A Question of Hope

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

The young man at the end of the pew is a professional car thief.

Law enforcement also recognizes him as a cocaine user and a drug peddler. Yet here he sits in church, a child of God as much as you or your neighbor.

He accepted Jesus while locked up in a prison cell, so any skepticism you might harbor about the depth of Joseph Ayala Jr.'s religious commitment is understandable; after all, jailhouse conversions, like foxhole redemptions, are notoriously fickle.

Adela dotes on Boy.
Adela dotes on Boy.
Top: Yvonne Montiel and son Ray-Ray

Middle: Sara Ayala

Bottom: Adela McCormick
photos by Paolo Vescia
Top: Yvonne Montiel and son Ray-Ray
Middle: Sara Ayala
Bottom: Adela McCormick
Before his wounding, Boy, right, communed with friends like Pastor Richard Lee of Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church in Flagstaff.
Before his wounding, Boy, right, communed with friends like Pastor Richard Lee of Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church in Flagstaff.
Top: Johnny Pompa

Bottom: Joseph Ayala Sr.
photos by Paolo Vescia
Top: Johnny Pompa
Bottom: Joseph Ayala Sr.
Joseph Ayala Jr.
Paolo Vescia
Joseph Ayala Jr.
The scene of the crime
photos by Paolo Vescia
The scene of the crime
Boy and Adela
Paolo Vescia
Boy and Adela
Michael "Smiley" Rivera
Michael "Smiley" Rivera
A laying on of hands. And boy is moved by the spirit during worship.
photos by Paolo Vescia
A laying on of hands. And boy is moved by the spirit during worship.
Adela dotes on boy.
Paolo Vescia
Adela dotes on boy.
George McCormick and Ricky, in Boy's room.
Paolo Vescia
George McCormick and Ricky, in Boy's room.
Top: "Smiley" Rivera during his second murder trial.

Bottom: Rivera's attorney, Carmen Fisher.
photos by Paolo Vescia
Top: "Smiley" Rivera during his second murder trial.
Bottom: Rivera's attorney, Carmen Fisher.
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.

Still, if Joseph Ayala -- with his hoodlum life -- could go straight, who else might?

Perhaps his sister Yvonne Montiel, a member of the notorious gang Las Cuatro Milpas, could start over. A mother of two boys, she has been stabbed and shot repeatedly. She does not share her brother's interest in church, but the future of her children weighs upon her. Joseph's other sister, Sara Ayala, grew up in the same neighborhood where several generations of families belong to LCM. Last month, Sara gave birth to her second baby.

All of these young people have spent their lives within the various orbits of gang life in Phoenix. And all were menaced by a homicidal psychopath named "Smiley," a gangster who even lumbers through their dreams.

The Hispanic matriarch of the clan, Adela McCormick, despairs over the home life that brought her family so much agony. She worries to the point of collapse about the future of her children and grandchildren.

It's a question, then, of hope, isn't it?

Will any of Adela's brood ever escape the gravitational pull of the gangs? It's a quandary for any parent raising a child in the barrio.

For Adela, her hope languishes on the shoals of reality. The fact is that families caught in gang violence have almost nowhere to turn for help. They must help themselves.

We begin our story with Joseph Jr., whom everyone calls "Boy."

Worship

Chiseled and hewn from 27 years of gangs, prison and Christ Almighty, Ayala the ex-con bears close examination before you judge the state of his soul.

Let us begin the scrutiny here, at Sunday service.

West on Encanto Boulevard, past the carnecerias and the casa de cambios, not a half-mile from the snapping pennants on the state fairgrounds, the Apostolic Heritage Church beckons folks who know a thing or two about hard work and hard knocks.

Boy stopped swiping cars and getting high only after he was locked up and found the Lord. But he was not content with his own salvation; Boy initiated a Latino ministry behind bars, and when he was finally released, he continued to bring lapsed Catholics into the Pentecostal movement.

The first three rows of the church this morning are given over to the kind of people with whom Boy shared the gospel: Mexicans and Central Americans who speak little, if any, English. No longer a part of the Church of Rome, these converts speak in tongues. They believe in miracles.

And they are not alone; in fact, this Sunday the immigrants nestle in a house full of the faithful. Boy sits with his mother.

Joseph Ayala Jr.'s struggle to Jesus, however sincere, was extraordinary. He's a strong young man who overcame his background, his neighborhood and, yes, his bloodline to find faith as a preacher.

But even the Holy Ghost could not stand up to the West Side Chicanos, a street gang that has tested the faith of Boy and his entire family. And so mother and son have come to the Apostolic Heritage Church to pray.

Crescendos of bass-heavy music throb into the congregation, agitating the depressed as well as the righteous.

Boy thrusts his index finger, on beat, toward heaven.

His mother shifts in her vibrant blue blazer as the music builds.

Suddenly a man in his 20s pogos out of his seat and scatters erratically through the room, slapping off the walls, whiplashed by the muscular harmonies and the ecstatic contractions of Jesus received.

The entire room moves, alive. Worshipers crackle and fry upon a rapturous griddle and clench their faces with glory while the minister booms: "Thank you, God, for your blood that washes white as snow."

If Jesus loves Boy, and surely He does, it must be said that his mother loves him more. As Boy's spiritual reverie deepens in the grip of the music, Adela presses her warm comfort against her only son.

The pastor is not aloof. He is one of the penitents crowing, "You are looking at a longhaired, maggot-infested hippie. Now I am razor cut."

He changed his life; they can, too.

"There's a healer in the house," says the minister. "You can step on in. There is help for you."

Adela looks as though she might scream. If there is help for her, she has not found it. There is seldom even a sound night's sleep for respite. Gangs and prison and Christ Almighty shape her discordant life, too.

Any true story about gang violence will have many roots, none more important than the home. Adela McCormick, says readily that she has not always been the best mother. At times she was violent and her children were too often parched for a kind word. But if she was harsh in her ways, she was not someone who abandoned her young ones to the streets. The kids will tell you that their dad was someone they loved but who was not a role model. He sported tattoos of birds upon each of his biceps, and on his shoulder blade was etched a picture of a man in a coat with the legend "Born Bad." He was an alcoholic and a junkie, but also someone who urged them on in school and who preached the necessity of work.

Adela says plainly that her husband, whom she left in 1981, lived to party. He was murdered three years ago by a gangbanger who opened fire with an AK-47.

The story of this family suffers without his recollections. The role of parental influence, then, will be skewed in favor of Adela's memories, a limitation of a single voice tipped further out of balance because it is a tale told by a woman beset by withering heartache.

In their pain, Boy and Adela turned to Jesus, someone who understands sinners.

Now half of those inside the church leave their benches and kneel on the floor while older congregants place their bony, spotted hands on the firm shoulders of the kids. Boy is quickly surrounded.

The pastor reminds everyone of Noah's ark and the terrible stench from the animals.

"I don't care how stuffy it gets in here. I don't care how much it smells. The church at its worst is better than the world at its best."

Joseph Ayala Jr. came to the same conclusion in his jail cell.

Of course, smart money knows that there is nothing more convenient than a prisoner finding the Lord.

But consider the possibility that Boy is different.

Not that his rap sheet offers much hope.

Joseph the Thief

On October 25, 1990, Boy was indicted for trafficking in stolen property and theft. He brought hot cars to a chop shop in south Phoenix. Authorities who burst into the ringleaders' dwelling confiscated eight ounces of cocaine, a triple-beam scale, 10,000 items of clothing stolen from Dillard's -- not to mention the detritus of a chop shop.

"Joseph was hanging around with gang members and guys out of prison," says his mother. "He was the youngest idiot there, but he never participated in the violence. He made $200 a car."

Boy was merely a car thief, and never a jumped-in gang member. Nonetheless, the government resisted attempts to lower his bond, telling the court that "suspect Ayala is an active member of an organization involving narcotics and stolen property. The witnesses have been relocated for their safety."

When Boy turned his life over to the Lord, those who knew him were not entirely shocked. His sister -- three years older than Joseph -- thought the conversion was consistent with the brother she grew up with.

"He was never mean as a child, like a lot of kids can be," remembers Yvonne. "He was good-hearted. Everyone always wanted to play with him. If anyone tried to fight my little brother, I was ready to trade blows. It wasn't in his nature to stomp someone. He would talk his way out of trouble. I wondered if he was a wimp, but it wasn't that."

