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
At around 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday in April, Frances is on the sidewalk in front of her house chatting with a very pregnant friend who lives in a duplex just across the street. All at once, a quarter block away, four or five homeboys scuttle out of a front door and into a waiting taxi, their manner secretive and menacing. The two women watch wordlessly until the taxi speeds away. “That’snot good,” says Frances. A few minutes later, an unfamiliar car cruises slowly past, the driver’s expression hooded and strange.
“Okay, time to go inside,” Frances says, and both women sprint up their respective front walks without looking back.
Easter is Frances’ favorite holiday. In past years, she’s always managed to make up baskets for each of the kids.But with her finances so uncertain, she reluctantly decides that Easter baskets must be eliminated this year. “When I was growing up,” she says, “Christmas was really sad with my mother. We did nothing. I mean, really, nothing. We sometimes went to the secondhand store, and my mom would get us each whatever used teddy bear or little thing she could find for 25 cents.” But Easter was different. “My mom always had baskets, and we’d dye eggs. She’d also get those little plastic eggs and put quarters inside them for us. Then we’d get dressed up and go to the park and feed the doves. Things always seemed about to get better at Easter.”
The Saturday before Easter Sunday, Frances piles Estephanie plus Frankie and Elijah and the baby into her white Astro van and heads out to visit her husband. (Luis bought the van used in December so that Frances could accommodate all six kids safely and legally.) Since January, Luis had been housed at Men’s Central Jail, which is seven minutes away from Frances’ home. But in mid-April, he was moved to Pitchess Detention Center, a 3,800-acre sprawl of concrete buildings located off the 5 freeway, a few exits past Magic Mountain.
Everybody except law enforcement refers to the jail complex by its old name, Wayside — short for Wayside Honor Rancho, built back in 1938 literally as a ranch where minor offenders raised their own beef, dairy products and produce. At Wayside, friends and relatives are allowed hourlong visits, not the meager 15 minutes at C.J. — Men’s Central Jail. The wait to get into Wayside varies, an hour on a good day, three hours or more on crowded days or if the facility is in lockdown, which occurs several times a month. “That means you can wait and wait, then not get in at all.”
When Luis comes out to the cubicle, his eyes are swollen and he’s broken out in hives. “They haven’t given me my Claritin here yet,” he says. Frances tells him that she and the kids are skipping Easter this year. “Oh, no, buy ’em something, babe,” Luis tells her. “I wish I could be out there for you. I feel the pain as much as you do.”
Frances decides to follow Luis’ advice, but somewhere on the 5 freeway between Wayside and home, the Astro’s engine simply turns off, and the van slows to a stop right in the middle of the second lane. Scared they’ll be hit, Frances frantically calls a friend who owns a tow truck. He tows the van back to the used-car lot where it was purchased. “It needs a new motor,” the car lot’s owner tells Frances. At this she begins to cry. “Oh, great,” she says. “You sold us a lemon. Now, what am I supposed to do?”
By nightfall, Frances decides to make the best of the sad, bad day and telephones her cousin Eva, an attractive woman whose husband is also locked up. Eva shows up with her three kids, and together the women hard-boil 20 eggs. Then, using 89-cent Wal-Mart-purchased dye kits plus crayons, everybody spends the next couple of hours turning the kitchen into a happy mess dying Easter eggs. The next day, the women and kids extend the festive mood at Evergreen Park for a carne asada. “So we had a good Easter after all,” Frances says.
Frances is convinced that attorney Bisnow is doing little or no investigation, so she has done as he suggested and attempted to track down the drug buyers listed in the police report. By mid-April she has found two of the men and has a possible line on the third and fourth.
The first is Gus, the old basehead who approached her in court with the tale that Officer Chavez had threatened him with prison if he didn’t name Luis as his seller. She finds him again a few weeks later, and he repeats the same story but at more length.
It turns out Frances actually knows the second man on the list, but she only knows him by his nickname, “Pepe,” so at first she doesn’t put it together. The man, whom we’ll call Juan Garcia, is a 50-ish ex-con heroin addict who drops by to use the phone at the Homeboy office several times a week. His name is common, so when she first approaches Garcia, Frances isn’t sure she has the right person. “My husband, Luis, is fighting a criminal case,” she says. “I think you might be on his paperwork.”