Saving Ricky Tovar (page 1)
The day after his youngest son's arrest, Salvador Tovar called a family meeting. His three grown children quickly converged on the Tovar home, an aging wood-frame cottage on South-Central's 35th Street. Without a word, they gravitated toward the plastic-covered blue-and-brown floral sofa, a living-room fixture since before Ricky, their 17-year-old brother, was born. Now Ricky was in jail.
For a long while the family sat in silence, each dreading to speak, each privately trying to puzzle out what had gone wrong. Seven years younger than his closest sibling, Ricardo Rodolfo was the baby, doted on by his brothers, his sister, his mom, and especially by his father, who was 60 when the boy was born. When Salvador's wife, Carolina, had told him she was pregnant that last time, he had decided to make some changes. He couldn't get rid of the long scar on his left cheek - the most visible reminder of younger, wilder days (including a stint in the Air Corps during World War II). But before Ricky's birth, he gave up drinking and smoking for good. He wanted to live long enough to see his son grow into a man. "When I look at my life I can't say I've done too much," he says. "I didn't make a lot of money or write a great novel or change the world. But I raised a good family, and I think that counts for a lot."
Despite his best efforts, Salvador's health declined. In the past five years he had suffered two heart attacks and been hospitalized once for internal bleeding. In his stead, Ricky's safe passage to adulthood became a sort of family project. Each morning, Carolina would make her youngest son's breakfast before accompanying him - over his loud protestations - to the bus that would take him to school. Robert, a union electrician, spent endless hours with his baby brother, hammering away at math equations and weighing the merits of various career paths. Marcy, an office coordinator at a social-service agency, regularly entrusted Ricky with the care of her 16-month-old son, a responsibility her brother seemed to relish. And Christopher, the oldest and most serious of the bunch, was always willing to pitch in for school books or a pair of tennis shoes.
Now they sat there, muted by the thought of Ricky locked up, elbow to elbow with the kind of kids they had worked all these years to keep him from becoming. They knew that each day Ricky remained behind bars was a day away from school, a day away from the first semester of his senior year, when he should be in class earning the kind of grades that impress college admissions panels.
Where had Ricky, an A student, found the time, or the inclination, to get into trouble? And what kind of trouble was it? When the police had cuffed him the night before and loaded him into their cruiser just down the block from the Tovar home - a home Salvador and Carolina had purchased nearly 20 years before - they had offered no explanation.
It was Robert who finally broke the silence, telling the family that since his brother's arrest he had learned - from a terse exchange with a cop at Newton Station - that the charge was armed robbery. If convicted, Ricky faced up to six years in prison.
Now the family stirred to life. Ricky, an armed robber? Nothing, they knew, could be more absurd. There was more bad news, Salvador told them. A bondsman had informed him that because Ricky was a juvenile, he was not eligible for bail. The only way to free a juvenile pending trial, the bondsman had told him, was to persuade the judge to release him to his parents' custody. Salvador suggested to his gathered family that the best way to do that was to prove Ricky's innocence.
And so, one by one, they took turns recounting the time they had spent with Ricky on Sunday, August 16 - the day the alleged crime occurred. It soon became apparent that he had been with various family members the entire day - giving his mom a ride downtown, helping his brother buy lumber for repairs on their grandmother's house, picking up burgers at Jack-in-the-Box and, finally, studying the Constitution with his dad for his a Advanced Placement government class. The whole family felt vindicated, and a wave of relief washed over the room. But Salvador, a slight man with almond eyes and full, dark lips that are often pursed in thought, was worried. "I knew right then that he didn't do it, and in my heart I was glad," he says. "But we're his family. Who was going to believe us?"
Despite his concerns, Salvador clung to the hope that someone in the well-oiled system of law and order - the very system he'd taught his children to honor and respect - would quickly right such a terrible mistake. But as the days turned into weeks and Ricky languished in jail, Salvador's confidence waned. He came to see that through his ignorance of the legal process and his reverence for the justice system, it was he who had made the mistake. A mistake that led him - by his own unforgiving standards - to fail his son.
