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DRIVE-BY JUSTICE

Jesse Garcia is trying to explain why he was in the wrong car, on the wrong street, with the wrong pal, on that steamy afternoon last July.

"Very bad luck," says the 22-year-old Phoenix native. "I wish I didn't have that day off. I wish I never was on that side of town. I wish I could start that day all over again."

Here's what happened, based on police reports, court testimony and personal accounts:

Last July 16, Garcia and sixteen-year-old Jimmy Abril drove to South Phoenix to visit Abril's parents. The pair weren't close, but they'd been hanging out together since Garcia had rented a room at an eastside Phoenix condo owned by Abril's girlfriend.

Garcia calls himself "a lover, not a fighter," and few dispute him. This third-youngest of sixteen siblings had a few brushes with the law for nonviolent crimes as a juvenile in the mid-Eighties, but he'd stayed out of trouble since then. His own girlfriend and his job as a crew trainer at a McDonald's occupied most of his time. By all accounts, Garcia has never been part of a gang.

High school dropout Abril, however, is a member of a Hispanic gang known as the Southside Eses. (Ese is Mexican slang that roughly translates to "homeboy" or "dude.") Abril is more familiar with guns than with books.

The two spent about an hour at the Abrils' home that July afternoon, then left. As Abril drove his girlfriend's Grand Am out of the neighborhood, he sighted nineteen-year-old Ramon Bianco, his longtime archenemy. No one remembers exactly how the feud started, but most agree it's about teenage egos and turf.

Bianco is a member of the Southside Posse, a Phoenix gang said by police to be linked with the infamous Los Angeles-based Bloods. The Posse and the Eses hate each other with a passion that often turns violent.

What happened next remains in dispute. But some things are certain: Bianco and Abril flashed gang signs at each other in a kind of ritual war dance. Abril stopped his car, intending, he said later, to pummel his foe.

Things escalated quickly. Some witnesses, most of them friends of Bianco, say Abril fired first. A neighbor later told detectives he'd seen Bianco fire twice at Abril with a .357 magnum and had heard a third shot. The shots missed, and Abril sped away. A few blocks away, an enraged Abril parked and ordered Jesse Garcia to take over the wheel and drive back in Bianco's direction.

That was when Garcia made the mistake that would land him behind bars: He obeyed Abril.

Garcia drove past Bianco's home at about 25 mph, according to testimony from bystanders. He claims he didn't know of Abril's intentions until Abril reached under the passenger seat and grabbed a .25-caliber handgun. Abril sprayed the area with at least twelve shots as Bianco and others sought cover. One bullet hit unarmed Southside Posse member Mark Bravo in the right kneecap. Another blew out a window of an unoccupied Chevy pickup. Bianco escaped injury.

Garcia immediately drove back to the Abrils'. Their house is close enough that Jimmy Abril's father Manuel had heard the gunfire. The Abrils dialed 911, and Phoenix police later arrested Garcia at his home without incident, and detained Abril, a juvenile.

In the days that followed, prosecutors at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office made the following mind-boggling decisions about the shooting:

Ray Bianco--the gang member who may have fired first and certainly shot with a .357 magnum--wasn't charged. He and injured fellow Posse member Mark Bravo officially became "victims."

Jimmy Abril was allowed to plea-bargain to a minor charge of "misconduct involving weapons," despite his admission to detectives that he had attempted to murder his rival gang members. He appeared at Maricopa County Juvenile Court with his lawyer, his parents, a neighborhood priest and State Representative Armando Ruiz, a family friend.

The wrath of the law fell on, of all people, Jesse Garcia, the young man who drove the car.

A grand jury indicted him on a charge of aggravated assault with a gun, a crime termed "dangerous," and that carries a mandatory prison term of at least five years. After Garcia's plea-bargain negotiations fell through, he went to trial, and was convicted November 6 of assaulting Mark Bravo and Ray Bianco.

This tale of senseless violence and dashed dreams, of malevolent teens and helpless parents, has an added unsavory element. While no one argues that Garcia is blameless, his lawyer says prosecutor Kevin Maricle seemed to be more concerned with keeping her name out of the media than in dispensing justice.

Assistant public defender Roland Steinle says Maricle told him during plea-bargain negotiations, "`I'm just not going to end up in the newspaper as giving away a gang case.'"

 

"That isn't justice," Steinle says. "I told her my client was the only person in the whole scenario who wasn't a gang member. Jesse made a mistake, but he wasn't the bad guy. The real bad guys were Jimmy and Ray, the shooters."

Maricle did not return repeated calls from New Times for comment, but that's not surprising. A probation officer who prepared a written presentence summary about Garcia noted, "Numerous messages were left for Kevin Maricle. No response has been received."

JIMMY ABRIL IS wearing the black Los Angeles Raiders tee shirt and cap that have become obligatory for toughs. He bounces his nine-month-old daughter on his lap. Rosy-cheeked Alicia yanks at the cap, but Jimmy doesn't seem to mind.

