Sam and Rocio Santiago sit with their daughter, Angelica. (Photo by Steve Jones)
By Steve Bertel
Oct. 12, 2017. 5:30 p.m. Near Gilroy, California.
Sam was barreling down Highway 101 at high speed. Pushing 90 mph. Showing off. Drag racing. He looked out his side window at the equally-determined driver alongside him. Their souped-up cars only feet apart. And neck and neck.
Sam wanted to beat this sucker. No matter what it took. So he stood down even harder on the gas pedal.
Suddenly, up ahead, two huge tractor-trailer rigs.
To avoid a collision, Sam twisted the steering wheel, sliding onto the shoulder of the freeway. Still doing 90. “You know when you’re in a car wreck and everything seems to move in slow motion? That’s the way it was for me,” he recalls. “And as I saw myself sliding toward the guard rail, I knew this was not going to end well.”
Sam Santiago and Rocio Madrigal have known each other since they were children. Sam was 11 and Rocio was 9 when they first met.
Each had devoutly Catholic parents who attended home Bible study groups together. “We prayed the Rosary, said grace before each meal, went to church every Sunday,” Sam remembers. “Growing up, Rocio was like a little sister to me – who became my best friend. As we grew older, we started hanging out more together. I always thought she was beautiful, but I never had the courage to tell her.”
As for Rocio, “I was really shy around other people; but with him, I wasn’t.”
Sam was raised by his single father. “I love him. And out of fear and respect for him, I was a really good kid,” he points out. But Sam learned to box in his late teens and soon became rebellious.
And that’s when his life started taking a dark turn. “I was smoking weed [marijuana] and drinking and partying when I was 16 or 17.” But he always hid it from his father. “In fact, my dad didn’t know I was using drugs until I was into the hard stuff.”
Rocio had a similar downward spiral, only at an earlier age. “My parents worked hard and they truly loved me; but I feel they never really took the time to sit down and talk to me about my feelings. Life at home was more about what I was doing wrong than what I was doing right. So I began looking for acceptance, I guess. I started smoking weed when I was 9 or 10; started drinking when I was 11. By the time I was 17, I was smoking weed so much, I often blacked out.” Why? “I wanted to be mischievous, defiant. I wanted to have that label of a ‘bad person.’ I had been raised in church, but I didn’t want to be God’s child anymore. Then, when I was 22, I really went off the deep end when I started doing meth.”
Meanwhile, Sam became a member of the loosely-knit northern California Norteños gang. “When I was in jail one day, I decided I was going to ‘roll with the Hispanics.’ I wanted to be a homeboy. So I became a ‘Northerner’. At 18, I began doing a lot of drugs, selling a lot of drugs. … My best friend’s mom used crank [meth]; in fact, her neighbor made it at his house. So when I would go over to my friend’s, the neighbor would just give it to us. After a while, I had a blast. I had been an unpopular kid growing up, so selling meth – sometimes even giving it away – made me popular.”
Living the violent street life also landed him behind bars. Dozens of times. “I once did a year in county [jail] for beating up a guy with a baseball bat,” he says. “I’ve robbed people, stole cars. I got my teeth knocked out in a bar fight, because I was trying to fight the whole bar. I was messed up. But looking back, I was blessed – God was watching over me – because, of all my felony charges, I was only convicted of one.” And miraculously, he often received light sentences. “In fact, some of the guys I did time with thought I was a snitch. People convicted of the exact same charges went ‘upstate’ [to prison] for multiple years; whereas I just got a lot of county time.”
Rocio has also seen her share of barred jail cell doors electronically sliding closed and locking with a foreboding clank. Over a ten-year period, she served various sentences on charges including drug paraphernalia possession, being under the influence of narcotics, and felony welfare fraud. In 2002, “I started doing meth right after my oldest daughter, Makyla, was born. I broke up with her dad [they were never married] when she was only 2. So I literally deserted her,” she explains.
And Sam was still on the streets, still struggling with the “get arrested/go to jail/get released/get arrested again” cycle. As he puts it: “I always knew God was in my heart. So when I’d go to jail, it was like pushing the reset button. I would read my Bible in jail; do good when I got out. And there were times I would hold onto God’s hand for a year or two; I’d go to church, do things right. But then, when the ‘I got this!’ feeling of confidence would come over me, I’d let go of God’s hand … and go to the ‘trap houses,’ the places I knew where people would be buying and selling and using drugs – where I knew people would accept me – and I would go off the deep end again.
“Matthew 7:26 says, ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand,’” he goes on. “I had heard His Word. I believed in God. But my relationship was sporadic. He was not my cornerstone. My house was built on sand.”
Rocio’s lifestyle was much the same. “The seed was planted when I was a child. Like Sam, when I would get out of jail, I would try to do good for a month or so – but soon, I would go back drinking and doing drugs. I was lost. Sure, I had people around me who loved me. But I was still missing something in my life, and I didn’t know what it was. I was upset with God with the way I had turned out; I couldn’t figure out why I was doing drugs and was always so miserable, so depressed, while other people had regular, happy lives.”
