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An American Family: Jail Time

Photos by Anne Fishbein

This is the story of the new world, revealed . . .
It can be broken into the smallest chips of bone and tears.
It can be put back together with sunrise and flint.

—Joy Harjo, “The Everlasting”

State of the Family: This yearlong series focuses on the Aguilar family — Luis, Frances, and their children — of East Los Angeles. In Chapter 1, Luis got out of prison, excelled at his construction job and talked of his gang past and fresh hopes. Then, with the birth of his seventh child only weeks away, Luis faced a new batch of problems the night police stormed his home.

On the night of January 23, 2004, Frances Aguilar doesn’t yet know whether her life has really broken apart. She knows this much: The police raided her house a few minutes after 5 p.m. Luis, her husband, never came home after work. The police have his car. She can’t get him to pick up his phone despite calling him maybe 20 times.

For the first few hours after the raid, Frances stays holed up with her children at her cousin’s place in the Boyle Heights area of East Los Angeles, venturing out just long enough to get food for everyone at the nearest McDonald’s, on Soto Street. By 8 p.m., Frances decides she can no longer hide from whatever has happened. She leaves the kids stashed with Eva, the cousin, and makes the three-minute drive home.

Frances is hesitant as she walks up her back stairs, through her door with its lock smashed by the police, and into her house. Once inside, she jerks to a stop. The living room and the bedrooms are in a state of remarkable chaos. Nearly every item the family owns has been yanked out of drawers, cupboards, shelves and closets, then tossed, mostly on the floor. Mattresses are upended. Even the kids’ rooms have been completely ransacked.

Chaos is to be expected in a police search, of course. Yet, whether it’s expected or not, Frances has difficulty combating feelings of careless violation and wanders wordlessly from room to room, picking up things, setting them down again, swiping occasionally at her eyes. Some of the mess making seems whimsical at best. All the snapshots and mementos that Estephanie, the 13-year-old, had carefully arranged on her bulletin board have been pulled down and dropped willy-nilly. In Frances and Luis’ bedroom, a framed art print of two angels is on the ground, its glass smashed, the print badly torn. The print is inscribed on the back: TO DAUGHTER FRANCES, FROM PAPI AND MOM, 12-24-03.



Pain and Joy: Luis, in jail,
missed the birth of his
daughter.


Frances stares down at the wrecked angels. “It was a Christmas present from my niña,” she says — niña being Spanish for godmother. “When I was little, she’s the one who was always there for me when my mother got too crazy.”

Next to the kitchen table, the police have left behind a copy of the search warrant, plus a handwritten record of everything confiscated from this house. It lists the following items: two photos “depicting gang members”; one badge, Homeboy Industries, Luis Aguilar; one Kodak 35mm Funsaver camera; one Homeboy Industries DVD; three letters addressed to Luis Aguilar; nine bullets of an unidentified caliber.

Frances reads the list. The first five items are harmless. The badge is Luis’ Homeboy work ID. The DVD is a copy of the video honoring Father Greg Boyle that was shown at last year’s Homeboy Industries fund-raiser. The letters are from Luis’ brother, Carlos, who is still locked up. The photos are old party snapshots from back in the day that were stuffed in one of Frances’ drawers. The undeveloped film in the Funsaver was taken on the family’s New Year’s vacation. “Maybe they think this stuff proves that Luis is a gang member or something,” she says. “It’s stupid.”

The bullets are another matter. “I don’t know where those could be from,” she says uneasily. “Luis is so paranoid he wouldn’t let any of the boys even have a toy gun. When Bola bought some toy handcuffs at the 99-cent store, Luis made him throw them away. He told him, ‘Look, I’m on parole. I could get in trouble for some of that stuff.’”

By now, Frances assumes Luis has been arrested. But the only way to know for sure is to drive to Hollenbeck police station and ask. As she is leaving, she stops in to talk to Sandra, the downstairs neighbor, who tells her that one of the cops said they found the bullets in the yard, out back near an old car that Luis is storing for his brother. This, at least, makes sense, Frances says. “So many people come through our yard,” she says. “But here’s the thing. If his P.O. [parole officer] thinks the bullets belong to Luis, that’s a year parole violation right there.”

On her way to Hollenbeck, Frances chatters aimlessly, skittering from subject to subject in a jittery stream. “We were doing so good,” she says. “I don’t want to tell you that we’re saints and we didn’t do anything in the past, we did. We were gang members. We sold drugs. But that’s not who we are now . . .” She describes how Luis is excited about their baby, due to be born in under a month. “We’re going to call her Genesis, because that’s the first book in the Bible, and Luis thought she could represent, you know, a new beginning . . .”