As the smallest of toddlers, Yvonne, Sara and Joseph attended an evangelical church that one day a week would shanghai the neighborhood children, effectively serving as child care for Adela.

"We started going when Joseph was a year and a half," says Yvonne. "I took Pampers and bottles. The church would pick us up in their bus and we'd be there all day on Sunday, sometimes even Saturday. Even as a young child, Joseph would close his eyes and lift his hands to God. He would even cry when he was praying."

Throughout their childhood, the kids attended the church of Pastor Gary Hogan of Christ Temple, who remembered Boy as mischievous and lovable.

"Joseph was a very likable kid. I don't ever remember him talking back, cursing, fighting. He had a great sense of humor," recalls Hogan.

In fact, Joseph Jr. made such an impression that the minister still has one of the boy's decades-old jokes on the tip of his tongue: "A bus driver has a whole bunch of black kids and Mexican kids, all of whom are fighting and making remarks about each other's nationality. The bus driver comes to a stop and orders all of them off the bus and then warns them he won't have any racial arguments on his bus. It doesn't matter if you're red, yellow or green.

"Okay, everyone back on the bus, the light green ones in front, and the dark green ones in back."

Pastor Hogan smiles at the memory, then says that Boy stopped coming to church at about the age of 10.

The pastor didn't see him again until he was 19.

Members of Hogan's church who witness to prisoners found Boy in the Madison Street lockup.

Joseph Jr. contacted Hogan and explained that he'd stolen cars to support his drug habit and that he missed church. And that's how it began.

"Even though Joseph grew up in our church, he never had a religious conversion," says Hogan. "In jail it dawned on him. He received the Holy Spirit. It's not the same as merely accepting the Lord as your personal savior. We see it as praying for forgiveness and not going back to your old ways. It was a profound and life-changing experience for Joseph: He witnessed to others in jail. He didn't use the church to try to lighten his sentence. He never asked me to help with his bail. He never asked for a character letter to give the court."

Boy's court-appointed attorney, Peter Leander, believes that his client's religious enlightenment was genuine, unlike that of a lot of convicts who play the angles.

"Joseph was the only client I ever had where a jailer was willing to come in from Durango and testify before the judge that the kid was for real," says Leander. "That guard caught a lot of flak from the administration, but Joseph is such a good kid.

"He did not want to go to trial. He said he needed to admit what he'd done and serve his time. His mother is also very, very nice. She showed up at every court appearance. After the sentencing, she had a bottle of cologne, Fino Davidoff, delivered to me to say thanks."

Boy was sentenced to four and one-half years.

Pastor Hogan was impressed with his demeanor as a convict: "I don't ever remember him complaining. Ever. Instead, it was all about who he was talking to about Jesus. He asked us to get him Bible literature in Spanish for the inmates who didn't speak English. The only thing he worried about was how he could help the others who were in jail. It was like he was the chaplain."

A Free Man

When Boy got out of prison, he lived for a time with his mother, who had remarried and moved to Flagstaff. When he returned to Phoenix, he attended Christ Temple and began his ministry to his Hispanic brethren.

According to Pastor Hogan, Boy volunteered to fix neighbors' cars and used the contact to proselytize .

Boy brought a lot of new people to Christ Temple that first year he was out of prison, but he told his mother in 1996 that he'd decided that he could not rest until he brought his father, Joseph Ayala Sr., to church.

"'I'm going to bring my whole family to the Lord,'" Adela remembers Boy saying.

She beams with the memory.

He moved in with his dad, says Pastor Hogan, because, "He desperately wanted to build a relationship with his father."

Adela was leery of Boy's effort to convert his dad.

She says her ex-husband's "girlfriend had a prison record and all her kids were in gangs. He was hanging around with what I call heathens."

Still, by all accounts, Boy was making some progress with his father.

And the young man's own life also changed for the better.

Joseph Ayala Jr. was accepted into the Christian Life College, a Bible school in Stockton, California. He'd won a full scholarship. But he was determined to save his father's soul first.

On a mild winter's evening, as Boy labored over the power steering on his white Camaro, his dad stood next to the car drinking beer. The Ayalas were joined by Boy's cousin, Johnny Pompa, a handsome young man just out of prison.

Witnesses said that shortly after 6 p.m., a late-model, primer-gray Monte Carlo rolled up 67th Avenue. Driven by a member of the West Side Chicanos, the car held several gangbangers, including the children of Joseph Ayala Sr.'s girlfriend.

According to police reports, Johnny Pompa argued with the occupants of the vehicle. He sucker-punched the driver and knocked him out. When the victim came to, he reached into the Monte Carlo and pulled out an automatic rifle with a banana clip attached. Shouting declarations of loyalty to West Side Chicanos, the young man opened fire.

Joseph Sr. died instantly.

Pompa, the aggressor, was not scratched.

Having pulled himself out from under the car as the shooting broke out, Boy threw himself on top of his father's body in a hopeless attempt to shield him from further injury. For his effort, he took a single round in his skull.

The bullet blew the top of Boy's head off. A detective noted in his report that brain matter oozed out of the wound.

At the time of the shooting, Adela was remarried to a wonderful husband who had taken her away from the hard streets of Phoenix and settled her in peaceful Flagstaff. She had hoped her only son would soon be on his way to Bible college. Now the overwhelming pull of a rough neighborhood had condemned her boy to a nursing home for the rest of his life. There he would be tended by the caretakers as if he were an animal in a stable.

Adela's life, never easy, turned for the worse.

Adela Stands Up

In the vortex of this wrenching tragedy, Adela McCormick soldiered heroically on her son's behalf, demonstrating resolve unknown prior to the shooting.

Adela and Boy functioned as a team. Like musk oxen who close ranks against predators, Adela and her stricken son took on the world around them.

She refused to acknowledge the caregivers, and even family members, who said her son would never recover from his comalike state.

Boy also refused to quit.

Adela said he would improve, and he did. Adela said her son would communicate, and he did, even kissing the hands of visitors he recognized.

Yet the doctors insisted that Boy would not get over his wounds and that he would always require professional care.

In her struggle to retain hope, Adela battled a dark, mother's depression. Alcohol often offered the only consolation, the church never providing relief for her the way it had for Boy.

Still, here they both are on Valentine's Day, inside God's house, the Apostolic Heritage Church.

Boy keeps beat with the pulsing music.

"When you see Jesus, sing hallelujah," shouts the minister. "Nothing else is going to matter to you, not even the hurts of your children, when you see His face."

Adela McCormick fights back tears as she stands behind the wheelchair that holds her son. Because Boy's face tumbles forward onto his chest without her assistance, she cradles her child's wounded head upon her bosom throughout the service so that he might more easily watch the worship of his Lord.

Not 10 blocks from the Apostolic Heritage Church, Rosemary Ramirez scrubs vehicles in the parking lot of a Circle K. She is raising money with her car wash.

Rosemary's daughter, Megan, had been murdered by the West Side Chicanos. In fact, the same man charged with shooting Boy and his father stood accused in the Ramirez homicide.

Rosemary brought her daughter's children to visit Boy in the nursing home while she commiserated with Adela.

Rosemary gave some of the money she raised at the car wash to Adela so that she could purchase a computer for Boy.

Though often expressive, Joseph Jr. has remained largely silent since the shooting. Adela hopes the computer will help her son communicate with those so quick to dismiss him as a dummy.

More than the money, however, Adela was grateful for Rosemary's friendship. Who else could possibly understand what she was going through?

The Preacher Man

Once they got off the phone, it took Adela and her husband, George McCormick, three interminable hours to drive from Flagstaff to the hospital in Phoenix.

Pastor Hogan was in the emergency room when the McCormicks arrived.

Joseph was on a gurney.

"He lay there wounded for an hour and a half," says Pastor Hogan. "Apparently, the doctors didn't think he was going to make it so they didn't do anything for him. No one did anything."

Adela was given the bad news.

"'Mother, your son is not going to live,' that's the first thing the doctors told me," says Adela.

'"You do not know my son. He's a preacher man and he will not die,' I answered."

