YOUR DEATH IS WHAT THE LAW CALLS SECOND-DEGREE MURDER AND IT IS AN INJUSTICE.
CHILDREN INITIATED INTO GANGS ARE PRE-MEDITATING MURDER, BY CARRYING GUNS
WITH INTENT TO FIRE THEM AT GROUPS OF PEOPLE. HOW CAN WE CONTINUE TO CONDONE THIS
PROBLEM OF OUR TIMES? THE GANGS, THEY ARE A MALADY OF OUR AGE.
BROTHER OF MINE, SINCE YOU ARE AN ANGEL NOW, IF ALL YOU CAN DO IS PRAY OVER US,
THEN DO IT. WE NEED YOUR GRACES TO CHANGE.
-- excerpt from "I Could Talk to You About Many Things," a poem written by Concha Madril, submitted to a judge prior to the 1998 sentencing of 17-year-old Jason Sanchez Vasquez for the murder of Concha's brother, Jesse Madril
A few hours before he was murdered by a 17-year-old boy, Jesse Madril informed his elderly mother that he was off to his 42nd birthday bash at a cousin's house in Guadalupe.
Jesse borrowed $10 from his mother, Felipa Maldonado, and promised he'd return to her Guadalupe home later that evening.
Neither Felipa nor Jesse's sisters Concha Madril and Lucia Madril were invited to the birthday party, held on December 13, 1997.
That was to be expected.
Felipa, Concha and Lucia all disliked the Guadalupe party scene -- five or six parties take place every Friday and Saturday night in the small town nestled between Tempe and Phoenix just east of Interstate 10.
Lucia, then 38, an ex-gang member and a recovering heroin addict, had experienced her share of wild Guadalupe nightlife. As a teenager, she helped form the gang Varrio Guadalupe Eastside. (Police files from the early 1980s document her membership.) She carried a gun and liked scaring people with it. She lived on the streets. She went to jail. She got tattoos.
Felipa, a Yaqui Indian, had disowned Lucia for years, until Lucia was clean and sober and disavowed la vida loca. Forced to choose between her gang and her family, Lucia ultimately chose her family. She has been out of the gang for 13 years, and now Lucia and her mother seem inseparable.
Concha, meanwhile, had always been the "good" sister. She tried to please her mother and got a master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California. At the time Jesse was murdered, Concha was 48. She'd worked for years with Guadalupe families and knew how violent the parties became when visited by gangitos, teenage gang members.
Concha sees gangitos as neglected, lonely children, but when they take drugs and alcohol, they crash parties, pull out guns and knives and pick senseless, sometimes fatal fights to impress their homies. Concha had heard such fights were sometimes planned as part of gang initiations.
Of course, gang members threatened retribution to ratas -- anyone who informed the chota, or the cops, about their activities. To inform on a gang member violated the "Code of the Streets."
Lucia and Concha also knew that many Guadalupanos unwittingly made the problem worse -- they were so intimidated by teenage gang members that few dared voice or organize opposition to gang violence.
But 18 months after Jesse's death, the sisters and their 76-year-old mother have decided to tell what they know about the murder of Jesse Madril.
They realize they may be risking their lives by implicating gang members, but to stay silent, they say, only enables expanding gangs to get a stronger grip on their little town.
They see their brother's death as emblematic of rampant but neglected gang violence in Guadalupe -- ritualistic violence that is dismissed as random crime and benignly neglected by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which has a contract with the Town of Guadalupe to provide police services.
They say the sheriff's office failed to conduct even a cursory investigation to see if Jesse's death was linked to a gang initiation. With a proper investigation, they say, prosecutors could have invoked state racketeering statutes, prosecuted more people and asked for stiffer sentences for those allegedly involved in Jesse's murder, sending a clear message that gang violence will no longer be tolerated in Guadalupe.
If this had happened, they believe, then Jesse Madril would not have died in vain.
But it did not happen.
"When you know justice has been served, the heart is more tranquil," says Felipa, who speaks only Spanish.
"But Jesse's case was handled unjustly."
Jesse's family can tick off Guadalupe's gang crimes -- and the victims -- on their fingers. Murders. Drive-bys. Assaults. Armed robberies. Drug deals.
