So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
—Jane Hirshfield, “The Weighing”
His was a true hero story. In the Pico-Aliso housing projects where he grew up, Roman Gonzalez was a symbol of redemption, a countersign against the rest of the city’s assumptions about which kids of the urban poor are salvageable, and which should be tossed away. There was no question that Roman did a whole lot wrong as a kid. It was equally clear, a decade later, that he’d transformed himself into a man who did nearly everything right.
At 14, Roman Gonzalez was a drug-selling gangster with the nickname of Trigger. He joined a gang for the usual unhappy reasons: no dad, a mom who barely noticed his existence, a horrific calamity that ruined what family remained — his older sister, Patti, and her toddler son both drowned on the same day, the Fourth of July, 1986. Roman also joined a gang because it was the mid-’80s, and the drugs and violence that had exploded in South Los Angeles were bleeding to the Eastside. Most adolescent males in the projects felt they had to affiliate themselves with some neighborhood or other. In truth, Roman didn’t join a gang. He formed one, together with his best childhood friends. It was called The Mob Crew — TMC for short. TMC started as a breakdancing group made up of Pico-Aliso boys who performed wherever and whenever folks would have them — at the Hollenbeck Youth Center, in Little Tokyo, in front of Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown. By the end of 1986, however, Roman and the other TMCs had stopped dancing, and had started carrying guns.
Despite his flamboyant sobriquet, Roman had never been known as a real shooter — although once an enemy shot his hat right off his head. Mostly he was an adviser for his TMC homeboys, a teenage consigliere. “Trigger was like our neighborhood counselor,” says Fulgencio Estrada. “He was the one the other guys would go to with their problems.” And, like the other TMCs, Roman Gonzalez hawked crack cocaine on the street.
After 10 years, the drug sales and shootouts wearied him. The trick was finding another way to make money. Roman had dropped out of school in the eighth grade and was nobody’s ideal candidate for employment. So when he was offered a job at the Homeboy Bakery in the summer of 1997, he took it. Homeboy was the flagship of the Jobs for a Future program started by Father Greg Boyle to help at-risk young men and women. “I hired Roman,” says Boyle, “because he always struck me as the most intelligent homeboy I’d ever met.”
The idea behind the bakery was simple: Young men who used to try to kill each other would work side by side baking bread. “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job” was the program’s motto, and Roman gradually became its shining star. Within a year, he was not just baking, he was supervising. When Boyle gave talks at fund-raising events around the state of California, he always talked about Roman. “It’s one thing to work with your enemies,” Boyle would say. “Giving your enemies orders is a whole different level.” After a while, the other bakers seemed actually to go out of their way to talk to Roman, to confide in him about their lives. “They’d find an excuse to work next to him,” says Boyle. “Roman had this kind of genius in terms of human relations.”
Of course, Roman Gonzalez was hardly the only L.A. gangster ever to turn his life around. At any given time in Los Angeles County, there are approximately 112,000 young men and women listed as gang members or gang “associates” in the computer database created by state and local law-enforcement officials. This population, higher than that of the city of Burbank, is continually in flux. Homeboys and homegirls typically join gangs in the hormonal rush of their early teens. By their mid-20s, many are looking for a door out. Some, like Roman, find it. Others die, go to prison, disappear into drugs, alcohol or some equivalent chasm of despair.
For Roman, the passage came in stages. “At first his attitude was ‘I like my job, but it isn’t going to change me,’” says Cara Gould, the operations director of Homeboy Industries under Father Boyle, and Roman’s immediate boss. “He did the work well, but he was leading a double life, supplementing his income with less legal means.”
As the months went by, Roman began taking the work at Homeboy seriously. “All of a sudden, he was concerned about every step of the operation,” says Gould. “He would be the one who stayed extra hours if he didn’t think things were being done right. Plus, he would come in on his day off and call me ä on the weekends with ideas about how to make the bakery run more smoothly. It became his bakery.”
The Homeboy job led to other changes as Roman discovered that he had genuine talents. “For example,” says Gould, “one day he told me, ‘I’m smart. I want to go back to school.’” Roman started reading the L.A. Times every day, corralling anyone who might discuss the op-ed page with him. Then he started on Mexican history and, after that, psychology. “Roman knew I was getting a master’s in psychology,” says Gould, “so he started bugging me to discuss Freud and Jung with him.” Before long, the former gangster was studying to get his real estate license. Gould frowns. “It’s hard to explain why Roman was so unique. He started out as a gang member and became this big, wise, advice-giving sage. I’ve never met anyone like him.”
For many young men of the inner city, lady-baby-job is the divine trinity that pulls them off the street. The combination worked for Roman. Just before he was hired at Homeboy, he fell in love with a young woman named Monica Lopez. They had a child together, a little girl. Boyle tells about a day two winters ago when Roman came into his office wanting to talk. “Hey, G.,” he said. “Check this out. Last night I went to pick up my 3-year-old daughter. We drive home, she walks into our apartment, clutches her little arms to her chest and says, ‘This is great!’ And I said, ‘Mija, what’s great?’” Roman then demonstrated for Boyle how his little girl had flung her arms out in a giant, airy embrace. “‘My home!’ she says.”
