A Question of Hope

One family's struggle to escape the devastation of gang culture

Despite threats, both Saiz and Valenzuela testified against Rivera to uphold their end of plea agreements for lesser prison terms.

"It was sickening to see Rivera again," says Adela. "I want to get my hands on him. But he's not smirking at us the way he did in our trial because now the witnesses are testifying. He's not his usual smiley self."

Judge Thomas Dunevant had to admonish both Rivera and his sister, who sat behind the defense table throughout the trial, for trying to intimidate witnesses as well as members of Megan's family with "mad-dog" stares.

"His sister gave me the evil eye, too," says Adela. "You can't look at the evil eye too long, but you do have to look."

The tension over witness intimidation came to a head as Megan's baby sitter stood outside the courtroom waiting to testify about the worst night of her life. The stress on Patricia Amarillas, 14 at the time of the murder two years ago, overwhelmed her. In a state of hysteria, she said she could not remember anything, that she would say nothing if put under oath.

Before she could even take the witness stand, the proceedings ground to a halt.

A young woman watching these events in the courtroom understood the girl's terror.

"I've lost several of my friends who've been killed by West Side Chicanos," says the girl, requesting anonymity. "I take their threats very seriously. Everyone does."

The prosecution and the defense, assuming that the baby sitter's memory loss was permanent, argued the better part of the morning over whether the jury should be allowed to view the taped statements the baby sitter had given to the authorities shortly after the murder. In the video, she clearly identified the perpetrators.

The defense argued, successfully, that before any tape was played, the prosecution should attempt to refresh the teenager's memory with transcripts. The practical effect of this legal posturing was to force Amarillas into the courtroom where Rivera could glare at her.

And so the trembling girl was led to the stand the next day. Clad in a Hard Rock Cafe sweat shirt whose cuffs extended below her hands, she sobbed a series of Idon't-knows and I-don't-remembers in the witness docket.

The baby sitter remembered everything about the evening of the homicide except the parts involving Rivera.

"When you came here yesterday," asks prosecutor Noel Levy, "did you make the comment that you'd be safe if you didn't talk?"

"I don't remember," cries Amarillas, her nose running and tears streaming down her face.

And then, something happened that changed the entire tenor of the trial.

During a break, a detective approached the witness and offered her a box of Kleenex. With that simple, thoughtful gesture, the teenager was able to compose herself. When the questioning resumed, Levy led her gently through the events that preceded the shooting.

"Mike said if Megan didn't go with him, he was going to take me," Amarillas tells the jury.

"Do you recall the name Michael called out to the other man?" asks Levy.

"Yes, Bulldog . . . he had a gun, it was a long gun."

"Did you ever see Megan again?"

"No," answers the weeping baby sitter.

On the other side of the courtroom, Megan's aunts cried softly in the gallery.

As damaging to Rivera as their testimony was, the stories that both Victoria Valenzuela and Katherine Saiz told were more than mere evidence; the accounts of these two women were enough to raise goosebumps on marble.

Saiz informed jurors, in a flat monotone accompanied by not the slightest facial expression, that after the group left Megan's apartment on their way to the alfalfa fields, Valenzuela was "macking" [making out] with "Bulldog." When Rivera got out of the car to murder Megan Ramirez, Saiz says she warned the amorous couple that "I don't want to see any kinky shit."

Then, following Michael's lead, all four took turns shooting the victim.

After executing Ramirez, everyone piled back into the Honda and concocted a story that the deceased had fought with Rivera and exited the vehicle earlier in the evening.

Saiz, who'd been up for three days speeding, said she looked over at "Smiley" and noticed a tear in his eye.

"He said, 'Damn, she was my girlfriend,'" Saiz testifies.

"Then Victoria said, 'How do you think I felt? She was my best friend.'"

Shortly thereafter, said Saiz, Valenzuela and "Bulldog" had sex in the back seat of the Honda as she and Rivera drove silently back to the turf of the West Side Chicanos.

In contrast to the flat, almost catatonic statements of Katherine Saiz, Victoria Valenzuela's testimony was punctuated by tears and sobs.

"Our children played very well together," says Valenzuela, describing how close she was to Ramirez.

Like Saiz, Valenzuela said she was recruited by Rivera that night to beat up Ramirez.

Valenzuela testified that she did not shoot Megan willingly, that "Bulldog" wrapped his hand around hers and squeezed the trigger for her.

When the jury left the courtroom on breaks, Valenzuela's tears vanished and she smiled fetchingly at friends and relatives. Her eyes rolled flirtatiously when she talked with her attorney.

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