But they believe gangs are so pervasive because Guadalupe is a town in denial.
Jesse's family wonders if town leaders, eager to encourage tourism, want deputies to downplay and disguise gang violence in Guadalupe.
Or they ask themselves if Anglo deputies who speak no Spanish fail to recognize gang crimes in Guadalupe simply because they can't begin to gather intelligence about their close-knit, Yaqui-Latino community.
"They can be very kind," says Concha of the deputies assigned to Guadalupe. "But they are Anglos. They don't speak Spanish. They don't speak Yaqui. Their knowledge of gangs is very superficial. . . . They conduct fly-by-night investigations and sweep gang violence under the rug.
"They responded to my brother's death as if he were nobody."
The Town of Guadalupe covers less than one square mile. It has about 5,000 residents. One-half of the population is under 18. Only 2.3 percent has college degrees. Social conditions that can be attributed to gang involvement everywhere exist in Guadalupe -- racism, drug use, alcoholism, broken homes, poverty, low scholastic achievement.
The statewide Gang Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission (GITEM) has identified five gangs in Guadalupe. The oldest is La Cuarenta, formed by Yaqui Indians for protection in the 1950s. Today, La Cuarenta has been revitalized into La Cuarenta Locos. Several gangs that took form during Lucia's heyday exist today: Lucia's gang, Varrio Guadalupe Eastside, draws members living east of the main street, Avenida del Yaqui. (Varrio, commonly used in gang names, is a misspelling of the Spanish barrio, which means neighborhood.) Varrio Guadalupe Westside recruits members on the west side of Avenida del Yaqui. Varrio Guadalupe Locos, a Chicano gang, was formed in the early 1980s. Another gang, Los Projectos Locos, blossomed in the 1990s in a new housing development.
Membership in these five known gangs fluctuates, but GITEM estimates there can be as many as 350 gang members in the town.
"Veteranos," older members who are still affiliated with gangs, can be seen walking down Avenida del Yaqui, covered with gang tattoos they got on the streets or in prison. One Eastside veterano in his mid-30s tells New Times that gang members are much more violent these days because they take crack and methamphetamines.
Gang graffiti, the "newspaper of the streets," are common in Guadalupe. According to the sheriff's office, the rest-room doors at the town park must be painted 20 to 30 times a year. On one recent visit to Guadalupe, a wall protecting the sacred Yaqui temple was defaced with gang graffiti. A few days later, the graffiti had been painted out.
Recently, the front of a radiator shop on Avenida del Yaqui was plastered with graffiti:
all you punks
can't bang us
or against us
An abandoned house on Calle Iglesia is a known gang hangout. It is covered with the tags of La Cuarenta Locos, VGL and Westside. A woman who lives next to the hangout says her son, who refused to join a gang, was so brutally beaten by gang members that he had to have plastic surgery.
Because there is no federal or state reporting requirement for gang crimes, it is all but impossible to determine the exact level of gang activity in Guadalupe in 1997, the year Jesse Madril died. Or in 1999.
The sheriff's office claims it investigated only five reports of gang activity (mostly tagging) during 1997. However, a computer search of the sheriff's office's own crime statistics for four weeks in June and July indicate that the sheriff's office responded to from three to five incidents weekly in Guadalupe -- assaults, burglaries and "drug-related."
The sheriff's office contends these "incidents" are rarely gang-related.
"I really don't concentrate too much on gangs," says Deputy Allen Romer, whose job is to do "community policing."
They just aren't a big problem, he says.
What's more, Romer says, it's difficult to actually prove that crimes are gang-related. He cites a recent drive-by shooting involving opposing gang members as having no gang ties. One guy simply shot at an opposing gang member for personal -- not gang -- reasons, he says.
Romer does not view his inability to speak Spanish as a factor in gathering intelligence on gangs.
Town officials concur with the sheriff's office about the low level of gang activity.
Town Manager Luis Gonzales says there is "not a ground swell of gang activity in Guadalupe."
Anna Hernandez, a former Guadalupe mayor, current council member and high-profile community activist, bristles at the notion that Guadalupe is infested by gangs.
"I hang out with my prayer group; does that mean we're a gang?" she asks.
