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
A black Lincoln Navigator sits abandoned in a dead-end alley off Atlantic Avenue in South Gate, its owner miles away, though not willingly. Across the alley, police have finished interviewing workers about a near-deadly shooting inside their workplace, a furniture outlet, and Hector Marroquin is undergoing surgery at nearby St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood.
Police say Marroquin — a gang intervention worker who has received money and praise from ?some of L.A.’s best-known politicians — was shot in broad daylight on this warm mid-November day. Inside the furniture outlet, bullets have ripped through dining and bedroom sets, scattering wood fragments and splinters; a window fronting Firestone Boulevard now sports a gaping hole. Employees are trying to stay quiet about what just went down.
Lieutenant Darren Sullivan of the South Gate Police Department says six young Latino men confronted Marroquin near his auto-body shop, an argument erupted, and the men chased Marroquin to the furniture outlet, where one pulled a 9 mm gun and shot at him four times. Two bullets tore through his torso and exited near his spine, sending Marroquin (pronounced mar-oh-keen) to the E.R., where he survived. Police sources can’t agree on whether it was gang-related or not.
At first blush, Marroquin’s shooting suggests a cautionary tale about how gangsters gone straight can still face violent retribution. Call it an occupational hazard for Marroquin, a former 18th Street gang member working with City Hall to reduce gang membership in L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods through No Guns, the nonprofit enterprise he founded in 1997. Since its inception, No Guns has been showered with millions of dollars by government agencies. In the past three years, L.A. Bridges — the Los Angeles City Council’s $100 million project to keep kids from joining gangs — has poured nearly $1.5 million into Marroquin’s No Guns coffers.
But a closer look unveils a disturbing reality that raises fundamental questions about a major premise of taxpayer-funded L.A. Bridges: the belief inside City Hall that the virtually unmonitored use of former gang members like Marroquin and his deeply troubled family is a legitimate way to reach out to kids. No Guns stands out because city officials had ample notice that Marroquin ultimately couldn’t escape gang culture himself, police sources say. Several anti-gang programs are financed by taxpayers, at a cost of $26 million per year, including L.A. Bridges, yet City Hall bureaucrats cannot provide any concrete figures proving they have reduced gang activity. A 2003 city-funded audit found that it’s “impossible to count, document and verify” whether children have been drawn away from gangs.
Criminal justice expert Connie Rice went further: She declared the entire citywide gang-reduction system broken.
With almost half of the 49 recipients of L.A. Bridges money now employing former gangsters, the inability of the Community Development Department to keep watch over the City Council’s dream project, launched in 1996, strongly suggests that taxpayers have underwritten a boondoggle that operates with few safeguards.
In the case of so-called peacemaker Hector Marroquin, veteran investigators who have probed his activities for years believe he lives a double life as a menacing tax collector for the Mexican Mafia, the prison-based crime syndicate that controls the Latino street drug trade throughout Southern California. That grim assessment is supported by local police, Drug Enforcement Administration reports and L.A. Sheriff’s Department memos obtained by the L.A. Weekly, including transcripts of taped phone conversations between Marroquin and confidential informants. Some investigators believe Marroquin’s shooting last month was sanctioned by the Mexican Mafia, which has threatened Marroquin before, though some police officials say the job was too sloppy to be a professional hit.
“People were hopeful for Hector to clean up the streets,” says L.A. County Sheriff’s Department detective Karen Shonka. “He would pitch a good pitch. But he is a bad person. He always gets away with things because of the way the system works.”
This dark, alternate view of Marroquin is in stark contrast to the protective embrace of Marroquin by City Hall. In fact, L.A. Bridges officials kept money flowing to No Guns even after Marroquin was arrested in March — for gun possession — and long after his children, Charleeda and Hector Jr., employed in key positions at No Guns, became mired in violent and bizarre incidents.
Marroquin faces trial in January on a felony gun-possession charge, while Hector Jr. — an admitted 18th Street gang member who worked as a youth counselor at No Guns — now sits in jail, facing trial in January on a home-invasion robbery charge involving a mother and her baby the day after Christmas in 2005. Police investigating the home invasion confiscated from Hector Jr.’s home a small arsenal: a Czech Luger, a Glock, a Beretta Tomcat and a Smith & Wesson automatic pistol.
