He played a cop on TV, and wanted to be a police officer until he discovered acting. But now, celebrity Erik Estrada is a real law enforcement officer, fighting internet crimes against children.
Estrada, famous for his role as Officer Frank Poncharello on the 1970s hit “CHiPs.” Spoke Thursday at the 12th Annual Boys and Girls Club Kids and Community Gala, praising volunteers for their service and talking to kids about making positive choices instead of turning to drugs and gangs.
Formerly the “Steak and Burger Dinner,” the event is a fund raiser that includes club members, allowing them the opportunity to meet local leaders and enjoy a social event that they may not otherwise experience, said Mike Jones, Boys and Girls Club Executive Director.
Estrada grew up in Spanish Harlem, New York, where he remembers having a father addicted to heroin.
His father left due to the addiction but when his mother began dating a policeman, Estrada realized “I want to be like that, one of the good guys”
He grew up with the dream of being a policeman, seeing the effects of gangs and drugs in his neighborhood and knowing that was not what he wanted for himself. But one day, “there was a girl,” he said. He joined the school’s drama club in order to get to know her, and that is when “the acting bug bit me. And it is a real bug that really bites you,” he told the group.
He spoke of how his mother wailed over his announcement that he wanted to act, but his interest persevered and he auditioned for parts, getting some work as an extra. That is, until one day he landed a leading role in the movie “The Cross and the Switchblade” with Pat Boone.
Estrada talked of how he put his all into the audition, taking over with an attitude a Latino drug lord would have, using an actual switchblade as a prop and holding it to Boone’s throat in a move that surprised everyone, including the director.
“I got the part,” he said.
It was the beginning of a long acting career, which led him to the hit series CHiPs, about two California Highway Patrolmen and their daily challenges.
It was a first, being a “good guy,” he said. Estrada was used to roles as the “bad Hispanic dude” but as Frank Poncharello, a flirty, handsome and fun-loving but responsible policeman, “I was the first Latino good guy” in Hollywood, he said.
He spoke of how he continued his acting dream, becoming one of the decade’s hottest stars, and talked of how the dream enabled him to help take care of his mother.
But later on, he turned back to his original dream, and went to police academy to become a reserve officer.
“I worked 99 hours a year to retain my reserve status,” he said. Often he would take the entire 99-hour requisite in a lump sum, over about two weeks, he said.
Estrada spoke of going on calls and coming out to find fans with cameras surrounding his vehicle and yelling “Ponch!”
Then one day, while visiting a friend who is also a law enforcement officer, Estrada discovered the dark world of child pornography on the Internet.
He was shocked when the friend keyed in a few letters and numbers and suddenly, there were “450 people wanting to share child porn,” he said.
It sickened him, and Estrada wanted desperately to help stop the horrific crimes. He became emotional as he spoke of the terrible things he witnessed online. “My own daughter was only six,” he said.
He warned children present to be wary of chat rooms and never to trust anyone they do not know and who they may encounter online.
To this day, Estrada works as an officer with ICAC, Internet Crimes Against Children, fighting to end the abuse.
He ended his speech by encouraging volunteers and others with the Boys and Girls Club, praising them for their work and reminding them “education is the prevention of evil.”
He urged the children present, members of the Boys and Girls Club of Bulloch County, to make the right choices and follow their dreams.
Estrada was welcomed by Boys and Girls Club Board Vice President Alison Rich, Sen. Jack Hill, Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore and Statesboro Police Chief Mike Broadhead.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.