Boyle teared up when Roman delivered the punch line. “You never had a real home in your life,” the priest told him. “Still, you did this. You made a home for your kid to come back to. You did that for her.” Roman said nothing. Then he nodded in the affirmative. “Yeah.”
“A lot of our young people have done a lot to turn themselves around,” says Pam McDuffie, a local mother who is also employed as a gang counselor by the L.A. Housing Authority. “But Roman was the one who we could point to and say, ‘That boy started out with nothing. And now there’s nothing in this world he can’t do. If he can do it, you can do it.’ More than with anybody else,” McDuffie continues, “I think the community felt they were part of his success. We’d look at Roman and say to each other, ‘Damn. Look at what our work has accomplished!’”
Then, on May 24 of last year, everything changed.
It was a lovely late-spring afternoon that held no presentiment of danger. The sky was a brilliant Wedgwood blue. The air was balmy, warm enough to inspire open windows and optimism. Utah Street Elementary, located at the intersection of Clarence and First streets in Boyle Heights, just across the L.A. River from downtown, had let out 20 minutes before. Kids drifted home along the sidewalks that radiate from the school in all directions, their voices high and energetic. A team of local mothers — each wearing a bright-green T-shirt emblazoned with the words Camino Seguro (safe passage) — were stationed two or three to a street corner. Around a year before, the women had begun posting themselves here every day so that the elementary and middle school students could get home without incident to the three-story apartment buildings that make up the Pico-Aliso projects.
Pico Gardens and Aliso Village combine to form the largest public-housing project west of the Mississippi. The mile-square area is also the poorest community in Los Angeles, according to the Catholic Archdiocese, with one of the highest levels of gang activity in the county, according to the LAPD. Yet for all its poverty and violence, Pico-Aliso operates like a small town for its residents. Everybody knows everybody here. When someone is in trouble, the neighbors help out. For this reason, people tend to stay long after they can afford to relocate elsewhere. The projects are family. The rest of L.A. is miles and miles of impersonal streets.
Although Roman was born and raised in Pico-Aliso, he was one of those who decided to leave. He and his girlfriend, Monica, found a nice apartment in a safer area a few miles north. For weeks after he moved, Roman had screaming fights with his mother because he wanted her to get out, too. He said she should do it for the sake of his teenage brothers, Fernando and Armando Acevedo, the twins, who still lived at home. Roman had done his best to keep them out of gangs. “I’ll beat any of my homies’ asses if they try to jump my brothers in,” he would say. They joined anyway, in spite of his efforts. “If you don’t get out of the projects, you’re going to end up burying one of your sons,” Roman told his mother over and over. He was right, but not in the way he intended.
Monica would have preferred that Roman stay away from Pico-Aliso altogether. “Why take a chance?” she asked. In deference to her, he did his best to avoid the place after dark, especially late at night, when things were likely to get crazy. But he didn’t think an occasional daytime visit to see family and friends could do any real harm.
May 24 was a Wednesday, so ordinarily Roman would have been at work. But he’d gone to court for a traffic ticket that morning, and his boss told him to go ahead and take the whole day off. The Homeboy Bakery had burned down in October 1999. During the rebuilding process, Roman had been working long hours at the Frisco Bakery in Lincoln Heights. Plus, for the past few months, he’d been finishing the real estate course, and was about to take his licensing exam. So maybe he felt he could use the break. Whatever the reason, Roman decided to swing by Pico-Aliso.
First he stopped by Moon’s Market, at the corner of Third and Clarence streets, where he bought a cold drink and ran into a friend named William Ayala. William and Roman had been close friends since the fifth grade. William was also one of the original TMCs. Now he worked in the film business and, like Roman, lived away from the projects. He was just there to pack for a weekend camping trip with another former homeboy. He asked Roman to come over and kick it while they loaded supplies. Roman said he’d be there in a minute.
Roman walked the wife of a friend to her apartment on Clarence Street, then waited outside as she went upstairs to check on her son. She was headed back down to talk when three Cuatro Flats homeboys crept through a stucco archway that connected one apartment building to another. The Clarence Street area is generally considered to be TMC territory, while Cuatro Flats claims a sector two blocks north in Pico Gardens. In the beginning, TMC and Cuatro were allies. In several cases, families were split between the two gangs. For example, Joseph Tapia, one of Roman’s younger cousins, is from Cuatro. The problems started in the early ’90s. At first, it was nothing serious, a few fistfights and a bit of rival tagging. Then there was a shooting and a death. By 1993, TMC and Cuatro Flats were mortal enemies.
The ski-masked figures that emerged from the shadows weren’t looking for Roman Gonzalez. They had come to find some active TMC gang members, but none were in view. There was only Roman. According to the rules of the street, the Cuatros should have given him a pass. They certainly knew who he was, and that he’d been out of the game for years. Yet for reasons that are unclear, they decided: Fuck it. Roman would do.
