Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Detention has yellow concrete walls. Built in the 1970s, the seats are concrete slabs, polished gleaming by thousands of teenage butts. When you visit a client in detention, you check in at the front desk, speaking through a hole in a glass wall. You show i.d., write down the reason for your visit, and then a correctional worker comes out and pats you down, searching you for contraband. These searches are important. Visitors and family members have smuggled in items ranging from candy bars to porn, drugs and weapons. One gang member in our city was observed doing a strange kind of dance with his mother every time she visited him in detention. A later search of the client revealed small packets of cocaine hidden in his underpants. The packets had been passed from her body to his via the shimmying activity. She went to prison for her smuggling effort, he racked up a longer stay in a secure juvenile facility.

When you've been cleared, the correction worker escorts you to a visitation cell.

These cells have plexiglass and concrete walls, the better to see you with, and heavy metal doors that slam shut with a sound like a tomb. They are used by defense attorneys, parents, and case workers, to visit directly with incarcerated clients, review cases, and share brief moments of family interaction. Like the walls, the floors are concrete, with a drain in the middle of the cell so they can be cleaned more easily, with a hose. Doors slam in different sections of the building, echoing against the concrete and metal, and are the only sounds you hear for the long minutes spent waiting for your client to arrive.

A youth corrections worker delivered Flaca to the visitation cell. Flaca took a seat on the concrete slab across from my own and looked down, apparently paying particular attention to the drain.

We sat in silence. I stared at her, willing her to speak. She stared at the floor, avoiding my eyes. The silence stretched out like a yoyo spring, and I waited for the eventual rebound when she would be forced to open her mouth and speak. I can wait a long time, sitting in silence too loud for most kids to stand. It's a gift.

I noticed that her yellow detention shirt was spotted with moisture, presumably from unseen tears, but still she didn't speak. Finally, her voice crept out into the quiet, rusty and muffled by her tear-thickened throat.

"Sorry, Wedda."

"Me, too," I told her. "It wasn't fun calling my department and telling my boss what a fool you'd made of me."

"I didn't mean it like that. I just kind of lost it. I couldn't stand thinking of CeCe in here, alone. We were snorting coke before you got to the house, and I wasn't thinking straight. I went a little crazy."

She openly began to sob. We sat again in silence, punctuated by her hiccups and snuffles. Finally, slowly, I stood up and walked across the gap between us. I sat on the cold hard bench beside her, and put my hand on her shoulder. She grabbed onto my arm, hard, and the sobs increased in intensity. When her crying slowed down and quieted, I said, "look at me." She looked up, red bleary eyes and wet cheeks, shining through her dark bangs.

"What you did hurt me, Flaca. I trusted you. I'm really mad at you right now. But, I forgive you."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Cooling Their Heels

A week after Cecelia and Flaca were arrested, Judge V called me. "I've ordered Cecelia and Flaca to get in touch with you, apologize for their actions, and make amends," he told me. "Let me know when/if you hear from them, and how it goes."

"I'm not happy, Andy," I told him, "I'm still pissed. I invested countless hours of my time in each of those girls, and they repaid my trust and support with public humiliation. Do you have any idea how long it is going to take me to live this thing down with the guys?"

"Tell them," he said, "Those girls need to hear your anger, and understand how their actions caused you harm. I'm not going to release them from DT until they've made things right with you."

It took three more days after his phone call for Flaca to call me, her voice cracking through the phone: "Hey, Wedda, would you come visit me at DT? I need to talk to you."

"Okay. I'll come by tomorrow morning," I told her.

"Thanks, Wedda." Dial tone.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

After you've been an idiot

I drove the police car back to the office, and rode the cramped gray urine-scented elevator up to the fifth floor. My heels clicked on the hard tile floor as I walked back to the office.

When I sat down, there was a hand-sketched cartoon on top of my desk. Me, in my little business suit. My car, up on blocks with no wheels. The caption: "But they're really nice kids."


The lieutenant called. "Come see me," he said.

I walked back to his office, lingering in the doorway.

"Come in and sit down." The words of doom.

He stood up, closed the door behind me. Then he sat back down, and tipped his chair back a bit, putting his foot up on a drawer. He folded his hands across his chest.

"So," he said, drawing the word out for at least 36 seconds, "Tell me what happened."