Just before they took Boy into surgery, his mother leaned over her son and whispered into his ear, "You better not leave me, preacher man, I won't stay in this ugly world without you."

After the operation, Boy was moved to intensive care. The doctors predicted that if Joseph lived through the first four hours after surgery, he might make it. But they didn't expect him to come through.

For several months, Boy was shuttled from intensive care to surgery. Once Joseph was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital but had to return to the neurological center at St. Joseph's when his condition deteriorated.

"The doctors told me that if he lived, he would be a vegetable," says Adela.

Ten months after the shooting, Boy was moved to a long-term-care nursing home in south Phoenix, and the shape of Adela's life changed dramatically.

She moved from Flagstaff and took a room with a Christian couple in Phoenix. Her husband, George, a social worker, was left by himself to raise Adela's 7-year-old grandchild, Ricky, Yvonne's oldest.

"George knows I cannot leave my son," explains Adela. "It's hard on us. But he loves my son a lot. George does all the washing, cleaning, cooking, and he works."

As difficult as George's life was, his wife's was worse.

From her room in midtown Phoenix, Adela walked 15 minutes to the bus stop at 16th Street and Osborn. She rode the bus across town to Baseline, disembarked and waited for another bus that would take her to the nursing home. The journey averaged two hours. The trip home on Phoenix's unpredictable bus system took two hours more.

And Adela's inconveniences weren't limited to interminable bus rides. She was nervous and always departed the nursing home well before sunset.

"I'm afraid to be out there in the dark. I don't trust the heathens out there," says Adela.

Her fears did not control her, however.

"I come every day except Sunday, because the buses don't run on Sunday. So I call people to see how he's doing."

Normally, Adela makes the journey by herself. During the winter and spring of this year, she brings a visitor.

The sound level inside the nursing home cannot be accurately described as bedlam. But it's close. A constant white noise of patient moaning, television babble and clanking food trays assaults Adela's ears. The stench of decay and excrement and bodies gone bad clutches at her nostrils.

At a desk in the hallway, a sign is posted daily. On this particular visit, the board reads: "Today is Monday, March 1, 1999. The next holiday is St. Patrick's Day. The weather is sunny. The season is winter. The next meal is lunch. You are in Phoenix, Arizona."

At the desk, two attendants converse without urgency.
"Are you on the floor?"
"What?"
"Are you on the floor?"
"Eh?"
"Are you on the floor?"
"No, I'm not on the floor. I'm sitting down."

An elderly female resident totters up to the desk and addresses the attendants, one of whom responds: "I don't know if you can have a cigarette. You have to ask your nurse. I am not your nurse."

In the recreation room, four geriatric patients are propped up in wheelchairs. One of them groans incessantly. Another wearing a ballcap with the legend "American Harmonica Newsletter" stares at the television, which is turned off.

It is here, at the Thunderbird Health Care Center, that Adela nurtures her son.

"I clean him every morning. I shave him, I wash his hair, his nails, his feet. I check his teeth. I also massage him with olive oil."

On many days, Boy is smiling, happy, and greets visitors he recognizes. He signals a limited range of responses, one finger for yes, two for no, and three for maybe.

On other days, he is not responsive at all. A bottle of Novart's Nutrition provides his calories through an intravenous tube. Occasionally, he is hooked up to an oxygen machine.

Though he shares the room with two other patients, his mother and stepfather have attempted to create an atmosphere of comfort in the space allotted to Joseph Jr., papering the walls with inspirational, religious posters as well as cards and photographs of those Boy loves.

From this nest, Adela wages a nonstop battle with the nursing-home administration.

"He doesn't fit into his bed," Adela says of her tall son. "I asked them for a longer bed because he's all scrunched up all the time. They told me I could always buy one, or rent one."

Adela is informed that Boy would not get physical therapy because he'd spent nearly a year after the shooting without it, and too much time has passed for exercise to do any good.

She refuses to accept that answer and eventually wins the argument.

After participating in a program to build up his strength, Boy is discovered outside, tipped out of a wheelchair and sprawled on the ground.

"He tried to run away," says Adela. "Their solution was to take away the therapy."

Perhaps nothing frustrates Adela more than the staff's seeming inability to keep her boy clean and dry.

"I have to go for a walk until I cool down," says Adela. "When I complain, they tell me, 'It's not my job to change those wet clothes.'

"Joseph gets angry when he soils himself. He waves one finger angrily."

Arriving with a visitor, she discovers her son soaking wet. Her eyes pooling with tears, she tells Boy, "I'll change you best I can. Boy, you are not a burden to me. The system is a burden to me, but I am blessed by being your mother."

Wrestling her broken son out of soaking linens and pajamas is strenuous business. Afterward, with Joseph Jr. in a wheelchair, she rails against those who work at the home.

"We want the wrath of God on them," she tells Boy, who smiles and raises one finger skyward.

One March night, the evening temperature dips with chilling showers. Boy's roommate wakes in the early morning, shivering from the cold. When the roommate gets out of bed to shut the open window, he finds Boy soaked in urine.

Adela arrives the next day to discover her son's eyes sticky with mucus. Within 24 hours, he is wheezing with congestion. By Saturday, Adela is alarmed when Boy does not respond to her. Disturbing body fluids drain from his nose and mouth; he has dried feces under his fingernails from tearing at his soiled garments. His temperature is 104 degrees.

Boy is moved to Maricopa Medical Center.

When he recovers, he is transferred back to Thunderbird, which proclaims ignorance to Adela's grievances.

"The facility has no record of complaints made by the mother or anyone else," says nursing home spokesman Doug Cole. "We know that the mother was very involved, a frequent visitor. I can tell you that the mother requested, after one of the hospital stays, that her son be returned to our facility."

Almost from the moment Joseph Ayala Jr. arrived at the nursing home in September 1997, his mother had tried to get him transferred to a residential care facility in Flagstaff. At first, she was motivated to relieve her own burden. Before long, however, she is driven by desperation to rescue her son from what she views as filth and neglect.

And then, a fairy godmother rescues Adela. Her name is Margo Cruz. Cruz, who works for the state in vocational rehabilitation, did not know Adela or Joseph, nor were they part of her job responsibilities. Cruz is simply a busybody, a do-gooder who is used to working with the handicapped and who heard about this mother and son from an acquaintance.

"I felt sickened when I saw this young man in the nursing home," says Cruz. "And I have never seen such a loyal, devoted, loving mother."

Unsure of Boy's chance for recovery, Cruz acts on instinct.

"Joseph's problem is that he can't speak," says Cruz. "He's never been evaluated properly, so I don't know what the potential is, but I do know that he understands, he knows what is going on around him, and I knew it would do him good to be out of there and to see his family and church friends in Flagstaff."

Cruz took on the bureaucracy controlling the decision on Joseph's transfer to Flagstaff. She also insists that Boy needs a longer bed.

"And what do you know? They found a longer bed, on the premises. It's amazing what the right business card can do when you work for the state," says Cruz.

Adela catches another break, finding a nursing-home vacancy for Joseph in Flagstaff.

State authorities shatter Adela's triumph when, fearing the risks of movement, they veto the transfer.

As Cruz relentlessly hammers the health bureaucracy to reverse the decision, Adela finds comfort elsewhere.

The money from the Ramirez car wash and other donations are enough for Adela to purchase, if not a computer, at least a machine, "The Crespeaker," specifically designed to help the handicapped communicate.

Adela percolates with joy.

Now Joseph would speak with her!

"You see, Boy, our prayers were not in vain," Adela tells him. "Praise the Lord, hallelujah. Boy, can you say, 'Thank you Jesus?'"

Boy raises his hand to heaven.

But no. Joseph Jr. does not speak to Adela. Not then, not ever.

Boy cannot figure out the machine.

In April, Cruz learns that the state will not reconsider its refusal to transfer Boy north.

"My heart sunk to my toes," says Cruz.

Unable to face Adela with more bad news, Cruz bites the state on the nose.

Calling officials at the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, she flat-out bullies them with the threat of a lawsuit, a hollow pose since Adela does not have an attorney. Pushing harder, Cruz adds that a journalist is following the story of Joseph Ayala Jr. and his mother, a devoted woman forced to spend four hours a day on city buses, miles away from her family, because Arizona refuses to allow this boy into a nursing home in Flagstaff.

