Hanging On — Barely 

Luis’ lawyer loses faith, and neighbors want the Aguilars out

Thursday, Jun 3 2004
Photos by Anne Fishbein

Jack, how much pain is there in the world? I think there’s only one kind, and we all keep moving around it in circles.

—Sherman Alexie, Little Big Man

What mending there is occurs in small acts.

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—Louise Erdrich, “Francine’s Room”

After the birth of her daughter Gennisis, Frances Aguilar didn’t return to work for three weeks. She would have gone back sooner, but she had problems with day care. The people who ran the program where her three youngest boys were enrolled said they really couldn’t add an infant. After much searching and pleading, Frances managed to get all four kids into a program run by the Mexican American Foundation. “They usually have a two-year waiting period,” says Frances, “but you know me. I’m a hustler.”

During her first days back at work, Frances feels torn and regretful. “I wanted more time to bond with my daughter,” she says. “I didn’t want to hand her over to somebody else so soon.” Even Estephanie, the 14-year-old, is upset. “Aye, Mom, you should be able to stay home with the baby,” she says. “She’s too little. It’s not fair.” What Estephanie does not say is that if Luis hadn’t been arrested, Frances could have stayed home with the baby — at least for a while.

State of the Family

This is part of a yearlong series focusing on the Aguilar family — Luis, Frances and their children — of East Los Angeles. In Chapter 2, Luis’ legal problems seemed like they might ease when questions arose over police conduct. Luis remains in jail and, against legal advice, has rejected two plea bargains. On the home front, Frances is left to deal with everyday problems — and can’t ignore the needs of a homeboy’s 2-year-old who shows up at her workplace.

As of May 23, Luis has been in jail awaiting trial for four months with no real end in sight. Luis’ court-appointed attorney, James Bisnow, has been tied up on other cases and so keeps asking for continuances. The case against Luis comes down to two basic charges: one, that Luis sold crack cocaine out of his and Frances’ home; two, that Luis persuaded, threatened, cajoled or bribed a minor into selling for him — namely Lil’ Happy, the 17-year-old homeless gang-member kid whom Luis allowed, over his wife’s objection, to crash in the family’s back bedroom.

The first charge — that Luis was dealing — is the one for which the cops have the most evidence. The police report Frances got from attorney Bisnow names three different people arrested for drug possession who told the lead investigating officer, Rudy Chavez, that they bought from Luis at unspecified times. One even signed a statement to that effect. Worse, Officer Chavez says that during a surveillance, he personally witnessed a fourth man go to the Aguilar house to buy several rocks from Luis around 1:30 in the afternoon on January 21.

A good subject: Bola’s shadow (top) and Bola, with frances

At first Bisnow tells Frances he thinks he might be able to get the case dismissed altogether since the alleged drug buy took place during the middle of the day when Luis would have been at work. Since he started with the sewer construction crew in May of 2003, Luis worked 10-and-a-half-hour days, five days a week, bolstering his paycheck by volunteering for overtime whenever possible. Furthermore, Luis was compulsive about not missing work. “I’ve got a lot of years to make up for,” he said. In seven months, he had only two absences, one when he was hospitalized for a severe allergy attack, the most recent in late January due to a freak accident.

That day Luis started work as usual at 5 a.m. Around 9 a.m., the crew hit an underground gas line. The leak sent ultra-allergic Luis into a bout of dizziness and nausea. His boss sent him home at 10 a.m. Luis intended to be back on the job by early afternoon. At home, he went straight to bed. When by noon he felt no better, he roused himself enough to drive to Father Greg Boyle’s office at Homeboy Industries to use a telephone to call his boss. (The Aguilars only have cell phones, and Frances took Luis’ that day.) Arriving at Homeboy around 1 p.m., Luis told Frances he was ill, made the necessary call, then drove back home and, by his account, slept for the rest of the day.

Originally, Frances thought the work absence was on Tuesday, January 20. But at attorney Bisnow’s request, she calls Luis’ job coordinator, Cheryl Mitchell, and asks her to check Luis’ records. It turns out that the gas leak was on January 21, the day that Luis allegedly made the sale.

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