As it turns out, the Tovars weren't the only ones who believed that Ricky should never have been arrested. At Newton Station, Detective Joe Avila, who had been assigned to review the case and file a follow-up report, soon reached the same conclusion.
Initially, the story seemed fairly typical: Two Latino males, one of them wielding an 8-inch hunting knife, had snatched a gold chain from a middle-aged janitor walking home from a nearby grocery store. No one was injured, and the victim said he had not seen his attackers, who had approached from behind. But a witness told police she saw the two assailants get into a white '87 Cadillac. The license-plate number she gave them was traced to a car belonging to Jorge Bautista, who, police say, is also known as "Pee Wee," a 21-year-old member of the Clanton Street Gang.
Two days after the robbery, two police officers cruising the neighborhood spotted the Cadillac double-parked on 35th Street - just a few doors down from the Tovar home. The Bautista kids and the Tovar kids had grown up together, but in recent years Jorge had moved away and the families had fallen out of touch.
It was one of those oppressive days during the hottest August on record, and as afternoon stretched into evening, dozens of neighbors poured out of their sun-baked homes, seeking relief on shady stoops and curbs. Some of them saw Jorge standing near his car and went over to say hello - he told them he was passing through and had dropped in for a visit. Among those who stopped to greet Jorge were Ricky and his mom, on their way back from the swap meet to buy a mop. Then the police pulled up.
They quickly arrested Jorge, and after a few minutes cuffed Ricky as well. According to the police report, Jorge and Ricky "matched the description of robbery suspects" as recounted by the witness: two male Hispanics with shaved heads and brown eyes, between 5-feet-4 and 5-feet-6, weighing about 160 pounds and estimated to be between the ages of 20 and 22. At the time of the crime, both were wearing dark pants and white T-shirts. "If you took a photograph of the scene," says Antonio Govea, Ricky's attorney, "you couldn't say there was anything to tie Ricky to the car except his brown skin and his white T-shirt." Apparently that was enough for the police.
During his investigation, Detective Avila began to question the grounds for both arrests. "The evidence wasn't good," he says.
On August 19, the day after Jorge's arrest, the witness was unable to pick him out of a photo lineup. Avila immediately rejected the case against him "for lack of sufficient evidence." By the weekend, Jorge Bautista was a free man.
When asked about Ricky, though, Avila's memory gets fuzzy. He says he thinks it took him several more days to review Ricky's case, but he can't recall why.
The night Ricky was picked up, one of the arresting officers took his picture and grouped it with five others to show to the witness. Avila pulled a Xerox of this photo grouping from Ricky's file, but the copy quality was so poor that in place of faces there were simply black spaces. One thing was clear: Ricky was the sole suspect in a white T-shirt.
When the witness fingered Ricky on the night of his arrest, she said, according to the police report, "That looks like the guy, I'm sure." But when Avila met with the witness, her level of certainty had vanished. "The witness said, 'Yeah, he looks like, but I'm not sure,'" Avila says. "The ID was not good." One thing Avila can recall about Ricky's case with absolute clarity: Within a week of the arrest, he was sure that "Ricky had nothing to do with the crime."
At the family meeting the day after Ricky's arrest, the Tovars had to make a critical decision: whether to go with a public defender or hire a private attorney. "We got notice that Ricky's hearing was in two days," Salvador says. "We didn't know what the hearing was for, but we knew we had to move fast."
It was a heated debate, pitting Salvador, who argued that a public defender would be more familiar with the ins and outs of juvenile court, against the rest of the family, who felt a private attorney was Ricky's only real chance. "Those public defenders, they just try to plea-bargain," said his oldest son, Christopher. "They're sellouts," added Robert, and Salvador's wife, Carolina, agreed.
At first, Salvador wasn't so sure. "But then I realized that there was a moral issue," he says. "They're only supposed to supply a lawyer if you don't have the funds." By Salvador's way of thinking, the Tovars did have the funds - the $2,000 they had set aside for Ricky's college education. "I have always taught my children not to lie," Salvador says. "I felt that taking a public defender would have gone against that. I would have been trying to save my son by doing something I taught him never to do."