Cruz knows she is over the line, but she rationalizes her theatrics : "My drive to help was bigger than my sense of the rules."

The state of Arizona relents and transfers Boy to the Flagstaff nursing home in late April.

Justice

Every time Adela clutches her inert son in her arms, she also hoists the hateful weight of Michael "Smiley" Rivera. She never drifts far from a guttural loathing of the gangster from the West Side Chicanos.

Prosecuted for first-degree murder and aggravated assault in the Ayala shootings, Rivera was acquitted on Halloween day 1997.

The verdict consumed Adela.

The scale of the unrequited bloodshed in Adela's family is almost folkloric.

Before her ex-husband was butchered, and her son cretinized, Adela's nephew was shot in the back and paralyzed for life. Another nephew was stabbed near the kidneys.

All of these incidents happened at her ex-husband's house in 1996. All of the perpetrators were West Side Chicanos. No one was in jail for any of the carnage.

You'd have to live in a neighborhood dominated by a violent street gang, or read about the incidents in the newspaper, to understand how common such mayhem is.

But unless you're poor, you don't live in that kind of neighborhood. And the newspapers don't run those kinds of stories. In 1996, the year Joseph Ayala Jr.'s skull was blasted apart, the police recorded more than 600 arrests for drive-by shootings, aggravated assaults and simple assaults, including 16 homicide bookings. A zip code analysis of the violence found almost all of it in poor neighborhoods. Yet the press ignores almost all gang violence. The Ayala shootings were not covered in the morning newspaper.

For Adela, the discovery that Rivera was accused of murdering Megan Ramirez in the spring of 1998, less than six months after he was acquitted of shooting the Ayalas, was too much. She contacted Megan's mom, Rosemary. Together, just the two of them, they waited.

Michael Rivera's prosecution this month for the murder of Megan unleashed a torrent of frustration within Adela. She schemed with Rosemary to sit in witness at the trial and plotted with Boy to attend the sentencing. Adela's fury at Rivera's acquittal in the murder of her ex-husband and crippling of her son fell on his attorney, Carmen Fisher.

Nearly two years after Fisher won Rivera his freedom in the Ayala trial, she was caught on a county jail videotape locked in an intimate embrace with a prisoner she represented. The news set Adela off like a prodded viper.

"She is so plain, I'll bet she's messing around with Michael Rivera," hisses Adela.

She absorbed the heartache of her son's wounding. She wears it like a second skin she'll never shed. But she cannot find a place to put Smiley's freedom. Adela cannot understand how the laws that dealt so remorselessly with her son, a common thief, were useless when dealing with the West Side Chicanos. She is bitter, with cause. Adela hopes the new prosecution will put Rivera on death row.

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.

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.

All of the Gutierrez family had disappeared by the time of the trial except for one daughter, the teenaged Angelina, who did testify against Rivera.

Attorney Carmen Fisher was not content with the police department's written summary of their taped interview with eyewitness Angelina Gutierrez. When the attorney obsessively reviewed the video of the interrogation, she discovered that the detective left the room for a short period, leaving the teenager alone with her father.

Angelina told her dad, "I helped who killed him."

When the girl lied under oath during the trial, the meticulously prepared Fisher took Gutierrez apart. Twice, the witness called Fisher a "bitch" from the witness stand.

The state's case was wrecked.

Although the prosecution initially listed Joseph Ayala Jr. as a witness, at the time of the trial he was unable to signal answers with his fingers.

It is impossible to describe the level of remorse and bitterness that Adela McCormick feels toward a legal system that jailed her boy for more than four years on car theft, but freed the man charged with shooting off the top of her son's head.

After the trial, Adela's husband, George, fashioned a homemade bumper sticker that read, "Criminal Lawyers Are Ramora Fish." He mailed it to Fisher.

The family's debilitating hatred of the system, however, extends well beyond the bungled prosecution.

Her son's probation officer had refused to let Joseph Ayala Jr. attend the California Bible college to which he'd won a full scholarship. The officer stood firm; out-of-state schools were a technical violation of policy. Had he been allowed to attend the divinity courses, Joseph would have been in class instead of trying vainly to bring his father to Christ and repair a car's power steering.

On many days, Adela's despair is oceanic in depth.

Dad

If you ask Adela how her life came to this, her easiest, if not fullest, answer implicates her first husband, Joseph Ayala Sr.

Adela divorced her husband after 15 years of his violence and womanizing. The decision was a difficult one for Adela.

Eventually, she overcame her Mexican-Catholic heritage and divorced Joseph in 1981.

Boy was 9 years old when his folks separated, but in that short childhood he witnessed a ferocious relationship.

"Their dad was a Jekyll and Hyde," remembers Adela. "He was a butcher during the week, and he always worked. You can't live with me unless you work. But on weekends he'd drink and try to beat on me."

In Adela's world, you do not call the cops. You deal with your trouble.

And Mexican women did not get divorced. Her mother followed the Catholic Church's prohibition on divorce and passed the same message to Adela.

"And why should I bother? All the men I saw were dogs," says Adela.

She was not, however, given to meekness when assaulted.

"I gave as good as I got. I would kick him in the nose. I thought that was the way life was supposed to be," she says. "I'd throw him out of the house on weekends, but we fought physically right from the beginning."

Evicting her husband did not solve anything; in fact, when he wasn't living at home, he shot heroin.

"I didn't know he was doing it," says Adela, who, despite her grit, can be unworldly. "He always said that I was a lamebrain square."

After the divorce, Joseph battled with Adela for his children's affection. It was an uneven contest. Adela was strict and quick to lash out with her hands. She was naive to the pleasures of the street and unable to find the right words to reach the kids. Joseph was wild and rough, a man who did drugs and got high with his kids but who never laid a hand on them. He was more friend than parent.

"I think going to live with his father was the problem," Adela says of her son's car-theft arrest. "Their father had no rules. When Boy lived with me, he never got in trouble."

It might be more accurate to say he never got caught, according to his sister Yvonne. She says Boy was stealing bicycles at the age of 16 and selling ounces of pot supplied by his father even before he decided to move into the old man's apartment.

If it strikes you as odd that Boy's father was his drug connection, it is the sort of unsettling reality that his children accepted without much question.

Sara remembers drinking with her father as a teenager.

"At least I wasn't out roaming around. It might be bad," says Sara, "but he got to keep an eye on me. I was doing it anyway."

She says that when she left Adela's home to live with her father at the age of 16, she was trying to escape her mom's strict rules. Though life was relaxed at her dad's, she says he tried, unsuccessfully, to keep her in school.

"He would get out of bed to drive me to class when I was late," says Sara. She says that she was surprised to learn after he died that he'd been using heroin for years.

"I didn't know. He never did it in front of me. When he was in bed and trying to kick the habit, I just thought he was hung over from all the drinking he did."

By the time he was murdered, Joseph Sr. was the custodian of his children's hearts.

"Their dad said he would hurt me by taking the kids away from me," Adela says. "And he kept his word. He was the good guy and I was the disciplinarian. He took all my kids and I was the one that supported them. He was a very selfish person. All I did was love those kids, but they couldn't see it."

Daughter Yvonne is intensely loyal to Joseph Sr. even though he was not her real father.

Yvonne's biological father had moved to Texas and abandoned Adela and Yvonne when she was an infant. Though she would see her father when he visited Arizona on the holidays, Yvonne never grew close to the man.

Joseph Sr., however, embraced baby Yvonne, in his own careless way.

"Joe chose me to be his child," says Yvonne. "He was always there for me. I knew my dad had my back. He was fun. He would take us to the park, take us swimming, take us to the river. My dad showed us affection though he was not the best example of a parent."

Yvonne was not blind, however, to her father's unfortunate habits.

"It pissed me off because he brought in these tramps," recalls Yvonne. "These women couldn't hang with my mother's toenail."

While Yvonne was scornful of Joseph Sr.'s women, her relationship with her mother remains brittle.

"Yvonne has lots of resentment towards me over my mothering skills," explains Adela.

"She didn't show us love," answers Yvonne. "She made sure there was food on the table, clothes. She made the effort. But she wasn't much for affection. We got that from our dad."

Adela does not argue.