I explained the events of the past two hours.

He watched me intently as I talked, saying nothing. Then, he passed a sheet of paper across the desk to me.

"This is a letter of reprimand for failing to control your police-issued vehicle. Read it and sign it. It's going to go in your file."

I could feel the tears behind my eyelids, hot and bulging. My mouth filled with spit, my throat tensed up. Don't cry! Don't you dare cry! I told myself.

I signed the paper and passed it back.

His face softened. "We all fuck up," he told me. "The good thing is that you'll never fuck up like this again, will you?"

"No, sir."

"Well," he said. "Nobody died. It's still a good day."

Then, he smiled, and said, "Why don't you take the rest of the day off? Spend some time with your own kids, and your husband."

"Thanks, LT."

I drove home. I stood in my family room, staring at the fireplace. I imagined the office the next day, when the guys were dishing shit to me, full force, and laughing their asses off at my stupidity. I thought about Cecelia and Flaca sleeping on concrete bunks in the DT.

I can't go back there, I thought.

And then I cried.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The worst phone call of my life

People always talk about having a heavy heart. But when your city-issued police car has just been stolen by gang members, your heart isn't just heavy, it's beating your stomach into a pulp. I felt sick, nauseated, full of dread.

I asked the principal to borrow his phone.

"Hey, Lt. A. Cecelia Martinez and Flaca Hernandez just stole my car."

"Where are you?"

"Sunrise Alternative School."

"Which way were they headed?"

"South on 14th East."

"You drive the blue Lumina, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, you sit tight. I'm going to send a couple of guys over to pick you up, and we'll get your car back. You and I will talk when you get back to the office."

I sat on a hard wooden chair in the principal's office like a misbehaving school girl, trying not to cry.

I wondered if I'd lose my job. At the least, I was pretty sure I was going to get written up.

What would the guys say, when they picked me up? They already thought I was ridiculously idealistic, and wasting my times with these kids--who were going to prison for sure.

The 20 minutes I waited for the detectives seemed like forever.

Finally, a sleek green Taurus pulled up in front of the building. I reluctantly abandoned my chair, walked outside, and climbed into the back seat of the car.

Detective Young, who was driving the car, turned and smiled a sarcastic smile at me. "Heard you got stranded, Archuleta," he said. His partner for the day, Detective Dan Rosenberg, shook his head at me: "I told you that you were going to get in trouble transporting those kids."

There wasn't much I could say. I leaned my head against the soft upholstery and looked out the window as we headed south on State Street.

"They've recovered your car," Detective Young told me. "And, they're holding the girls. You have to go identify them and pick up your car."

"That was fast," I said.

"Yeah, when police cars are stolen, we take that pretty seriously," Rosenberg said. "We had a description and they were going straight south away from the school. Easy to find."

In minutes, we'd pulled up behind a couple of marked police cars with their lights still flashing red and blue. They were sandwiching my Lumina. Two other Tauruses, that belonged to detectives from the gang unit, were parked nearby.

Cecelia and Flaca were leaned against my car, handcuffed. Detective Young walked me forward to where they were standing. "Are these the girls who stole your car?" he asked.

"Yes," I told him. The girls avoided looking me in the face, and kept their attention riveted on the ground.

"Do you have anything to say to Ms. A?" he asked the girls.

They said nothing.

He told the girls to get into the back of the patrol car. The patrol officer opened the door, and the girls slid across the hard plastic back seat. The officer closed the door, got into the driver's seat, and pulled away.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

No Joy in the Ride

Cecelia - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

I talked with Cecelia the following day by phone. I'd spoken to her probation officer, and could report the following:

Her probation officer had been notified while visiting the school that Cecelia had been suspended. The probation officer immediately notified the judge that Cecelia had violated her probation status. A bench warrant had been issued for her arrest, requiring her to appear before her juvenile court judge for violation of probation.

Cecelia sat in silence after I gave her the update, on the phone. I could hear her breathing, but not much else.

Finally, she said, slowly and meaningfully, "Daaaammmn. So, whuz gonna happen?"

I told her that if a police officer happened upon her (a not unlikely scenario), she would be arrested and taken to detention.

Or, she could take matters into her own hands, and turn herself in. By doing so, she could make the case to the judge that although she'd had difficulties at school, she was making a serious effort to own up to the consequences of her action and follow through.