He never saw it coming. William Ayala was across the street packing the truck when he heard the initial gunfire. As he ducked behind the truck for cover, he glimpsed Roman trying to make it to the apartment stairs for safety. The bullets of the first two gunmen went wide. The third was a better shot. “It was the third guy who hit him,” says William. The third shooter ran to where Roman had collapsed on the cement and stood over him, firing bullet after bullet at close range.
Meanwhile, the other Cuatros spotted William and blasted in his direction. William heard the bullets go by close to his head, making a ding, ding sound as they bounced off the pavement. Both gunmen started toward him, but all at once there were mothers in the distance, shouting and running up the street. The shooters turned and melted into the shadows.
Roman’s aunt, Rosa Campos, was shepherding fifth-graders home when she heard the noise like popping corn and ran toward the sound. “It’s Roman,” one of the other mothers screamed. A group of women, Pam McDuffie among them, had gathered where a man lay at the edge of the sidewalk, his arms and legs splayed. Rosa approached, and the others stepped aside because Roman was her nephew, her favorite of all her sister’s kids. “I just saw him five minutes ago,” she said as she dropped to her knees beside him, her voice abstract and woozy. Rosa gathered Roman’s head and shoulders onto her lap and began to shake him slightly in the way you would shake a beloved toddler awake, screaming at him in Spanish, telling him, please, don’t die. She would say later that she could see Roman was dying anyway. Too much of him had leaked onto her clothes, and his eyes were becoming fixed, like stars.
Word of the shooting blew around the projects quickly. Father Boyle got the call at his Jobs for a Future office on First Street. “You better come,” said a neighborhood woman. Boyle parked at Dolores Mission, the local Catholic church, and walked the half block to Clarence Street, where he saw the ambulance and the crowd. Several women floated toward him. “It’s Roman,” they said.
“After 14 years of gang work,” Boyle says, “I’ve learned to read the signs. You notice how much blood there is, how big the police presence is, how fast the yellow tape goes up.” In the case of Roman, all the bad signs were present. Still, the priest held out hope. “I thought maybe it was a grazing, or a through-and-through,” the latter meaning a bullet that zips into the soft tissue and out again without hitting anything vital.
Boyle followed the ambulance to County General Hospital, where, in the emergency room, Roman was deemed too critical to make it upstairs for surgery. The E.R. docs opened his chest on the spot and tried to massage his heart back to beating. A few minutes later, a physician came out to where Boyle paced in the waiting room and caught his attention. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he said, “and you can’t tell anybody until we’ve had a chance to notify the family, but he died. Roman died.”
Family members began to arrive, and Boyle’s job was to minister. Cara Gould came with Monica. Rosa Campos’ daughters, Roman’s cousins, came right away too. His twin brothers were being detained by the police for questioning, but Roman’s older brother and sister were there. His mother elected not to come. “She’s never been there for him anyway,” someone said bitterly.
Monica broke down at the hospital. “What am I going to do?” she cried. “What do I say to our little girl?” For Boyle, the knowledge didn’t sink in until much, much later. “When you do this kind of work, it’s guaranteed you lose kids,” he says, his voice frayed by grief and fatigue. “I’ve buried nearly 100 since I came to this barrio. Every one of those deaths was hard. But there’s always a short list of kids you know you can’t afford to lose. For me, Roman was at the top of that list.”
“For me, Roman wasn’t even on the list,” Gould says. “I was that sure he was completely out of danger.”
Monica and their little girl
The death of a young man or woman tears a hole in the fabric of any community. After decades of gang warfare, Pico-Aliso has many such holes. Still, Roman’s death hit residents from a noticeably different angle. “Until he died, there was the belief that you would be somehow inoculated if you did the right thing,” says Cara Gould. “That’s part of why what happened is so devastating to so many people. Suddenly there’s no hermetic seal.”
The reaction was most extreme among Roman’s contemporaries. On Thursday, the morning after the shooting, William Ayala’s brother Victor burst into Father Boyle’s office, pulled a chair very close to the priest’s desk, then began to cry. Like William, Victor used to be a gang member. Two years ago, however, he put his gang affiliation aside and went to work in the Jobs for a Future office, where he morphed into an ideal employee. Usually, Victor’s personality tends toward stoicism. Boyle had seen him cry only once before in 15 years. Now the force of the ex-cholo’s distress startled him. “It’s so messed up, what happened to Trigger,” Victor said. “And it could have been my brother. I don’t want William to go down to the projects anymore. He can’t take that risk. It would kill me if ä something happened to my brother.”
The circumstance was made weirdly ironic because, unlike Roman and William, Victor wasn’t from TMC. He was from Cuatro Flats, the gang that killed Roman and nearly killed William. Moreover, Victor was rumored to be the one who once shot the hat off Roman’s head. “Trigger was my friend,” he said, his voice ragged with genuine misery. “I grew up with him too. I had love for him too.”