"Where I made my biggest mistake, I never told them I loved them. I never heard it myself growing up. But I was shown it," remembers Adela.

"The only time I heard my father tell me he loved me was when Boy was shot. I guess he was saving it for when I needed it."

Growing Up

If Mars attacks, Yvonne Montiel could lead planet Earth to victory.

Although she draws admiring remarks in her Tommy Hilfiger jeans, she's as deadly as a fist to the Adam's apple. She is also the kind of leader that people willingly follow. That charisma, coupled with an easily offended and prickly personality, is volatile. She didn't get this way by hanging out in suburban malls.

Though she excelled in school, smart often took a back seat to pain.

Where do you want to begin?

Her biological father abandoned her.

"He up and left without ever seeing me," says Yvonne.

When his own mother did not get along with Adela, he took off and became remembered in Adela's household as "mama's boy." Not long after he went home to his mother, the company he worked for transferred him to Texas. Years later he would return to Arizona over the holidays and Adela would allow Yvonne a brief visit.

Her natural father left behind a legacy that troubled Yvonne every time she brushed her hair in the mirror.

"I always thought I was the black sheep in the family," says Yvonne, speaking literally.

"I came out dark, while Sara and Boy were light."

Even the stepfather she loved, Joseph Sr., had a nickname that reminded her of her status. He was called "Huero," Spanish slang for light-skinned Hispanics.

Where Yvonne grew up, near Fifth Avenue and Buckeye Road, she knew better than to complain about these things. You could not expect anyone to give a crap about your troubles. It was no place to mope.

As Yvonne looked around, it was obvious that her brawling stepfather knew how to survive.

"This black girl pushed me down in our front yard and I ran inside," remembers Yvonne. "My dad yelled at me so bad, he scared the hell out of me. I went outside and went to work on that girl."

Yvonne learned to fight and took to it. She enjoyed her class in karate and served as effective muscle to protect her kid brother and sister in a rugged neighborhood.

Adela says that Yvonne and she are too much alike, which may explain why they butted heads like prize rams.

"I saw her as a drill sergeant. I was the oldest child and she always made me watch Boy and Sara. I had to wash clothes, iron, make tortillas."

The mother-daughter conflict involved more than a dispute over chores.

"You know," says Yvonne, "she didn't send us to church to make us better people. She just wanted us out of her hair."

Adela confesses that she used the church as free day care, but it was safe and one of the few options available to her. Yet to Yvonne, it was just more of the same: rejection.

And when the kids were at home, Adela kept them in line by beating them. Yvonne is not someone who forgot when you put your hands on her.

In separate conversations, both women volunteer the same wound as the scar that separates them, even today.

"I wet the bed until I was 13," says Yvonne. "She would beat my ass and I will neverforget it. She'd tell me, 'You must like getting your ass kicked.'

"She'd tell me this as she was whacking me with a hanger."

Adela remembers with sadness that she was so frustrated and angry with the bedwetting that she sent her teenage daughter outside with nothing on except a towel fashioned into an oversize Pampers.

Yvonne's memory is more vivid.

"She held matches to my butt over the bedwetting," says Yvonne.

When the teenager told her grandmother what was going on, the older woman made Adela take the girl to the doctor, where a bladder problem was discovered and medication prescribed.

In time, the physical confrontations between mother and daughter became more serious. Yvonne was knocked to the ground, unconscious, when her mother hit her in the head with a grocery sack that contained a six-pack of beer. When Yvonne recovered, she attacked her mother and threw her to the ground, stomping her boot into Adela's chest with such force that Adela's breath exploded from her mouth.

But it would be years before Yvonne was big enough to back her mother off.

When Yvonne was caught shoplifting a pack of cigarettes, she was afraid to give her mom's name and address; instead, she gave the cops her grandmother's phone number in Tempe. Rather than face her mother's temper, Yvonne ran away to Texas to live with her biological father.

As a junior high student in Arlington, Yvonne attended classes for the first time in an overwhelmingly white school, an experience she found intimidating initially.

"I was used to classes with all blacks and Chicanos," says Yvonne. "But I liked school there. I played clarinet in the school band."

At home in Texas, Yvonne's father behaved like Santa Claus, buying his daughter whatever she needed. Clothes, school supplies -- you name it, she had it. But the bliss of money and attention did not last long. His largess with Yvonne created constant friction with his live-in girlfriend and her daughter. After four years of tension, Yvonne's father was caving in to his girlfriend and not supporting his daughter in the domestic squabbles. He'd gone from being a "mama's boy" to henpecked. Yvonne returned to Arizona.

Sara, seven years younger than Yvonne, was still no more than a tag-along when her sister came home. But she and her brother picked up as if she'd just returned from a four-year errand to the corner convenience store.

"Boy was real happy to see me," recalls Yvonne. "When I got back, all he said was, 'What's up, punk? Why'd you leave?'

"Every Friday, we were right there under the mulberry trees with a can of pop and a bag of Salditos [dried, salty prunes]."

What innocent time remained slipped away without notice. When Yvonne returned, Adela had divorced Joseph Sr. and, claims Yvonne, taken to drink.

While Sara was too young to make much in the way of choices because of Adela's strict oversight, both Boy and Yvonne began to make decisions on their own.

"Boy hung around with gang guys," says Adela. "He had cousins in Garfield Gang. But he, himself, never joined. Gangbangers would ask him who he claimed and he would tell them, 'I claim myself.'"

Girls showed an interest in Boy, in part because he was a natty dresser who insisted on top-of-the-line shoes, a predilection his mother encouraged by buying his Nikes.

"He was spoiled because he was the only boy," says Yvonne.

But there was only so much Adela could provide. Boy found his own source of cash.

Surrounded by some of the toughest gangsters in the Valley, Adela insisted on an old-fashioned code of conduct. She wouldn't let hoodlums into her house, even though her kids knew them.

"I made guys come to my house and ask permission to take Yvonne out," says Adela. "I told her, 'If they are not man enough to ask me, they couldn't take her out.'"

Yvonne didn't have a lot of dates under this system, and when she did, she dragged Sara and Boy along as chaperones.

Increasingly, Adela was alarmed by what she saw going on in the neighborhood. Drugs were everywhere and the dealers even threatened Adela and the kids when she told them to take their business away from her house.

"First I got a gun. Then I moved," says Adela.

But it was too late. Adela's kids just returned to visit childhood friends in the old neighborhood rather than try to make new friends in a strange area of town.

"My mom did not know what I was up to," says Yvonne. "She didn't know I was smoking sherm [PCP]."

Yvonne had begun hanging out with kids in LCM when she was only 11, well before she ran away to Texas. Upon her return four years later, she resumed where she'd left off. After all, her best friend, Myra Rosales, had even been born into LCM.

"When you're a kid," explains Yvonne, "you want friends."

Yvonne got into a fight with another girl while riding the bus home from high school. When Adela learned that the other kid had a gun and a knife, she panicked.

"That scared my mom so bad she took me out of school. I never went back."

Yvonne insists that she never heard a moment's worth of instruction inside her high school classroom about the downside of joining a gang, not that it would have done any good at that point. By high school, she'd been running with LCM for years.

Her daughter was close to her friends in LCM, but Adela claims that Yvonne did not join the gang until she was 18 and recovering from a disastrous love affair.

"She went on a tear," says Adela.

Yvonne refused to let the women jump her into LCM.

"I wanted to be above the girls," says Yvonne. "I wanted to have the utmost respect."

And so Yvonne Montiel was beaten into Las Cuatro Milpas by the men in the gang.

"I was drunk and I was high," says Yvonne, "but it still hurt. I remembered what my dad told me about if I ever had to fight a bunch of people. He said to pick one out and focus on him, and that's what I did."

And so Yvonne kicked and punched and got in close, grabbing her target in a death grip so that the gangbangers hit him as often as they hit her.

Bloody, but not subdued, Yvonne earned everyone's respect.

Since joining LCM she has been shot three times and stabbed twice. One summer she was arrested 18 times for fighting.

"Your parents can be bad, your parents can be good," observes Adela. "It doesn't matter. In the end, the gangs win."

Sara

If Sara's older sister had anything to say about it -- and Yvonne has always been a woman that people listen to -- Sara would not join LCM.