Inside Hollenbeck station, a female desk officer informs Frances that, yes, Luis is in custody. “Has he been charged with anything?” she asks. The officer doesn’t know, but writes down a telephone number to call for information. Back in the car, Frances dials the number multiple times on her cell phone, but it’s constantly busy. Next, she pages Luis’ parole officer, thinking he might know something. “Luis’ old P.O. was a jerk,” she says. “But his new parole officer is okay. He does his job, but when he sees Luis is doing good, he gives him credit for it.”

Frances eventually gets through to inmate information, where an operator tells her that Luis is being held downtown at Parker Center, but that he hasn’t been charged with anything. Relieved, Frances heads back to pick up the kids. “We’ll be okay,” she says, shooing her four boys into her white van. “Estephanie will help me clean up.”

Estephanie nods assent, but as they drive away, both mother and daughter look anything but certain.

***

Saturday morning is devoted to putting the house back in order. In doing so, Frances discovers something else taken in the raid. Over the past two years, she’s filed a string of harassment complaints against one particular officer, of which she’s conscientiously kept copies. “They were in this drawer,” she says. “The police took ’em all.”

At midday, Frances goes alone to Parker Center to see Luis. At the “glass house” — as Parker Center is known in street slang — they can talk only via remote TV monitors. When Luis first sees her face on the screen, he chokes up. “You gotta stay strong, babe,” Frances tells him. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll get through this . . .”

Outside the jail, Frances is less optimistic. “If they charge him with something, even if he didn’t do it, even if he’s proven innocent, he’ll be in jail waiting for trial for at least three months. That means he’ll lose his job. I’ll have the baby without him. And if he’s in for too long, I’ll lose the house.”

Following the jail visit, Frances takes the kids out to the store to buy diapers and to cash Estephanie’s afterschool job check. When she returns home, she is bewildered to find the house has again been ransacked. The time, it’s not cops, it’s a thief. Someone has come through the unsecured back door and stolen the stereo, the VCR, the DVD player, the kids’ Playstation. Frances cannot believe it. “Why us?” she says, not really expecting an answer.

***

Throughout the weekend, details of Luis’ arrest spill out in pieces. He was driving home from work on Friday. A police cruiser pulled up behind him and flashed its lights. He saw the cruiser, but didn’t pull over right away. Instead, he drove slowly for two blocks, the cruiser behind him, until he reached César Chávez Boulevard. “I wanted to make sure there were witnesses,” he explains. “On that first little street, there was nobody around, and I was afraid they might plant something on me. So I pulled over on César Chávez, where a lot of people could see me.” Luis was particularly edgy because one of the arresting officers was the cop against whom Frances had filed the complaints. “He always says bad stuff to me like, ‘You’re not going to be out here to see that baby born,’ or ‘Next time I catch you, I’ll make sure you go down for something.’”

Back at Hollenbeck, Luis was booked by an officer who he says was courteous, even good-humored. According to Luis, the officer told him the house had been searched but that the police had found nothing of consequence, except maybe the bullets in the back yard.

On Sunday night, Frances’ two youngest boys are fighting, and she mourns the loss of the VCR and cartoon videos that might have distracted them. Finally, just after 8 p.m., she asks a friend to watch the house, packs up the kids and drives them to Wal-Mart, where she finds a special deal on a combination DVD-video player, on sale for $89. With Luis locked up, Frances is scared to death about money. But tonight she decides, fuck it, and buys the thing anyway — plus two new DVD animated movies for the kids. “I’ll figure the money out somehow,” she says.

***

On Monday, Estephanie refuses to go to school. “I don’t want to leave you alone,” she tells her mother. Hearing this, Bola and Julian say they want to stay home too. With no energy to argue, Frances agrees, but thinks the two littlest boys — Frankie and Elijah — are better off at day care. “They don’t know that Luis is in jail,” says Frances. “Frankie keeps asking for Daddy, and I just tell him he’s away working.”

By midmorning, Luis’ parole officer, R.P Cardoos, has finally gotten Frances’ message and expresses surprise at Luis’ arrest. “Look,” he says, “the guy works 12, 14 hours a day. When does he have time to sell drugs?” Cardoos says he gives Luis pop drug tests and thinks it unlikely that he’s using. “If they don’t charge him, I’ll release the parole hold right away and get him out of there,” he says. “This guy’s been doing good.” With that in mind, Cardoos checks the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Web site and finds no charge posted.

