateboarder in the world.
RM: What would have you done at that time if somebody offered you drugs?
DM: At twelve years old, I made the decision not to let drugs distract me. After a while, however, being around it all the time, and seeing how other pros operated . . . I saw other pros get into the magazines by getting the photographers high. I skated with all of them and knew I was better than them, so I took the same approach, and my study was right. Next thing you know I’m getting the photographers high, and I’m on the cover and in the centerfold of the magazines. Things were starting to happen, and I saw how I could manipulate the whole system by using a powdery, white substance.
RM: When did that start?
DM: At fifteen I was sent to Oregon where I remember seeing trashcans filled to the top with cocaine. I found out how this person had funded his company. I had never seen it in that way before and I saw how somebody could use it for power and how it funded businesses.
RM: Did you believe that drugs would make you a better skater?
DM: You hear it in everything—surfing, skating, music—Hendrix, Jim Morrison – many said that they were better poets when they got high, opening that spirit world and all that. Skateboarding is an adrenaline rush . . . when you’re a pioneer of something, you have to pay your dues. You’re gonna pay! Drugs numb you out, but they also give you that no fear attitude for a moment, not knowing the whole time that the drug is designed for addiction and destruction. As kids we only see what’s right in front of us, not the longevity of things, cuz that’s not how we’re thinking. It’s that old saying—eat, drink and be merry, live today, die tomorrow. That was the whole concept of life in the fast lane.
RM: It seems that people begin using drugs to feel good, and eventually they use them to feel nothing.
DM: You re right. You want to capture that first high, the next time you get high. You’re chasing something you can never achieve again. The next thing you know, you increase your dosage, thinking, Maybe I need to do more to get that rush again. When that doesn’t work, you increase your dosage all day long. What began as a recreational drug has now become the exact opposite—coke, that’s supposed to be an upper, became a downer for me. It changed my whole mindset and my whole mood after X amount of years.
RM: When did you first realize you were an addict?
DM: Eighteen years old. I even had great skateboarders like Dave Hackett and Dwayne Peters tell me they couldn’t hang around me, that I was the worst dope fiend they’d ever seen. When you hear guys you look up to make those types of statements . . . it makes me see what a bad drug addict I was. It was the same concept as being the best skater—I became infatuated with dope and it became my whole focus.
RM: You did drugs for over twenty years, with sixteen of them on the needle. There must have been a time even early on when you wanted to quit.
DM: Eighteen, that’s when I saw the decline of my skating. I won the World Championships at seventeen and the U.S. Open at eighteen, but I already saw what it was doing to me—I would be inside a hotel room, paranoid, looking underneath the door, thinking I was gonna get busted, that someone was after me. I couldn’t even face people. The drug that was supposed to be recreational and a party type drug isolated me from the very things I loved. I was so drugged out I didn’t want anybody to see me.
RM: How bad did it get?
DM: It got to the point where that drug took me to a place in life . . . if it was portrayed in a movie as to how it was . . .I was using needles that were rusted, horse needles. Without getting too graphic, I was injecting into every body part. I blew out my veins, was always infected and in the hospital. You get cotton fever, where a little piece of cotton gets into the syringe and goes into your bloodstream . . . you just want to die. Everything gets stolen from you. Playing Russian Roulette . . . the fear, your heart rushing . . . you just got done shooting dope to give you that no fear attitude. You put the gun up to your head and the other guys are looking at you like, He ain’t gonna do it, but you have to do it, cuz that guy just did it and you can’t be the sucker. You pull the trigger and eventually somebody has to lose. My friend Roger lost. He was nineteen when he pulled the trigger three times and shot himself. I wasn’t there, but I heard after he shot himself he stood up and took a few steps forward. There wasn’t money on the line or anything. It was a macho kind of thing to see who was the baddest. You wanted to prove a point, you wanted to be liked, you wanted to be accepted and you would do anything to get that.
I went from hanging out with skateboard peers, to hanging out with criminals, gang members, and extreme dope fiends . . . you had to adapt to that whole scene. I had people hiring me to burn places down, steal cars for insurance money, go to banks . . . there were all kinds of things that I’ve done that I’m ashamed of now. I misrepresented my sport, I misrepresented the U.S., I was a bad role model, and the whole time I thought the only one it was affecting was myself. But my mom and dad waited for the phone to ring, in fear that I was dead, for years. I came from a good home—my mom and dad stayed together forever.