(When a New Times photographer was making pictures in the town square one afternoon two weeks ago, he was approached by a teenage boy who was dressed in gang attire. The teen demanded money, and when the photographer declined to give him any, the boy tried to grab a camera from the photographer's hands. When the photographer resisted, the teen threatened to get a gun and shoot the photographer. The photographer left.)
The local Maricopa County juvenile probation officer, who works with schools and juvenile offenders, also says there's no big gang problem in Guadalupe. But he asked that his name not be used in this story.
Malcolm Klein, a University of Southern California professor emeritus who authored the book The American Street Gang, says it is not unusual for small towns like Guadalupe -- and their police forces -- to be in denial about gang problems.
He does not doubt for a minute that Concha and Lucia have valid concerns. He's heard those concerns so many times before from community members.
"Small towns are in a bind between being in denial and being in what we call 'moral panic,'" he says. "If they get into 'moral panic' and say, 'Oh God, we have gangs,' they are in danger of the problem expanding. Because by talking about gangs, you strengthen a kid's identity with a gang. Talking about gangs gives them identity and status that they don't get at home or in school.
"But on the other hand, if gangs are allowed to carry out their activities with no limits, they'll continue to grow, too. It's fun to be in a gang. There's status and prestige. So they [sheriff's office] can deny this until it gets too big for them, if that's what they want."
He notes that because the sheriff's office is not "indigenous" to Guadalupe, its gang-intelligence-gathering abilities are probably "very poor."
With the town and cops in denial, says Klein, "the community itself has to develop its own social control."
Yet only one community group in Guadalupe seems to acknowledge the town's endemic violence.
Centro de Amistad, a nonprofit social-service agency, began collecting guns from kids in 1995. The program, called "Swords Into Plowshares," invites kids to turn in weapons on special days, such as Easter, with "no questions asked."
So far, the Centro has collected 55 guns, which are turned over to Guadalupe artisans, who convert them to gardening tools and artistic sculptures. There is no way to determine if this has had an impact on gang activity, however, because of the lack of uniform reporting of gang-related crime statistics.
In 1996, the Centro began organizing vigils protesting each violent death in Guadalupe.
The Centro keeps its own informal list of violent deaths that occur in Guadalupe. In 1997, for instance, four people, including Jesse Madril, were killed by guns. Officials at the Centro don't specify which deaths are gang-related -- to them, violence is violence. But according to Lucia Madril, three of the 1997 deaths, including Jesse's, were gang-related.
In 1998, four more Guadalupanos died of gunshot wounds, according to the Centro's figures. Of these, says Lucia, one death was gang-related.
So far in 1999, two people have died of gunshot wounds in Guadalupe. The deaths were not gang-related.
Manuel Castro, a former California gang member who quit the gang life after his homies abandoned him in prison, is a counselor at the Centro. Castro says Guadalupe gang members got angry at one Centro worker and trashed the community sweat lodge.
Still, he is loath to say there's a serious gang problem in Guadalupe, although he doesn't exactly deny it, either.
"Something's not clicking," he says. "We understand that. . . . My forefathers didn't come to Guadalupe to gangbang and rob and stick needles in their arms. They came for a better life."
Felipa Maldonado still lives in the Guadalupe home where she raised her children. (Besides Lucia and Concha, Felipa has two other daughters. One lives out of state, the other lives in Tucson and did not respond to requests for interviews.)
Felipa divorced her abusive husband when Lucia, her youngest child, was a baby. She was too proud for handouts and would not accept welfare. She sent Jesse and his sisters to sell her homemade tamales, empanadas and menudo door-to-door in Guadalupe. The children kept 10 percent of their menudo money for school clothes.
Felipa often lectured her children that the only way out of poverty was through good education, but Concha and Lucia are the only ones who pursued college degrees.
Jesse dropped out of high school to support a pregnant girlfriend. His life became a series of disappointments -- it was no secret in Guadalupe that Jesse was an alcoholic. His alcoholism had destroyed relationships with two women he loved and had caused a sporadic employment history as an auto mechanic and construction worker. Unlike his sister Lucia, Jesse had never been involved with gangs, but he had been convicted once for possessing a small amount of marijuana and four times for driving while under the influence. At the time of his death, he was on probation for a DUI. He had promised his sisters and his mother that he'd sober up. But he never sobered up. Because Jesse was a kind and loving son and brother, his sisters and mother always forgave him.