By Monday afternoon, however, the information has changed. Luis has indeed been charged with several counts of sales, and conspiracy to sell narcotics. He is to be arraigned on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning, the boys go back to school, but Estephanie pleads to go to the arraignment with Frances. “I don’t know if she could really concentrate at school, if I make her go,” Frances says. When Estephanie is asked if Luis’ arrest is scary for her, she looks away. “Really scary,” she says.

Waiting outside the courtroom for Luis’ case to be called, Frances has an unexpected encounter. An older man, a base head, whom we’ll call Gustavo de la Rosa — Gus for short — scuttles in her direction, his expression full of apology. “What are you doing here?” Frances asks, making conversation. “I’m here to testify against your husband,” he whispers in Spanish. “I got arrested for possession, and that cop” — Gus names the officer with whom Frances has the problem — “he told me when he busted me that if I didn’t say Luis sold to me, he’d put me in prison for a long time.” Luis did not sell to him, Gus said. “It’s not true, but I’m too old to go to prison. I’m sorry.” Stunned, Frances starts to say more, but Gus only shakes his head.

“Why does that cop hate us so much?” Frances asks, crying furiously. “We’ve known Gus forever. He lives with the sister of my oldest, best friend.” (The sister, it seems, is a fetal-alcohol-syndrome baby, now in her 20s, who has been on the street since her teens.) “We always help them. We sometimes give them clothes and shoes. And a couple of times we let Gus crash in our garage when he was out on the sidewalk, too drunk to walk. He knows Luis hasn’t dealt in a long time. But he’s scared. It’s not right.”

***

In the days to come, Frances’ mood whiplashes frequently from optimism to pessimism, then back again. On Friday, January 30, a week after the arrest, the Jobs for a Future staff gives her a surprise baby shower complete with cute party decorations, refreshments and a cake. Plus, everyone has pitched in to buy her the combination car seat/stroller of her dreams. “It’s by Eddie Bauer in burgundy!” she squeals. “Exactly what I most wanted!”

After yet another week, the downstairs tenants are late with the rent, both Frankie and Elijah are crying for Luis, and Luis goes to court again. This time he is appointed a permanent attorney, a tall 50-ish man named James Bisnow, who gives Frances a copy of the police report that details the evidence the cops used to get the search warrant. It states that officers observed multiple drug buys from Frances and Luis’ property on three separate days during the month of January. Most of the sales are attributed to a 17-year-old called “Lil’ Happy.” But one, at least, is attributed to Luis, and it is suggested that Luis sold on other occasions. The primary officer in the case is Officer Rudy Chavez, again the same cop against whom Frances has filed the complaints.

Frances grows frightened as she reads the nine-page document. Lil’ Happy (whose real name is not used here, as he is a minor) has been crashing in Frances and Luis’ back bedroom off and on since before Christmas. Now Frances wonders if the kid was selling out of their house when they were at work. “He was living on the street, and Luis felt bad for him,” she says, “so he said he could stay with us for a while, because his mother was a mess, and he didn’t have nowhere to go.” Frances allowed him to stay, but only under pressure. “Luis thinks he’s Captain Save a Homie,” she says. “I told him, ‘Look, you have to think of your family, not everybody else. There’s a Mexican saying, ‘Quieres tapar el sol con un dedo.’ It means, ‘You’re trying to cover the sun with your finger.’ That’s what I told Luis. ‘Quieres tapar el sol con un dedo. You’re not superman.’ But he wouldn’t listen. And now look.”

As for the charge that Luis himself is dealing, Frances refuses to believe it. Instead, she’s convinced that the cops are somehow setting Luis up, as the old base head Gus has obliquely suggested. “Why would Luis deal drugs when he had a good job? He knew that Chavez was watching him all the time,” she says. “On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Luis would always come home late because those were the days that Chavez was on duty, and Luis wanted to avoid him, because Chavez would trip with him.” She also dismisses the notion that Luis knew about Lil’ Happy’s alleged dealing or even perhaps supported it. “Listen, Luis was much too paranoid to do something like that,” she says. “Him letting Lil’ Happy deal from our house would be straight crazy. It’s like asking to get busted.”

Yet, according to Senior Lead Officer John Pedroza, the case is far from a cop conspiracy. Pedroza is the compassionate cop who brought the Christmas presents for Frances and Luis’ kids, and now seems genuinely sympathetic to Frances’ dilemma. “I know that’s what she wants to believe,” he says. “Frances seems to be a nice woman who’s trying to raise her kids right. But there is so much evidence here. Believe me, this case has been built very carefully.”

