The Withering Spotlight 

“An American Family” role model faces a drug charge; ex-Crip and memoir writer haunted by his words

Wednesday, Mar 15 2006

LAST MONTH, L.A. County sheriff’s deputies — plus a dog — raided the Boyle Heights home of Frances and Luis Aguilar and their six children. The deputies were looking for drugs and guns. They found no weapons, but they did find several baggies full of drugs, specifically 13 grams of cocaine powder, 8 grams of meth and 5 grams of rock cocaine. It wasn’t exactly a big cache, yet it was enough to trigger an arrest. The couple had quarreled, so Luis was staying at his aunt’s house a few miles away. The deputies arrested Frances. She was arraigned Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of possession for sale. “I don’t care about me,” she said. “But it’s really messed up for my kids.”

L.A. Weekly readers may remember the Aguilars from “An American Family,” the paper’s yearlong series on the couple and their children that ran throughout 2004. Frances and Luis are former gang members struggling to turn their lives around. In the time the Weekly followed them, we saw Luis paroled from prison, attempt to once again become part of his family, look for and find a job, then be arrested on drug-dealing charges that were eventually dropped after a six-month stint in jail. Meanwhile, Frances battled to keep the family afloat financially, her eldest kids in school, her preteen son out of trouble and herself in possession of some kind of optimism.

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In the 15 months since the series ended in December 2004, Frances, Luis and their kids have continued to inch toward a better future within an ongoing cycle of victories and setbacks. For instance, they talked repeatedly of moving away from their Boyle Heights home and the gang undertows it represents, yet they are still in the same house, despite all the good intentions.

On the plus side, Luis has his good union job working in construction for the city of Los Angeles, and Frances pumped up her own work skills with a gang-intervention training course at Cal State L.A. There were personal bright spots too, like in May of last year, when Estephanie, the eldest kid, turned 15, and Frances and Luis managed, on a slimmer-than-shoestring budget, to give their daughter a traditional Mexican coming-of-age party, a dreamy and colorful quinceañera. A month later, Frances was the one honored as the “Homegirl Hero” at a glitzy $350-a-plate Homeboy Industries benefit held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where city luminaries like LAPD Chief Bill Bratton and then Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa applauded her for her progress.

Toward the end of 2005, there was a bleak period and one awful scare. Luis was out of work for a month before Christmas, and when he was rehired, an “enemy” homeboy shot at him in broad daylight, missing his head by less than an inch. During the bad times, Luis and Frances dealt with their stress the usual way, by arguing with each other. Then, as the year drew to a close, Frances, who had always been the family’s anchor, seemed suddenly beset by a deep emotional exhaustion that soon slid into depression — replete with crying jags and sporadic absences from her job at Homeboy Industries. In January 2006, she stopped going to work altogether, and had what can best be described as a nervous breakdown. “I can’t get out of bed,” she said wanly. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Frances took to keeping the youngest kids home from day care because their presence gave her some kind of fragile raison d’être. “Otherwise I’m afraid I won’t get up at all,” she said. During her alone time, Frances found herself flooded with disturbing childhood memories, visions of harm done to her decades before that she’d previously suppressed.

At first the swamp of memories threatened to drag Frances under. But in time, the recollections seemed to free her in some fundamental way. “I’m starting to see why I’m the way I am,” she said, “why I’ve always felt I have to be so tough.” One night, she and Luis stayed up late and talked in a way they hadn’t in years.

By mid-February, Frances admitted she needed professional help and got a list of psychologists who took Luis’ insurance, then made the necessary calls. On Monday, February 20, Presidents’ Day, Frances was tentatively hopeful. Perhaps this was the breakdown she’d needed all her life, she said.

And then the next day, around 11 a.m., the raid.

When her house was last raided by the LAPD 16 months ago, Frances was hysterical. This time, as deputies broke open the front door, she was polite to the officers, who were polite in return, and mostly busied herself trying to soothe the kids. (“She seemed like a nice lady,” the team’s lead detective said later.) Two-year-old Gennisis, who had little experience with law enforcement, danced across the living room floor to greet the uniformed men, but Frankie, the 6-year-old, recoiled violently. “Not again, not again,” he chanted, then covered himself with a blanket as if hoping to vanish. Elijah, the 4-year-old, was excited. “The poom-poom guys are here” he yelled, gesturing at the cops.

Shortly after the sheriffs’ arrival, two social workers appeared and told Frances they would be taking the kids into county custody. When the male social worker led them out, Frances wrapped a small blanket around each child. “Be on your best behavior, okay,” she told them. “I love you.”

What comes of Frances’ arrest will take months to determine. The night of the raid, Luis gathered the necessary 10 percent to bail her out. In the intervening weeks, the couple has been to family court twice hoping to get their kids away from county custody and into the care of family or extended family. Yet, as both cases wend their way through the legal system, there is one wild-card element that could adversely affect each outcome. As was mentioned before, the Aguilars have permitted their lives to be written about extensively. This, as it turns out, may be a problem.

IN THE COURSE OF the “American Family” series, Frances and Luis were quite candid about their gang pasts and their sometimes present-day lapses in judgment. Yet, although U.S. law forbids the mention of previous criminal convictions in the prosecution of a new crime, of late it seems that past writings are quite another matter.

The Aguilars have already felt the potentially destructive effect of lives in print when passages from the Weekly articles were presented, out of context, as evidence against them in fall 2004, when they last fought to get their kids back from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Only when the judge took it upon himself to read the 40,000-word series in its entirety did the supposedly damning excerpts lose their legal power.

Now, in a Riverside County courtroom where a former Crip gang member named Colton Simpson is being tried for robbery, an ominous new legal development has recently occurred. In 2003, Simpson allegedly drove the getaway car for three men who stole a single diamond stud earring from the jewelry counter at the local Robinsons May department store. In the year before his arrest, however, Simpson wrote a critically praised tell-all memoir depicting his life as a gangster and his eventual choice to leave the gang life behind. (Full disclosure: I reviewed the book for the L.A. Times.) While ultimately a redemptive tale, Inside the Crips includes meticulous descriptions of jewelry-store heists that Simpson committed as a 14-year-old, gun-toting, drug-dealing gangster, which Riverside Assistant District Attorney Stephen Gallon has managed to introduce as evidence, arguing that the teenage Simpson’s robberies committed 26 years ago prove a behavioral pattern for the now 40-year-old defendant.

Unlike Simpson, Frances has no previous drug arrests, and no prior felony convictions. But as she and Luis fight to contain the damage that the dual court cases could portend for their family’s future, she wonders if she’ll be battling shadows from her past along with those of her present. “I tried to be honest about who I was,” she says. “Now me and Luis wonder if it will all be held against us.”

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