San Fernando: America's Sexiest, Most Scandal-Ridden City Government 

Thursday, Oct 11 2012

Mario Hernandez wanted to go on a retreat, to get away from his small town for the weekend and clear his head. He told his girlfriend he was heading to St. Joseph Salesian Youth Renewal Center in Montebello — advertised as "a peaceful place where Jesus might more easily be heard."

She was having none of it.

Thirty minutes before he was set to leave, Maribel De La Torre burst into his apartment. She ripped a heavy, wooden picture frame from the wall and slammed it to the ground. Glass sprayed across the floor.

click to flip through (2) ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER

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"If I could kill you right now, I would," De La Torre allegedly told Hernandez. "I fuckin' hate you. I hate you for what you have done to me."

Hernandez would later tell investigators that De La Torre launched herself toward him, grabbed him by the throat with both hands and began to squeeze. When police arrived, Hernandez's face was red, with a big shiner starting to swell above his cheekbone. His neck and arms were covered with scratches and bruises.

Officers took a report; Hernandez filed for a restraining order against De La Torre a few days later. Two days after that, De La Torre filed for a restraining order of her own, claiming that, months earlier, Hernandez threw her against a wall, tried to strangle her and threatened to leave her and return to his wife.

The court granted each protection from the other. Their restraining orders stipulated that Hernandez and De La Torre were to keep 100 yards' distance between them.

And that might have been fine, except for the fact that, as members of the San Fernando City Council, the pair was scheduled to sit side by side and discuss the city's financial health the following Tuesday.

San Fernando is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy — the result of mismanagement, lawsuits and the loss of tax revenue as some of its largest retailers leave the city. But when residents line up to sound off at San Fernando's mobbed City Council meetings, all anyone can talk about is adultery.

"You ain't got no shame at all," Samuel Beltran, a fixture at meetings, has said on more than one occasion, wagging his finger at the members of the council.

That word is repeated over and over again. Sometimes it's the Spanish equivalent, vergüenza. The three council members — Mario Hernandez, Maribel De La Torre and Brenda Esqueda — have "shamed" themselves, their families and children. Not only that, but they have "brought shame" to the city, with their "shameful" behavior both inside City Hall and out.

Residents have become so outspoken in their criticism that, in May, the three-member council majority passed a decorum ordinance for meetings. The new rules gave council members unprecedented power to throw out any resident who would "disrupt, disturb or otherwise impede the orderly conduct of the Council." (San Fernandans, naturally, decried the ordinance as an attack on free speech; one former mayor went so far as to accuse the council of "gestapo tactics.")

The ordinance might be best described, though, as a last-ditch effort by the disgraced council members to control, if only within those four walls, what is said about them in this 2½-square-mile town, where everyone knows everyone else — and also knows their sisters, brothers and cousins.

It's not uncommon for residents to ask De La Torre why she can't be more like her sister, former mayor (and one-time state assemblywoman) Cindy Montañez. When Mayor Esqueda's mother died in July, several residents offered their sincere condolences just before launching into demands that she resign.

In spite of the ordinance, council meetings continue to spiral beyond anyone's control. At a recent meeting, a resident named Margie Carranza stepped up to the podium. Instead of upbraiding the council, though, she turned to the audience and began pointing out alleged adulterers among them — warning one woman in particular that she knew about her affair with "Antonio from Water and Power.

"Everyone has dirty laundry," Carranza declared. "Don't think we're blind to this — everyone has dirty skeletons in their closet."

It wasn't always like this in San Fernando. A string of high-profile betrayals that emerged over the last year and a half has divided the city, the City Council and the police department. Now all the various factions are locked in a battle against themselves and each other.

First was Maria Barajas, a cadet with the San Fernando Police who was just 19 years old when she became involved with Tony Ruelas, a married police lieutenant more than twice her age. Barajas was fired under suspicious circumstances shortly before Ruelas was installed as San Fernando's chief of police.

In a lawsuit she filed against the city in April 2011, Barajas claimed that Ruelas' pal, police sergeant Alvaro Castellon, threatened to make her "disappear" if she revealed their relationship. Ruelas was removed from duty while Barajas' claims were investigated, but Castellon remained in his position. Some say he was protected because of his special relationship with then-Councilwoman Brenda Esqueda. (Esqueda denies having an "affair" but admits to "an emotional relationship" with Castellon.)

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