Yvonne says, "I told Sara I'd kick her ass if she hung around LCM. I didn't think she was tough enough to handle it. Some girls get jumped in by getting trained [having sex with every man present]. That was my fear."

For a time, Sara seemed like she might be the gang's next recruit. School held little appeal.

"I thought it was all so boring. It was just all this stupid memorization in school," says Sara.

Growing up, she'd known several people in LCM and everyone knew she was Yvonne's kid sister.

"There were lots of gangs at North High. There would be fights after school and we'd have little riots every once in a while, but it was okay. The kids I knew in LCM were very nice to me."

At the age of 19, during the first semester of her senior year, Sara left North High. Sara would get her GED without studying for the exam, which left her wondering why she'd bothered with high school in the first place.

"If I could get my diploma without opening a book, I just felt like I wasted all that time in school."

She could have been partying.

And for several years, she made up for lost time. She discovered the thrill of substance abuse.

"I've done a little bit of everything," says Sara.

By the time she was 16, her mother could no longer control her. Adela's doorbell would ring and there'd be Sara, accompanied by a cop, busted for curfew violation. It happened so often that the police demanded an explanation from her mother. And what do you say when your kid runs the streets?

Adela told the officers that she put tacks on the window sill where her daughter was climbing out of the house in an effort to catch Sara when mom heard a yelp. It didn't work.

"What am I supposed to do," Adela asked the cops, "tie her to her bed?"

Although her older sister was in LCM and she herself had friends in the gang, Adela felt that no matter how difficult the teenage troubles with Sara got, her youngest daughter would not end up a gangbanger.

"She was never as tough or mean as Yvonne," says Adela.

And Sara agrees.

"When I was a teenager, I hung around with my friends in LCM. People might be in gangs, but they are still just people. But joining was not my thing. I wouldn't want to do the things they have to do, the gangbanging. To me, how I think of it, it's something you might do when you were young."

It would be easy for Sara to look back as a 23-year-old mother and believe that sagacity kept her from joining a gang. But she will tell you that there was another factor that kept her out of LCM.

"I moved away and didn't have as much access," says Sara.

After spending a night in jail for curfew violation, Sara informed her mom that she was going to move in with her father on the far west side.

"Mom was very strict," explains Sara. "I knew I could get away with things if I was with my dad."

The Milpas neighborhood, which has pulled kids into LCM for generations since World War II, covers the area from Seventh to 16th streets, from Mohave to Buckeye Road. Sara's dad, who lived near 63rd Avenue and Thomas, was too far from the pull of LCM.

"I was never going to join anyway," says Sara. "I'm not really someone with a violent nature."

The Spiral Accelerates

In 1990, at the age of 17, Joseph Jr. was arrested when the authorities broke up the car-theft ring that kept him in fine clothes.

According to Adela, the tenuous strands that bound the family snapped once Boy was locked up.

"I was inclined to drink, and I was drinking every day once Joseph was thrown into prison."

Both girls were running wild, and worse, Yvonne, now a jumped-in gangbanger, had discovered drugs in a big way.

"I felt like they were all killing me at the same time," says Adela.

When Adela moved across town to get away from the drug dealers, she discovered it was too late. All of her daughters' friends lived in the Milpas.

"Yvonne felt like she was deserting the neighborhood. So she went back," says Adela.

Yvonne acknowledges that she was out of control.

"There were times when I was stuck on stupid for a month," Yvonne remembers. "I stopped doing sherm and started smoking crystal meth. I was all thin. I thought I was the bomb, wearing size 7. I'm good to go."

Yvonne's fascination with drugs would last more than a decade.

"When my dad got killed, that's when I stopped."

Boy's arrest and the spectacle of her daughters getting high with her ex-husband left Adela feeling that she had reached rock bottom.

She was wrong.

"I did the best I could," says Adela. "I don't understand. You sit there and wonder, 'What the hell did I do wrong?'"

Back From the Edge

Yvonne is 30 this year. She has worked at Burger King for 12 years and has been down with LCM longer than that. While she will always defend her "homies" in the Milpas, she has a stronger urge to protect her sons with a new life. She knows the older boy, Ricky, is safe with his grandparents in Flagstaff. But Ray-Ray pulls at her heart.

When her brother and father were cut down by the storm of bullets from one of the West Side Chicanos, Yvonne's baby boy, then 6, was present in her dad's house. He saw it all unfold.

"It could have been Ray-Ray," Yvonne says of the bodies crumpled on the street.

If the shooting did not kill her boy, it certainly changed his life.

Now 9, Ray-Ray is a beautiful youth with gruesome memories.

"My uncle jumped in front of my Ta-ta. He got shot in the head. It scared me," says Ray-Ray.

Yvonne says that since the shooting, her youngest son has had enormous problems with his temper and gets in too many fights at school.

"He asked a counselor how old he had to be to buy a gun," says Yvonne. "He wants to shoot all of them, Becky [Gutierrez] and all her kids. I try to tell him that I got over it and so should he."

While living in Sunnyslope and working as a manager at Burger King, Yvonne enrolled her boy in a Police Athletic League program. She says the after-school activity made a big difference.

This year Ray-Ray got a trophy. For anger management.

If Yvonne got over the killing of her stepfather and the maiming of her brother, she did not do it easily.

Shortly after the shooting, she moved to Flagstaff.

"All I was doing was plotting revenge for Becky and her kids," says Yvonne.

But she also remembers scenes from the emergency room.

"My mom told me, 'Don't do anything. Don't shoot anyone. You will finish me off.'

"My grandmother made me promise, too."

She will never get over the bloodshed, but there is a new maturity in her attitude.

"Mind you, I don't carry a gun anymore. And it's not worth going to prison over. The only person I have to prove anything to is my son. I have to be there for him. If I don't set the example, who will? That's why I am taking him out of the neighborhood. His dad just went back to prison for the third time. I don't want my son to grow up like that."

When her pay at Burger King was not enough to make the rent on her apartment, she moved back into the Milpas with Ray-Ray this fall.

"I don't want Yvonne in that neighborhood, and I don't want Ray-Ray in that neighborhood," says Adela, concerned about the danger.

Yvonne also worried about Ray-Ray's safety when the living arrangement proved erratic.

So Yvonne and Ray-Ray moved away from her friends in Las Cuatro Milpas. She found a new job in Tucson and boosted her pay from $7 an hour flipping burgers to $10 an hour as a cashier.

Yvonne's effort is paddling against the familial currents.

Her father and brother were cut down by gang gunfire. The same gang put one cousin in a wheelchair and stabbed another. The twins on her stepfather's side are in jail on car theft, drug and forgery charges. Another cousin, a member of Mexican Brown Pride, is in prison for shooting someone in a drive-by, while a third pair of cousins are both in prison for sticking up a gas station. The father of her youngest son is in prison. So are many of her closest friends from LCM.

Yvonne is a courageous woman whose struggle to build a better life for Ray-Ray will always be complicated by her love and respect for Las Cuatro Milpas.

"I was one of the first in my neighborhood to get away," says Yvonne. "I was never jumped out. To this day, they don't pressure me. I have so much loyalty to that neighborhood."

Could anything have stopped her from banging?

"I think if I would have had my real dad I might not have been in a gang. His stepdaughter went to college. All his kids are doing well. My dad knows everything I've done. He probably thinks I'm . . . I don't know."

If he knows Yvonne at all, he knows that this woman survived and learned something on the way.

The day before she loaded her U-Haul for the drive to Tucson, she said something that explained just how far she'd come.

"I don't hit Ray-Ray," says Yvonne. "I swore when I had kids that I wouldn't beat them and that I would never forget to tell them that I loved them."

And she hasn't.

"A day doesn't go by that I don't tell Ray-Ray, 'I love you.'"

Boy Goes Home

After Boy is transferred from Phoenix to Flagstaff in April, he suffers a seizure. State authorities who had fought the transfer for more than two years had warned that Joseph Jr. was not strong enough to travel. It appears they were correct.

When Boy recovers from the seizure, he appears comatose.

With his own room and a view into the courtyard, Boy's surroundings seem greatly improved. But something is fundamentally wrong.

