Family Analysis: A Fragile Family

The Aguilar family’s circumstances are now, after a year, still alarmingly on the edge. Luis’ new job is a wonderful piece of good news. But the truth is, he and Frances aren’t just one paycheck away from disaster, they are right at disaster level, which is where their financial status has teetered ever since Frances ran through the family’s savings to pay the mortgage during the first months after Luis’ arrest. Yet through a combination of help from Father Greg Boyle, her own ingenuity, and even a few donations from concerned readers, Frances did manage. The Aguilars didn’t lose the house. No one went unfed. Now, as they move into 2005, they hope to pay off the last of their debts. Luis and Frances will start to resuscitate their badly trashed credit, and the family can begin to put money away again.

The Aguilars’ emotional life is also in need of much repair. Frances and Luis are once again viewing each other with tentative affection, and they’ve each admitted that they want counseling, to heal both the injuries of their pasts and those they have inflicted on each other, particularly during the most recent crises. Whether they will follow through remains to be seen.

Of course, if the past year’s events have produced psychic whiplash for the parents, their effect on the Aguilar kids is no less severe. The three oldest, Estephanie, Bola and Julian, were hit especially hard by Luis’ incarceration and their mother’s battles to keep everything afloat. The damage was compounded when Bola attempted to fill his time productively by volunteering on the Homeboy graffiti crew, to have not one, but two, of the men who kindly attempted to mentor him blown away on streets in Boyle Heights within a few blocks of his house. And, finally, there was the matter of the kids’ removal to the "care" of the county of Los Angeles. None of this will be simple to set right.

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The original idea behind the "An American Family" series was to examine the lives of one recent parolee and his family and, in so doing, look at issues and difficulties faced by other, similar families in urban centers all around the country. After all, in the United States of America, on any given day, there are more than 2 million men and women being held in state and federal prisons and jails. Eventually over 95 percent of those incarcerated will, like Luis, return to the community — 600,000 are returning in this year alone. Nearly one in five of those parolees will be returning to the streets of California.

Like Luis, most will face an immense number of institutional, psychological and societal barriers as they attempt to restart their lives. The majority, like Luis, have spouses and children who struggle right along with them during this repair process — or suffer without them, if they end up back in prison.

All this convinced my editors and me that, with the Aguilars, we had a story worth telling. We never imagined how complex that story would become.

Luis was paroled in April 2003 after serving seven years in prison for a gang-related assault-with-a-deadly-weapon charge, plus two extra stints for parole violations (both for "gang association," although, in one case, the "associate" in question was his soon-to-be wife, Frances). Then, in late January of 2004, just as he was really beginning to get on his feet, the police raided his house and arrested him on suspicion of drug sales. In the months preceding Luis’ arrest, the Hollenbeck division of the LAPD spent an inordinate amount of time, officer power and expense watching the Aguilar household. Yet law enforcement was never able to make a solid case against Luis. We came to believe that the case they did make — one that was eventually dropped and not re-filed — was based entirely or in part on falsified evidence.

We arrived at this conclusion after spending hundreds of hours examining the warrant and arrest reports, the evidence presented against Luis in the preliminary hearing, and after interviewing four central witnesses extensively and repeatedly, plus conducting interviews with nearly two dozen others who had knowledge of various aspects of the case.

We tracked down and spoke to one witness after another who had supposedly implicated Luis in the arrest report, and learned of -coercion, threats and gross misrepresentations on the part of law enforcement. (Two of the three witness/buyers were so adamant about their accounts that they offered to come to court to testify on Luis’ behalf, although both said the prospect of countering the testimony of a police officer scared them.) For example, one 31-year-old man, whose written statement at first appeared to be quite damning of Luis, told us that, yes, he’d bought crack cocaine from someone on the Aguilar property on three different occasions, once from the back door, twice from the yard. He said the seller was always a teenager (who, incidentally, matched Lil’ Happy’s description, Lil’ Happy being the 17-year-old who sold drugs out of the Aguilar home, according to him without their permission or knowledge, primarily when Luis and Frances were at work), but that the officer who interviewed him, Rudy Chavez, told him to write down "Sniper," Luis’ old gang nickname, as the individual who’d sold him the drugs. He said he was told that the police had him on film as buying from "Sniper." The witness also told us that, since he didn’t actually know his teenage seller’s name, he assumed that Officer Chavez was guiding him correctly and thus complied. We also interviewed Lil’ Happy at length on tape on several occasions about his own selling patterns, his customers (plus the details of how he managed to hide his drug sales from Frances and Luis by selling out of their home, primarily while they were at work), then cross-referenced these accounts with those of the witness/buyers.