That same morning, Arnold Machado, another former TMC gang member, found he couldn’t make himself walk the approximately 25 feet from his front door to his car. Arnold, a moon-faced, sunny-natured man, lives with his common-law wife and their three kids in a small, neat bungalow on Clarence Street, a few doors down from where Roman was shot. Five days a week he works in construction and demolition, a job he says he enjoys. On the weekends, he stays home with his kids, or bangs on the drum set that, for the past year, he has been teaching himself to play.
Before Roman was killed, Arnold went through the same routine every weekday morning. After kissing his wife and kids goodbye, he’d walk to where his primer-gray ’84 Honda Accord was parked on the street in front of the house, turn the thing on, and listen to the radio for about 10 minutes while the engine warmed up. “That 10 minutes always put me in a relaxed mood for the rest of the day,” Arnold says. But that particular morning, he couldn’t make himself cross the open space between the house and the car. Finally, in desperation, he began humming the theme from Mission: Impossible.
In the days to follow, the humming ritual became his protective talisman. “I know it sounds stupid,” he says, “but it helps me get into that car and go to work. I’ve done it every day since Trigger passed away. A lot of my homeboys have died,” he continues. “And every one is a tragedy that hurts you. But Trigger passing away is different.”
The funeral is scheduled for 7 p.m., Sunday, June 4. The 11-day lag time is caused by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, which was overly busy and slow to release the body.
At 6:30, a half-dozen LAPD officers lean against their squad cars in the parking lot across the street from Dolores Mission Church. Inside the church, mourners tend to separate by gender. The women, along with a smattering of old men and children, fill the scarred wooden pews. Most of the men, gangsters prominently included, stand in a somber, dark-clad mass at the back of the sanctuary, near the door.
In the gang world, when a homeboy dies, even an inactive homeboy like Roman, a protocol kicks in that is as formal and predictable as that for an event of state. The gang immediately calls a series of meetings. The timing and strategy of vengeance are discussed. Homeboys take up a collection to help the family with burial costs. A fund-raiser is scheduled, usually a car wash. Someone is assigned to order the sweatshirts the gangsters will wear to the funeral. The sweatshirts are always the same, black pullovers printed with white Old English lettering: “In Loving Memory of Our Homeboy” — here the name is inserted — “R.I.P.”
In Roman’s case, the collection was taken, and a car wash planned. But for the first time in TMC history, no sweatshirts were ordered. There was talk of retaliation, but it was confused and halfhearted. “Deep down, everybody knew he wouldn’t have wanted it,” says Fulgencio Estrada.
Gabriela Ortiz, an attractive woman of 26 with a wild mane of auburn hair, has posted herself at the front door. As a teenager, Gabby was known as Candy Girl, one of the few females ever to be courted into TMC. Two years ago, she began working as a field representative for then–state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. When he was termed out, she switched to the new speaker’s office, but worked on Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign nights and weekends. As the mourners file past her, Gabby hands each a Xeroxed sheet of paper on which a commemorative poem has been printed. “Sometimes people come into your life and you know right away they were meant to be there,” it begins, “. . . to help figure out who you are or who you want to become . . .”
Once most of the crowd is inside, Gabby leans back against a wall. “I don’t regret that I was in a gang,” she says, “because my experience on the street has made me a more qualified person in every sense you can think of. I came from nothing, and the way I see it, if I could survive the projects, there’s nothing in the straight world I can’t survive. But this thing with Roman scares me. Maybe no one would do anything to me because I’m a girl — a single mother raising a kid. But all you need is one person who knows me from way back when, who says, ‘Hey, she was caught up in it.’” Gabby breathes deep, then lets it out. “They say what goes around comes around. And sometimes it comes around five times harder.”
Roman’s family sits at the very front of the church. His girlfriend, Monica, looks the most fragile, her eyes wide and stricken above her dark-scarlet lipstick, her fingers trembling in a continuous shiver. Next to her, Martha Campos, Roman’s mother, is dry-eyed and still. People say she hasn’t shown much emotion since that July day when her oldest daughter drowned trying to pull her baby boy out of the public swimming pool in Pecan Park, a few hundred yards north of here.
Roman’s aunt, Rosa Campos, sits near the middle of the church. Her daughters, Grace and Rosa Jr., are in the pew directly behind her. Grace is 25, with the face of a Modigliani Madonna. She had her first baby a month before she turned 16, by a TMC gang member who is now doing life without possibility of parole. She had two more before she was 20, with Jose Nieto, the man she eventually married. Both Grace and her sister are projects girls who have made good. Rosa Jr. works in administration at Cal State Los Angeles. Grace makes her living as a production coordinator on TV commercials for Federal Express and E-Trade. She plans eventually to start her own bilingual production company.
“Jose wanted to come,” says Grace with a nervous little flex of her lips, “but obviously he couldn’t.” Her husband is a smart, hard-working man who has been employed in heavy-equipment maintenance for the past six years. He was friends with Roman but, like Victor Ayala, was from Cuatro Flats. “This is such a bad, sad situation for us,” Grace says, “because of how we’re caught in the middle. See, my kids go over to my mom’s house after school so I can work. Jose used to pick them up at the end of the day. After Roman, he can’t do that anymore, because my mom lives one-half block away from where Roman was shot. One of the TMC youngsters could think, ‘Okay. It’s payback time. Cuatro Flats killed someone who was out of the game. We can do the same thing.’”