Bulletin boards in his room are crammed with family photos and posters brightened up an already sunny room, but Boy is oblivious to the round-the-clock religious TV programming. His mouth hangs open, spittle stretched from an upper canine tooth to his lower lip. One eye stares blankly at a visitor, the other eye roams lazily toward the ceiling.

On the wall, the words from Psalm 46:10 admonishes, "Be still, and know that I am God . . ."

But Adela cannot be still.

"Ever since we got here, he's been so lethargic," says Adela. "I keep telling people here that something is wrong, but nothing happens."

While Boy's condition worsens, Adela is at the end of her strength.

She has refused to admit how burned out she had been in Phoenix. But back in her own home for the first time in more than two years, in her own space, she collapses.

By nature a perfectionist and a stickler about cleanliness, she has returned to a domain that for two years had been solely male-occupied, and she feels powerless to restore her home to its former tidiness.

"If I didn't have to come to the nursing home, I wouldn't leave the house. I don't go to church. It's too much of a chore to get dressed and put makeup on to go to church."

She takes Prozac "to keep from crying every day," as well as anxiety medication and sleeping pills. It is not enough.

Her husband likens the effect to postpartum depression.

"You know," he says, "she geared herself up for years with this ordeal. Then she fought and fought to bring Joseph to Flagstaff, and she just kept moving forward all the time. Then one day the battle was over, she'd won. The air just went out of her. I've been depressed myself, and I work with people who have real problems with substance abuse, and SMI [seriously mentally ill] patients. Even so, it's been an adjustment to have her back in the house."

At the beginning of the summer, Adela picks up the phone late at night and leaves messages on the voice mail. She discusses her son's condition and invariably her own mood: "I just want it to be over with. I don't care anymore. I can't stand it."

But she does stand it. Adela decides that her son needs better medical attention.

She finds a specialist in Flagstaff who diagnoses Boy's vegetative state, and it has nothing to do with the rigors of the trip from Phoenix.

Fluid has built up in Boy's skull because a shunt in his head is not draining properly.

The change following corrective surgery in July is stunning.

Sitting up in a wheelchair, Boy recognizes a visitor and signals a greeting by reaching out and kissing his guest's hand.

But this touching gesture is only a prelude to something wondrous, a conversation.

After an hour, Adela decides that Boy should nap, but her son is reluctant. She needles him that if he doesn't go to sleep, she will give him a knuckle sandwich.

Joseph Jr. smiles at her joke.

Fifteen minutes later, when Boy is still awake, his mother says to him: "So, you don't sleep? You want to be a sneaky Pete and listen in on your mother's conversation?"

He raises a single finger to say, "Yes!"

Another Phone Call

The next day, Adela calls. All the good cheer in her voice has evaporated. The specialist that diagnosed Boy's problem says that her son will die soon.

"He said that I would be seeing a lot of him in the next two years and that there was danger from infection every time he opened up Boy's skull. He said Joseph was going to die. I just looked at him and started to cry."

It is this news that Adela had tried unsuccessfully to communicate the day before when Joseph refused to sleep.

"That's what doctors told me three years ago, that he was about to die," says Adela. "It just scares me so. There is no happiness in waiting. It doesn't make it so just because a doctor says so. Boy's real physician is God. God is the one above my son, not no doctor, no matter how gifted he is.

"If it's really true, if it's going to happen, I want to get in every minute. Nobody else means anything to me in terms of where I spend my time. I don't know where he leaves off and I begin."

Adela's life now is a matter of miracles, with her son upon a precipice that appears to be crumbling.

"This is why I get depressed," says Adela. "I don't have the faith my son has. I have always said I wished I was more like Boy, that I had his faith. But I am not strong enough."

Perhaps.

But Adela is strong enough to keep fighting.

Because she is one-quarter Yaqui Indian, she has written to the tribe and asked for a grant from the reservation's casino to underwrite physical therapy for Boy. The request is under consideration.

Adela's next goal, she says, is to take her son out of the long-term-care facility and move him into her home.

Smiley's Second Trial

This month, on the third anniversary of her son's shooting, Adela McCormick boarded a bus in Flagstaff and made the three-hour journey to the Phoenix terminal. She took her old room in the home of the sympathetic couple who boarded her while she nursed her son. During the day, she sat in the courtroom with Rosemary Ramirez and watched Carmen Fisher defend Michael Rivera for the murder of Rosemary's daughter, Megan.

Megan Ramirez was killed five months after Rivera was acquitted of murder and aggravated assault in the Ayala shootings.

On the evening of March 20, 1998, Rivera, a bouncer at Club Caliente, became enraged when he saw his girlfriend, Megan, talking with Anthony Luna.

Rivera believed that Luna was a member of the Wedgewood gang, which he blamed for killing a friend from West Side Chicanos, Jesse "Droopy" Moreno, several weeks earlier. Megan had no role in that killing, was not herself a member of any gang and was not carrying on romantically with Luna.

Her only offense was talking to the man.

Rivera rounded up Megan's best friend, Victoria Valenzuela, and another woman, Katherine Saiz, together with a fellow member of West Side Chicanos, Marcario "Bulldog" Vela. The four of them, armed with two pistols and a sawed-off shotgun, drove to Megan's apartment and forced their way in.

When Megan refused to leave, Rivera, who carried a revolver, threatened to take the 14-year-old baby sitter instead.

Megan relented and left her four children in the apartment with the baby sitter while she climbed into the back seat of the Honda that belonged to her best friend, Valenzuela.

Rivera drove to alfalfa fields on the far west side and shot his girlfriend twice as she begged for her life. The gun was then passed around and the others all pumped rounds into Megan.

Rivera yelled that the shooting was all about "Droopy" and West Side Chicanos.

At the trial, a police witness testified that they had no record of Luna being associated with the rival Wedgewood gang. Two individuals who claim Wedgewood membership also alleged in conversations outside the courtroom that Luna was not in their gang.

As Adela sat through the trial and prayed for a conviction, intimidation of witnesses played a major role in the prosecution of Michael Rivera, as it had at Rivera's first murder trial.

The jury was kept out of the room as the attorneys argued over the sheriff's inability to keep the jailed Rivera away from Saiz and Valenzuela, who were also in lockup. One morning the trial was interrupted after Rivera shouted threats to Valenzuela while both were confined in adjoining holding tanks awaiting escort into the courtroom.

During a break in the proceedings, Valenzuela's mother, Betty Holguin, said she fears for Victoria's life. Her daughter had accepted a 12-year sentence in return for testimony against Rivera, and she worried that his gang would kill her in prison.

"I've known Michael for 11 years," says Holguin. "He used to date my oldest girl. When she broke up with him, he burned our house down. He was never prosecuted. Because he's in that gang, they provided him with all sorts of alibis. But I saw him leaving the house when the flames broke out.

"Since Victoria's been in jail, she's been threatened again and again. Michael's told her himself that she knows what will happen if she opens her mouth. His friends in jail have told her they will maul her face."

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.

As her husband sat in the gallery, Valenzuela said she did not make love with "Bulldog" willingly but was raped.

Jurors paying attention might wonder then why the baby sitter testified that Valenzuela spent a large part of her time fixing her hair in the rest room, like a woman going out on a date, as Rivera and the others were kidnaping Megan Ramirez from her own apartment.

Holidays

As the year draws to a close, Adela is busy with her children. She awaits new CAT scan results on Boy and prepares for the holiday visit of her daughters by planning the big dinner.

Christmas can be a stressful time for families, and Adela's is facing change. As though Boy's health was not enough pressure, Sara has a newborn. And Yvonne has just moved to Tucson and is struggling with the separation from lifelong friends in LCM.

While Adela is understandably focused on her son, Yvonne feels, with some justification, that if she is going to protect Ray-Ray, she will have to find the strength on her own.

"Mom has never been one to sit down and talk with me," says Yvonne. "When I reached the age of being a woman, she didn't tell me about the time of month. I learned about that from my dad. She doesn't talk about sex, or personal things. She never sat me down and said, 'I want something better for you in your life,' or, 'There's more to life than LCM.'"

She says that too often when she hears from her mother there is no space to talk about Yvonne's concerns; too often Adela's conversation is dizzy with booze. Without much sympathy for why Adela might need a drink, her daughter notes: "She calls me up when she's been drinking and just repeats herself. I've told her she's an alcoholic. She'll be on the phone and making no sense."