Salvador picked up the phone and called Barry O. Bernstein, a criminal-defense attorney with offices in Century City and Tarzana. The number was given to him by his daughter, Marcy, who had been so desperate to find someone immediately that she had pulled a bunch of names out of the Yellow Pages and passed along the first one who called her back. "At the time I thought she got a good recommendation from somebody," Salvador says. "We made mistakes. We just didn't know any better."
Later that day, Bernstein sent an investigator to the Tovars' home. Although the investigator spent about an hour at the house, he asked few questions relevant to the case. Instead, Salvador says, he spent his time pressing the Tovars to sign a contract agreeing to pay more than $7,000 in fees. The pitch angered Salvador. "I just a didn't like it," he says. "If I signed for the whole thing, what was to keep the guy from just riding along, just for the money? Maybe he wouldn't even try to get Ricky out right away." Finally, the Tovars agreed to pay $1,500 for Ricky's initial hearing.
Bernstein would later explain that the first meeting with a client is not the time to discuss the details of the case. "When we get to court and there's two or three witnesses who saw things differently," he says, "that then becomes the reality that we have to deal with. So the client's version of events is really more fruitful later on."
By the morning of the hearing, two days later, the Tovars had heard nothing more from Bernstein. Salvador, Carolina, Robert and Marcy arrived at the Eastlake Juvenile Detention Center in Boyle Heights just after 8 a.m. They found seats on one of the many low, hard benches lining the dimly lit courthouse corridor and waited. The hallway was jammed with families making hasty introductions with the attorneys they hoped would save their children. When Bernstein finally arrived, it was the Tovars' turn.
Bernstein seemed in a hurry, but Salvador pulled out Ricky's report card to show him and made one request. "My boy is innocent," he said. "Please ask the judge to release him to our custody. We are good parents. We'll take responsibility."
Inside, the proceedings moved fast. The hearing, it turned out, was simply to state the charges and arrange for a follow-up date, when the judge would decide whether Ricky should be tried as a juvenile or an adult.
It was the first time Salvador had seen his son since the boy's arrest. Lean and taller than Salvador, with his dad's narrow face and serious expression, he was dressed in a pressed shirt and dark pants, his hands cuffed. Salvador decided that he looked tired, but okay.
It was also the first time Salvador had heard the details of the alleged offense. When he tried to imagine his son roaming the streets for a target, then pulling a knife and snatching a chain, it made him shiver. He could not make the crude, ugly image stick. He heard Bernstein tell the judge that Ricky was wrongfully accused and ask that he be released to his parents. He heard the deputy district attorney, Margaret Lawrence, argue against it on the grounds that the crime was too severe, that Ricky was a danger to his community. He heard the judge deny the request.
To Salvador it seemed too pat. Alarmed, he tapped Bernstein on the arm. "Not now," Bernstein said, and waved him away. Then, all too quickly, the judge and Bernstein were consulting their calendars to schedule the next hearing - September 9 - and hustling the Tovars out the courtroom door. Standing in the hallway, Salvador was stunned. Now his son was stuck in jail for at least 18 more days before anyone would even hear the case for his innocence, and there was nothing Salvador could do about it. "I felt tricked," he says. "I felt humiliated. I was just numb."
After a while, Bernstein emerged. He and the family briefly discussed the case, and he asked when he would be paid. Then he turned to go. Wait, Salvador said. We have more questions. His wife and children nodded. Can I see the police report? He waited expectantly, trying to calm his desperation. Bernstein stopped and looked at him. No, he said. Why, Salvador asked, to which he says Bernstein responded, "Because it's mine." With that, he was gone.
The initial police report, with the witness's original statement, had already been filed with the District Attorney's Office by the time Detective Avila completed his review of Ricky's case. He says he called the D.A. immediately. "I know that I called them," he says. "I said, 'Hey, this kid doesn't need to be there.'"
