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Gang Life's Grip Proves Hard to Escape

Members talk about changing their lives, but breaking away is easier said than done. Parents, meanwhile, wonder what went wrong.

May 27, 1997|JOHN JOHNSON and CAROLYN COLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

There was a reason. Because Midget was in charge of the gang before Skrappy, some blamed him for the money missing from the gang's bank account. "They wanted to kill him," said one gangster.

Now, all Midget wanted was "to get out of here."

He had once saved $18,000 to buy a house for his girlfriend and two kids, only to blow it on drugs. Things got so bad that he was forced to sleep on the floor of his aunt Livy's apartment.

Now he was saving again. It would take several months of dealing to get the $4,000 together that he needed, but after that, Midget promised, he was gone.

Sal and Lorena

Sal Saldana, the third member of the triumvirate Skrappy referred to as the last of the Mohicans, was also thinking it was time to change his life.

Over the years, he had warmed up a lot of cell bunks and made so many enemies on the streets of Los Angeles that he had to drop his gang nickname, Bandit.

Sitting in jail one more time, on a carjacking charge that would later be dropped, he wrote to Lorena Perez and said he was ready to do his duty to her and Little Sal.

Lorena, a handsome woman of 21 with a cascade of dark hair, didn't go all aflutter at the prospect of making a life with Sal. For one thing, he was a vicious drunk. He spent 18 months in jail for breaking Lorena's front teeth. A basically good-hearted man when he wasn't drinking, he had also never shown any signs of ambition.

Still, broke and with a 2-year-old to feed, Lorena did not have a lot of options.

With Sal away, the gang used her apartment in a building across the street from ours as a clubhouse. Lorena cooked for them and did their laundry. At any time of day, they could be found lounging on the sofa, watching television and running up her phone bill.

The police raided the place one night, cuffed her in front of Little Sal and warned her that she could lose custody if she didn't straighten up.

Little Sal was the gang mascot. He had picked up the furrowed brow, narrow-eyed, mad-dog face that gang members flash at their enemies. "Bad boys," he squeaked whenever he saw a police car. Then he ran, just like gang members do.

Lorena was not raised to this life. She had been a straight-A student. Midget nicknamed her the Karate Kid because as a girl she was so consumed with her martial arts lessons. When the Langdon guys gathered under her window and tried to get her attention, she ignored them.

She developed a wild streak after her parents divorced. Now, she was the first in her family to go on welfare.

Jobless and without a car, Lorena was as trapped in the gang life as Sal. She relied on the gang to pay the phone bills and buy diapers for Little Sal.

Feeling increasingly desperate, Lorena read Sal's letters and began to hope that he could change. And as Sal's release drew near, she kept it a secret from Skrappy and the others. She hoped to slip quietly away from the gang life before it got its hooks any deeper into Little Sal.

A few weeks later, it seemed Sal and Lorena had made a clean escape. Little Sal was riding a Big Wheel around the patio of the Sun Valley bungalow that Sal's mother, Brenda Hinojos, had rented for them. The boy's gang haircut was growing out and his father looked forward to teaching his son to play baseball.

He didn't miss the guys, Sal said. He was too busy learning to be a family man. He was taking classes to get a job as a sanitation worker, and looking forward to the time when he could buy Lorena a house.

"Nothing too much," Sal said modestly. "Just enough."

His mother said Sal once made $600 a day dealing drugs. Yet he was proclaiming his intent to happily haul garbage.

This was part of the strange dissonance of gang life. The gangsters knew theirs was a Peter Pan existence, and they cherished the thrills and chills as long as they could. But they also knew that waiting out there somewhere was the grown-up world, which they would join some day.

Back to the Mission

They may leave, Livy had said, but they don't get far.

Two days after Sal talked about making his break, the gang returned to the cemetery, this time for Chato's birthday. Midget was missing, but again proving the strength of Orion's riptide, Sal was back.

Skrappy put on a T-shirt that read, "In Loving Memory of Mr. Chato," and gulped Cuervo Gold straight from the bottle.

Chato's sister, Nina, spread a blanket and put an open bottle of Corona on the grave.

Near sunset, the Langdon gang piled into their cars and raced back to the neighborhood, as though they couldn't bear to be caught outside their territory after dark.

We didn't follow. We were moving out the next day, and this was the last time we would spend with all of them.

As we watched them go, we thought about Chato and Casper and the rest. They had chances to get out. But when it came down to it, they couldn't abandon the streets they had fought on, drunk on, slept on, earned their livings on, and died on.

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