Roman’s brothers, Armando and Fernando, slip in quietly after the rest are already seated. As children, the twins were skinny, big-eyed boys with faces like upended teardrops and enormous, elfin ears. At age 20, they are tall and handsome, albeit with the same remarkable ears. Tonight they walk with their shoulders unnaturally tensed, as if against a strong wind, their expressions broken like glass. Grace reaches out a sisterly hand to each of them as they pass her. They both list, if only briefly, in her direction.
Father Boyle walks to the altar and waits for the crowd to quiet. Before he can speak, there is a commotion by the door as Roman’s stepfather, the father of the twins, stumbles inside. He is a thin and hapless man who has been drunk all day. Now he weaves unsteadily down the aisle, keening in a high, birdlike wail. The mourners watch nervously, unsure of what to do. Finally Armando runs to his father’s aid and guides him to the front pew with the rest of the family.
Boyle is a gifted speaker, even under tragic circumstances. Yet all week he’s been at odds with himself over what to say. He begins with a funny story about Roman giving tours of the bakery. It seems that the Homeboy facility found its way onto a startling variety of tourist itineraries. Visitors ranged from busloads of Japanese businessmen to a cortege of Prince Charles’ advisers. Royal or no, Roman considered the tourists an unwelcome intrusion in the day’s work, and couldn’t resist teasing them. “‘Observe the gang members in their natural habitat,’” Boyle mimics him droning loudly, cupping his hands over his mouth to simulate the sound of a microphone. “‘Keep your hands and arms inside the bus at all times. Do not attempt to feed the gang members. If a gang member approaches you, do not make eye contact . . .’
“Roman knew the truth about himself,” Boyle says finally. “He knew that he was exactly what God had in mind when God made him. So he became that truth. He inhabited that truth. And nothing was the same again. Roman Gonzalez was a fully realized man, and nothing can take that away. Death cannot even touch it.”
When the service is completed, a mustachioed mortician steps forward to open the casket. No one seems to remember the man’s name, but over the years he has become so woefully familiar that he could be everybody’s favorite uncle. The homeboys — current and former — shuffle quickly into line to view the body. Sinner, Kool-Aid, Bad Boy, Scoobie, Listo, Flea, Cartoon, Turtle, Frog, P’Nut, Puppet, Happy, Casper, Syco, Little Triste, Crazy Ace — everyone is here. Speedy has driven down from San Francisco with his wife and their three kids. Termite is in from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Mary Ridgway, a gang consultant and probation supervisor for the L.A. County Probation Department, gets in line along with the gangsters. “This is such a tragedy,” she says, her expression heavy with sorrow. “I’ll tell you something, even Roman’s enemies are quite upset about his death. And I don’t just mean the guys he’d worked with at the bakery. I mean rival gangsters from all over town have told me that what happened to Trigger wasn’t right. That says a lot about what kind of person Roman was.”
Once the mourners have filed past the casket, they spill out the side door into the church parking lot, where they gather in jittery groups of four and five. Grace, Gabby Ortiz and some other young women clump together. William Ayala walks to the other side of the parking lot to talk with two like-aged former homeboys. As a teenager, William was all high cheekbones, danger and charm. Now his face shows far more nuance, and far more strain. “I know Grace is worried about her husband,” he says with an inclination of his head back in her direction. “And she should be. It’s weird. I’ve never felt traumatized like this before. When I was younger, if somebody shot at me, it was nothing. I was never afraid. See, when you’re on the street, you don’t understand the pain that gangbanging causes. You shut yourself off from it emotionally.”
Mexican-American street gangs claim they are leaderless. But back in the day, if there was a “big head,” a shot caller, an ultimate possessor of juice in TMC, it was assuredly William Ayala. “But I ain’t the same person I was when I was in the street,” he says. “Now, all I see is the families, the pain, the scars. I worry about my brother, of course I do. And he worries about me. None of us wants to lose the people we love.” William pauses, his gaze skimming the faces from his past. “In a way, what happened showed me how much I’ve changed. How we all have changed. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Gracie and I talked about it the other day. Maybe we have karma that we can never get away from. Maybe we can never get away.”
On May 28, four days after Roman died, Lori Gonzalez, the granddaughter of L.A. Chief of Police Bernard Parks, is shot and killed in a gang-related shooting on the south side of town, and the heartbreak captures media attention for days. The case also precipitates a substantial amount of action on the part of the police. By June 8, a suspect is in custody.
A week later, Roman’s girlfriend, Monica Lopez, talks to a reporter and says what many in the projects are already thinking: that the murder of Parks’ granddaughter has received all possible police attention, while Roman is being viewed as another dead gang member whom no one gives a damn about.