But public-information officer Sandi Gibbons says the D.A.'s Office has no record of Avila's call. And when pressed, both in person at Newton Station and later on the phone, Avila cannot remember whom he talked to, or when. He never made a follow-up call, and did not send the D.A.'s Office a copy of his report until much later because, he says, it did not request it. When asked if he ever thought to call Ricky's family himself, Avila gets quiet, then says, sounding exasperated, "That never crossed my mind."
After the initial report on an arrest is filed, Avila explains, there is no standard protocol regarding communication between the police and the D.A. Whether by design or chance, this lack of a prescribed method functions as a clumsy roadblock - one of many thrown up throughout the legal process to prevent criminals from getting back onto the street. But its very lack of precision inevitably means that innocent people - especially those short on savvy, connections and cash - stay locked up too.
For weeks, Avila's report on Ricky's innocence sat unheeded in a file at Newton Station - just a few blocks from the Tovar home. Ricky sat in jail. And his family continued to fight for his release, alone and unaware.
Two days after the hearing, Salvador and Carolina went to visit their son - parents are the only visitors allowed at Eastlake, and then for just three hours a week, on Sunday afternoons.
They listened quietly as Ricky told them about life on the inside - about his tiny cell, his roommate whose parents never came to visit, and the guards who told him he was worthless trash. And he told them that one of his arresting officers beat him at Newton Station the night he was taken in. The officer, he said, had taken him up a narrow stairway, tightened his handcuffs all the way, raised his arms over his back and slammed his head into a series of doorways and walls. "You don't think you're such a badass now," Ricky recalled the officer saying.
Hearing Ricky's stories pitched them deeper into despair, but Salvador and Carolina put up a good front, comforting their son and assuring him that they were doing what they could to get him back home. Ricky, who had been worried about the effect of his arrest on his mom, started to cry. "They talked to me, and they told me everything that was going on out there, what they were doing," he says. "And I saw my mom, and she was, like, really strong. It took me by surprise that she was being stronger than me. There were tears running down my face. I was thinking about my little nephew. Everything."
As visiting time drew to a close, Ricky begged his parents to get him out.
Salvador left Eastlake that day filled with regret. "I felt that I should have got the whole family out," he says, "a long time ago." When Ricky was 2 years old, the Jensen potato-chip factory down the street where Salvador had worked for 40 years shut down. Though the Tovars had long been disturbed by the gunfire, the graffiti, the bad kids who ran wild with little or no parental control, this was the first time Salvador felt free to seriously consider moving his family away from South-Central.
But by then, Salvador's mother-in-law had settled into a house two doors down, and his wife's brothers and sisters had moved into three houses across the street. They believed they had created a sanctuary from the meanness around them. Salvador's son Robert says that at the time, he and his siblings were reluctant to move away - they were the most popular kids in the neighborhood, in part because for years they had been the source of a limitless supply of free chips and pretzels from their dad's factory. Salvador was outnumbered. "My wife said to me, 'This is our home. If we move we will be newcomers. Strangers.'" His voice tightens. "We had sunk roots in this place already. Everybody was raising their kids here. So we just figured that this was where we belong."
The years passed, and Salvador's health declined. Meanwhile, adolescence hit Ricky hard. In 10th grade he shaved his head, pierced his ears and seemed to lose interest in school, spending most of his class time drawing or daydreaming.
With Salvador weakened by his illnesses, his two older sons did their best to help bring Ricky back in line. They reviewed his homework, met with his teachers, bribed him with cash bonuses for good grades and gave him regular pep talks.
Steve Bachrach, who teaches both film and history at Jefferson High School and has had Ricky in classes three years in a row, also took an active role in helping turn him around. In his 10th-grade introductory film class, Bachrach remembers, Ricky goofed off a lot. "This was a class of kids who were expected to go nowhere, and that's what happened for the most part," he says. Of 28 students in that class, 25 have since dropped out. Ricky is one of just three who made it to senior year.
Bachrach saw that potential early on. "The students did a lot of group work," he says. "All the groups would fail because they had a hard time organizing. But Ricky's group would have these moments of brilliance, and after a while I realized it was because of him."
