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Saving Ricky Tovar (page 1) 

He should have been in school. Instead, he was in jail. And it would take his family, friends and teachers a month to get him out.

Wednesday, Oct 21 1998
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The day after his youngest son's arrest, Salvador Tovar called a family meeting. His three grown children quickly converged on the Tovar home, an aging wood-frame cottage on South-Central's 35th Street. Without a word, they gravitated toward the plastic-covered blue-and-brown floral sofa, a living-room fixture since before Ricky, their 17-year-old brother, was born. Now Ricky was in jail.

For a long while the family sat in silence, each dreading to speak, each privately trying to puzzle out what had gone wrong. Seven years younger than his closest sibling, Ricardo Rodolfo was the baby, doted on by his brothers, his sister, his mom, and especially by his father, who was 60 when the boy was born. When Salvador's wife, Carolina, had told him she was pregnant that last time, he had decided to make some changes. He couldn't get rid of the long scar on his left cheek - the most visible reminder of younger, wilder days (including a stint in the Air Corps during World War II). But before Ricky's birth, he gave up drinking and smoking for good. He wanted to live long enough to see his son grow into a man. "When I look at my life I can't say I've done too much," he says. "I didn't make a lot of money or write a great novel or change the world. But I raised a good family, and I think that counts for a lot."

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Despite his best efforts, Salvador's health declined. In the past five years he had suffered two heart attacks and been hospitalized once for internal bleeding. In his stead, Ricky's safe passage to adulthood became a sort of family project. Each morning, Carolina would make her youngest son's breakfast before accompanying him - over his loud protestations - to the bus that would take him to school. Robert, a union electrician, spent endless hours with his baby brother, hammering away at math equations and weighing the merits of various career paths. Marcy, an office coordinator at a social-service agency, regularly entrusted Ricky with the care of her 16-month-old son, a responsibility her brother seemed to relish. And Christopher, the oldest and most serious of the bunch, was always willing to pitch in for school books or a pair of tennis shoes.

Now they sat there, muted by the thought of Ricky locked up, elbow to elbow with the kind of kids they had worked all these years to keep him from becoming. They knew that each day Ricky remained behind bars was a day away from school, a day away from the first semester of his senior year, when he should be in class earning the kind of grades that impress college admissions panels.

Where had Ricky, an A student, found the time, or the inclination, to get into trouble? And what kind of trouble was it? When the police had cuffed him the night before and loaded him into their cruiser just down the block from the Tovar home - a home Salvador and Carolina had purchased nearly 20 years before - they had offered no explanation.

It was Robert who finally broke the silence, telling the family that since his brother's arrest he had learned - from a terse exchange with a cop at Newton Station - that the charge was armed robbery. If convicted, Ricky faced up to six years in prison.

Now the family stirred to life. Ricky, an armed robber? Nothing, they knew, could be more absurd. There was more bad news, Salvador told them. A bondsman had informed him that because Ricky was a juvenile, he was not eligible for bail. The only way to free a juvenile pending trial, the bondsman had told him, was to persuade the judge to release him to his parents' custody. Salvador suggested to his gathered family that the best way to do that was to prove Ricky's innocence.

And so, one by one, they took turns recounting the time they had spent with Ricky on Sunday, August 16 - the day the alleged crime occurred. It soon became apparent that he had been with various family members the entire day - giving his mom a ride downtown, helping his brother buy lumber for repairs on their grandmother's house, picking up burgers at Jack-in-the-Box and, finally, studying the Constitution with his dad for his a Advanced Placement government class. The whole family felt vindicated, and a wave of relief washed over the room. But Salvador, a slight man with almond eyes and full, dark lips that are often pursed in thought, was worried. "I knew right then that he didn't do it, and in my heart I was glad," he says. "But we're his family. Who was going to believe us?"

Despite his concerns, Salvador clung to the hope that someone in the well-oiled system of law and order - the very system he'd taught his children to honor and respect - would quickly right such a terrible mistake. But as the days turned into weeks and Ricky languished in jail, Salvador's confidence waned. He came to see that through his ignorance of the legal process and his reverence for the justice system, it was he who had made the mistake. A mistake that led him - by his own unforgiving standards - to fail his son.

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