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Miracles and Pain 

The life and death of Roman Gonzalez

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
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Page 4 of 11

Word of the shooting blew around the projects quickly. Father Boyle got the call at his Jobs for a Future office on First Street. "You better come," said a neighborhood woman. Boyle parked at Dolores Mission, the local Catholic church, and walked the half block to Clarence Street, where he saw the ambulance and the crowd. Several women floated toward him. "It’s Roman," they said.

"After 14 years of gang work," Boyle says, "I’ve learned to read the signs. You notice how much blood there is, how big the police presence is, how fast the yellow tape goes up." In the case of Roman, all the bad signs were present. Still, the priest held out hope. "I thought maybe it was a grazing, or a through-and-through," the latter meaning a bullet that zips into the soft tissue and out again without hitting anything vital.

Boyle followed the ambulance to County General Hospital, where, in the emergency room, Roman was deemed too critical to make it upstairs for surgery. The E.R. docs opened his chest on the spot and tried to massage his heart back to beating. A few minutes later, a physician came out to where Boyle paced in the waiting room and caught his attention. "I probably shouldn’t tell you this," he said, "and you can’t tell anybody until we’ve had a chance to notify the family, but he died. Roman died."

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Family members began to arrive, and Boyle’s job was to minister. Cara Gould came with Monica. Rosa Campos’ daughters, Roman’s cousins, came right away too. His twin brothers were being detained by the police for questioning, but Roman’s older brother and sister were there. His mother elected not to come. "She’s never been there for him anyway," someone said bitterly.

Monica broke down at the hospital. "What am I going to do?" she cried. "What do I say to our little girl?" For Boyle, the knowledge didn’t sink in until much, much later. "When you do this kind of work, it’s guaranteed you lose kids," he says, his voice frayed by grief and fatigue. "I’ve buried nearly 100 since I came to this barrio. Every one of those deaths was hard. But there’s always a short list of kids you know you can’t afford to lose. For me, Roman was at the top of that list."

"For me, Roman wasn’t even on the list," Gould says. "I was that sure he was completely out of danger."

Monica and their little girl

3.

The death of a young man or woman tears a hole in the fabric of any community. After decades of gang warfare, Pico-Aliso has many such holes. Still, Roman’s death hit residents from a noticeably different angle. "Until he died, there was the belief that you would be somehow inoculated if you did the right thing," says Cara Gould. "That’s part of why what happened is so devastating to so many people. Suddenly there’s no hermetic seal."

The reaction was most extreme among Roman’s contemporaries. On Thursday, the morning after the shooting, William Ayala’s brother Victor burst into Father Boyle’s office, pulled a chair very close to the priest’s desk, then began to cry. Like William, Victor used to be a gang member. Two years ago, however, he put his gang affiliation aside and went to work in the Jobs for a Future office, where he morphed into an ideal employee. Usually, Victor’s personality tends toward stoicism. Boyle had seen him cry only once before in 15 years. Now the force of the ex-cholo’s distress startled him. "It’s so messed up, what happened to Trigger," Victor said. "And it could have been my brother. I don’t want William to go down to the projects anymore. He can’t take that risk. It would kill me if ä something happened to my brother."

The circumstance was made weirdly ironic because, unlike Roman and William, Victor wasn’t from TMC. He was from Cuatro Flats, the gang that killed Roman and nearly killed William. Moreover, Victor was rumored to be the one who once shot the hat off Roman’s head. "Trigger was my friend," he said, his voice ragged with genuine misery. "I grew up with him too. I had love for him too."

That same morning, Arnold Machado, another former TMC gang member, found he couldn’t make himself walk the approximately 25 feet from his front door to his car. Arnold, a moon-faced, sunny-natured man, lives with his common-law wife and their three kids in a small, neat bungalow on Clarence Street, a few doors down from where Roman was shot. Five days a week he works in construction and demolition, a job he says he enjoys. On the weekends, he stays home with his kids, or bangs on the drum set that, for the past year, he has been teaching himself to play.

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