The Journey In



At Homegirl, we all understand each other. We’re a family. There’s so much pain and so much love.


The Homegirl Café was operating with total efficiency. That could only mean something was really wrong. The homegirls were ordinarily the liveliest—and worst—waitresses imaginable, full of laughter and chatter while ignoring the customers who waited patiently for their water or their food or their check. Usually this only got worse before the last table was cleared and the doors were locked for the night. But today was different. The atmosphere in the café felt more like a prayer meeting than a party, the women delivering plates and checks with silent precision.

Erika Cuellar, one of the café directors, wasn’t on the floor, which made the ballet of organization even more alarming. I found her in back, outside the building, behind the kitchen. When she turned toward me, I saw she’d been crying.

“So. You heard what happened?”

“No. You’re scaring me—what is it?”

“It’s Janeth. She got locked up.” I looked at Erika closely. This news was not exactly remarkable. We were at Homeboy Industries, for God’s sake.

“For what?”

“Murder. You know—they’ve been trying to find who killed that church deacon. Now they know. Pedro Martinez shot him. Ivy and Janeth were with him. I’m not sure what happened. But that’s why they arrested Janeth last night. Elie thinks her bail is going to be over a million dollars.”

Erika started crying again while I stood still, trying to make some sense of her words.

I was used to people getting locked up. While criminal justice reform had growing support on both sides of the aisle—or so we kept hearing—evidently the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department hadn’t gotten the memo. Instead, almost everyone in law enforcement had only one thing on their minds: how to maintain the 40 percent drop in crime that in late 2012 was being touted as a historic low. So, people got locked up on suspicion. A crime was reported and then it was time to “round up the usual suspects”—particularly if they had tattoos and were hanging out in an area under a gang injunction. More often than not, after a few days passed, they were released. Invariably, it all came down to a technicality: “It was a DA reject,” or “They found the right guy,” or “The charges wouldn’t stick.” Actually, the reality was that there just wasn’t enough room in the LA County jail to detain every suspect, particularly for cases that were weak or lacked physical evidence. On any given day, twenty-two thousand men and women were locked up in some part of “CJ,” as the homies referred to the county jail, most of them awaiting the disposition of their case. Because of this, there was constant pressure to sort cases out. Additionally, if an arrest involved drug possession, the person charged would most likely go to drug court and then a rehab program. Cases rarely went to an actual trial. But a charge of homicide was different. And this one involved a church deacon, a violent gang member, and two women who were on the scene during the commission of the crime.

Everything about it was different.

No one ever thought of homegirls as murderers. Gang life was gendered, and women played supporting roles. They were girlfriends, or hood rats, or baby mamas. They were extensions of the male identity—readily available, on call as accomplices, personal assistants, characters in the gender cartoon of criminal behavior. “Y’know, women are supposed to be baby mamas. Maybe they do a little dealing on the side. But come on, they’re not criminals; they’re women,” one gang member had patiently explained to me, as if talking to an idiot. Their drug dealing sounded as innocent as having a Tupperware party or selling costume jewelry to make extra money. For women, crime was not a career—it was just a practice to generate petty cash, some pin money for the little lady. “I hid my dope in my baby’s diaper bag and even right in his diaper,” Joanna “Bright Eyes” Carillo once told me. “I just made a little money on the side—I could buy baby clothes or a dress, and I wouldn’t have to ask my man for any money. I could get something for the house.” When women talked about the minor crimes they engaged in, it all sounded so domestic, not worthy of any major public policy intervention.

If a woman actually engaged in violent activity—even murdered someone—it was usually with cause. I had already heard three separate stories from women at Homegirl. Each of them knew a woman who had killed a man because he had raped her, or sexually abused her, or repeatedly beaten her. Or all three.

Given all that, what could explain the run-up to this particular murder? Both women were mothers, both had experienced major traumas, and both struggled with their trauma and their recovery. So much had already happened to them in their lives. I knew Janeth had been involved for years with Luis, who’d fathered her daughter, Angelina. He was involved in gang activity, cheated on her, and beat her repeatedly, but she always wound up taking him back—she felt she had no one else in the world.

I also knew that Carlos, the father of Ivy’s son, Jessie, was locked up long-term, and Ivy had been alone for a long time, insisting she didn’t want to be involved with anyone. Ivy herself had been locked up, and when she was released from prison, all she cared about was Jessie and being a good mother to him. No one knew why she’d ever gotten involved with Pedro Martinez, the alleged shooter—who wasn’t part of the recovery-based world of Homeboy Industries. Even if he was attractive, as many of the homegirls found him, he was older, he’d been locked up, and he was still an active gang member. The women in the café worried about Janeth’s and Ivy’s involvements with such troublesome men—especially Pedro. While some of Luis’s behavior was blamed on his youth and stupidity, Pedro was judged more harshly when it got out that he’d been beating Ivy. In gang life, you were supposed to handle your business, take care of your family, keep everything under control. You weren’t supposed to beat your lady. Because of this, the homies had no love for Pedro, while the homegirls all worried about the pain both men inflicted and its impact on Ivy’s son and Janeth’s daughter.

