By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Salvador picked up the phone and called Barry O. Bernstein, a criminal-defense attorney with offices in Century City and Tarzana. The number was given to him by his daughter, Marcy, who had been so desperate to find someone immediately that she had pulled a bunch of names out of the Yellow Pages and passed along the first one who called her back. "At the time I thought she got a good recommendation from somebody," Salvador says. "We made mistakes. We just didn't know any better."
Later that day, Bernstein sent an investigator to the Tovars' home. Although the investigator spent about an hour at the house, he asked few questions relevant to the case. Instead, Salvador says, he spent his time pressing the Tovars to sign a contract agreeing to pay more than $7,000 in fees. The pitch angered Salvador. "I just a didn't like it," he says. "If I signed for the whole thing, what was to keep the guy from just riding along, just for the money? Maybe he wouldn't even try to get Ricky out right away." Finally, the Tovars agreed to pay $1,500 for Ricky's initial hearing.
Bernstein would later explain that the first meeting with a client is not the time to discuss the details of the case. "When we get to court and there's two or three witnesses who saw things differently," he says, "that then becomes the reality that we have to deal with. So the client's version of events is really more fruitful later on."
By the morning of the hearing, two days later, the Tovars had heard nothing more from Bernstein. Salvador, Carolina, Robert and Marcy arrived at the Eastlake Juvenile Detention Center in Boyle Heights just after 8 a.m. They found seats on one of the many low, hard benches lining the dimly lit courthouse corridor and waited. The hallway was jammed with families making hasty introductions with the attorneys they hoped would save their children. When Bernstein finally arrived, it was the Tovars' turn.
Bernstein seemed in a hurry, but Salvador pulled out Ricky's report card to show him and made one request. "My boy is innocent," he said. "Please ask the judge to release him to our custody. We are good parents. We'll take responsibility."
Inside, the proceedings moved fast. The hearing, it turned out, was simply to state the charges and arrange for a follow-up date, when the judge would decide whether Ricky should be tried as a juvenile or an adult.
It was the first time Salvador had seen his son since the boy's arrest. Lean and taller than Salvador, with his dad's narrow face and serious expression, he was dressed in a pressed shirt and dark pants, his hands cuffed. Salvador decided that he looked tired, but okay.
It was also the first time Salvador had heard the details of the alleged offense. When he tried to imagine his son roaming the streets for a target, then pulling a knife and snatching a chain, it made him shiver. He could not make the crude, ugly image stick. He heard Bernstein tell the judge that Ricky was wrongfully accused and ask that he be released to his parents. He heard the deputy district attorney, Margaret Lawrence, argue against it on the grounds that the crime was too severe, that Ricky was a danger to his community. He heard the judge deny the request.
To Salvador it seemed too pat. Alarmed, he tapped Bernstein on the arm. "Not now," Bernstein said, and waved him away. Then, all too quickly, the judge and Bernstein were consulting their calendars to schedule the next hearing - September 9 - and hustling the Tovars out the courtroom door. Standing in the hallway, Salvador was stunned. Now his son was stuck in jail for at least 18 more days before anyone would even hear the case for his innocence, and there was nothing Salvador could do about it. "I felt tricked," he says. "I felt humiliated. I was just numb."
After a while, Bernstein emerged. He and the family briefly discussed the case, and he asked when he would be paid. Then he turned to go. Wait, Salvador said. We have more questions. His wife and children nodded. Can I see the police report? He waited expectantly, trying to calm his desperation. Bernstein stopped and looked at him. No, he said. Why, Salvador asked, to which he says Bernstein responded, "Because it's mine." With that, he was gone.
The initial police report, with the witness's original statement, had already been filed with the District Attorney's Office by the time Detective Avila completed his review of Ricky's case. He says he called the D.A. immediately. "I know that I called them," he says. "I said, 'Hey, this kid doesn't need to be there.'"
But public-information officer Sandi Gibbons says the D.A.'s Office has no record of Avila's call. And when pressed, both in person at Newton Station and later on the phone, Avila cannot remember whom he talked to, or when. He never made a follow-up call, and did not send the D.A.'s Office a copy of his report until much later because, he says, it did not request it. When asked if he ever thought to call Ricky's family himself, Avila gets quiet, then says, sounding exasperated, "That never crossed my mind."