The more deeply we examined the case, the faultier we found it to be. Our investigation suggested an overzealous police officer who was convinced that Luis Aguilar was an irredeemable criminal, and thus was determined to see him convicted of some charge or other, whether there was righteous evidence to support such a conviction or not. Yet it was this same faulty case that cost Luis his job, his financial well-being, and six and a half months of his existence, not to mention its seriously deleterious effect on the emotional welfare of his wife and family.

One of the most unsettling aspects of Luis’ legal troubles is the fact that, had it not been for L.A. Weekly’s investigations and the spotlight that press coverage provides, Luis would almost certainly now be serving time in a California state prison. Either he would have taken the eight-year deal offered to him by the prosecution or he’d have gone to trial with his original, court-appointed attorney, James Bisnow, who repeatedly told the Weekly that he believed Luis was guilty. "He violated his parole by having homeboys at his house, didn’t he?" said Bisnow. "This is not a giant conspiracy. If he’d break one law, he’d break another."

There are some excellent and devoted public defenders and court-appointed attorneys working in Los Angeles. Yet too many who look at former gang members like Luis simply don’t see them as individuals who matter. Bisnow had access to the same evidence that we had, but he made no effort to investigate any of it. Instead, he intended to base Luis’ defense on a case of "mistaken identity" — which even Luis identified as a losing strategy. "It was my house," said Luis. "I was home sick that day. And Chavez knew me. So why wouldn’t a jury believe a cop who said he saw me sell drugs? After all, he’s a police officer and I’m a felon."

But the Weekly did investigate, and Luis did get a new lawyer, courtesy of Father Greg Boyle. Mark Overland turned out to be a hotshot pro, with ideals still intact, who aggressively made use of the fruits of his own investigation and ours. The outcome was that Luis was returned to his family.

It is disquieting to wonder how many others are currently serving unwarranted or excessive prison terms simply because, for them, there is no press spotlight, no smart, committed, pro bono lawyer.

But matters didn’t end there. As Luis and his family once more endeavored to regain balance after his latest release from jail, the police again focused on the Aguilar household, again raided their home, again found absolutely no evidence against Luis. So they called in the Department of Children and Family Services to "protect" the Aguilar children. As a result, seven children — foster child Mando included — who were attempting to grope toward some degree of normality, were yanked from a genuinely loving home, from a mother who would and did move heaven and earth for them, and put in the care of a county institution that, 36 days later, had never even managed to get the older kids to school or feed a 9-month-old baby the proper formula.

Father Greg’s testimony, a pile of eloquently supportive letters, the work of several sane lawyers and, to some degree, the Weekly’s articles, which also, at times, worked against the Aguilars, all helped to bring the children home. But, in the meantime, seven kids have had their sense of security shattered, for no fundamentally legitimate reason.

"I think law enforcement really placed DCFS between a rock and hard place," said social worker Joe Ramirez, quality assurance director of Hannah’s Children’s Homes, the sub-contracting agency that oversaw several of the Aguilar kids’ foster placements. "The picture that was painted was, ‘Don’t you ever think of sending these children back with these parents.’ I think it took everyone a while to see that there was much more to the story — that Luis and Frances may not be perfect parents. Who is? But that they’re good parents who love their kids. And if there hadn’t been press coverage, I don’t know if we’d ever have seen it. That’s what scares me."

In the meantime, according to Ramirez, DCFS failed to adequately communicate some of the children’s needs to the foster agencies. "Like the whole thing about the right formula for the baby, that was never communicated to us. And the kids being sent to areas so far away from Boyle Heights that, logistically, there was no way for the foster parents to drive them to school, even though the court had ordered them to be back in school. These things should never have happened." Ramirez says he’s at least managed to solve the mystery of Gennisis’ missing earrings. "We found them and are getting them back to Frances. But I hear that DCFS took a box full of the kids’ newest clothes on the day of the raid, and those have still never been found."

When asked about the school and the baby-formula issues, Louise Grasmehr, DCFS director of public affairs, said she found the reports troubling. "It's our policy to try to place kids as close to their homes as possible," she says. "Sometimes it doesn't work out because we just don't have the available foster parents. But certainly I can't imagine a social worker deliberately giving a baby the wrong formula. We don't like to hear these things, so we're going to investigate them. One thing I can tell you," she adds, "the purpose of the Multi Agency Task Force is to take kids out of meth labs, and those kinds of situations. Not to remove kids where there's no obvious danger."