Sergeant Milton Hernandez, Chavez’s direct boss, also disputes the idea that the accusations against Luis are anything but genuine. “You’ve got to understand that there are a lot of community people who are scared to death of that house because they see gang members in and out of there,” he says. “And they love Officer Chavez because he’s doing something about it.”

Chavez himself declined to comment.

***

Frances is trying, for the baby’s sake, to force herself to eat regularly, even when the thought of food seems impossible. “I lost 5 pounds when Elijah was in the hospital with pneumonia,” she says. “And my doctor told me if I lost any more weight she’d put me in the hospital.”

She is also trying not to let her emotions run away with her — a strategy that works better on certain days than others. Early in the week of February 9, she gets a call from Jim Bisnow, Luis’ attorney, who tells her that 15 or 20 years ago, this would be a nothing case; Luis would have served a few years, at most. But now, if Luis is convicted of all charges, although they add up to little more than low-level dealing, he’s looking at a sentence of 44 years — 14 years for the bullets alone. At this news, Frances starts to laugh, and Bisnow is confused by her reaction. “This is not a joke,” he says sternly.

“I had to laugh,” Frances says later, “because I’m afraid if I start crying, I won’t stop.”

***

At first, when there was still hope the charges against Luis would be dismissed, Frances told his boss that he had gone out of town on a family emergency. After a week, she confesses the real story. Yet, the company likes him and says they’ll find him work on another crew when he gets out. “He was one of the top candidates I interviewed,” says Cheryl Mitchell, one of the supervisors who originally hired Luis. “And he’s been excellent on the job. We have nothing but good things to say about this man.”

When Frances isn’t worrying about Luis, or the kids, she worries about money. With her salary, plus the little money she and Luis have saved, plus her tax refund, she figures she can last till June, maybe longer, but only if she’s careful, and only if she eventually applies for food stamps. “But I don’t want to apply for food stamps. I don’t want to so much,” she says.

Frances’ other obsessive worry is her unborn daughter. Late on the evening of February 12, this particular fear hits critical mass when she no longer can feel the baby moving. Knowing certain periods of inactivity are normal, she goes to bed and tries to sleep. When by 3 a.m. there’s still no movement, Frances gets up and drinks some juice, hoping the sugar will stimulate the baby. Still nothing. By 5 a.m., she is terrified that the baby has died, and drives herself to the emergency room at White Memorial Hospital. There, doctors rush her in for tests — all of which reveal that Genesis is fine. “She was sleeping, poor thing,” says Frances. “They gave her a little zap and she woke up. But sometimes I just get so scared,” she says.

Frances’ ex-mother-in-law, Maria, the mother of her old boyfriend, George (thus grandmother to the three oldest children), has offered to stay at the house for a month or so to help with the kids — an offer that Frances accepts as a godsend. After she returns from the hospital around 8 a.m. on Friday, February 13, Maria cooks breakfast while Frances showers and gets dressed in preparation to take the kids to day care, then go on to work. Suddenly, at 8:30, there is a loud pounding at the front door and a man’s voice shouts, “Open up! Police!”

Frances assumes this is some kind of cruel joke. But when she opens the door, sure enough, there are nine officers, five in uniform, four in blue windbreakers labeled PAROLE in big letters, all with their service revolvers drawn. “We’re looking for Luis Aguilar,” an officer tells her.

Frances is simply flabbergasted. “He’s locked up!” she says, as the officers rush past her and into the house. “You guys arrested him on January 23!” A cop tells her to move out of the way, then the rest stalk from room to room, looking under beds and in cupboards, stiff-armed, guns extended. All the while, the children stare at them with a combination of world-weariness and horror.

After around 15 minutes of apparently fruitless searching, an officer says something about the raid having been a mistake. At this, Frances laughs, then stops herself when the laughter veers toward hysteria. Once the police are gone, and the front door is locked after them, she sits down dizzily and tries not to vomit.

“It’s really starting to hit me now,” she writes in an e-mail that afternoon from work, “that Luis is not going to be here for the birth of our daughter. All my pregnancy, we would talk about how he was going to react to her, and about Luis finally being there for Frances.”

***

Besides juggling the responsibilities of work and kids, Frances tries to visit Luis every day. He’s been moved from Parker Center to Men’s Central Jail, where visits are allowed in 15-minute increments. Each afternoon during her lunch break, Frances sits for a quarter-hour on a round, green metal stool in one of the visitors’ cubicles, separated from her husband by a thick glass partition.