RM: How did you get the idea for Russian Roulette?
DM: It stemmed from the people I hung out with—dope fiends, always pushing the envelope. Who could be the most rad, almost getting caught, having helicopters chase us . . . The bigger the bust, the bigger the rush. The bigger the heist, the bigger the high. Who could come up with the best crimes, plan out the crimes . . . It became more than the dope after a while—it became the dope, the crime, and then the sex. All those things together create a monster, and that’s why 90 percent of those who get into that field never make it out.
RM: There’s a kid reading this now who thinks this all sounds good.
DM: If you’re reading this and you think this sounds good, be prepared for hell. There is nothing glamorous or good about drug use.
RM: But you have money, girls, and you feel invincible.
DM: All wrong. What we thought was cool and how I view cool today are two different things. Guys who go to school and complete their education and stay away from drugs, those are the cool guys. The guys that I looked up to, thinking they were cool are locked up or dead. I don’t know anybody who says that drugs made their lives better. At a young age you only see what’s right in front of you. What I want to say to the kid reading this who’s doing dope is that there’s help you can get. You can quit. That whole thing about playing Russian Roulette—sooner or later that bullet’s going to go off on you, and it can cost you your life. It’s not just you, your mom and dad and your family’s gonna pay for it for the rest of their lives. If you love your parents, if you love life, if you love your freedom—then you’ll never, ever, ever go the direction I went.
RM: You said that you think of drugs as Russian Roulette, like you’re loading the gun every time you get high.
DM: Absolutely, every time you get high you’re pushing the limits of life; it is Russian Roulette. And eventually, your number comes up. No man who has a low-rider car that he pampers and polishes is ever going to open up the gas tank and pour sugar into it. Your body’s worth so much more than any car that’s out there, so why would you want to put destructive substances into it?
RM: Okay, but what about marijuana; a lot of people say it’s OK.
DM: First of all, it’s still illegal, even if it’s used clinically. Secondly, it’s addicting. Third, it burns out your brain cells. Fourth, your lungs were never made to have smoke inside of them. Fifth, it’s a steppingstone to the next drug. If you smoke pot and think it’s not as bad as everybody thinks, your thought pattern will be that maybe cocaine, heroin, pills, XTC, and every drug out there is the same way. When was the last time you saw a crash from somebody that was drunk? You could say, Drinking’s OK, it’s legal. Is it legal? Ask somebody who killed somebody while drunk and is serving a life sentence.
RM: In your twenty-year drug addiction, you attempted suicide twice.
DM: There are three stages of suicide—the thought of suicide, the attempt of suicide, the completion of suicide. I once completed all three stages. Dope isolates you—you can be in a crowd of people and feel like you’re the only one there. You’re crying out saying, Does anyone hear me? Am I even worth anything? Drugs suck everything out of you.
RM: How do you reach somebody who’s dying inside, hating who they are, on drugs and isolated?
DM: The Bible says there’s life and death in the tongue. I believe that kind words need to be spoken, encouragement. On the flip side, the listening ear has to be there. Someone in that state needs to be heard. The proper steps you make on something like that . . . When you invest in someone’s life like that, there’s gonna be frustration, let down. If you persevere . . . I’m living proof that it does work— people had to work really hard to get through to Dennis Martinez.
RM: You had been through so much—SWAT Team breaking down your door, held up at gunpoint, living beneath a bridge, armed robberies. Before you turned around, you were at a point where those around you thought you were demon possessed and you actually thought you had killed somebody. What happened next?
DM: It’s absolutely true. The part of thinking I had killed someone . . . I have no recollection of saying that, but that’s what I was saying to my brother and my mom, and that’s what was being said to the police officers. When you’re demon possessed, when the spirit takes you over, they’re in control of your life—they will speak things out. My brother said it [the demon] was throwing me against the wall. I was being elevated off the ground. I was speaking a different language. I had the look of death in my eyes. My mom said I was coming up from laying down, to standing straight up, without using my hands, or even coming to a sitting position. When a body is demon possessed, there’re many elements . . . there have been many documentations of bodies coming off the ground.