The baby's mother is the woman whose car was used during the July 16 shooting. Jimmy, now seventeen, has just moved back to his parents' home. He had been living with his maternal grandmother, but the elderly woman has been ill. It's unclear how Jimmy spends his average day: He hasn't been able to work because of an injury several months ago. He accidentally shot himself in the foot as he was loading a shotgun.

Jimmy's dad Manuel sits on a couch next to Jimmy. The 48-year-old postal inspector and Vietnam veteran speaks incredulously of the scattershot violence that has turned his once-peaceful working-class neighborhood into a war zone.

"It's worse than Saudi Arabia," Manuel Abril says. "We lived here in peace from 1969 until all this shooting started last year. It used to just be guns on the weekend. Now, it's guns in the middle of the week. They're so close you can hear the mechanism working; I know the sound from Vietnam. They shot at this place even when Jimmy wasn't here. It's pretty bad."

Bullets from about a half-dozen drive-bys--the most recent one a few weeks earlier--have dug holes in a living-room wall, in the front door, in a dining-room cabinet. Outside, there are bullet holes in a family car and a camper.

"You'd love to go after these kids," Manuel Abril says, "but you'll lose your job, lose your retirement, lose everything." The Abrils know Jimmy's gang war with Ray Bianco has caused all this. But the ties of blood are remarkably strong, and Manuel Abril tries to put the best spin he can on the drive-bys that have been haunting his family.

"I don't think they want to hit each other," he says. "I think they're just trying to instill a form of fear in each other."

Until now, Jimmy's pudgy face has been a mask. It's hard to tell if he has been listening to his dad. But he has.

"I wanted to hit them that day," Jimmy says suddenly, in a voice that cuts through the room like a cold winter wind. "I wanted to kill them all."

"You never told us that before," his dad replies after an uncomfortable pause.

"I never told you nothing before," Jimmy spits out, his voice rising. "I am telling the truth. I was trying to kill them."

Jimmy has said this before. He told a detective shortly after the July shooting how he would have felt had he killed Bianco or Bravo: "No tears shed, just another Blood dead."

Manuel Abril shakes his head in disbelief at his wild child's chilling bluntness. A car traveling slowly down the Abrils' little-traveled side street breaks the heavy tension in the room. Everyone peeks very carefully out the living-room window, but the car passes without stopping.

"It's always the innocent who get hurt in these things," Jimmy's mom, Margaret Abril, says. "I mean the innocent like my daughters and us. I know that Jimmy's not an innocent."

The Abrils' elder son is nearing graduation from Arizona State University, and their two daughters, ages eleven and fourteen, also are doing fine. The couple say they don't know where they went wrong with Jimmy.

"He's ours, but we want to know what the heck to do with him," Jimmy's mom says. "You try to do your best, but it doesn't work sometimes. We don't have the right answers. He just kind of slipped away from us."

Margaret Abril excuses herself to help a daughter box up some Christmas decorations. Manuel Abril also busies himself with something in another room. Alone, Jimmy Abril expresses unsolicited remorse at the turn of events that has landed Jesse Garcia in jail.

"That whole thing with that guy [Bianco], Jesse didn't know what I was gonna do," Jimmy says. "He told me, `Let's just go home, man,' but when I get mad, ain't nobody can stop me, really. He didn't know I had a gun. It was all my fault. I was lucky and he wasn't."

 

JIMMY ABRIL'S PARENTS barely knew Jesse Garcia before "all this mess," Margaret Abril says, but out of guilt and sadness they went to see him on Christmas Eve at the Maricopa County Jail.

"Anybody with Jimmy that day would have gotten into trouble," she says. "That's hard for us to say, but it's true. We are praying for Jesse a lot."

She turns to Garcia's lawyer Roland Steinle. "I hope you can do something for him," she says, her anguish obvious. "Does he really have to go to prison for this? Can't anyone do anything?"

The case has weighed on Steinle, though he won't let the Abrils know it. For years, he's represented life's losers, but he's taken Garcia's plight more personally than most. "I'm doing what I can," Steinle tells the Abrils wearily. They need to hear more, but that's all he says.

The Abrils leave, and guards escort Steinle to a small waiting room. Jesse Garcia shuffles in, wearing a blue jail uniform. The color of the baggy outfit fits his bleak mood.

This holiday eve is Garcia's 22nd birthday. His girlfriend gave birth a few days earlier to a healthy baby whom Garcia hasn't seen yet. He's been locked up since last July 16, the release bond of $13,700 beyond his reach.

Jesse Garcia is a slight Hispanic whose dark complexion has gone pasty after six months behind bars. He speaks in a disaffected monotone, and it's easy to see how he failed to connect with his trial jury. He has buried his spirit in a place where few can reach him.