She was unpersuaded by my logic. Voluntarily going to detention? Yeah, right.

"I dunno, Miss A. I don't think I want to go to DT. It sucks bad in there."

"One way or another, C, you're going to wind up in there, anyway."

"Yeah, but it could be months before I get caught."

"Months that you won't be in school, won't be getting an education, and will be sitting in your mom's house bored out of your mind, hiding from cops, worrying every time you go on the street, and living in constant paranoia, knowing that it's hanging out there, waiting for you, when you least expect it."

"Yeah. That's true."

"I'll go with you. I'll take you there. I'll call the judge, and I'll explain what happened."

"Really? You'd do that for me?" she asked me.

"You know I would," I told her.

"Would you do something else for me?" she asked.

"Maybe. What is it?"

"Would you help me get enrolled in another school before we go to DT, so I can tell the judge I did that, and I can start going to school as soon as I get out of DT?" she asked.

"Yeah. I'll do that," I told her.

"Would you do it tomorrow?" she asked.

"Okay, we'll do it tomorrow. I'll pick you up at 9:00, first thing in the morning. We'll go to your school, and then we'll go to DT and you can turn yourself in."


After I got off the phone, I went to the Lieutenant and cleared my plan. It sounded crazy to him, but if a gang member was going to peacefully respond to a warrant, well, that was okay with him.

"Just be careful," he told me.

The next morning, at 9 a.m. exactly, I pulled up in front of Cecelia's weathered green house. She was standing outside, waiting for me, but she wasn't alone. At her side was Flaca, dressed identically to Cecelia in a white t-shirt, oversized dickies, and g-nikes. Both girls had their hair slicked back into ponytails.

Cecelia climbed into the front of the car, and Flaca slid into the back seat.

"Flaca wants to go to Skyline, too, Miss A," Cecelia told me. "We both want to go to the same school."

"Doesn't Flaca already have a school she goes to?" I asked.

The girls informed me, in unison, that Flaca wasn't in school yet, and wasn't registered to attend anywhere.

"Well, okay. Is Flaca okay with going to DT, too?"

Flaca's eyes got very wide, and she sat up towards the front seat. "What? Why are we going to DT? I don't wanna go to DT!" she screeched.

I looked at Cecelia, who was suddenly slouching in her seat.

"C, didn't you tell her what the plan was?" I asked.

"No, MIss A. I didn't tell her that part."

"What part," Flaca said, belligerently. "What part didn't you tell me?"

"Cecelia has a warrrant for her arrest for probation violation, and she's going to DT after she registers for school."

"Sheeettt, Cee Cee, what are you thinking?" Flaca asked.

"I just have to get right with Judge V, and take care of my shit."

Flaca sat back, closed her eyes, and ignored us the rest of the way to Sunrise Alternative School. She was clearly pissed.

When I pulled into the school parking lot, Flaca refused to leave the car. She was so annoyed with Cecelia that she clearly didn't even want to register for school now. She sat, arms folded across her chest, and stated that she'd wait for us in the car.

I looked at my purse on the floor of the car. For a second, I thought, "Maybe I should take it inside." Then, I asked myself, "Will Flaca think that I don't trust her, or maybe that I think she'd steal from me?" I made a decision and left my purse lying there.

Cecelia and I went into the school, met the school secretary, and were ushered into the principal's office to discuss her enrollment at Sunrise. The principal's office was wide and bright, with a large plate glass window that faced the street, behind his back.

As the Principal explained the rules and policies at Sunrise to Cecelia, I listened, and looked out the window.

I watched as a light blue Chevy Lumina turned onto the street in front of the school. It looked familiar.

Cecelia recognized it right away. "Shit, Miss A...Flaca is stealing your car!"

Before I could even react, she jumped up, and ran out of the principal's office, and then the front doors of the school. I followed her, and as I exited the swinging exit doors, I watched as Cecelia jumped into my car with Flaca, and they drove away.

I'd left my keys in my purse.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Back to School

Cecelia - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Cecelia started school in August at Westside High School.

On her second day at school, she called me.

"Hey, Miss A, I got kicked out of school."

What. The. Hell.

I picked her up at her house, and took her to eat pie.

