By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Yet the very year city officials initially funded No Guns — to talk kids out of joining gangs and tote them home from school through a safe-passage program — a disturbing incident exposed the chaos and violence inside No Guns, at least to anyone paying minimal attention to local headlines.
In September 2001, police found 19-year-old Hawthorne Lil Watts gang member Hector “Clumsy” Romero with a bullet in his head, his hands and genitals blackened and burned, off a remote road near the town of Phelan. For weeks, Hawthorne Police Department detectives searched for clues, finally getting a tip that led them to the No Guns offices on Larch Avenue in Hawthorne.
There, in a bedroom of the ramshackle house turned No Guns office, Hawthorne gang investigator Sergeant Ti Goetz says police came upon a gruesome scene: Clumsy’s brain tissue spattered on a wall, and a filthy carpet missing a large cutout area. Goetz says it was impossible to figure out how Clumsy died because all of those present — a group of gang members and No Guns secretary Monica Villareal, a mother of one of them — insisted he died playing Russian roulette.
That explanation bothers Hawthorne police, who have verified that Charleeda Marroquin drove Clumsy’s body to a remote area, where she and other gang members burned his genitals and lower extremities — reasons unknown.
San Bernardino Sheriff’s deputies’ arrest of Charleeda, the treasurer of No Guns, on suspicion of arson and accessory to murder, was no secret: It made local headlines. But, “San Bernardino sheriffs told us that the district attorney didn’t want to prosecute Charleeda,” says Goetz. “The sheriffs told us the D.A. said it was too political, on account of Charleeda’s father. He had a lot of pull with some high-profile politicians.”
Because Clumsy died at No Guns’ offices, police searched Hector Marroquin’s house in Downey and found a police baton, a throwing knife and 18th Street gang medallions and paraphernalia, and slapped Marroquin with a probation violation. Yet three months later, Marroquin and No Guns got their first City Hall subcontract to steer kids from gangs.
After the death and burning of Clumsy Romero, police explicitly warned City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo of alarming signs of criminal activity swirling around No Guns, according to an intelligence report obtained by the Weekly. Deputy City Attorney Liz Greenwood received one warning because Delgadillo “was having a meeting with Marroquin to discuss working with him,” the report says. Delgadillo says the meeting never happened.
The warning signs persisted in 2003, when Los Angeles city officials should have become queasy after Marroquin lost a Los Angeles County Probation Department subcontract to drive children from school to gang-diversion programs. County records show Marroquin failed to keep even basic paperwork like tax records. County officials discovered that Marroquin’s driver, ferrying troubled children around, was his daughter-in-law — who had no driver’s license and had failed a routine criminal background check.
It was not until after Weasel’s arrest last March on a handgun-possession charge — a no-no for a guy barred from having guns after a 1996 firearms conviction and two probation violations — that L.A. Bridges dumped him. “There’s no question that L.A. Bridges can do better in terms of efficiency and demonstrating results,” says an uncomfortable and parsing Councilman Tony Cardenas. “And at the Community Development Department, the left hand is definitely not talking to the right.”
In the early 1990s, the alarming murder rate and skyrocketing gang membership created a vast opening for guys like Marroquin to walk through. Gang culture became youth culture in the inner city, and as more Latino youth went to prison, they came under the power of the Mexican Mafia, which guaranteed continuous gang participation to criminals on the inside, as well as later, out on the streets.
The reaction to the 1995 slaying of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen in Highland Park was a wake-up call for City Hall that the public wouldn’t stand for it any longer. Black and Latino children were killed regularly in L.A., but here was a blond, blue-eyed baby whose cold-blooded murder by gang members — when her parents turned down the wrong alley — sparked action.
Then city councilman, now state Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas chaired a committee to deal with gang problems, and with help from City Hall fixture Victor Griego’s lobbying firm Diversified Strategies for Organizing, the city invested $11 million per year for four years into L.A. Bridges. The program would distribute money to 26 schools to promote youth achievement, counsel families and create neighborhood oversight councils.
Phrases like “novel program” and “first in the nation” echoed throughout City Hall. Ridley-Thomas and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, a former member of the state Assembly in Sacramento, promised a much-improved safety net for kids. Council members Mike Hernandez, Cindy Miscikowski and Richard Alarcón urged even more citywide funding.
Yet there were plenty of detractors, including USC sociology professor emeritus Malcolm Klein, who thought that City Council members had no understanding of how gangs really go about enticing young kids. Equally worrisome, Klein argued, Ridley-Thomas’ committee set up no apparent means of evaluating anti-gang program results, and L.A. Bridges was not really designed to actively prevent gang involvement.