But perhaps the most unsettling case, for a bunch calling themselves No Guns, involves Charleeda Marroquin, an admitted member of the Hawthorne Lil Watts gang who was appointed treasurer of No Guns by her father. Police arrested Charleeda in 2001 after she and fellow gang members admitted dumping the badly mutilated body of a young man — shot at close range in the head at No Guns’ offices — near her dad’s property in San Bernardino. The victim was found with his hands and genitals badly burned. Local authorities ruled the grisly incident an accidental suicide while the coroner ruled it a homicide. Charleeda was arrested for arson for the postdeath mutilation, but troubled Hawthorne police, pointing to Marroquin’s City Hall connections, say the San Bernardino District Attorney refused to prosecute her because it was “too political.”
L.A. City Hall’s reaction to the implosion of the No Guns family operation speaks volumes about the L.A. Bridges program.
For three months after the recent home-invasion robbery arrest of Hector Jr. and the weapons-possession arrest of Hector Sr., L.A. Bridges director John Chavez went limp. Chavez actually extended No Guns’ contract an additional month, while he obsessed over whether the No Guns debacle would hurt the image of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Moreover, Chavez’s first impulse was to act as apologist for the Marroquins, e-mailing a City Hall colleague: “Hector Jr. alleges that there is a personal issue with one [police] officer against the Marroquin family.”
Only after a call from Fox 11 news reporter Chris Blatchford in late April did Chavez begin seriously looking into No Guns’ questionable financial practices — unexplained cash withdrawals from No Guns accounts and shoddy payroll records — exposed in a 2004 city audit. Marroquin also blatantly ignored orders from L.A. Bridges leaders, in December 2005, to stop hiring his relatives — a practice prohibited by the city contract.
Meanwhile, City Controller Laura Chick says she never investigated No Guns, although this year she sought their financial records from a city department.
The nepotism was glaring. According to city officials, Marroquin and his wife and two kids were taking down taxpayer-funded salaries totaling more than $200,000 per year — almost half the L.A. Bridges grant. After Blatchford's persistent questions, Chavez finally ordered funds to No Guns frozen last May. (Fox has yet to air a story on Marroquin's City Hall connections.)
Despite numerous investigations, police have never charged him with Mexican Mafia–related crimes. He’s been arrested repeatedly and charged with felonies while doing business with Los Angeles City Hall and the County Probation Department. But many times, witnesses have refused to cooperate — and family members have taken blame for guns found at his house.
“There's been a long pattern of harassment from law enforcers,” says Patrick Smith, lawyer for Marroquin and his son. “He works with gang people. It's his job. Some people don't want to believe a former gang member can leave gang life.”
Supporters of purported gang reduction programs also prefer to believe police are out to get the Marroquins — a view nurtured in City Hall. But police say Marroquin is a clever thug, capable of shaking off multiple arrests even as his family-run No Guns raked in public monies.
At the very least, Marroquin, inhabiting what one of his admirers, former state Senator Tom Hayden, calls a “world of shadows,” is an advertisement for L.A. Bridges’ flailing gang-reduction efforts and poor supervision by public officials.
To fans like Hayden, Marroquin is a peacemaker. In 1998, he negotiated an end to a spree of gang killings in Santa Monica between members of the Santa Monica Barrios and the Culver City Boys. In 2001, he ran a training program involved in the hiring of 900 gang members and felons to work construction jobs on the massive Playa Vista project. A touching L.A. Times story in 2005 described Marroquin — a burly, bald-headed man with an “Aztec Warrior” tattoo, known on the street as “Weasel” — choking back tears of redemption. The message for years has been: Weasel left his old life behind.
Marroquin’s emotional confession and street knowledge impressed the right people and helped him win fat contracts. Thanks in part to his No Guns salary of close to $90,000 a year, he enjoyed all the trappings of mainstream success, such as his Navigator and numerous properties and businesses, including a bar he purchased for $645,000 in 2004 in his wife and daughter’s names. But Marroquin, 50, had a rougher start. The former altar boy grew up fatherless. His mother abandoned him at age 14. He married at just 16, and by 18 he and his wife, Charlotte, had Hector Jr. By then, he’d already jumped into the 18th Street gang, and from 1976 on his life was a series of arrests on charges including marijuana and gun possession and resisting arrest.