She picked at her piece of apple with her fork, and told me the story across the dark green table.

"Those fucking Levas, they started saying shit to me from the beginning," she told me. "I'd walk down the hall, and they'd call me names, call out at me, tell me I was a bitch and a puta."

"What did you do?" I asked.

"What could I do, Miss A?" she asked. "I can't let those Levas call me out and talk shit about my set."

"So, what happened?"

"This dude, Ben, from Aves. He called me a puta this morning, and I just threw down. I started hitting him, Miss A, until he fell down, and then I kicked him until they pulled me off him."


"You know Ben, right? His whole family is in Aves, some judge from Califas told them to leave the state, and they moved here. He killed Pee Wee last year, but nothing happened. No one would testify against him because they were all scared. So, we said we'd handle it on the street."

Cecelia got violated by probation for failing to attend school, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.

Part 6

Friday, May 29, 2009

Wired for Sound

She was sitting on the porch when the bullet passed through her chest, shredded the walls of her heart, and lodged in her spine.

After, they remembered that the sounds were almost simultaneous: the gunshot and Estralita's soft moan before she crumpled and fell to lay on the faded paint and splintery wood.

Then, the sound of a car accelerating very fast through darkened streets.

When the police arrived on the scene, no one knew exactly what had happened. It was twilight, the air was too dim to show the gray car creeping slowly, soundlessly down the street. And, it happened too fast...the shot, the moan, the fall, and the way that Estralita hardly bled, because her blood all spilled on the inside of her chest. No one saw a license plate, and no one could even give an accurate description of the car.

"Who would want to shoot her?" the police asked. No one knew, or if they did, they weren't saying. Her mom's sobs filled the background behind the detectives' questions.

The detectives followed up the next day. Was it rivals from another gang? Was it someone from her gang? Her friends weren't sure. "Maybe," they answered, to every question. "Maybe. Maybe not. We don't know."

The case folder filled with up with interview forms, witness statements, and autopsy photos, but there were no suspects, no leads, and an increasing amount of pressure from the media and the mayor's office for some kind of action. The shell, dug out of one of her vertebrae, was run through drug fire in hopes of matching it with a known gun with no hits. Her picture was flashed on the nightly news on all three channels for three nights in a row. She was smiling like an angel. A reward was offered for information.

But, nothing came of it. The case was a black hole, with no light and no leads.

No one in the department found it acceptable that a sixteen-year-old girl could be killed on her front porch on a summer evening without an arrest being made. The fact that she was beautiful made it even more difficult to contemplate. Such things shouldn't matter, but they do.

Finally, one of the detectives went to the lieutenant with a suggestion.

"What if we bugged her, L.T.? We could maybe hear something that would give us something to go on, anything that might break some possibilities open for us."

The lieutenant thought it over. "Ask her family," he told them. "If it's okay with the family, then do it."

The detectives met with the victim's mother. She agreed. Anything to get the person who had killed her daughter.

Estrelita's body was prepared at the funeral home. There was no obvious trauma, nothing to show that she'd died violently, so unlike many shootings, her casket would be open for the funeral. Her mother dressed her in a white dress, with lace, sleeping beauty in a satin-lined coffin.

The female crime tech wired the bug into her dark hair, and wound the wires down beneath her body to hide them. She sound-checked the microphone until it broadcast clearly.

Estrelita was wired for sound. She was the trap to catch a shooter.

The viewing was on a Thursday evening. By five, the parking lot was full. Three detectives loitered by the front door, in the lobby, watching. Sometimes, they spoke, when kids passed by that they knew. A few times, they traded conversations with one or two of the older members of QVO. Two other detectives walked through the parking lot, photographing cars and writing down license numbers.

To the accompaniment of soft organ music, a parade of gang members passed through the doors of the funeral home to pay their respects. Several, both boys and girls, wore custom made shirts with "RIP Shy Girl" (Estralita's nickname) in olde English letters.

As they passed through the viewing line, they left offerings: brown brown bandannas and rosaries and flowers and notes that lined the inside of the coffin, next to Estralita's body.

Several of the teenagers and young adults leaned close and whispered words to Estralita, or kissed her face or hands.

All the while, the spindles in the recorder under the coffin circled, quietly, so quietly that no one even heard.

(to be continued later)