One day, Bachrach caught Ricky and another student tagging a desk. He made them stay after class and clean all the desks in the room. "At that point, Rick was really rebellious and didn't want to listen to anybody," Bachrach says. "As a teacher I was angling for that, keeping that door from slamming shut."
The next year, when Bachrach taught U.S. history, he saw Ricky take real pleasure in the class. "He would come to school with these great questions, and he told me his dad liked history and that he was talking with him about it and was reading history books too," Bachrach says, amazement evident in his voice. "It was one in a million that this kid had a dad who was doing this stuff."
About that time, Bachrach learned that the dean was planning to kick Ricky out of school for fighting. "These were problems from when Ricky was a tagger," Bachrach says. "He had stopped doing that, and the other kids were giving him a hard time about it." Bachrach and three other teachers went to talk to the dean. "Sometimes you have to fight for your kids," Bachrach says. "Not because you're noble, but because you want to teach smart people. When it's a kid you care about, who you've enjoyed teaching and want to teach in the future, you hate to see that kid leave."
Led by Bachrach, the teachers told the dean they would take responsibility for Ricky, that they thought part of his problem was that he was bored, and that they wanted to put him in honors classes. The dean grudgingly agreed.
But the trouble wasn't over. One afternoon just over a year ago, Ricky was coming out of school when some friends of his drove up in an unfamiliar car and offered him a ride. He hopped in. They had only gone a few blocks when a police car turned on its siren and began chasing them. It was then, Ricky later told his dad, that he learned the car was stolen. All the boys jumped out of the car and ran. But just as Ricky reached his house, the police cruiser drove up. Ricky had left his backpack in the car. The police took him to the station. He and the driver were the only boys who got caught, and Salvador was frantic. He went to Newton Station to plead with the detective on the case. He's a good boy, Salvador said. He's never done anything like this before. The detective was sympathetic. "He told Rick, 'Son, you got real close to the line on this one,'" Salvador recalls. "'Stay away from them. They are not your friends.'"
Shortly after that, Ricky seemed to turn the corner. He started spending more time with his family - especially his baby nephew - and devoting his weekends and evenings to schoolwork. When his grades came in, he had one C, in chemistry, and five A's. "We all felt like the dangerous time, the time when we could have lost Ricky, was over," Salvador says. "We all started to breathe a little easier."
In August, Ricky jumped into his senior year with enthusiasm. On top of his schoolwork, he took charge of a fund drive for the Early College Academy and started work on a documentary about a skateboarding friend - the day of his arrest he was getting ready to go on a four-day road trip with his film class to Telluride.
"We all saw the changes in Rick," says Bachrach. "It was incredible. This is a kid who would do any work you gave him and more. He would do what you need a college student to do."
In terms of his college chances, Ricky's arrest came at the worst possible time. His scores on the Stanford Achievement Test ranked him in the 60th percentile of college-bound kids nationwide. "At Jefferson that makes him a superstar," says Bachrach. "He was in a very elite group."
Each year, the freshman class at Jefferson High School starts with about 1,100 students. By graduation, that number plummets to around 400. Of those who graduate, only about 45 will make it to a four-year college. Of those who make it that far, just a few have what it takes to get into a top school like Brown, UCLA or Berkeley.
For those students, Bachrach says, the importance of the first semester of senior year can't be overemphasized. "These few months are huge. It's this window of high pressure and doubt. It's when every day in the classroom counts. That's when this spectacularly fucked-up thing happened to Rick. It may have cost him that edge that would have pushed him into one of those good schools."
While he was in jail, Ricky's best friend, Rosie Sanchez, wrote to tell him what was going on in the classes they shared: In A.P. English, they were reading Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In A.P. government, they were plowing through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In Spanish, they were studying Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His math class was taking on quadratic equations. Outside class, student trips, fund-raising drives and nights at the movies went on without him. "He missed a lot," Rosie says. "He missed a whole lot."