One day when she is juggling too much, Frances misses her scheduled prenatal checkup. Her doctor, an attractive 40-something ob-gyn named Dr. Kathryn Shaw, agrees to fit her in the next day, at which time Frances learns the news is good and bad. Good, because the baby is healthy. “But she’s breech,” Frances says. “I saw her in the ultrasound. She’s sitting down, like a little Indian.” Babies often slide in and out of a breech position as they move toward term, but after the 37-week mark they rarely move back into the conventional head-down position. Since Frances is exactly at 37 weeks, the information sends her into a brand-new panic. “If she’s breech, it means I have to have a C-section, and if I have a C-section, I can’t go back to work right away, and can’t afford that. I have my bills to pay.”

She tries various home remedies that purportedly help turn breech babies — long vigorous walks, lying with one’s pelvis propped on pillows. Dr. Shaw tells her that sex occasionally does the trick. “Yeah, well, that’s mission impossible right now,” says Frances.

Something works, because, a week later, she goes to the doctor again and gets an unexpectedly good report. “The baby is back with her head down again,” Frances says happily when she returns from the examination. “I think it’s a sign that things are going to get better for us.”

In terms of the kids, the good omen appears to be true, at least for the moment. Julian, the 8-year-old, has markedly raised his grades. The most noticeable shift is with Bola, the 12-year-old, who, before Luis’ arrest, was becoming increasingly defiant. Now, the shock of the raid, combined with watching his mother struggle, seems to have produced some kind of sea change. Bola no longer hangs out with his old friends with whom he used to get into trouble. Instead, he joins a basketball team at the local recreation center and stays late for practices several times a week. On days when there is no practice, he goes directly to Father Greg’s office, where he does odd jobs for pay. Even Officer Pedroza, who stops by the office to see how Frances is doing, remarks on his maturity. Bola’s new behavior also earns him a spate of vicious teasing from his former friends. But Bola doesn’t waver. “I don’t care,” he says. “All that hanging out I used to do, it’s boring. It’s played out.”

***

The baby is due on February 22. When that day passes, followed by three more days, with no signs of labor, Dr. Shaw tells Frances if she doesn’t deliver by Saturday night, she should check into the hospital Sunday and the doctor will induce labor.

Saturday night, February 28, Frances goes to the market to load up on groceries for the kids, and packs a small bag of clothing for herself. Then, at 10 a.m. Sunday, Frances and Estephanie drive to White Memorial Hospital. “Estephanie begged me to let her be there,” says Frances. “But, also, a doctor once told me that the best birth control you can give a teenager is to let her watch a birth.”

At noon, Frances is put on a Petosin drip. By 2 p.m., she is still only 2 centimeters dilated, although labor has kicked in big-time. Just after 4 p.m., Luis manages to get in on a three-way phone call just as Frances howls with a particularly intense contraction. “You hear her?” asks Estephanie. By 7 p.m., things have really begun to speed up.

Gennisis Angelina Aguilar is born at 10:51 p.m. on February 29, 2004. A tense moment comes as the infant’s head crowns with the umbilical cord circled around her neck, but in an instant Dr. Shaw expertly unloops it — and the 8-pound, 3-ounce leap-year baby girl takes her first breath and begins to wail. Dr. Shaw invites Estephanie to cut the cord. When that is accomplished, the teenager at first gazes spellbound, then reaches a tentative hand out to touch her tiny new sister. “I’m so happy,” she whispers to no one in particular. “I’ve waited so long for this.”

On the birth certificate, Frances spells the baby’s name a new way. “It’s going to be Gennisis, she says. “It has the same meaning about a new beginning, but it’s a name that’s only hers. And it’s got ‘Isis’ in it. Like
the goddess.”

***

Frances brings Gennisis to see her father for the first time on Thursday, March 4. “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach, seeing her,” Luis says.

“She’s got curly hair like me, but she’s got your cheeks and eyes,” replies Frances.

“She’s beautiful,” he says. “Beautiful.”

Save for their first visit, Luis has been resolutely upbeat since his arrest, working on strategy for his case, trying to give Frances as much help and support as he can from inside. But the sight of his small daughter undoes him in some fundamental way. “If they give me a bunch of time, will you wait for me?” he asks Frances suddenly.

“Of course,” she says, surprised at the question. “Of course, I’ll wait for you. What did you think?”

***

On March 12, Luis went back to court again, this time to set the date for a preliminary hearing. But before the case was called, the district attorney offered a deal — four years, in return for a guilty plea. Taken aback at the comparatively short sentence, his attorney quickly presented the option. Luis shook his head no. “I’m not taking a deal,” he said. “I’m innocent. I’m going to trial.”

Chapter Three will appear next month. Chapter One: “Living on the Verge” is available in our archive.