He claims a pivotal moment came in 1996, when a youth smashed a 40-ounce beer bottle over the back of Hector Jr.’s head. Marroquin ran to his son’s aid and was shot. Transformed by the shooting, he started No Guns. After that, his efforts in luring away kids from the chaotic thrill of gang life kept him out of trouble — or so the story went.
His tale of redemption captured the imagination of influential people like L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca, Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn and Hayden, who seemed to appreciate his potential to stop violence and help kids. Yet when he stepped into the Santa Monica gang strife in 1998, Marroquin was on probation for turning a rifle on Sheriff’s deputies after a domestic disturbance. Police sources say a felony conviction would have stuck, but Hayden intervened. Marroquin’s attorney said he didn’t intend to point the rifle at anyone. “Hector had credibility on the street,” Hayden says. “He’s been in a lot of jams, and the police have always been after him. He was sticking his neck out and was taking risks that were important to ending the violence.”
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.
“City officials are going to be sorely disappointed” Klein warned the media in 1997. “My genuine fear is that the program will evolve into [after-school activities] programs” and achieve about as much as “the very city-backed programs that were defunded to build L.A. Bridges.” Jackie Goldberg says Klein wanted the money funneled entirely to intervention rather than prevention. However, Klein recently told the L.A. Weekly, “The City Council never understood gangs. We held a workshop to talk about gangs, and Ridley-Thomas showed up and left after about five minutes.”
Ridley-Thomas, Goldberg, Alarcón, Hernandez, Miscikowski and the rest of the 15-member City Council ignored such warnings. With 62,000 gang members accounting for 40 percent of L.A. murders at the time, the pressure to act was intense. “This is our answer, a novel, comprehensive, citywide anti-gang program,” Ridley-Thomas wrote with evangelical zeal, in a 1997 Daily News editorial. “No longer can we tolerate impersonal statistics [and] unimaginative solutions .?.?. this approach assumes a much higher level of accountability for public dollars by all parties.”
But by 2000, gang membership had risen to 64,000, and violence went unabated. That same year, an audit by City Controller Rick Tuttle urged that the entire program be scrapped. It was little more than another after-school activities program, Tuttle said, that kept poor spending records and didn’t even bother counting the number of kids supposedly averted from gangs. It sparked pointless turf wars between the Community Development Department, school district and police department — and fed an ugly fight among the 15 council members grabbing at the cash for their districts.
Tuttle stated ominously, “We’ve seen enough.”
Then-mayor Richard Riordan thought the program was a big waste of money and moved to disband it, but the City Council overrode his veto of it, pouring another $9 million into L.A. Bridges. Then-councilwoman Jackie Goldberg declared, “I don’t understand how anybody could argue that this program is anything but successful.” City Hall lobbyists and politicians even fought over the lucrative contract to evaluate the program, with County Supervisor Gloria Molina’s husband, Ron Martinez, raising a big stink for his company, People Works Inc., a leading bidder.
Tuttle recalls walking out of City Council chambers more than six years ago. “I looked at a colleague and said, ‘Well, we accomplished one thing today: We united the council [against Mayor Riordan].’?” By 2006, long after most of those council members were termed out of office, L.A. Bridges was reaping $14 million in taxpayer funds per year.
Yet even as Marroquin’s income from L.A. Bridges grew, Weasel drew sustained negative attention from police. Gang intervention worker Blinky Rodriguez, a former kickboxer whose program Communities in Schools is heralded by manyoutfits in the country, says it’s unfair. “People think you walk among lepers, and that makes you a leper,” he says.
But Detective Karen Shonka of the Sheriff’s Department watched Marroquin stumble across the line. “I got to know Hector,” Shonka says. “He was a member of the 18th Street gang, running under the guise of the No Guns thing. He had backing of political people.”
Meanwhile, a damning and detailed picture emerged from the files of the DEA and the L.A. Sheriff’s Prison Gang Unit, which investigated the Mexican Mafia’s extensive activities in Southern California. In July 2000, according to a confidential Sheriff’s Department memo obtained by the Weekly, a call came to the Sheriff’s Department from the California Department of Corrections. Prison officials were looking to quell prison racial fights, and Tom Hayden had suggested Marroquin as a mediator of sorts, since Weasel was doing the same work inside L.A. County jails.