Meanwhile, Ricky was struggling with life behind bars. He recognized a couple of the other inmates from the streets, but had no interest in associating with them. He spent most of his time alone. "I just kept to myself, kept quiet," he says. "I just wanted to get out of there." He read the novels his parents brought him, by Garcia Marquez, Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald. When he finished those, he read instructional pamphlets supplied by the juvenile hall. When those were gone, he read the religious materials passed out after the weekly church services. Then he started counting the tiles that lined the floor of his cell.
He hated the food - the tough hamburgers, the "mystery meat" that gave him stomach cramps and sent him racing to the bathroom. He hated the uniforms - the sour-smelling, threadbare drawstring pants, shirt, socks and underwear of indiscriminate size distributed in tightly bound rolls each morning. He stayed away from fights but witnessed plenty - in the worst one the fighters were unfazed by pepper spray and the staff ended up tackling them and pinning them to the floor. He dreaded the nightly "who banging," when the boys would kick the walls and furniture in their cells and howl. Once they kicked up such a racket that the staff forced them all to kneel in the hallway until someone confessed. No one did, and the next day the boys were kept inside all day. They were often denied yard privileges for such incursions, and Ricky spent about half his jail days inside, with little more than a glimpse of the outdoors.
"At first I was really mad," he says. "I was really worried about my mom, and about school too. Every day I would think about the things that were going on without me. I would think about my life just passing by without me."
Soon, though, Ricky resigned himself to the regimented, barter-driven routine of jail life. He became friendly with another boy, copying his letters to his girlfriend in careful cursive in exchange for candy or extra food at meals. "He gave me a Snickers once," Ricky says. "You come across one of those in there and everybody wants a piece."
He spent his phone time - about five minutes every few days - joking with his family or friends. Rosie says that when she talked with him, they laughed the whole time. "I was so glad to hear his voice, and I was just relieved to know that he was okay," she says. "I know he was depressed, and maybe he just did that to cheer us up as well."
"With my mom and my father, I spoke to them more seriously," Ricky says. "But with my brothers and sister and my friends, I was able to crack jokes. It wasn't a nice experience. I was just trying to make my life a little less miserable."
After a while, he says, the adjustment was complete. "I'd think, 'I want to go home already, I'm tired of this,'" he says. "But it got to the point where I had to let go of what was out here. I just let go."
After their first visit with Ricky, the Tovars felt truly helpless. In the wake of the Bernstein fiasco, they were out of money and had no choice but to cast their lot with a public defender. But when Salvador requested one, he was told the assignment had to be made by the judge at the next court date. Which meant the lawyer would have no time to review the case. Which meant another delay. And, in the meantime, Ricky would have no legal representation.
There were 16 more days before Ricky's next court appearance - 16 pointless, wasted days. Carolina suffered intense bouts of insomnia. Terrified of the police, she refused to leave the house alone. Robert, who usually took great pride in his work, went through the motions, dronelike, his mind filled with Ricky. And it was all Marcy could do to get through the day without bursting into tears. Salvador spent a lot of time on the phone. "My wife was saying, 'Call so and so. Call up the other guy. Call up this person and that person.' I said, 'I just did.' She said, 'Well, call 'em again.' I said, 'Well, it won't do any good.' She said, 'Well, call 'em anyway.' And it kept me busy night and day, practically, calling all over trying to find out what to do and how to do it. Nobody really knew. Nobody really knew anything."
At school, Steve Bachrach's students abandoned their individual projects and began working on a film about Ricky. They interviewed his family and friends, and went to Newton Station to talk with the police. "They didn't really tell us anything," Rosie says. "But at least we felt like we were doing something to help." The class had planned to send their completed film to various media outlets to publicize Ricky's case, but a defense lawyer Bachrach talked to advised against it. "He said it might make the D.A. mad," Bachrach says. "That's the last thing we wanted to do."
Salvador started reading books on criminal law. He repeatedly called Bernstein's office requesting copies of all the documents related to his son's case, but was told Bernstein was out of town. (After I called Bernstein to interview him for this story, he called the Tovars and agreed to drop the case. continued
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.