"I didn't used to be like this," Garcia says about his brooding manner. "I used to be a DJ at parties, quincineras, everything. I been on my own since I was seventeen. I always had a job. I was somebody. People hired me because I like to work."

As one of Amelia and the late Manuel Garcia's prodigious clan of sixteen, Jesse Garcia had to hustle to survive. "We didn't have much," he says. "My mom had a lot of kids. I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could, and I did."

Garcia dropped out of South Mountain High School as a senior, but says he's been working toward his GED in jail. Life "was cool," Garcia says, at the time of his arrest. He rehashes that July day over and over in his mind.

"It all happened real quick," Garcia says of the July shooting. "I was panicking and I wanted to get out of there. Jimmy was just laughing. He didn't care. He was having a good time. I want to know why nothing happened to Jimmy and Ray."

JESSE GARCIA AND everyone else in Superior Court Judge Robert Gottsfield's courtroom are waiting for prosecutor Kevin Maricle to show up. Maricle's tardiness doesn't surprise Roland Steinle, who says for months he's had trouble getting her to return routine calls on the case.

"She just doesn't care to understand the facts of this case," Steinle says. "A prosecutor is supposed to act in the best interests of justice. Sending Jesse to prison does not serve those interests. The jury had to convict someone for the drive-by--I mean, someone did get shot. But they didn't have Jimmy or Ray, so it had to be Jesse."

Under the law of "accomplice liability," Garcia was as responsible as Abril for Mark Bravo's shooting. Maricle, trying to wrest a plea bargain, described the crime as "dangerous," which made prison time mandatory. Such a tactic often compels defendants to take whatever lesser plea a prosecutor then offers. In this case, plea negotiations fell through. The case went to trial, and a jury convicted Jesse Garcia.

Steinle hasn't been able to convince Maricle that Garcia's six months in jail have been adequate punishment. Whenever he can catch her, Steinle has implored Maricle to drop the "dangerous" part of Garcia's assault conviction. If she'll do that, Gottsfield wouldn't be forced to send Garcia to prison.

It didn't seem to matter to Maricle that her colleague Michael Baker at juvenile court had treated would-be murderer Abril so kindly. For his plea of misconduct involving weapons, Abril was put on "intensive" probation, which included about two months at a juvenile facility. (Baker did not respond to numerous telephone calls from New Times.)

Garcia's mother Amelia waits nervously as the hunt for Kevin Maricle continues. "Jesse shouldn't have been with that kid in that car," she says, "but he's not a bad kid. He's always been good to me. They send him away, he might be a real criminal when he gets out."

 

Jimmy Abril--wearing his ever-present Raider regalia--also waits with his mother. Behind them, Jesse's girlfriend cradles her newborn baby.

Stand-in prosecutor Joseph Heilman tells Judge Gottsfield the absent Maricle has a matter in another courtroom. Gottsfield orders the hearing to start with Heilman as Garcia's prosecutor.

Heilman quickly rifles through the pile of paperwork generated in the Garcia case. He then asks the judge to sentence Garcia to seven and a half years in prison. Steinle asks for a new trial "in the interests of justice," and, short of that, the minimum term of five years.

Gottsfield asks if any victims are present and want to speak before he sentences Garcia. The judge seems taken aback when told victims Bravo and Bianco are in jail, Bravo for violating a September 1990 probation term for theft, Bianco awaiting trial for an alleged October 1990 break-in of a Glendale home.

Jimmy Abril stands to speak on Garcia's behalf, but the judge won't let him. "You're not the victim," Gottsfield says.

Gottsfield goes along with Steinle's five-year recommendation, of which Garcia will have to serve at least two thirds, or about three years.

"He did aid this drive-by shooting," the judge says. "I don't think it's unjust for someone who participated in a drive-by shooting to go to prison." The judge agrees with Roland Steinle that "the term `dangerousness' may not apply in this case," but he adds it's the law. "I'm just a trial court, not an appellate court."

Gottsfield looks squarely at Garcia.
"You have been a good guy until now, Jesse," he tells him. "This shouldn't make you bitter when you come out."

Garcia speaks for the first time during the hearing. "I got to keep my integrity," he tells Gottsfield.

"Yes," the judge says. "Yes, you do."

No one remembers exactly how the feud started, but most agree it's about teenage egos and turf.

The prosecutor seemed to be more concerned with keeping her name out of the media than in dispensing justice.

"We lived here in peace from 1969 until all this shooting started last year. It's worse than Saudi Arabia." "I wanted to kill them all," Jimmy says suddenly, in a voice that cuts through the room like a cold winter wind.

"He told me, `Let's just go home, man,' but when I get mad, ain't nobody can stop me." "We don't have the right answers," Jimmy's mother says. "He just kind of slipped away from us."

"A prosecutor is supposed to act in the best interests of justice. Sending Jesse to prison does not serve those interests."

"You have been a good guy until now, Jesse," the judge tells him. "This shouldn't make you bitter when you come out.


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