Sergeant Richard Valdemar at the Prison Gang Unit got the call from a special agent in Sacramento checking out Marroquin, the memo states, but Valdemar warned that Marroquin was the wrong guy for the job. According to the memo, dated July 17, 2000, Valdemar alerted his chain of command, and his captain wrote to the chief of detectives, who reports directly to Sheriff Lee Baca: “Marroquin was an ex-felon, a Mexican Mafia associate and the subject of a recent federal [racketeering] investigation.”
The situation caused a dilemma for Baca, who was facing a possible race riot in county jail in the summer of 2000, and needed a mediator with Marroquin’s street credibility. A colleague told Valdemar, “Just be warned that some [Sheriff’s] department executives are desperately searching for ways to end the jail disturbances.” For three more years after the memo warned of his cozy relations with the Mexican Mafia, Marroquin kept working for the probation department as it worked hand-in-hand with the Sheriff's.
Valdemar first ran across Marroquin in 1998, when, in a major racketeering case, federal prosecutors took down more than a dozen members and associates of the Mexican Mafia on charges of murder and drug trafficking, including members of Marroquin’s 18th Street gang. Valdemar had heard from “reliable sources that unquestionably tied Marroquin to the Mexican Mafia,” the Sheriff’s memo states.
But federal prosecutors needed to limit their ultimate targets to build the strongest case, he says, and Marroquin escaped prosecution. “Hector is always on and off the radar screen for federal agents and gang detectives,” Valdemar, who is now retired, told the Weekly.
Valdemar had warned higher-ups that Marroquin was a tax collector working for Mexican Mafia members George “Grandpa” Bustamante and Raymond “Huero Shy” Shyrock. (Tax collectors, Valdemar explains, are street enforcers who gather the Mexican Mafia’s cut from drug profits.) Sheriff’s incident reports and DEA investigation reports show law enforcers learned of frequent death threats — both by Marroquin and against Marroquin — involving the Mexican Mafia. In 1998, a Mexican Mafia murder contract was put out on Marroquin that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles considered so believable they instructed DEA agents to warn Marroquin, according to DEA investigation reports.
One key incident places Marroquin in the middle of a complex, deadly gang scenario. According to a Sheriff’s memo generated by Valdemar’s warnings, in August 1998, Marroquin allegedly held a meeting of local gangs at his own home in Lennox, ordering, at the behest of the Mexican Mafia, a “green light” on the Lennox 13 gang — the street equivalent of a license to kill.
One attendee at the meeting was snitch and Lennox 13 gang member Vito “Capone” Medina, who had been taping his phone conversations with Marroquin and talking to federal and local investigators. Medina openly balked at the order to kill members of his own gang, but other gangsters at the meeting immediately went out looking for Lennox 13 members, the memo states.
Over the next 14 days, 20 attacks occurred, including the murders of three Lennox 13 members, according to the confidential sheriff’s memo. Several nights later, on September 5, 1998, Medina’s own Lennox 13 homeboys shot him — in a grim effort to get themselves off the Mexican Mafia’s green-light list, according to the memo. Medina’s shooting led to a search of Marroquin’s house, where police seized stolen guns, cash and notes regarding phone calls from Marroquin to convicted Mexican Mafia members Bustamante and Shyrock — ironically, along with paperwork from No Guns.
Vito Medina, gravely wounded, lived almost six more months. Before he died, on April 2, 1999, he identified the shooters and insisted that Marroquin, as an associate of the Mexican Mafia, ordered his murder, the memo states. The actual gunmen who killed Medina were sentenced to just six years. Marroquin was never charged.
None of this is a mystery to Detective Shonka, who interviewed the fading Medina in a hospital bed. “Because Vito got killed, the whole case went to shit,” she says of the DEA investigation that relied on Medina as a snitch. To Shonka, Marroquin never had to pay: “Hector found out Vito was an informant. He is just a good businessman. I just can’t believe he is still running this No Guns thing. He can sell his little game. He is really scary.”
Patrick Smith, Marroquin’s lawyer, says Medina was pitting Sheriff’s deputies and the DEA against one another while extorting money from innocent former gang members like Marroquin. “Hector was afraid of Medina.”
