The man with the ominous tattoos perched on a metal box in a dusty welding booth, sparks spraying on his jeans and white T-shirt as he ground down another mistake.
Moments before, his instructor at the Pinellas Technical Education Center had shone a flashlight inside the pipe and pointed out a shadow the size of a pinprick. If this had been his final welding test — which was just a week away — he would have automatically failed.
Eriks Mackus, 22, had spent two years mastering the tasks to become a pressure pipe welder. Along the way, he'd learned the skills to weld parts on buildings, barges, train cars, even ships. He'd worked hard to achieve what his instructor called "the Ph.D of welding," the certification that would allow him to make good money at a power plant or on a natural gas pipeline. It had not been easy.
Eriks (pronounced Erik) has a long history of making mistakes. Arrested for the first time when he was 12, he'd joined a gang in juvenile detention. There, he learned how to make ink from melted checkers, grease, toothpaste and pencil lead. He used paper clips to tattoo a gun and the words "Money Hungry" on his chest and neck.
Since getting out of prison two years before, he had convinced himself he could stay out of trouble. And he had. Sort of.
He put the pipe back in the vise and pulled down his dark visor adorned with skull decals. He ignited the torch's white-blue flame. Slowly he began to smooth over his error, molten metal filling the crevice a millimeter at a time.
Some mistakes are easier to correct than others.
He was adopted at birth by Karl and Ausma Mackus, an engineer and a geologist, and raised in a two-story house in an upscale part of Palm Harbor.
His birth mom was a drug addict; he doesn't know his birth father. Eriks was scrawny and hyperactive, and he had learning disabilities. His parents hired an educational therapist to work with him in elementary school, but Eriks had already started to get in trouble.
In sixth grade he stole a golf cart and rode around school. He was locked up in juvenile detention for 21 days. He looked up to the older kids from St. Petersburg who stole cars, so that's what he did.
"I was a follower," he said. "I had this attitude that I just didn't care."
More arrests followed — for hitting a juvenile detention officer, for stealing more cars, for drugs, for possessing a handgun. He didn't go back to school after that. He went to a juvenile correctional facility in Hastings for six months, but with bad behavior, he ended up staying two years. "When you are 14 years old and you do two years," he said, "it feels like a lifetime."
Just before Christmas 2010, when he was 19, he and a friend asked an acquaintance for a ride to a 7-Eleven in Tarpon Springs. They stole the Chevy Blazer and crashed into a car, injuring that driver. This time Eriks was sentenced to 13 months in prison for strong-armed robbery.
"I learned to say 'I love you, but I can't help you,' " said his mother, Ausma. "I was just there for him to realize I hadn't given up on him."
In prison, Eriks made some decisions. He'd spent most of his teen years in jail, and he was tired of it. Money was important to him. He saw an ad for welding school. He'd gotten his GED in the county jail. He applied for a Pell Grant to go to trade school and resolved to stay away from everyone from his past.
John Stiles tried not to judge Eriks in August 2012 when he saw him in his welding class.
But it was hard to ignore the tattoos on his cheeks. One of the state of Florida dominated his right cheek, and Pinellas area code 727 covered the other. His Adam's apple was hidden behind "187," the police call sign for murder. His fingers bore crude flames, and letters ran down his forearms spelling out "Cracka Mac," his gang name. His ear lobes had dollar signs.
In welding class, Eriks showed no emotion and said little. Secretly, he wondered if he'd make it. There was a lot of math, something he'd struggled with in school.
Most of the 80 or so people in the Pinellas Technical Education Center welding classes dream of becoming pipe welders. At the entrance to the noisy shop, where students stamp their time cards, a bulletin board displays a graduate's paycheck for $3,500 a week.
As the weeks passed, Eriks struggled to maintain the proper arc and smoothness to his welds. He was falling behind, just like he had in school. He went on probation.
He grew close with another student, Brian Bodlak, who was further along in the program. Brian wanted to be a pipe welder. He encouraged Eriks.
Eriks didn't quit. He stayed late and went in nights. His welds still weren't pretty, but they were getting stronger.
Stiles, a bespectacled man in heavy work boots who has ushered thousands of students through PTEC over 22 years, knew Eriks had made poor choices. But he saw determination in the rough-hewn young man. "He was doing all he could do," Stiles said, "and how can you fault him for doing that?"
One day, he pulled Eriks aside.
"It's going to be difficult to get a job with those on your face."
Eriks made an appointment for laser removal of the tattoos. He went eight times, $150 each time. But the tattoos barely faded.
Just before the 2012 Labor Day weekend, Eriks bought gauze and hydrogen peroxide, 18 Budweisers and a bottle of Sailor Jerry rum. He'd asked his friend Brian to do it. Brian was, after all, a certified welder.
They went to Brian's house, and Eriks drank all the beer and several shots of the rum. Brian put a small stainless steel wire bit on a Dremel tool. Eriks lay down on his back and held on to Brian's leg.