Yvonne is further distressed by the focus of Adela's ramblings.

"It's always about Boy."

From Yvonne's perspective, this isn't anything new. Her frustration is painfully sincere when she says, "Boy was always the favorite. He didn't get hit twice in his entire life growing up."

The aftermath of the shooting has exacerbated the normal tension within any family where an only son was the focus of doting women. Not only has Yvonne lost her mother to an eternity of nursing, but Adela's own lifeline through this catastrophe is now God and religion, which Yvonne can't buy into.

It is difficult for Yvonne to look at what happened to her brother and believe in God. Furthermore, it is not possible for her to consider her own life as a gangster and believe that church is an appropriate refuge for her.

She does not want to discuss what she did with LCM .

"I did a lot of bad things," is all she will say. "I did everything you read about. I would feel like a hypocrite in church."

For Yvonne, it is impossible to turn her back on her buddies in LCM. Just before she left for Tucson, she accompanied her best friend, Myra Rosales, to Steve's on South Central. While she was in one of the bathroom stalls, she overheard another woman getting into it with Myra. Yvonne stepped in.

"This fool was too loud about what neighborhood she was from and all this Hayden Park crap. I mopped the floor up with her."

This level of hair-trigger violence is a dramatic counterpoint for Yvonne when she thinks about her dad and her brother and the new life she hopes to build for Ray-Ray.

"A part of me still wants to be there with LCM, but I'm already too old. And it's not fair to Boy after what happened. I really don't know. . . ."

And so Adela's path through this difficult life -- devotion, dedication, God and occasionally alcohol -- leaves Yvonne stranded, even estranged. Her words can sometimes sound like blunt instruments, as if she is cornered and fighting for her life.

"I tell her she puts too much emphasis on Boy," says Yvonne. "If God wants him to walk, Boy will walk whether or not she prays."

There are moments when Adela dismisses Yvonne's concerns by saying that her daughter has always been jealous of her brother. At other times, Adela is more pensive, even agreeing with Yvonne about religion.

"Praying brings comfort to me," says Adela. "Sometimes. Other times, I wonder why I spend hours praying. What good is it doing? But without prayer, I'd have flipped out. Prayer allows me to get up in the morning. But it's very hard and I'm very tired."

Certainly, Adela is too tired to sort through Yvonne's many stresses.

Not surprisingly, Adela feels isolated, overwhelmed.

"I love my family, but I think more people in my church here in Flagstaff truly care about me," laments Adela.

She reads aloud a lengthy note from a woman in her church's congregation.

"In all my life, I have never met such a precious mother who, in spite of the tragedy that came upon her son's life, she still continued to be the pillar in his life," wrote Sister Maria Hernandez.

Although parts of the message carry the stilted, almost stentorian notes of a Christian tract -- unavoidable when quoting Scripture -- the letter also expresses genuine appreciation for the burden that Adela has shouldered.

"No one has ever acknowledged me in that way," says Adela. "I'm somebody. I'm somebody. Maybe Yvonne doesn't think so, but I'm somebody."

The pain between this mother and daughter is like a boil waiting to be lanced.

Yet Yvonne's frustration does not blind her to Adela's fine qualities. Despite her deep-seated anguish, she is the first to tell you that her mother has gone through remarkable changes since the shooting.

"She's a different person than the one that raised me," says Yvonne. "She has changed. Yes, I wish she would not drink so much. But the truth is she is a great grandparent."

Yvonne knows that during that period of her own life when she was wrapped up in drugs, it was Adela who agreed to take on the responsibility of bringing up Yvonne's oldest boy, then 5.

"She is raising my son Ricky and doing a great job. He's not violent at all. He loves to study."

The young boy's personality blossomed away from the threat of gang violence.

And the youngest daughter, while acknowledging that her mother is not the most communicative woman, has a vastly different relationship with Adela than Yvonne.

Sara was too young to remember when her parents divorced. All she knew as a child was the home her mother provided .

"She was very strict," says Sara. "But I don't think that was a bad thing. I might have started running around sooner if I hadn't been scared of her. I'm grateful to her. I just wish we could spend more time together. It's a long way from Tucson to Flagstaff and when we talk on the phone, mom always wants to get off as quickly as possible."

Adela can be so terse on the phone that Sara requested an update when the Rivera verdict came in so that she might get a more fully flavored picture of the courtroom scene. Even as she asked for more detail about the fate of the man that killed her father and crippled her brother, she shuddered at the memory of what happened.

"I'm glad to be away from that gang [WSC]. I feel safe here. When I go to Phoenix, I feel the badness."

Sara worked full-time at Macy's and attended college right up until her baby was born, the day before Thanksgiving. She has no idea what she will do with her education or even if it will lead to a better job. But because she has been in Tucson for more than two years, she has settled in more than Yvonne.

Sara's lack of clear direction is less unsettling to her because she has an infant in her arms. And she is eager to visit Flagstaff.

As the holidays approach and Adela's family members make their plans, the daughters and mother are at various stages of repairing the damage done so often between parents and children.

In that regard, perhaps they are not so much different from other families.

Sara is eager to see her brother again.

"I was very depressed after the shooting for a long time," she says. "He's getting better. I hold on to that. Him just being there makes me that much more hopeful."

Boy's future is unclear. He lost his life, as we comprehend the full measure of being alive, trying to bring his father to Jesus Christ. In an unforeseen manner, however, he deepened his own mother's relationship with God. And in ways that are important to Adela, her "preacher man" continues to embolden the Christians he touched.

Sister Maria has told Adela that for the first time she has found the courage to participate in her church's prison ministry. When he was locked up, Boy had continually urged Sister Maria to share the word of God with Chicano inmates.

"Listen to what she said," urges Adela as she reads from the letter. "Tell brother Ayala that this happened through his constant prayer. I told those inmates, 'Do not pity yourself because I know a man who inspired me all the way from prison.'"

As for the daughters, the question of hope has an evolving answer, because they lived long enough to build a future.

Both women have survived the gang environment of their childhood, in no small part because they moved away. Not everyone has that luxury, nor would everyone choose such a course.

But the odds for people like Boy that stay are not good.

Phoenix police took the first steps last month in an attempt to impose a controversial injunction against 14 members of Yvonne's gang, Las Cuatro Milpas. If any of these individuals are even seen together, they can be arrested on the spot. Yvonne's best friend and fellow gangbanger, Myra, was not named; but her cousin across the street, as well as Myra's boyfriend, were.

Adela and her children are gone from the Milpas, not a moment too soon.

It is Christmas 1999.

On December 14, Michael Rivera was found guilty of the murder of Megan Ramirez.

Adela missed the jury's verdict because of a wrenching holiday ritual she endures every year with Boy.

Christmas revelers caroled through the nursing home, cheering all of the patients save one. Boy bolted alert when Adela shook a set of jingle bells as the merrymakers sang.

"The look of fear in his eyes was something awful," says Adela.

Boy tries to kill himself every year on the December 10 anniversary of the shooting.

"I tried to comfort him," said Adela. "I told him, 'You can cry with your mama, it's okay. But he just kept pushing me away and signaling me to go."

The two struggled as Boy ripped the feeding tube out of his stomach, the third time he's done that in a week. Nurses rushed in and bound him in physical restraints.

"He kept signaling 'No, no,' with his fingers as they tied his arms down," says Adela.

Her spirit broke apart during the confrontation.

"He wants to die."

Adela went home and opened the bottle. That night, her grandson Ricky, performed in the school play, Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Adela missed his performance as Bob Cratchit. She was on the phone, devastated, trying vainly to make some sense of her lot.

News of Rivera's guilty verdict could not distract her from her son's horror.

"Boy has to die before me. There is no one else to take care of him," says Adela. "But he is too young to die."

Sara brought her newborn to Flagstaff for the holidays and Yvonne reunited Ray-Ray with Ricky.

She plans to spend New Year's Eve with her best friend from the Milpas.

Putting miles of asphalt between themselves and Phoenix's gangs might have been the family's most effective strategy for safety.

But for Boy, for Adela, there is no escape.

Contact Michael Lacey at his online address: michael.lacey@newtimes.com

See previous stories in the Hard Core series here

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