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ST. CROIX - A group of more than 300 seventh-graders chanted their school names and drug free slogans, showing school spirit as they pledged to say no to drugs during a ceremony Tuesday that was part of the national Red Ribbon Week Campaign against drugs.

Then, a hush fell over the crowd as a tall man, dressed in a bright orange shirt and orange pants took the stage on the University of the Virgin Islands north lawn.

Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility inmate Roberto Smalls captured the attention of the students as he pleaded with them to chose to stay in school and not get caught up in drugs, violence and bad company.

"It all goes hand-in-hand, and you have to be prepared to not go left or not go right," he said. "You have to be sure to stay on the straight path."

Smalls described his bright future in professional baseball as a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs at the age of 16. "I was able to pitch a ball 95 mph and had a great future in baseball," he told the students. "But at the age of 23, I traded in my Cubs uniform for this orange prison jump suit, and at 42 I still regret it. I was able to do that and show my skills to huge audiences, now I can only show off to the corrections offices and other inmates."

Smalls is serving a life sentence plus 10 years in prison for firing shots into the back of a pickup truck and killing one of the occupants in January 1994. He was convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree assault.

He said as he serves his life sentence in prison, his mission now is to see that the youth in the community get the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and do not make the same ones on their own that will put them behind bars.

Small's presentation was just one of many for the program against drugs and alcohol abuse. Red Ribbon Week began in 1986, one year after the brutal murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.

Camarena was assigned to a case in Mexico and was close to uncovering the identities of key members of a Mexican drug cartel. Just days before he was to identify the kingpins, he was kidnapped, tortured and killed.

Angered by his death and the destruction that drug and alcohol abuse has on America, the youth in Camarena's home town of Calexico, Calif., began wearing red ribbons in Camarena's honor.

The DEA, V.I. Police Department, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, V.I. National Guard and other law enforcement agencies collaborated on a "Band Against Drugs, Violence and Bullying."

Maren Roebuck, a substance abuse coordinator for the Division of Mental Health, told the students that she has seen many horror stories from adults who began experimenting with drugs at ages as young as 11 or 12. Now that they are adults, they have been exposed to so much risky behavior and destructive chemicals that they are on a fast track to destruction and death, she said.

"Some of you come from homes that are not perfect and may have a lot of bad things going on, but seek help and do not ever turn to drugs," Roebuck said. "There is much more that can be made of your life if you stay focused, stay in school and stay away from drugs."

DEA resident agent in charge Timothy Williams spoke to the students about the importance of staying drug-free. He said a number of law enforcement agencies' jobs are to seek out drug traffickers and bring them to justice. He encouraged students to stay focused and not to get caught up in bad company that will lead them down the road of destruction.

Williams said Tuesday's gathering at UVI was the largest Red Ribbon event ever conducted in the Caribbean.

Three helicopters, four boats, mobile commands and other equipment and vehicles used in drug interdiction were on display on the campus during the day for demonstration purposes.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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