Valdemar, who pursued gangsters for more than 30 years, can’t get Marroquin off his mind. One encounter, which Valdemar described in a sworn declaration, might help to explain why.
In 2003, as Marroquin was being lavished with funds from L.A. Bridges, Valdemar learned from a gang source of an alleged plan by an East L.A. gang member named Sergio “Cheko” Villa, of the Marianna Maravilla gang, to assemble a team to kill Marroquin over a drug-money dispute. Valdemar, acting in his official capacity as a gang sergeant, met with Marroquin and warned him that his life was in danger — but did not identify Villa by name, in order to avoid possible pre-emptive violence against Villa by Marroquin.
The scene was emotional, Valdemar says: “Hector always has politicians watching his back in the straight world and people on the street doing his dirty work in the criminal world. [So] he was scared.” Weeks later, on November 5, 2003, Cheko Villa was gunned down and killed on a street in Cudahy, assailants unknown. No evidence has surfaced that ties Marroquin to the murder.
Who is Hector Marroquin, touted peacemaker? Local police got another glimpse just last year, in April 2005, when he was arrested on suspicion of robbery, false imprisonment and making criminal threats after allegedly terrorizing a Cudahy youth overdue in paying $4,000 for luxury tires and 22-inch rims Marroquin had sold him. According to the Maywood-Cudahy Police Department report, Marroquin assaulted the youth at a bar Marroquin owns in Cudahy, stole his truck and threatened to kill him and his family. “You’re messing with the Mexican Mafia!” the report quotes Marroquin as shouting. “I run all of Cudahy! I want my money!”
Marroquin denied he stole and sold the teenager’s truck, insisting he merely kept it as collateral. Two months later, as with past cases involving Marroquin, the alleged victim declined to testify. The case went away because, Smith says, “The so-called victim was lying.”
When Los Angeles City Hall finally woke up last May, Marroquin was into his fifth straight year of L.A. Bridges funding, getting about $500,000 per year — a big jump from 2001, when, on a motion by city councilmen Eric Garcetti and Ed Reyes, No Guns got its first $45,000 to operate in the Southeast, Southwest and 77th police bureaus as a subcontractor to the Central Recovery Development Project.
The job back in 2001 was to work the streets, talking youths out of joining gangs. “I really enjoyed working with them,” recalled a Bethune Middle School supervisor. “I liked Hector a lot. He was very responsive. If we would have a [racial] fight on the campus we would call him. .?.?. He was always cordial.”
But after Central Recovery Development Project lost its contract for failing to oversee subcontractors like No Guns and attracting an IRS tax levy, Marroquin eventually joined up with another contractor willing to vouch for his services, Toberman Settlement House. Toberman House funneled a half million dollars a year from Los Angeles taxpayers to No Guns, which was hired to work in South L.A. council districts, particularly focused on more than 50 gang organizations, including 18th Street, Crazy Riders, Mid-City Stoners, Florencia 13, Grape Street, Crenshaw Mafia, Block Crips and Rollin’ 40’s. No Guns employees, former gang members themselves, counseled youth on race relations, parenting skills, the dangers of substance abuse and ways to escape gang life.
In a 2005 fiscal report, the Community Development Department found that Toberman failed to monitor No Guns and other subcontractors — and that Marroquin ignored orders to clean up his subpar management. City Hall was so lax that even clear rules like the ban on nepotism — former gangsters hiring relatives to bring in even more money from the city — were blatantly ignored. At No Guns, for example, Marroquin’s wife, son and daughter were paid employees, along with Marroquin, reaping more than $200,000 in salary and benefits, city officials say.
The latest chapter in the Marroquin saga poses critical questions: Are the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa going to hold anyone accountable for the No Guns debacle and try to root out other similar potential disasters?
On May 11, Marroquin’s son, Hector Jr., a project director at No Guns, was indicted on a felony home-invasion robbery charge after a harrowing incident just after Christmas in 2005, when he and three other gang members allegedly kicked down the door of a No Guns employee as his wife and baby cowered on a bed. At Hector Jr.’s residence in Lennox, police turned up a fully loaded Czech Luger 9 mm automatic, a loaded .32 Beretta Tomcat, an unloaded Glock, an unloaded Smith & Wesson 9 mm automatic, loads of ammunition and a copy of the 18th Street gang injunction issued by Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. Hector Jr., who faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted on robbery and weapons charges, insists he merely drove a client home the night of the home invasion. Smith, his lawyer, says the alleged victim is lying.