Sometimes Jesse lived with his mother. Other times he lived with Lucia. He planned to return to his mother's house after his birthday party on the evening of December 13, 1997.
He walked to his birthday party alone. It was a festive time; Jesse passed neighbors en route to the Catholic Church to attend festivities honoring the Holy Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the namesake of the little town.
Jesse passed plywood shack homes with no plumbing, he passed tidy middle-class houses with gardens. The fronts of many houses were decorated with Yaqui flower crosses and Catholic Virgencitas, a stark contrast to the gang graffiti on exterior walls, on garbage cans, on the jungle gym in the town park.
Upon arriving at the home of his cousin, Ernie Maldonado, Jesse began drinking heavily.
The party turned ugly as it wore into the early hours of December 14. By then, the guests were gathered outside, warming their hands over a fire or playing dominoes.
Jesse was displeased that three youths had crashed his birthday party. Two of the uninvited guests -- Guadalupe "Lupe" Harper, then 20, and Jesus Gilbert "Junior" Valle, then 16 -- were, at the time, documented by law enforcement officials as members of Varrio Guadalupe Locos. The third uninvited guest, Jason Sanchez Vasquez, 17, would later admit he had friends in gangs but would claim he was not a gang member himself.
Lucia and Concha suspect that Jason Vasquez was being initiated into VGL when he and his pals crashed Jesse's birthday party. Maybe Vasquez had been instructed to shoot somebody, anybody, they say. And when Vasquez got arrested, they allege, he "took the rap" for the others involved because Vasquez had no prior record and would get the lightest prison sentence. (Authorities confirm that novices frequently confess to crimes to protect fellow gang members who might have to serve longer sentences because of criminal records.)
No one disputes that Vasquez came to Jesse's birthday party looking for a fight.
Mark Valenzuela, then 28 and a fast-food worker with no documented gang ties, told deputies he had consumed about a case of beer that day, and that for a reason he didn't understand, Vasquez had "mad-dogged" him most of the evening. Vasquez suddenly punched Valenzuela and knocked off his glasses. He fell to the ground and began groping for his glasses when Jesse Madril jumped in to protect him. Next, according to some witnesses, "Tong," a friend of Vasquez's, knocked Jesse to the ground. Harper also jumped into the fray. Valle would later claim he was not involved at all.
Ernie Maldonado, fighting on Jesse's side, was also knocked down.
As Jesse and Maldonado lay on the ground, Vasquez stood over them and fired a Glock 9mm pistol at point-blank range. The bullet ripped through Jesse's throat and lung and exited through his rib cage, lodging in Maldonado's left index finger.
Harper, Valle and Vasquez ran away.
Jesse Madril died a few minutes later.
When sheriff's deputies arrived at the scene, Maldonado was staring at the bullet in his finger. Asked about what happened, Maldonado became fearful and avoided answering questions, saying he did not want to be labeled a "snitch."
But Dale Duke, another partygoer, told Deputy Gary Robertson at the crime scene that VGL gang members had caused trouble at the party.
A few hours later, Lucia Madril visited the sheriff's substation in Guadalupe. She relayed what she had heard from relatives -- that her brother's death was gang-related. She named the VGL gang and several members. She does not remember the name of the deputy she talked to.
Lucia's visit to the substation was never recorded in the official police report on Jesse's death. However, Deputy Robertson wrote up a "supplemental report" that documented Dale Duke's claim about VGL involvement. He submitted his supplemental report on December 17, three days after the murder.
The investigation of Jesse Madril's death was conducted by Bryan Cluff, a homicide detective who did not work in Guadalupe. Cluff was stationed at the sheriff's downtown Phoenix headquarters.
On December 14, the same day Jesse was shot, Cluff learned that Jason Vasquez was hiding at a relative's house in Tempe. Vasquez's cousin, Josie Sanchez, told deputies she was up until 4:30 a.m. on December 14, decorating a Christmas tree. Sometime "late" Vasquez arrived in a good mood, laughing. He asked his cousin to make him a meal.
When Cluff interrogated Vasquez, the boy at first denied being involved in the murder. Vasquez claimed he had attended the party with Junior Valle but didn't know anything about the shooting.