Then came the afternoon of October 12, 2017.
“I was racing in my friend’s car, a Mercedes C 230,” Sam remembers. “I had evaded the cops three times in that car, mainly because I was very good at driving very fast.
“But then, I hit the guard rail. The windows exploded. And the car rolled over and over. I braced against the steering wheel and closed my eyes. As I said, it was like everything happened in slow motion.” When it was all over, Sam found he had landed some 50 yards away, against a secondary guard rail. At first, he thought, Am I dead? Am I injured? Suffering only some pains and soreness, Sam was able to open a door and climb out. By then, the engine was on fire. Flames were spreading. Drivers who had witnessed the crash pulled over to render aid. And of course, they heard sirens of approaching emergency vehicles. And the police.
Sam knew there were felony warrants out for his arrest. So, determined never to see the inside of a jail cell again, he took off running as fast as he could, escaping across a field.
Police conducted an extensive search, even launching a helicopter to help track him down. But to no avail.
It wasn’t until a month later when he was finally arrested. “I remember one of the officers told me, ‘I’m not a believer but, after seeing all the damage to that car and what little was left of it, something not of this world was with you that night.’”
Sam had earlier seen the burnt, mangled wreckage for himself and knew he was lucky to be alive. But the officer’s words struck a chord. “That’s when I realized I did not want to test God anymore. Like the song says, I was looking for love in all the wrong places. So I surrendered my life to Him. I told God, ‘I want to make it this time.’
“And click! – just like that, it was over. My old life was gone. It was as if God told me, ‘Sam, you’ve had enough fun. Now it’s time to be a man and live your life for Me – and your family.’”
Sam’s added motivation: a short time prior, he and Rocio learned they were going to be parents. But they had had a falling out … which Sam was hoping to patch up. “I wanted to do this for Rocio. I wanted to do this for my daughter. My whole life, I had wanted a companion – and a family,” Sam says. “So I got back into God’s Word. For good.”
Rocio earlier had moved to Idaho to clean up her life, kick her meth habit – and to reconcile with Makyla, who was living full-time with her biological father.
“When I was in the hospital detoxing, I knew I needed to transition to a better life. So I gave it to God. I told Him, ‘I’m scared. I’m tired. I’m sick of being sick. So I need a sign from You. I’m not strong enough to do this on my own,’” she recalls, a tear trickling down her cheek. “I was four months pregnant at the time. And I told God, ‘I don’t want to have another daughter and lose custody of her, too.’ But I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.”
Sam agreed to serve a complete year in a California jail – he didn’t want to be on probation, so he could be legally free to come to Idaho and reconnect with Rocio … who, through God’s grace, had not only successfully kicked her drug habit by then, but had reconnected with her daughter.
Although things were a bit rocky at first, the couple eventually reunited, with Sam often coming to Rocio’s home to babysit their cherubic newborn, appropriately named Angelica. “I told Rocio flat out I did not want to live with her unless we were married. I wanted to be a Man of God – and provide for her and our child. I didn’t want to be a deadbeat dad. And I didn’t want Rocio relying on others for help,” he says.
So Sam and Makyla took Rocio out for her birthday at a Boise restaurant one day. “Makyla knew what was going to happen. She was in on it. She had even helped me pick out the ring!” Sam smiles. And when the time came, “I was shaking, nervous. Everything I had planned to say to Rocio just went out the window. But I got down on one knee, in front of everyone at the restaurant, gave her the ring, and asked her to marry me.”
On July 23, 2022, Sam and Rocio officially became husband and wife at a sunny outdoor wedding attended by some 150 family members and church friends.
Today, the Santiagos faithfully attend the Ten Mile Community Church in south Meridian. Sam serves as an usher; Rocio is on the welcoming team. And both are clean and sober. “We don’t even have the desire to drink anymore,” they point out.
As for their future, “I want to be a disciple, an ambassador, a fisher of men,” Sam explains. “So I’m now part of a prison fellowship group. I want to share the gospel with guys who are where I’ve been, to show them there’s a safer way – a sure way.”
Rocio has earned a degree in sociology. “I want to use my life experiences to help women in jail, or maybe even the homeless. I want to volunteer, to give back,” she says. And as for that rebellious attitude she had as a teen? “I still have a little bit today,” she admits. “I still have that fire. But now, I use that energy in a different way: to empower and motivate people I work with.”
Whatever direction life takes them, whatever future challenges they may face, Sam and Rocio both now know their deep love for each other and their steadfast devotion to God will get them through.
Because He first loved them.
Steve Bertel is a multi-award-winning professional radio, television, print media, and social media journalist, who recently retired after a 30-year broadcasting career. Now a busy free-lance writer, he recently released his debut suspense novel “Dolphins of an Unjust Sea”, available on both Amazon and Kindle. Steve and his wife of 40 years live in Meridian, Idaho. He can be reached at [email protected].