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An American Family: Close to Breaking 

The Aguilars face money problems, bad grades and near-constant arguing about Luis’ future

Thursday, Jul 15 2004
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Page 2 of 8

In the meantime, Frances patches together baby-sitting however she can. Her friend Nancy, the pregnant woman who lives across the street (who has by now delivered a healthy baby girl), fills the gap some days. Other days, Frances sneaks the little boy into work with her, knowing Father Greg will be annoyed if he finds out.

Painful grace: Bola washes cars to help pay for Magoo’s burial.

A small shard of relief arrives one afternoon in early June when a guy from the Homeboy Graffiti Removal crew named Miguel Gomez breezes into the office and calls out to Frances. “Hey, Tweety!” he says, and motions for her to come over. (“Tweety” is Frances’ gang placa, her street name. It evolved out of a family pet name: “Tweety Bird” was Frances’ mother’s childhood term of endearment for her daughter.)

“What d’you need?” asks Frances cautiously as she walks in his direction. “Nothing,” answers Gomez, whose own street name is Magoo. Then, with an exaggeratedly hearty handshake, he slaps something into Frances’ palm. “I heard you’re taking care of the homie’s son. Thanks for stepping up like that,” he says, then strides away. Frances unfolds the item he has slapped into her hand. It’s a $100 bill.

She is astonished by the gesture. Magoo is a compact, well-built 36-year-old who has recently been paroled after 10 years in prison. Frances knows him from back in the day, but not well, in part because he has been locked up for much of the last 20 years, but also because, back then, Magoo was something of a dark legend, a gangster whom even other homeboys considered to be so unpredictable and dangerous that they tended to steer clear of him. (Magoo is the only homeboy ever to have pulled a gun on Father Greg — threatening, fairly convincingly, to shoot the priest.) “He was scary,” says Frances. “Everybody I know was scared of Magoo.”

When, a few days after his release from prison in late March, Magoo walked unannounced into the Homeboy offices and asked to see Father Greg, the priest wasn’t entirely overjoyed to see him. “I know exactly what you’re thinking,” Magoo said as he approached Boyle’s desk. “You’re thinking, ‘Uh-oh. Here comes trouble.’ But look, I’m not the man I used to be. I’ve spent 20 years trying to build a reputation for myself, and now I regret I even have one.” With that, Magoo put his head in his hands and began to sob.

Boyle assigned him to the Homeboy Graffiti crew, working from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. He turned out to be an excellent and genial employee. A few weeks later, Magoo found a second job, cleaning office buildings after hours and on weekends. A month after that, he gave Frances the hundred bucks out of his paycheck. In another few weeks, he gave her a second hundred, both times waving away her thanks.

“Nobody else has offered to help me,” she says. “Not even Mando’s dad. And here Magoo is just struggling to get his own life together, but he thinks about helping somebody else. It just goes to show you should never give up on anybody.”

THE ONGOING DRUG-DEALING CHARGE that keeps Luis in jail tests the couple in many ways. Both Luis and Frances are deeply worried that Jim Bisnow, Luis’ attorney, will not mount a strong defense and only wants him to take a plea bargain. Luis can petition the court for a different lawyer, but no one can guarantee he’ll get one. And would a new attorney be better or worse than Bisnow?

After another dispiriting go-round with the lawyer, Frances confides her fears to Father Greg. When Luis calls and confesses the same fears, Greg comes up with an idea. A few months before, he says, he ran into an old friend who mentioned that if the priest ever had a special criminal case that he wanted handled pro bono to give him a call. Greg decides that Luis is that special case, and phones the guy, whose name is Mark Overland. “If that’s what you want,” Overland says, “I’ll be happy to do it.”

Overland is a small, pleasant-looking man with a penchant for well-tailored, conservative suits and a highly focused intensity that suggests an extremely intelligent bird of prey. “Hi,” he says when he introduces himself to Luis in the holding cell before Luis’ next perfunctory court appearance. “I’m the guy who’s going to save your ass.”

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