A Question of Hope

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

Just the Facts

You duck under the yellow crime-scene tape once the ambulances depart. There you find the physical evidence from the Ayala shootings.

The ground is littered with four pieces of broken eyeglasses, a cigar, a bloody bandage, an empty Budweiser six-pack, and a cigarette with one inch of burnt ash still lit when it tumbled to the ground. The banal and the macabre mingle uneasily. Clutter left by the paramedics litters the ground. A bloody white tee shirt warns of gore. Joseph Sr.'s thumb, split savagely from the trunk of his hand, rests several feet from the spot where he dropped after he was blasted by three rounds.

Judge Thomas Dunevant confers with attorneys during Rivera's second trial.

Rosemary Ramirez, mother of murder victim, Megan.
photos by Paolo Vescia
Judge Thomas Dunevant confers with attorneys during Rivera's second trial.

Rosemary Ramirez, mother of murder victim, Megan.

A nursing-home worker tends to Boy.
Paolo Vescia
A nursing-home worker tends to Boy.

It was over, just like that.

On the rolled curb, an acceleration scuff marks the getaway car's departure. A Nova and the white Camaro as well as two nearby houses have obviously been shot up.

On the street, an officer has placed 11 folded, yellow index cards, like tents, over shell casings.

It is the evening of December 10, 1996. Before the shooting, the neighborhood was almost a Norman Rockwell cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The hood of the Camaro was up while Boy tinkered with the car and Pompa drank with his uncle. Joseph Ayala Sr.'s girlfriend, Rebecca Gutierrez, and her daughters hung Christmas lights on the front of the house.

The domestic tranquillity, however, was deceptive.

Rebecca used heroin. Her children were members of West Side Chicanos, who fought constantly with Rebecca's boyfriend, Joseph Sr. The kids have taken Joseph Sr.'s tools without asking and have even grabbed the old man's car, scrawling "West Side Chicanos" all over it. The arguments have gone from vicious to deadly.

Whenever Joseph Ayala Sr. threw one of Rebecca's kids out of the house, they phoned their friends in the gang, who swarmed back to the house and brawled with Joseph Sr. In one confrontation, Joseph Sr. was knocked unconscious when he was struck in the head with a Tonka toy truck. Both of Joseph Sr.'s daughters, Yvonne and Sara, have attacked and beaten his girlfriend, Rebecca.

After two of his nephews were shot and stabbed, Joseph Sr. tried to ban West Side Chicanos, including Rebecca's kids, from the house.

A visitor might find all of this brutality remarkable, but for the Ayalas, it was nothing new. Son Joseph's mission was to bring his father out of this whirlpool of violence and drugs and into his church. But time was running out.

Down the block, a wide, gray Monte Carlo slowly made its way toward the Ayalas and Pompa.

One of Rebecca's boys exited the vehicle as Pompa approached the car. Pompa told the occupants, all West Side Chicanos, that they were not welcome and must leave.

Janet Thomas, who lives nearby, was standing in her doorway when she saw the Monte Carlo approach. She heard Joseph Sr. bellowing at the gangsters. She heard Rebecca screaming at her boyfriend to shut the fuck up. She watched Pompa punch out the driver, who recovered and came up shooting.

Incredibly, Rebecca Gutierrez and both of her daughters piled into the car with the other West Side Chicanos before the smoke cleared.

Another neighbor, Edward Estrella, observed the Monte Carlo pulling away. He saw one of Rebecca's boys running alongside the car trying to get in. He saw Pompa, so amped up that he was oblivious to the bodies in the gutter, chasing the vehicle yelling, "You missed, you motherfucker. You missed! Now you're dead."

It did not take the police long to identify the shooter.

Johnny Pompa picked him out of a photo lineup.

Rebecca Gutierrez's estranged husband, Ralph Gutierrez, brought Rebecca and their daughters to the police to answer questions. The police got nowhere, noting in a report, "Rebecca could give no reasonable explanation as to why she would get into a vehicle containing subjects unknown to her, given the fact that one of the subjects just shot and killed her boyfriend and wounded her boyfriend's son."

Of course, Rebecca's claim of ignorance was a pose.

Her estranged husband, Ralph, told the police that the shooter's nickname was Smiley and that his real name is Michael Rivera. He informed the police that he did not learn this from his family but rather heard it on the street.

Smiley has a sister who is married to Michael Moreno. When Moreno was arrested on unrelated charges, he told the police that the shooter in the Ayala homicide was his brother-in-law, Michael Rivera.

On May 5, 1997, five months after the shooting, Rebecca Gutierrez told the cops that Michael Rivera was the killer and that he opened fire after being knocked to the ground by Pompa.

"Instead of fighting like a man, he punked and started shooting," said Gutierrez.

Despite all of these witnesses, Michael Rivera walked. By the time of the trial, witnesses had vanished or lost their memory. Pompa, for instance, who was headed back to prison for a parole violation, could not afford to go with a snitch label.

Silence in the face of retaliation, or intimidation, is commonplace in gang cases.

For example, when Ralph Gutierrez first mentioned that the killer was Michael Rivera, he made a point of telling the police that he did not know this information from his family, whose safety deeply worried him. He informed the cops that Rivera was a killer with a reputation for being crazy. And when Rebecca Gutierrez finally fingered Rivera, five months after the shootings, she told the police that there were contracts out on her and her children to keep them from talking.

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