“Was it just the two of them? Was anyone else with them? What happened? Who got picked up?” I kept asking questions without waiting for Erika to answer. Something inside of me just didn’t want to know. I knew Ivy and Janeth were both struggling, trying to recover from trauma, not get involved in more of it.

“Pedro was the shooter; Ivy was driving the car. Janeth was tagging the church wall. I think Pedro killed the deacon. The deacon’s wife is pregnant.”

As soon as she delivered this verbal telegram, Erika started crying again.

Janeth and Ivy had hit the trifecta of crime: homicide, an innocent victim, and an unborn child. I knew what this meant. Barring a miracle, they would be incarcerated for a long time. Right now, Los Angeles had an aggressive DA who might even seek the death penalty. What was worse, up until a few weeks earlier, when she quit working as a waitress, Ivy had been one of the most beloved women in the café. Janeth was younger and more of a wild card; the women had worried about her. Ivy was older and committed to her recovery; everyone adored her. Customers came in and asked to sit at her table. She was a source of the warmth the café exuded. Even though she’d left Homegirl, everyone, including me, believed Ivy would be back sooner or later. She was too much a part of life at the café not to return.

The Homegirl Café had long existed as a sanctuary for women within Homeboy Industries. It was where women felt protected. Where, even if their relationships were failing or their kids were acting out, they could come, earn decent money, talk with the staff—feel seen, feel understood. I couldn’t imagine what had happened with Janeth and Ivy. Right now, Erika was way beyond answering any more of my questions. But I knew what I had to do. I had to find Elie.

Elie Miller understood better than anyone else the struggles women confronted as they made their way through the thicket of the criminal justice system. Before becoming Homeboy’s resident lawyer, she’d worked twenty years as a public defender. Elie was the homie whisperer—a combination legal authority and mother confessor. She loved the men and women at Homeboy while refusing to be manipulated by them. I’d gone to court with her when she was defending a former gang member allegedly operating a large-scale drug distribution network. On the way to the courthouse she was complaining, “I don’t know what I’m going to do about this case. Shorty had a fucking pharmacy in his house—he had to know he was going to get caught. And he told me he cared about being a good father. What’s going to happen to his kids now? He’s got five of them. He’s a complete idiot.” Following her train of thought, I tried to empathize.

“You probably can’t stand him right now.” Elie looked at me, puzzled.

“What? I love Shorty—I really do. I just can’t figure out why he did this.”

That was the quintessential Elie. She loved the homies; she just bemoaned what they did—and hated how they got into trouble over and over again.

Elie already knew Janeth was locked up; she was down at the clerk’s office at the courthouse trying to find out what the charges were, if bail had been set, and when she’d be arraigned. The women at the café were certain that Elie would save the day.

“We just have to wait for Elie.”

“Elie will know what’s going on.” “Elie will get her out.”

It was a Friday night and, if the story was true, I knew Janeth would be in custody at least over the weekend. There wasn’t going to be any last-minute arraignment, bail wouldn’t be set. And even once bail was set, how on earth could Janeth afford it? Erika had one thing right—bail for a crime of this nature would be set at a minimum of a million dollars. My questions begat more questions.

And there was still the biggest unanswered question.

Where was Ivy?

Back inside the café, the “closed” sign had been hung on the door, and the women were sleepwalking through cleanup. One by one they came up and asked me: “Did you hear?” “What’s gonna happen?” “Does Janeth have a lawyer?” “Is she gonna be all right?”

I had no answers; all I could repeat was the mantra “Wait for Elie.”

In a few days, the story of the murder was all over the news.

“I heard something happened in Westlake with two of the Homegirl women. Didn’t you live there once?”

The question—well-intentioned but tone-deaf—was coming from one of my UCLA colleagues who knew all too well the comings and goings of my personal life but who wasn’t as well versed in the crosshatch of communities that made up Los Angeles. He had only part of the story right.

The Iglesia Principe de Paz—the Church of the Prince of Peace—was located in the heart of the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. With a congregation of Central American immigrants, this whitewashed evangelical church was like a storefront, its windows guarded by a foldable iron gate. It looked like so many other establishments that rose up from the sidewalks throughout LA—in Watts, Boyle Heights, and Rampart. This area was often confused with Westlake Village, where I’d briefly lived, a bleach-white planned community at the western edge of Los Angeles County, right next door to Calabasas and the plastic-coated wonders of the Kardashian family. Westlake, near the Pico-Union district in Central Los Angeles, was a multi-ethnic enclave, home to many Central American immigrants and Filipino and Korean families. Churches formed the center of community life, and the Iglesia Principe de Paz was no exception. However, its congregation was too poor to support anything resembling full-time clergy. Alongside a more senior priest, Andres Ordonez volunteered as a deacon at Principe de Paz. His roots at the church were deep—he’d attended services there from the time he was ten years old. He’d married the granddaughter of the church’s pastor. As deacon he’d stand at the church door, welcoming parishioners and offering each one a blessing.

