SAN DIEGO — Jeff Tanzella still gets stares — he’s an imposing physical presence, covered head-to-toe in tattoos.
But those who know him say Tanzella, or “Taz” as most people call him, is the quintessential example of “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
He is a former gang member and skinhead who spent time in jail and nearly died after getting stabbed. Today, Tanzella is a pastor at a church downtown and works with young people to keep them from making the same mistakes.
“When you don’t like yourself it’s easy to hate others,” Tanzella told FOX 5, reflecting on his past. “Later I realized it was my internal hate, because I hated myself.”
Taz, now 50, first got himself into serious trouble in his early 20s. He started running with a gang of self-proclaimed “front-liners for the white race” — supremacists widely known as “skinheads.”
Over several years, Tanzella collected a handful of misdemeanors, got into numerous fights and was thrown into jail on a variety of charges, including assault with a deadly weapon. Doctors say he’s lucky to be alive after suffering a serious stab wound.
While he was incarcerated, Taz started attending jail ministry. He credits his faith for turning his life around.
“Back then I was so destructive, so evil,” Tanzella said. “Only God can turn someone around like that — I couldn’t do it myself.”
Two decades later, Taz is a pastor at Foundation Church in downtown San Diego. He speaks to kids at a juvenile detention center to keep them from following in his early footsteps.
He’s covered his swastika tattoos and denounced his old way of thinking, but he’s not hiding from his past. Instead, Taz uses his mistakes to share his faith and keep kids from ending up behind bars.
“I’m not put on this earth to be put in a cage,” Tanzella told FOX 5. “There’s a lot of life to live.”