When pressed, Vasquez changed his story. He said Jesse Madril had attacked him, so he, Vasquez, pulled out his gun, which went off accidentally, "just like... I was holding it... I cocked it like that and then 'pooooh'... it hit."
He said he had obtained the gun from an unidentified "friend" that day. He claimed he hurled the gun in a field as he ran from the party. (Later, a detective drove Vasquez to the field. No gun was found.)
Vasquez would not say whether his friends Valle and Harper had guns. He said he alone was responsible for Jesse Madril's death.
Vasquez was promptly arrested for the murder.
A transcript of Cluff's taped interview with Vasquez reveals that Cluff did not raise the issue of a possible gang connection.
Cluff subsequently interviewed Tong, Valle and Harper, and again did not ask about gangs. All three disavowed any knowledge of the Madril shooting.
Cluff tells New Times he did not suspect that the Madril murder was connected with VGL. He says if he had any inkling VGL had been involved, he would have investigated the murder as a gang crime in order to obtain a stiffer sentence for Vasquez and others. But he says he does not remember that deputies who worked in Guadalupe told him of Lucia's visit.
"If the family had said something to somebody [about a gang connection], and it didn't get passed along, well, that's a possibility," Cluff says.
And he does not remember seeing Robertson's report about Duke's VGL tip. (Robertson's entry was attached to Cluff's investigatory report when it was obtained by New Times earlier this year.)
But should Cluff have investigated gang ties even without Lucia's visit and Robertson's report?
Public records obtained by New Times bolster the Madril family view that the VGL connection to the murder was significant and obvious:
Junior Valle, who had spent the day with Jason Vasquez prior to the murder and who came to the party with Vasquez, was a known VGL gang member. In July 1997, six months before the Madril murder, Valle had been arrested for possessing marijuana and was documented by GITEM officers as a VGL member. Valle's probation officer wrote in November 1998 that he "admits to being a member of Varrio Guadalupe Locos (VGL) for most of his life and still associates with them." Valle has appealed a three-year probationary sentence for the marijuana possession, claiming the officers arrested him because he is Hispanic. Valle could not be located for comment.
Guadalupe Harper, who went to Jesse's party with Valle and Jason Vasquez, was also a documented VGL gang member. Two months before Jesse Madril was murdered, Harper was arrested by Tempe police for viciously beating another Guadalupano, Roman Carranza. "Subject is a VGL gang member," the arresting officer wrote, adding that Harper was suspected of being involved in a drive-by shooting. Harper was arrested prior to the Madril shooting for the armed robbery of a taxi driver. He was released pending his trial. Two weeks after Jesse Madril was murdered, Anna Hernandez, the current town council member, wrote a letter to the court on Harper's behalf. She wrote that Harper was "a nice young man despite the fact that he grew up alone without any support or guidance." Hernandez now claims she didn't know Harper was a VGL gang member at the time she wrote the letter. Despite Hernandez's support, in August 1998, Harper was sentenced to four years in prison for the armed robbery of the taxi driver. He refused to be interviewed for this story.
Although no murder weapon was ever found in the Madril case, one month after Jason Vasquez was arrested, a 9mm Glock semiautomatic handgun -- the same caliber weapon that had killed Jesse Madril -- was recovered at a VGL hangout by sheriff's deputies just a few blocks away from the murder scene. The Glock was found in a home where Robert Perez Martinez, a known Guadalupe VGL gang member wanted for attempted murder and assault, had been staying. In April 1998, Cluff filed a "Request for Evidence Examination" to see if the 9mm round that killed Jesse Madril came from the gun found in the VGL hideout. Cluff's request was ignored until June 1998, when he withdrew the request "because the case had already been adjudicated."
Jason Vasquez told his probation officer that he'd found religion in jail and piously vowed to better his life while incarcerated. Prior to his sentencing, he religiously attended 12-step programs to counter his self-professed addictions to methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana. He said he'd been addicted since he was 15.
Vasquez's probation officer wrote that the boy had grown up in Guadalupe in an "alcoholic environment." His father and mother had divorced and his mother raised him. Vasquez said he hardly ever saw his mom, but she did provide shelter. The parental neglect may explain why Vasquez read below a sixth-grade level when he was 17.
