By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
He hated the food - the tough hamburgers, the "mystery meat" that gave him stomach cramps and sent him racing to the bathroom. He hated the uniforms - the sour-smelling, threadbare drawstring pants, shirt, socks and underwear of indiscriminate size distributed in tightly bound rolls each morning. He stayed away from fights but witnessed plenty - in the worst one the fighters were unfazed by pepper spray and the staff ended up tackling them and pinning them to the floor. He dreaded the nightly "who banging," when the boys would kick the walls and furniture in their cells and howl. Once they kicked up such a racket that the staff forced them all to kneel in the hallway until someone confessed. No one did, and the next day the boys were kept inside all day. They were often denied yard privileges for such incursions, and Ricky spent about half his jail days inside, with little more than a glimpse of the outdoors.
"At first I was really mad," he says. "I was really worried about my mom, and about school too. Every day I would think about the things that were going on without me. I would think about my life just passing by without me."
Soon, though, Ricky resigned himself to the regimented, barter-driven routine of jail life. He became friendly with another boy, copying his letters to his girlfriend in careful cursive in exchange for candy or extra food at meals. "He gave me a Snickers once," Ricky says. "You come across one of those in there and everybody wants a piece."
He spent his phone time - about five minutes every few days - joking with his family or friends. Rosie says that when she talked with him, they laughed the whole time. "I was so glad to hear his voice, and I was just relieved to know that he was okay," she says. "I know he was depressed, and maybe he just did that to cheer us up as well."
"With my mom and my father, I spoke to them more seriously," Ricky says. "But with my brothers and sister and my friends, I was able to crack jokes. It wasn't a nice experience. I was just trying to make my life a little less miserable."
After a while, he says, the adjustment was complete. "I'd think, 'I want to go home already, I'm tired of this,'" he says. "But it got to the point where I had to let go of what was out here. I just let go."
After their first visit with Ricky, the Tovars felt truly helpless. In the wake of the Bernstein fiasco, they were out of money and had no choice but to cast their lot with a public defender. But when Salvador requested one, he was told the assignment had to be made by the judge at the next court date. Which meant the lawyer would have no time to review the case. Which meant another delay. And, in the meantime, Ricky would have no legal representation.
There were 16 more days before Ricky's next court appearance - 16 pointless, wasted days. Carolina suffered intense bouts of insomnia. Terrified of the police, she refused to leave the house alone. Robert, who usually took great pride in his work, went through the motions, dronelike, his mind filled with Ricky. And it was all Marcy could do to get through the day without bursting into tears. Salvador spent a lot of time on the phone. "My wife was saying, 'Call so and so. Call up the other guy. Call up this person and that person.' I said, 'I just did.' She said, 'Well, call 'em again.' I said, 'Well, it won't do any good.' She said, 'Well, call 'em anyway.' And it kept me busy night and day, practically, calling all over trying to find out what to do and how to do it. Nobody really knew. Nobody really knew anything."
At school, Steve Bachrach's students abandoned their individual projects and began working on a film about Ricky. They interviewed his family and friends, and went to Newton Station to talk with the police. "They didn't really tell us anything," Rosie says. "But at least we felt like we were doing something to help." The class had planned to send their completed film to various media outlets to publicize Ricky's case, but a defense lawyer Bachrach talked to advised against it. "He said it might make the D.A. mad," Bachrach says. "That's the last thing we wanted to do."
Salvador started reading books on criminal law. He repeatedly called Bernstein's office requesting copies of all the documents related to his son's case, but was told Bernstein was out of town. (After I called Bernstein to interview him for this story, he called the Tovars and agreed to drop the case. continued
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