No one is pretending that Luis and Frances are innocents in all this. They were both often guilty of staggeringly lousy judgment. Luis repeatedly let irresponsible, still-active homeboys hang out at the house — particularly in the months after his release from prison — and got himself and his family badly burned as a result. Frances allowed too many needy strays to crash in the family’s back bedroom. She did so as an act of mercy, but it was a mercy she and her family could ill afford. Most of the strays stayed in the Aguilar household until they were stabilized, did a little housework and child care as repayment, then moved on with no harm done to anyone. But some of the others, like Lil’ Happy and Darlene, took advantage of the Aguilars’ kindness, with nearly ruinous results.

But bad judgment alone isn’t criminal. Bad judgment isn’t a reason to lock someone up for eight or 12 or 20 years. Bad judgment gives no one the right to traumatize already badly traumatized children by taking them away from the people who love them more than anything else.

To be fair, the LAPD wasn’t alone in its view that the Aguilars constituted a problem. The local Neighborhood Watch Committee was very vocal and regular with its complaints about the family, and law enforcement had no choice but to respond. Moreover, the members of Neighborhood Watch had a legitimate point. Like the rest of us, they wanted to live in a safe community, and, in their estimation, the Aguilars constituted a threat. Yet was demonizing Frances and Luis the best way to get those valid concerns addressed?

"What we learned after years of dealing with crime in our community," says Pamela McDuffie, youth-opportunity counselor for L.A.’s Housing Authority and a longtime activist resident of the Pico Aliso Housing projects, a few miles west of the Aguilars’ neighborhood, "is that we accomplished more with counseling and intervention, not attack. We took the approach of ‘Your child is my child. Your family is part of our family.’ What that Neighborhood Watch group could have done, when they felt there were problems, was try to involve Frances, and say, ‘Look, mija, what’s going on in your house?’ But they were scared, so instead they went straight to the police, and kept going to the police even when Frances said she wanted to meet with them. And the police aren’t going to help people with living skills and how to be good neighbors. All they can do is lock someone up — whether that’s what’s called for or not."

On the other hand, most of the Hollenbeck police are still adamant about Luis’ guilt. "From our perspective, a lot of the reason we’ve been over at the Aguilars’ is because we’ve gone to judges with valid information and intelligence, and they give us warrants," says Hollenbeck’s area commanding officer, Captain Bill Fierro. "It’s a very sad story in terms of Frances and the issues she has to deal with, but we also have people in that community who do not deserve to live in the environment that’s being created out of that residence there, who are afraid and would rather see a change at the Aguilar house. Those people are the people we’re listening to and trying to help."

Yet, as of this writing, Senior Lead Officer John Pedroza says that the police have backed off regarding the Aguilars. "Activity has slowed down in their area," says Pedroza. "So we’re pretty much pulling back. We think it’s time to bandage some wounds. There’s been a lot of emotion expended on this case by everyone involved, the community, the Aguilars and the police. I think everybody’s pretty exhausted. So let’s start over. We think he was dirty in the past, but the activity has ceased around the Aguilar house. Right now that’s enough for us."

Pat Glas, the neighbor living behind the Aguilars, has a similar take. "I used to be afraid of Luis," she says. "And there was a lot of noise, a lot of problems with that property that bothered quite a few of us. But I think we are starting to adjust to the fact that people can change. When Luis came to videotape on my property, I felt like I saw a different person. And right now I can say I want the best for that family."

It should be noted that not all of law enforcement has condemned Frances and Luis. After the children were taken into county custody, several officers made a point of approaching Frances to tell her how sorry they were to hear about the kids, that they knew she was a good mother, and to call on them if they could help in any way. One officer even offered to take Bola on a ride-along in a police car, and Frances has agreed. "I don’t want him to start hating all cops because of what he’s been through," she said.

The obstacles the Aguilars have faced — and still face — are part of a larger story, which is the tendency on the part of the police, employers, fellow citizens and many of our state laws to criminalize parolees long after their sentences have been served. At the same time, we saddle them with a parole system that is so woefully ineffective in aiding its clients that a 2003 Little Hoover Commission report pronounced it a "billion-dollar failure." As a result, nearly 70 percent of those released from California -prisons end up back behind bars within the first 18 months — three-quarters of them for comparatively minor parole violations.

In the end, this is what makes the Aguilars’ story all the more remarkable. Despite the formidable barriers, and their own less-than-stellar pasts, despite the constant police attention, the angry neighbors, the falsified evidence, the unwarranted jail time, the deaths of co-workers, the unrelenting financial stress, the temporary removal of their kids . . . Frances and Luis are still moving forward, still optimistic, still determined to create some kind of new and decent future for themselves.

Whether they are able to accomplish these most basic of goals is a chapter to be written another day.

To read Celeste Fremon's concluding chapter of "An American Family" click here.


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