IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

FRIENDS OF A MURDER VICTIM SAY POLICE LABELED THEM AS GANG MEMBERS--AND IGNORED OPPORTUNITIES TO CAPTURE THE KILLER

Whatever judgment was made, it apparently did not include checking out the claims those at the Rivera home say they made about the assailant having retreated toward Cristal Grende's house. It also did not include the immediate questioning of neighbors who could have verified those claims--despite one who called 911 and requested police contact.

"If the police had listened to us," Suzzane Rivera says, "there was enough officers here to leave some and send some over. I mean, they secured the crime scene, supposedly. . . . What is it to send two policemen over there? Sure, we're suspects, but at least check out our story."

Linda Espinoza, who has spent hours combing through the police report for answers, is incensed. "If this is the routine way investigations of murder are handled, no wonder gangs are getting away with it," she says.

Tommy Espinoza was the kind of guy who was still going when everyone else was dead tired. By the middle of his 21st year, he'd made productive use of his energies, going from underachieving slacker to social whirlwind. He joined groups like MEChA and the Brown Berets and participated in efforts to prevent measures like California's Proposition 187 from spreading to Arizona. He helped out on political campaigns and talked to the neighbor kids when he knew they were having a rough time at home; he told them to stay in school. In the evenings, when he knew his grandmother hadn't had time to make dinner, he'd make a Taco Bell pit stop and bring her some Dr Pepper, her favorite.

After Tommy was killed, his friends launched a phone attack on the police department, looking to vent their frustrations over the way the incident was handled. Through the efforts of John Loredo, who made use of contacts gleaned in two years as a city council intern, they were finally able to arrange a meeting with Gerald Richards, the department's head of community relations.

Prior to their January 11, 1995, meeting with Richards, four of the people at Suzzane Rivera's home the night of Tommy's death wrote individual accounts of the event, which they submitted to Richards at their meeting.

Based on those accounts (some details of which either conflict with or are absent from police records) and on subsequent interviews with New Times, here is their version of what happened early on the morning of Sunday, December 4:

Tommy arrives about 40 minutes after midnight. He teases Sena Rivera for monopolizing the phone, then follows Suzzane Rivera to the backyard, where she introduces him to her friends, who are scattered around a bonfire inside a 55-gallon drum.

A little earlier, a car had driven up to the fence, which borders Palm Lane. It's one of those chain-link fences with slats inserted; you can't see through it, although silhouettes would have been visible to outsiders because of the firelight. Someone called out for "Bobby." Suzzane and Carl Rivera and Alex Contreras stepped atop a metal picnic table near the fence to peer over; they saw a white Mustang convertible in the street with two Hispanic males inside. They told them, sorry, there's no Bobby here.

Throughout the night, they'd noticed cars driving west along Palm Lane, and, looking that way now, they noticed several parked outside the residence of Cristal Grende, two houses away. Maybe that's the party you're looking for, they told the guys in the Mustang. Right then, someone over there in a flannel shirt came out and flagged them down. And Suzzane Rivera and her group went back to talking, and some of the little kids were running around the yard and playing tetherball. Then Tommy arrived.

About 40 minutes after that, Rhonda Deleon decides she wants gum, and it has to be Big Red. So Tony Deleon says, okay, he'll go to the store, and Carl Rivera says he'll ride along so he can get cigarettes. They walk through the arcadia doors into the house on their way to the carport, Josie Ayon right behind them on her way to the kitchen.

Those still outside then hear arguing, expletives, coming from Palm Lane. "At first," Suzzane Rivera says, "we said, 'Oh, somebody's fighting,' and we paid it no mind. But it got louder, and louder, and it was, like, next to our fence. . . . So we got up [on the table] again. And we saw a guy and a girl, and he had a gun to the girl's head. And then I said, 'Hey, he's gonna kill her.'"

Alex Contreras, on the other hand, says the arguing is just a backdrop, that instead, he and Richard Ayon and Tommy, who were sitting on the other side of the bonfire, hear someone outside the fence talking at them, cussing and saying in Spanish, "Here's Hollywood," a reference to the Hollywood street gang. They climb up on the table. Alex sees a short, stocky guy and a couple arguing behind him, so he and Tommy tell him: Hey, there's nothing but raza here--why don't you go back where you came from and just have a good time?

The trash talker only gets more belligerent.
"This guy--he didn't know who we were," Alex Contreras recalls. "He didn't know who was back there [behind the fence]. So I knew he had to have a gun or he was very stupid."

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