Detective Thomas Herman is the officer assigned to head the investigation into Roman’s murder. Herman has been on the force for 27 years, six of those on Hollenbeck Homicide. His manner is tough-talking, no-nonsense, classic old-guard LAPD — more Andy Sipowicz than Bobby Simone. When Monica’s words appear in the morning paper, Herman is furious. “That’s just bullshit,” he says. “Utter bullshit. Anybody who knows me knows I take a whole lot of pride in my clearance rate, and I’m working just as hard on this case as I’d work on any other. I understand this guy was Father Boyle’s main poster boy. Whether he was, or whether he still had one little finger in the game, nobody deserves to die like that,” he says. “Not the chief’s granddaughter, not Roman Gonzalez.”
When pressed, however, Herman admits there are departmental inequities. “Okay, yeah. If Robbery-Homicide downtown has a big case, they’ve got 10 units and everybody working overtime. On this case, if I put in a request for ballistics, I may get it back in one or two weeks if I’m lucky. We just don’t have the resources.”
He hauls out a pile of papers neatly bound between blue covers, and drops it on a nearby table. “That’s the Roman Gonzalez file,” he says. The file is 6 inches thick and the weight of your average telephone directory. “Now does it look like we aren’t working hard?” Herman rubs his hand over his face. “I love what I do, and I think I’m exceptionally good at it. But guys like me are leaving this department right and left because, half the time, we don’t have what we need to do our jobs, and the public rarely helps. We’ve got two eyewitnesses on this case, but will they give us names? Of course not.” He squints as if against a light. “Solving a case like this is one thing,” he says. “Clearing it is another. I know who did it. But can I prove it? Will I ever be able to prove it?”
He begged his mother to get out, for the sake of his brothers, the twins.
Arnold Machado is the first one who actually says he is going to move as a result of the shooting. “I’ve had it with the projects,” he says. “This is no way to live. I can’t ride my bike around the block anymore. Me and my wife are already looking for a house out in Whittier.”
Gabriela Ortiz is also thinking of leaving, but she is less sanguine about her chances. “I’d like a new place to live, but where?” she says. “Where is it safe? Most of the places I can afford have gangs too. Let’s say I move to Highland Park, for example. Is that any better? In the projects, at least I know the players. I mean, I know where to duck, who has my back, and who doesn’t.”
As summer drifts to fall, no one has found a place yet. And there have been no arrests. Victor Ayala still hectors his brother William to stay out of the projects, with greater and lesser degrees of success. Grace Campos has resorted to a few panicky actions. “Like I got life-insurance policies for all of us,” she says, “even for the kids, like that would make us safe.” Mostly, she says, she tries to put the fear out of her mind. “My kids have learned to tell time by when their father gets home,” she says. “When I think about what it would be like for them to one day say, ‘Mom, when is Dad coming home?’ And for me to say, ‘Well, you know, honestly, never . . .’ It leaves me speechless. The only thing that helps is for me to somehow believe that what happened to Roman has a meaning, that it’s for a reason. If I don’t think that way, I’ll go crazy.”
There is one truly hopeful note. The twins have been edgy for the past few months, and Father Boyle worries that they are being pressured to avenge their brother. But in early September, Armando unexpectedly walks into Boyle’s office to ask for a job. Although he affects unconcern as he crosses the space between the front door and the priest’s cubicle against the far wall, it is an uneasy visit. Several of TMC’s “enemies” either already work in the office or are there seeking employment. Nonetheless, Armando perseveres. “I’m ready to leave my old life behind,” he says to Boyle. “It’s time.”
Mando explains that he came to the decision because of a promise he made to Roman at the wake. “I told my brother I would take care of our mom, and his daughter,” he says. “But I can’t take care of them if I’m locked up or dead. So I have to make myself do what’s right even though my anger doesn’t want to let me.”
Many of the younger TMC homeboys are still mired in a dismal fatalism. “What’s the point of doing good,” they say, “after what happened to Trigger?” But some of the older guys, like a previously incorrigible TMC called Traviesso — Trouble — are reaching out to Boyle for help. In patches, at least, the darkness brought by Roman’s death seems to be lifting.
Yet there is more darkness to come.
On Sunday, October 8, a car full of TMCs drives into Cuatro Flats territory. Most of Cuatro is attending a wedding away from the projects, and the TMC interlopers know this. They have not come to shoot, but to tag. In a matter of minutes, they spray-paint out all the CF graffiti they can find and replace it with their own. On the surface, the tagging sounds like a prank. But in gang terms, it is ominously provocative.
Just before 6 p.m., the Cuatro homeboys return and are predictably outraged. Five of them plus a driver pile into someone’s van and drive to 122 S. Clarence St., the house where the twins live with Martha Campos, their mother, and where the TMCs habitually gather.
It’s Santa Ana season, and the night is warm. Residents linger outdoors, a cluster of TMCs among them. The Cuatro homeboys exit the van, creep in and open fire. The TMCs scramble for cover. One 19-year-old named Ray Hernandez — Ray-Ray — is hit and goes down. Another bullet flies much farther up the street, striking a 10-year-old girl who is riding her bicycle on the sidewalk in front of her parents’ house.