Until he was 15, Vasquez compensated by playing skilled basketball.
"I believe Jason tried to stay out of trouble as much as possible because he would go to the Boys and Girls Club at night," Gabe Sandoval, a fellow player, wrote in a 1998 letter to Superior Court Judge Mark Aceto, who presided over Vasquez's case. Sandoval said he was inspired by Vasquez's talent and team spirit on the court. Because Vasquez inspired him, Sandoval became the captain of the basketball team and graduated from high school, he wrote.
"Let me tell you, Jason had talent," wrote another player, Erik Castro. "If Jason would have kept playing, I know he could have gotten a scholarship or something. He was always there to help if you were down or needed some confidence."
But Vasquez abandoned basketball and wholesome friends at the age of 15, when "his academic grades caught up with him and school officials threatened to hold him back," according to his probation report. "Due to his embarrassment from being unable to read, he began to act out. His acting out included dropping out of school, drinking alcohol, using drugs and running with known gang members. He denies that he was ever an active participant in the gang, but rather was friends with several of them."
Vasquez told the judge he was "truly sorry" he had killed Jesse Madril.
One letter written on Vasquez's behalf by a child named "Alex" pleads with the judge: "He gave all his right [sic] up. He loves his friends but his friends don't care about him. Just use him. . . . So please have mercy on him!"
Jesse Madril's mother and sisters wanted no lenience. They asked the judge to give Vasquez the stiffest possible sentence because they believed Jesse's murder was part of a senseless gang initiation. Lucia Madril wanted the judge to invoke state racketeering statutes, because she felt the gang had conspired to get Vasquez to shoot someone, anyone, at the birthday party.
But because the sheriff's office had not investigated whether VGL had been involved, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office did not invoke racketeering statutes that would have levied a heavier sentence on Vasquez. The racketeering statute would also have enabled the prosecution of other gang members who may have been involved. Instead, the county attorney allowed Vasquez to plea-bargain his second-degree murder charge down to manslaughter and aggravated assault. He was sentenced to 10.5 years in prison and will be eligible for parole in 2007.
Jesse's family contends Vasquez's punishment amounted to a slap on the wrist. And they say it sends a clear message to other gang members: Go ahead, kill.
"Jason was barely getting into a gang, and now he is a hero in the eyes of his gang," says Concha Madril, adding that now Jason has status because of his prison sentence and the fact that he killed a man.
Jason Vasquez refused to be interviewed for this story.
Lucia, Concha and Felipa hope their story will embolden others in the community to speak out against gangs, to pressure the police to conduct more gang-related crime investigations.
And they still mourn Jesse.
Felipa, who is now 76 and in poor health, has an altar in her living room, where she stands before candles burning in front of a crucifix and silently prays for her only son's soul.
"The only way I will get through the death of my son is with help from God," she says.
"Why did I sway that way?" Lucia says, when asked why she was drawn to la vida loca. "I was so lonely at home. I joined the gang to hang out with somebody, to be with somebody. I used to love to party."
But she partied too much and got addicted to heroin.
Felipa disowned her.
In 1986, Lucia was arrested for possessing heroin. She promised a judge she'd kick her drug addiction in lieu of a prison sentence. She says she managed to stay straight except for one brief relapse in 1991. She obtained her GED degree and an associate's degree and was hired by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in the housing department.
Concha also worked for the tribe as a social worker in Guadalupe.
Then a new tribal administration took over and the two women were laid off -- Lucia in 1997 and Concha in 1998. Concha got another job as a Guadalupe social worker, but Lucia opted to move in with the ailing Felipa, who had welcomed Lucia back into the family after she proved she could stay clean and sober and quit gangbanging. Today, Lucia is pursuing a four-year university degree while caring for her mother and her own two children.
Asked whether she thinks her pioneering gang activity helped create the current atmosphere that caused Jesse's death, Lucia will only say: "I don't even want to think about it."
She knows, of course, that by speaking out against gangs she is putting herself in some danger, but she says, "I think I am also speaking out for my dead brother. . . . I feel that somebody in the community has to say something about the gangs. I am so tired of living in this community and seeing killing and hurting.
"I am sick of it."
Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 602-229-8437, or online at email@example.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.