RM: The Bible forbids witchcraft, and in Greek witchcraft is sometimes translated as drug use—pharmacia.
DM: The Greek word pharmacia means sorcery, drugs. You know when you go to the store and you see the word spirits? That’s exactly what it means. It opens up the spirit world. Any time you take a substance to take control of your mind . . . That’s why the Lord says to be sober in all things. A drug takes control of your mind and alters the way you think and how you function. Once you turn your life over and subject your life to a substance, it has control of you and turns you over to that dark world. That’s what happens—I was allowing Satan into my life. I had many visitations of Satan, many times where he held me down and choked me out. I’ve also had visualizations of demonic forces in front of my eyes.
RM: At your worst, you were taken to a church.
DM: It was on September 5, 1996, at Horizon Christian Fellowship here in San Diego. I met the Lord there in 1984, but I didn’t make a transformation at that time. It took me twelve more years to finally have what I have today. What you don’t see in my movie D.O.P.E. (Death Or Prison Eventually) is that I sat before the pastor and I was very angry and preoccupied. I was thinking that the cops wanted to come get me. I had snot hanging from my nose to my knees. I was angry with the pastor. He was interceding and praying for me—and there came a breaking point where I was set free.
RM: Back to the perception of drug use—you see people on TV shooting up, and they are always the coolest guys with beautiful girlfriends, cool cars, cool shades, where the reality is they can get to the point of crapping in their pants and passing out in their own vomit.
DM: That’s right. Look at Hendrix and Morrison and those guys who choked on their own vomit. There’s a dark side to the whole scene. But you think you look cool and that you’re the man or the woman. Actually, you look like a lifeless shell. You have death written all over you. It’s a lot worse than what you see on TV. When you see a ruptured vein from someone sticking a needle in there . . . or see people that overdose and white or pink foam coming from their mouths, and their throats swelling because the body is discharging. Your breath stinks, you stink all over. You don’t care that you haven’t taken showers for weeks, you just don’t care.
RM: Have you ever heard one person who said they were thankful for the first time they did drugs?
DM: I’ve talked to thousands of drug addicts and I don’t know one who is thankful for using drugs. I talk to them every single day and I hear the same things—I’m losing, I’m lost, I lost my wife, my kids, my car, my job, my house. I lost, I lost, I lost . . . that’s all I hear.
RM: So, how can you win?
DM: How did I win? One right decision changed my life forever. I had sold my World Championship cup for $500 worth of dope. It’s priceless, but when I began to see that I was special and valuable, not because I said it or someone else said it, but because God said I was valuable . . . I realized that my life was worth more than any amount of money and that God gave His only begotten Son to pay a debt that He didn’t owe, because I owed a debt that I couldn’t pay. When I found that out and began to realize what my life was worth, that I was precious, one of a kind, nobody had my fingerprints, my DNA . . . When somebody began to speak to me and I began to see what life was really about and how perfect and special life is . . . You are special, but when you turn your life over to a substance, when you turn your life over to Satan, for money, for fame . . . you’ve lost value. Your life is worth dying for, and you have life because of Christ. Without Him you have no life. I lived for thirty-six years without Him, and I had nothing. My World Championship, my U.S. Championship, money, fame, glory . . . none of it means anything to me. What means something to me are God’s children, God’s people.
RM: Would you say you found in Christ the rush you sought in drugs?
DM: Absolutely. That’s one of my favorite sayings from the movie, D. O.P.E. Once I looked past dope, I felt the rush I had been looking for. Today, working for God, traveling all over the world and going into the prisons . . . There’s nobody better to work for than God.
RM: But it’s boring, isn’t it? I mean, you just sing songs and read the same book over and over.
DM: Oh, I love it! That’s how most people think, that’s how I thought. I thought if I came to Christ my life would be dull, boring. But since then I’ve gone into prisons around the world. I’ve gone to school after school after school. I’ve helped countless people overcome drug addiction. I have real friends today. I don’t have any money in the bank, but I’m the richest man in the world. All my treasures are in heaven.
Dennis Martinez is the star of the movie, D. O.P.E. (Death Or Prison Eventually). He is also a volunteer prison chaplain and the founder the rehab facility, Training Center, in Spring Valley, California. To book him as a speaker, contact: prisonlife@gmail. com or call 619 8514816