State and federal agencies searched four Marroquin family properties, including Hector Sr.’s home in Downey, looking for Hector Jr. On a March 9 raid of Hector Sr.’s house, they found a gun in his bedroom. Court records say Marroquin shouted, “Who put this here?” and looked at his daughter, Charleeda, who paused — then said it was her gun. She was booked on a possession-of-drug-paraphernalia charge, but police did not buy her tale about the gun. Marroquin’s gun-possession trial is set for January.
Remarkably, despite Hector Sr.’s weapons charge, and right after the raid on Hector Jr.’s weapons cache, city officials handed more taxpayer funds to No Guns. On March 31, John Chavez, director of L.A. Bridges, approved “one more month” to No Guns.
Chavez seemed oblivious to the fact that the city was now openly using taxpayer money to bankroll a suspected felon. As Chavez fretted in e-mails over adverse publicity that might affect Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a director at Toberman House tried to assure him with her reply: “Just take a deep breath and we’ll get through this.”
Even now, after city officials forced Marroquin and his son to resign from No Guns, the city still pays Marroquin’s wife, Charlotte. In June, she became the new head of No Guns — at $39,000 a year.
In a display of bureaucratic understatement, David Esparza, assistant general manager of the Community Development Department, wrote in a letter to Toberman House: “The circumstances surrounding the [arrest] incident seem unfortunate, but also raise concerns about the commitment of No Guns to assist youth in moving away from gang violence and criminal activity.”
Hector Marroquin is not like most people. In his world of shadows, the difference between a gangster and an ex-gangster is a matter of degrees. That’s what makes the underlying premise of L.A. Bridges so hard to swallow — and perhaps is why L.A. Bridges is just one of many such programs about to receive a second jarring report from criminal justice expert Connie Rice, questioning two decades of assumptions in using tax dollars to reduce gangs.
USC professor Malcolm Klein, who has watched the city slowly grasp his warnings of a decade ago, says overreliance by bureaucrats on guys like Marroquin is a dicey proposition. “You take older gangsters and ask them to set an example, be a goody-two-shoes, and it’s unfair. They can talk about their glory days as a means of bonding with kids who are headed down that path, and they form this emotional connection. It gets lost in the dialogue that they are supposed to be steering kids away from that very same path.”
To gang intervention workers whose programs have a healthier administrative record, such as Blinky Rodriguez, middle-class folks don’t get it. “With an explosion of teenagers in our population there is so much testosterone on the street,” he says. “And so many guns. We can’t build relationships with children in our communities fast enough.” Yet he admits that there’s little accountability when interventionists subcontract out the work. “You can’t see what’s going on,” he says.
Councilman Cardenas worries that ordinary citizens don’t appreciate the need for such programs: “Unless you’ve lost a loved one or know what it’s like to hit the floor dodging bullets, how can you appreciate what these guys do to help our children?” Yet Cardenas and Rodriguez both struggle to explain how the millions of dollars spent on programs like L.A. Bridges actually divert any kids from gangs.
Ridley-Thomas, asked who is to blame for the lack of oversight, replied: “You.” Asked if he meant the public, the media, or taxpayers, he replied, “All of the above.”
Take that ambiguity, then consider the lax contracts, nepotism and noncommunication with law enforcement endemic to these programs — and it’s a formula for massive waste. Tom Hayden, author of Street Wars, calls L.A. Bridges “rhetorically a nice idea.” But, he says, it focuses on allocating public dollars to each council district, instead of producing results that are measured by closely tracking homicide rates or street crime: “The problem is, the city has left the task of turning lives around to 15 separate council members.”
Retired prison gang investigator Richard Valdemar laughs at the notion that Hayden pokes holes in the system now — after playing a prominent role promoting Hector Marroquin.
“These politicians are so desperate to find a former bad guy turned good guy,” Valdemar says, that the system was doomed to absurdity. “Getting gang members to talk to kids is like getting Cheech and Chong to give lectures on the dangers of smoking marijuana.”