Fulgencio Estrada, a TMC homeboy who was one of the taggers, races to where the child has fallen, thinking to help her somehow, but his ministrations prove irrelevant. The little girl, a pretty, dark-haired third-grader named Stephanie Raygoza, is dead by the time she reaches White Memorial Hospital.
Ray-Ray is not taken to the hospital. Instead, his body remains on the pavement until well after midnight while the homicide detectives put up yellow tape and map out angles of trajectory. As the hours wear on, more and more TMC homeboys gather to drink and steal glances at Ray-Ray’s motionless form, their expressions teetering between misery and threat. Ray-Ray’s father is also out on the sidewalk, also drinking. He flutters like a gangly, grief-stricken moth at the periphery of the taped area, sometimes hollering in the officers’ direction. “Pick him up! Pick him up!” he yells without effect at the police, his arms thrown repeatedly in jerky, balletic movements toward heaven. ä
In the days to follow, the Pico-Aliso community goes into shock. “My daughter is in the same class with that little girl,” says Arnold Machado. “Now she’s worried to go outside. And my wife and mother-in-law won’t let me walk to the corner to the market, unless one of them goes with me. I hope they get the guys who did this,” he says. “I really hope they do.”
The murder of the little girl jolts city officials to action in a way the death of Roman Gonzalez did not. Within days, speed bumps are installed along Clarence Street — an approach to gang violence that Father Boyle finds about as effective as dousing a burning house with a squirt gun. More to the point, two teams of homicide investigators are assigned to the case, and as with Chief Parks’ granddaughter, funds are quickly allocated to pay for officers to work overtime. By October 18, detectives have arrested the driver of the van that allegedly brought the gunmen to Clarence Street, a young woman who has no previous record. A deal is struck. She confesses and names the five shooters.
Detective Herman believes that one of the five also shot Roman. “But I still can’t prove it,” he says. “Not that I’m giving up. I never give up.”
On Thursday, October 19, City Councilman Nick Pacheco holds a press conference in the middle of the street between the spots where Ray-Ray and Stephanie Raygoza were killed. Just before it is to begin, Mayor Richard Riordan makes a condolence visit to the Raygoza family, several TV cameras trailing behind him. After pledging to lower violence in the city, Riordan and Pacheco announce that a $25,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of the murder suspects. A clean-cut detective carts out a large piece of white poster board, the surface of which is covered with an equally large sheet of paper. With a grim flourish, he unveils the board, exposing five 8-by-10 head shots, one of each of the alleged killers. The cameras zoom in for close-ups.
Father Boyle is out of town and so unable to attend the press conference, but Cara Gould is there. For days now, she and Boyle have been putting together a mental list of which Cuatro homeboys are most likely to have been the shooters.
When the faces are revealed, Gould takes in a single sharp breath and walks abruptly down the street until she can regain control of herself. “Two of those pictures weren’t a surprise to me,” she says. “But the other three . . .” She swipes at her eyes miserably. “One of them asked me to be his sponsor when he made his first communion in juvenile probation camp. Another one of them couldn’t read very well, so I used to work with him one-on-one, at secret times and locations, so no one would know. Now all their lives are effectively over too. Oh, God,” Gould says. “I just can’t stand it.”
A few hundred feet away, Fernando, the as-yet-unemployed twin, is sweeping the sidewalk in front of his mother’s house, where a small makeshift shrine has been erected for Roman and Ray-Ray. When the pictures are unveiled, he stops sweeping and raises his gaze. He stares at the board for several long moments, his expression blanched and unreadable. Eventually, he turns away and resumes sweeping. “I’ve known every one of them all my life,” Fernie says softly, his voice barely audible above the swish-swish of the broom. “All my life.”
Grace Campos doesn’t learn who is on the board until the following morning. “I know all of them too,” she says. “I’ve been in their houses. I know their mothers.” She is silent for a minute. “I try to explain this to the people I work with, but they think I’m crazy. They don’t understand that all it takes is one stupid moment to do something so terrible that it changes everything,” she says. “My younger brother Juan is from Cuatro Flats, and he’d still be out there if he didn’t have a family who did whatever it took to get him out of it.” Grace pauses for breath. “What I’m saying is, if our family wasn’t as strong as it is, my own brother could have been in the van with the rest of them.”
Tragedy can arrive in an instant. Change for the better comes slowly: five steps forward, four and three-quarters back.
Around the same time that Father Boyle hires Roman’s brother Armando, he also hires a Cuatro Flats homeboy named Archie Dominguez. To make sure that the latter arrives in the office safely, Cara Gould drives Archie to work every morning. En route, he talks to her about how, even though he’s trying to move on with his life and leave the gang behind, he just can’t get past hating TMCs. “Don’t worry,” he tells Gould, “I wouldn’t trip on them,” but he certainly would never talk to one, he says.
