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Adulation of O.C. Trio's Killer Raises Concerns

Violence: Fatal slashing, second assault in Colorado town may be copycat crimes, authorities fear.

September 28, 1996|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CORTEZ, Colo. — Until this week, 18-year-old Joseph Edward Gallegos was just one of 40 young Cortez residents who emulated the Los Angeles gang culture, adopting the clothes, pose and violent music of their inner-city peers 700 miles away.

But when he gunned down three young men who'd tried to befriend him--a trio of close pals who left Orange County not long ago to build a church in the Colorado wilderness--Gallegos turned into a star, officials say.

So deep is the adulation for Gallegos that officials fear two assaults this week--including one fatal throat-slashing in the town park--may have been copycat crimes, committed by teens inspired by the murderous exploits of their new idol.

"This kid has really captured the imagination of a lot of people," said George R. Buck Jr., district attorney of Montezuma and Dolores counties, who can remember the first time Gallegos ran afoul of the law, when he was just 12.

Many teens seem awed, Buck said, by the cold-blooded nature of Gallegos' murder spree, which seemed to start without provocation in the tiny town of Bayfield, Colo., then ended 400 miles away in a University of Northern Colorado dormitory, where Gallegos held his ex-girlfriend and three other female students hostage before a police sniper's bullet fatally pierced his neck.

Because he "went down shooting," Buck said, and because he apparently used hard-core rap music to prime himself for the crime, many Cortez teens are reportedly romanticizing Gallegos' exploits.

Though police have speculated that Gallegos acted out of rage after his recent breakup with his girlfriend, the lack of a clear motive for killing the Orange County men Tuesday only heightens the mystery that surrounds him.

Some teens have been designing and making T-shirts emblazoned with the name "Bubba," Gallegos' street alias, according to Buck. At tonight's funeral service for Gallegos in a small, sand-colored church one block from Main Street, the teens apparently plan to wear their "Bubba" T-shirts as a symbol of their solidarity.

"Another youngster we had in a locked juvenile facility escaped, apparently agitated by Gallegos' death," Buck said. "He told other inmates he wanted to come down here and waste a cop."

"He's being glamorized and that angers me," said Patrick J. Sheeran, the deputy district attorney who urged Colorado youth authorities in vain last July to keep Gallegos locked up as long as possible. "[Gallegos] has consistently shown no regard for the welfare of others," Sheeran wrote in a letter obtained by The Times. "This despite years of efforts to provide intervention and assistance to Mr. Gallegos. I have a serious concern for the safety of the public, as Mr. Gallegos, over the years, has acted in a predatory manner with no compassion for his innocent 'prey.' "

Nevertheless, over Sheeran's emphatic objections, a parole board voted unanimously to set Gallegos free, based in part on the character reference furnished by one of Gallegos' future victims, 20-year-old Joshua Turville.

"It makes me wonder what I'm doing in this job," Sheeran said Thursday. Certain that Gallegos had rehabilitated himself, Turville not only vouched for his character with authorities, but invited Gallegos to come live with him and two Orange County friends, Steven David Bates and John Anthony Lara III, both 20.

Turville and Lara have been generally described as "devoutly religious" young men who had attended Calvary Church in Santa Ana, where they helped lead Bible study classes. Bates, who had a minor brush with the law as a teen, had accompanied his friends to Colorado and appeared to have turned his life around, friends said.

Within the last few months, they traveled to Colorado as a band of self-proclaimed missionaries, hoping to found a ministry that would rescue wayward teens.

Their first "project" was Gallegos, a hard case who had horrified authorities for years with his violent streak and wanton disregard for the law.

When Gallegos arrived at a halfway house for troubled teens, Turville and the others greeted him with open arms. They and their pastor, Jeb Bryant, another former Orange County resident who was starting a Calvary Chapel in Bayfield, found Gallegos to be kind, shy and repentant.

But Gallegos would soon revert to the criminal ways that had marked his entire adolescence.

It started when Gallegos was 12, with an arrest for shoplifting, followed by an arrest the next year for criminal trespass. A judge gave the 13-year-old Gallegos probation, and with one crime after another the boy effectively prolonged that probation--or detention--for the rest of his life.

When Buck confronted Gallegos in 1991, trying to scare him straight, the 13-year-old Gallegos affected a tough-guy stance unusual for boys his age. "It was clear to me that he'd watched too many crime shows on TV," Buck said.

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