Brian started with the 727. The whirling steel wires dug grooves into Eriks' cheek, shooting a streak of blood across Brian's face. Brian donned glasses and began again. Each time he applied the wire bit to Eriks' skin, it buzzed and sputtered and scattered flecks of skin. Every time Brian stopped, Eriks downed another shot. The worst part was when Brian poured rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide on the wound and scrubbed the dead skin with a steel wool pad. Tears trickled down Eriks' face, but he didn't scream.
A few weeks later, Brian gouged Florida from Eriks' right cheek. Brian was more confident, and the process went quicker. But at the last minute, Eriks flinched, and the steel wires sliced into the corner of his left eye.
It took months for him to heal. Eriks noticed that when he looked to the left, everything was blurry, and when he looked to the right, he saw double.
The tattoos, however, had been erased, replaced with red splotches. If he didn't get a job, it wouldn't be because of the tattoos.
His legal troubles were another matter.
Eleven months after he'd gotten out of prison, he crashed his car while drunk. Then he got into a fight with his brother, and that led to an arrest for domestic battery.
On Jan. 8, he was arrested again, this time for being the getaway driver in a purse snatching.
Another guy he'd met in welding class had grabbed a woman's purse outside a Palm Harbor Publix. Bystanders chased him down, and he dropped the purse before jumping into Eriks' car. The police report said Eriks was the driver; Eriks says he loaned the guy his car.
Either way, it was a felony. If Eriks was convicted, he'd return to prison.
In late March, Eriks went to court. He'd satisfied his probation for his DUI. In a few months, he might get his driver's license back.
The assistant state attorney announced one more thing. The state did not plan to prosecute him for being an accessory to the purse snatching.
He put off the pipe test three times. Then one Thursday morning in mid April, on the final day of class, he showed up a little after 7 with his tool box, his welding helmet and a cooler with seven ham and American cheese sandwiches.
He'd bitten his nails to the beds, and his hands were shaking.
He had five hours to complete the test: Weld two 7-inch-diameter pipes together so they could withstand at least 1,000 pounds of pressure. Just four people had passed the test in the past two years.
Flaws were allowed; defects were not. Eriks could fix a flaw, such as excess splatter. But he would not be allowed to grind out a defect, such as a tiny cavity in the weld. Flaws weren't pretty, but defects could be catastrophic.
He wedged the two pieces of pipe into the vise. He was allowed one practice run. He grabbed a carbon steel rod with his left hand and his welding torch with his right and got down on his knees. His torch melted the steel in the space between the pipes, his wrist barely moving. The first pass, called the "root," was the most important and also the hardest. Too much heat and the material would be sucked out. Too cold and the pieces would not fuse.
Instructor John Stiles stuck into the pipe a tiny wand with a mirror on the end, like what a dentist might use.
"You don't have fusion," Stiles said. Eriks cursed and walked outside for a smoke break. He thought about taking the test another day.
"It's up to you," Stiles told him.
When Eriks returned, he removed the pipe from the vise and ground out his mistake. He took a deep breath.
Then he started the real test, going slower, more carefully, stopping each time after he'd welded a quarter of the pipe. When he was done, sweat shone on his forehead. He called Stiles in again. Stiles pointed his flashlight inside the pipe, and this time he smiled.
"That's a good-looking root," he said.
As his classmates peered inside the tiny room, Eriks continued with the next pass and the pass after that and the pass after that. Hour after hour, his welding torch hissed. On the eighth and final pass, his aim faltered, and the metal puffed up in two spots.
Stiles had him grind it down. Trying to fix the mistake, Eriks made another, nicking the edge of the pipe. He stormed out for another cigarette. He wasn't sure he wanted to even submit it for the X-ray test that would determine his fate. Would they judge the exterior? Find a defect on the inside?
Twenty minutes later, he returned, looked at Stiles for guidance.
"Look, kid, it's ugly," Stiles said, "but I've seen better fail and worse pass."
Eriks handed Stiles the welded pipe.
The next day, Eriks was fishing and missed a call from Stiles. They played phone tag for the next few hours.
Eriks' mother often told him: "Don't let your past define you. Move forward. Do the right thing." Eriks told himself if he got this, he wouldn't screw it up. He'd seek work with a local welding union. He'd earn enough to get his own welding rig. Then he'd leave Florida behind, head west to Texas or north to Alaska, somewhere he could make a new life. He hoped people wouldn't judge his tattoos. He'd grown a bushy red beard to cover his neck. He'd wear a turtleneck to interviews.
When he was a little boy, the same tests that showed he had learning disabilities also revealed he possessed an aptitude for spatial problem solving. His mother said he never lost at Stratego because he could see how the game was going to play out. But Eriks wasn't sure how he could set himself up to win if he didn't pass this test.
Stiles was on the phone. The result had come in. He had passed.
His pipe had several flaws.
But it was not defective.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.