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
The Aguilar family’s circumstances are now, after a year, still alarmingly on the edge. Luis’ new job is a wonderful piece of good news. But the truth is, he and Frances aren’t just one paycheck away from disaster, they are right at disaster level, which is where their financial status has teetered ever since Frances ran through the family’s savings to pay the mortgage during the first months after Luis’ arrest. Yet through a combination of help from Father Greg Boyle, her own ingenuity, and even a few donations from concerned readers, Frances did manage. The Aguilars didn’t lose the house. No one went unfed. Now, as they move into 2005, they hope to pay off the last of their debts. Luis and Frances will start to resuscitate their badly trashed credit, and the family can begin to put money away again.
The Aguilars’ emotional life is also in need of much repair. Frances and Luis are once again viewing each other with tentative affection, and they’ve each admitted that they want counseling, to heal both the injuries of their pasts and those they have inflicted on each other, particularly during the most recent crises. Whether they will follow through remains to be seen.
Of course, if the past year’s events have produced psychic whiplash for the parents, their effect on the Aguilar kids is no less severe. The three oldest, Estephanie, Bola and Julian, were hit especially hard by Luis’ incarceration and their mother’s battles to keep everything afloat. The damage was compounded when Bola attempted to fill his time productively by volunteering on the Homeboy graffiti crew, to have not one, but two, of the men who kindly attempted to mentor him blown away on streets in Boyle Heights within a few blocks of his house. And, finally, there was the matter of the kids’ removal to the "care" of the county of Los Angeles. None of this will be simple to set right.
The original idea behind the "An American Family" series was to examine the lives of one recent parolee and his family and, in so doing, look at issues and difficulties faced by other, similar families in urban centers all around the country. After all, in the United States of America, on any given day, there are more than 2 million men and women being held in state and federal prisons and jails. Eventually over 95 percent of those incarcerated will, like Luis, return to the community — 600,000 are returning in this year alone. Nearly one in five of those parolees will be returning to the streets of California.
Like Luis, most will face an immense number of institutional, psychological and societal barriers as they attempt to restart their lives. The majority, like Luis, have spouses and children who struggle right along with them during this repair process — or suffer without them, if they end up back in prison.
All this convinced my editors and me that, with the Aguilars, we had a story worth telling. We never imagined how complex that story would become.
Luis was paroled in April 2003 after serving seven years in prison for a gang-related assault-with-a-deadly-weapon charge, plus two extra stints for parole violations (both for "gang association," although, in one case, the "associate" in question was his soon-to-be wife, Frances). Then, in late January of 2004, just as he was really beginning to get on his feet, the police raided his house and arrested him on suspicion of drug sales. In the months preceding Luis’ arrest, the Hollenbeck division of the LAPD spent an inordinate amount of time, officer power and expense watching the Aguilar household. Yet law enforcement was never able to make a solid case against Luis. We came to believe that the case they did make — one that was eventually dropped and not re-filed — was based entirely or in part on falsified evidence.
We arrived at this conclusion after spending hundreds of hours examining the warrant and arrest reports, the evidence presented against Luis in the preliminary hearing, and after interviewing four central witnesses extensively and repeatedly, plus conducting interviews with nearly two dozen others who had knowledge of various aspects of the case.
We tracked down and spoke to one witness after another who had supposedly implicated Luis in the arrest report, and learned of -coercion, threats and gross misrepresentations on the part of law enforcement. (Two of the three witness/buyers were so adamant about their accounts that they offered to come to court to testify on Luis’ behalf, although both said the prospect of countering the testimony of a police officer scared them.) For example, one 31-year-old man, whose written statement at first appeared to be quite damning of Luis, told us that, yes, he’d bought crack cocaine from someone on the Aguilar property on three different occasions, once from the back door, twice from the yard. He said the seller was always a teenager (who, incidentally, matched Lil’ Happy’s description, Lil’ Happy being the 17-year-old who sold drugs out of the Aguilar home, according to him without their permission or knowledge, primarily when Luis and Frances were at work), but that the officer who interviewed him, Rudy Chavez, told him to write down "Sniper," Luis’ old gang nickname, as the individual who’d sold him the drugs. He said he was told that the police had him on film as buying from "Sniper." The witness also told us that, since he didn’t actually know his teenage seller’s name, he assumed that Officer Chavez was guiding him correctly and thus complied. We also interviewed Lil’ Happy at length on tape on several occasions about his own selling patterns, his customers (plus the details of how he managed to hide his drug sales from Frances and Luis by selling out of their home, primarily while they were at work), then cross-referenced these accounts with those of the witness/buyers.
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