One Friday afternoon in November, Armando is sitting on Gould’s desk helping her with some paperwork. Earlier, she asked Archie to pack up some Homeboy T-shirts to be shipped to customers. Archie is behind Gould folding up the box when Mando does the unthinkable. He talks to Archie. “The tape is in that cabinet,” he says. “Do you want me to get it for you?” Archie blinks. “Yeah,” he says.
Mando fetches the tape and hands it to Archie. There is only a millisecond’s pause before Archie responds. “Thanks, homey,” he says.
Cara Gould is from a nice Catholic family in Boston. To her friends back home, she says, the housing projects of East L.A. resemble a dangerous and depressing alien planet — especially after the most recent spate of deaths. “Why do you stay?” they always ask her. In an effort to explain, she writes occasional long e-mails, the most recent of which includes the story of Armando and Archie.
“I know it may seem like a little thing,” writes Gould, “but this was the first time in years that either of them spoke to someone from the other’s neighborhood. And it happened after Archie’s friends killed Mando’s friend . . . and Mando’s brother, Roman. It’s those moments that keep me here.”
There are other small victories. Arnold Machado has finally found a house. “It has a great yard for the kids and everything,” he says. “Sometimes I dream that we’re already living in it. In the dream, I hear the birds singing in the back yard, the sun is coming through this big window, and I’m so happy. But then I wake up and we’re still in the projects. But it’s okay,” he says, “we’ll be there soon.”
In December, Boyle’s Jobs for a Future office moves to a new and bigger space, and a party is thrown to inaugurate the building. Gabriela Ortiz speaks at the event. She does such a bang-up job that everybody tells her she ought to run for office someday. Gabby waves the suggestion away. “Not with my past,” she says, but at the back of her eyes there’s a flicker of interest. Tens of thousands of this city’s young adults have former lives that include gang membership. L.A. can’t shut every one of them out of leadership. It can’t afford to.
Spring arrives with blue skies, rolling blackouts, and auguries of change in the projects that alternate between suffering and merciful redemption.
As the anniversary of Roman’s death approaches, Fernando is jobless and drifting precariously, while Armando continues to make headway. He makes a point of picking up Roman’s daughter every day after school. Then, one morning in early March, he asks Cara Gould to increase his responsibility around the office. “Like you could put me in charge of intake for the tattoo-removal program,” he says. “I’ll do a good job for you.”
Another morning, Mando announces that he wants to go back to school himself. “I got a plan,” he says. “First I’d need my GED. Then I want to learn electronics. I heard about an adult school out in El Monte where they’ve got courses you can take for free. Then maybe eventually I could become a cop. But first, the electronics,” he says, “because it’ll keep my mind busy, which is what I need.” When his mind is not occupied, things threaten to go bad, Mando says. “I’ve still got so much anger. And I still can’t accept my brother is gone.”
A week later, Mando works up the courage to walk into Hollenbeck Police Station, where he talks to the desk sergeant. “What would I have to do to become a police officer?” he inquires nervously. The sergeant gives him a look but answers kindly. “As long as you haven’t been convicted of anything,” he says, “the first thing is you’d have to get rid of that big tack on the back of your head.” The cop gestures to the large “TMC” that is tattooed prominently at the back of Mando’s scalp. (Fernie has a similar tattoo in the same spot.)
“I could do that,” Mando replies, and is heartened.
Things also seem to be smoothing out for Grace Campos. One evening the first week in April, she shows up at one of Boyle’s Jobs for a Future advisory-board meetings, then lingers afterward to talk. “The kids are good,” Grace says. “I just got offered a permanent job by this production company, but I turned it down because I make more money freelance. And Jose has this great new job where they’re training him in chemical engineering. Plus my older brother just graduated from the Police Academy, which thrilled my mom.”
With regard to the gang situation, Grace shrugs. “I guess we’re dealing with it,” she says. “Recently, Jose and I were talking about the time, years and years ago, when he was shot so badly he thought he was going to die. He nearly did die, as a matter of fact, but the doctors brought him back. So I asked him, ‘Do you hate that person who shot you?’ And he said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Maybe that person has changed now. Just like I’ve changed. Just like Roman changed.’”
She pauses to stare out into the cold spring darkness. “You know, there were a lot of very smart people from my generation in the projects,” she says when her attention returns. “But I don’t remember anyone I grew up with graduating from high school. Not anyone. Everybody was in a gang, or their boyfriend was in a gang. That’s how it was in those days. But now a lot of those same people from my generation that everybody thought could only fail — they’re succeeding. Sometimes when people at my work hear where I grew up, they feel sorry for me. But I tell them, ‘No. Don’t feel sorry for me. Everything I am mentally, emotionally, spiritually, has come to me because of what I went through in the projects.’ In Pico-Aliso, you grow up with pain, but you also grow up with miracles.”
Miracles and pain. Pain and miracles.
On a Monday, eight days after Easter, Armando goes to the doctor to have his TMC tattoo removed.
“I did it partly so I could become a cop,” he says. “But also because I want to be able to walk down the street with my brother’s little girl, or with my little girl, have people look at me normal, you know, without thinking, ‘He’s just a gang member.’”
William Ayala and Victor Ayala are pseudonyms.