Ordonez’s backstory was deeply poignant, a narrative guaranteed to mark the murder as a tragedy and render Janeth and Ivy completely unsympathetic. His parents had migrated to Los Angeles from Guatemala when he was a toddler. He now worked as a restaurant cook but had bigger plans, greater aspirations. A shy and serious child, Andres had dreamed of someday being a police officer. There was no barrio for Andres, no tagging, no acting out. As a teenager he’d enthusiastically participated in the LAPD Police Explorer program, and it had reinforced his desire to serve his community. At twenty-five he was closing in on obtaining citizenship and applying to the LAPD. Andres was also focused on family as well as on his dreams: he was the father of a one-year-old son, and his wife, Ana, was three months pregnant with their second child. On this day Ana hadn’t been feeling well. She’d left the church service and was sitting in the family car, parked in a nearby lot. Andres and another parishioner left during a break in the church services to check on her.

The precise details surrounding Andres’s murder remained—for the moment—ambiguous. In the early evening of November 4, 2012, around five thirty, Janeth began tagging the walls of the Principe de Paz in the growing darkness. The graffiti included the typical tagger roll call, beginning with the symbols for her gang, Rockwood, followed by her gang moniker along with Pedro’s and Ivy’s. Janeth was claiming territory for her gang in enemy turf: Rockwood operated in the surrounding area, sandwiching their rival gang, Temple Street, between their original territory one mile to the east on Rockwood Street and the territory controlled by one of their cliques to the west at Westmoreland. Law enforcement was well aware of the conflict between the two gangs. In fact, the LA city attorney had already filed a “nuisance abatement” notice against Rockwood, spurring the LAPD to crack down on gang activity. Janeth knew this—it was probably why she was tagging. At twenty-two she was the youngest of the threesome in the car and the likeliest choice to tag the territory.

Inside the church the congregants were singing while food was set up in the parking lot for dinner once the service ended. A parishioner stepped outside to gauge the food preparation and saw Janeth spray-painting the wall. He asked Janeth to stop, and she did—long enough to walk over and push him to the ground. At the same time, Andres, who’d gone back to the church, was on the phone talking to his wife and heard noises. He emerged from the church and joined the group. Andres and another parishioner—a woman—tried to help the man up and told Janeth to stop what she was doing. Why didn’t she simply respond? Or run away? But instead, as a group gathered around Janeth and the others, Pedro jumped out of the car with a shotgun and opened fire into the crowd. Ordonez and a woman parishioner fell. After spraying the area with bullets, Pedro jumped back into the car, where Ivy waited behind the wheel. Janeth ran to the car, jumped in, and the three drove away. Someone called 911 as the parishioners surrounded Andres—some kneeling, some standing, all of them praying.

The shooting took place in the Rampart district—long a battleground for gangs, including MCS-13—Mid-City Stoners 13 (“13” signifies the gang’s ties to the Mexican Mafia, which made them the object of LAPD gang units like their rivals, MS-13), 18th Street, the Bounty Hunter Bloods, and the Rollin’ 20s. In the Westlake neighborhood, where the church stood, gang rivalries had been linked to five homicides that had taken place over the past year. Residents had painted over gang graffiti, but their community-based efforts had incited gangsters, who threatened future violence. The walls of the evangelical church were thick with paint applied over previous tagging. In a neighborhood dense with apartment buildings, residents’ fears multiplied. Witnesses didn’t want to talk about what or who they’d seen at the church. There were rumors of gang retaliation if anyone spoke up. On top of that, many residents were undocumented. Nothing in this atmosphere lent itself to cooperation with law enforcement.

The shooting occurred on a Sunday. Four days later, on Thursday morning, the LAPD held a press conference. The deacon’s widow, Ana, looking like a grief-stricken Madonna, asked the public to help find her husband’s killer. Andres’s father-in-law, Cirilo Mendez, asked for justice for his fallen son-in-law, “He has been in this country since he was a boy. From the bottom of his heart, he was American. He felt American. His wife was an American citizen. The life he was going to make was going to be made here.”1 There was talk of a reward for information but nothing definite. In the meantime, no one was talking to the police.

Not that there weren’t stories about what had happened. The homie communication system had always functioned better than any intelligence operation, and rumors had started flying. While the media covered the press conference and entreaties from the LAPD, Homeboy was rumor central. Everyone was clear that Pedro was the lone shooter. Then there was word that police had raided the house where Ivy and her son, Jessie, lived with the couple she considered her in-laws. News of the police search lent credence to another story circulating, that Ivy and Janeth might have been involved in the murder. Early Thursday two homegirls reported that they’d seen Janeth. “I didn’t kill anyone, I’d never kill anyone, I can’t even shoot. I don’t want to. Believe me,” she’d reassured them, and it made sense. Women didn’t kill anyone unless there was a reason.

And still the women in the café wondered, where was Ivy?

Five days after she was arrested, on Tuesday November 13, Janeth was officially charged with suspicion of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and vandalism. Given that she was described as a “reputed gang member,” gang allegations would be added to her charges later. Her bail was set at $2.5 million. Ivy and Pedro were still at large.



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