SAN FERNANDO — It was 1977 when Robert Torres, just 15 at the time, came home with the letters "SF" tattooed on his left hand.
"What did you go and do?" his mother asked, recognizing the "San Fer" street gang insignia. "You just marked yourself for life."
Frances Hernandez may have been right.
For her son's funeral on Friday, she assembled a photo collage of Robert's life. The images--intended to portray her son, the second of five children, in the best light--also tell the story of a mother who sought to steer her boy along the straight and narrow.
"You don't see any gang clothes in these pictures," said Hernandez, a retired teacher's assistant who worked for years at O'Melveny Elementary School in San Fernando, shepherding her children through grade school there. "I don't want anyone to think of my son that way."
She pulled him from the streets at age 17, challenging him to fight for his country instead of the neighborhood. But at age 35, Torres, who indeed joined the Marines to escape gang life, was never able to quite find his way, despite his mother's efforts, suffering the consequences of bad luck and bad judgment.
He was shot to death on the street last week, apparently in retaliation for a gang-related killing he had nothing to do with.
Authorities know he was not guilty because Torres was in jail at the time. He was serving the last few days of a one-year sentence for violating his probation on previous burglary and drug-possession convictions. He was sent to jail after a brush with officers from LAPD's Foothill Division: Torres failed to pull over in a traffic stop and was arrested after a brief chase.
"Basically this is a guy who got out of the Marines and went haywire," said one law enforcement source who asked to not be identified. "It didn't have anything to do with gangs. He just should have stayed in the Marines. He would have had a brighter future."
Torres, who had served time in jail but never prison, was apparently set on getting his life together when he was released on Oct. 8.
"Mom, everything is going to be just fine when I get home. I'm through with doing time. I'm too old for this," he wrote in a letter from the Shafter Community Correctional Center in Northern California.
"May God bless you mother and take care of you for me," the note continued. "Make sure you eat! Love, Robert."
His first night out, Torres stayed with his mother and stepfather, Eugene Hernandez, at their home in Lancaster.
The next day, he went to San Fernando to look for his ex-wife and visit his five children.
"He was going to tell them that he was going to make up for all the lost time that he wasn't with them," his mother said.
But several members of the Shakin' Cat Midgets found him first, authorities said.
"He was just standing on the sidewalk, not bothering anybody," Det. Bob Tauson said of Torres, whom he described as "an old-time gang member from days back."
"I guess they must have saw his tattoo."
Out of jail only a day, Torres probably had little idea of what was happening on the street, Tauson said.
He probably didn't know of the Oct. 4 drive-by shooting in which an associate of the Shakin' Cats was killed and two others were wounded, allegedly by members of Torres' old gang, the San Fers.
So Torres probably paid little attention when a black coupe, allegedly carrying five members of the Shakin' Cats, slowed and pulled to the curb in front of the liquor store on Kalisher Street where Torres had just bought a pack of Marlboros.
By then it was too late.
Witnesses told detectives that a man got out of the car, calmly walked behind Torres, pulled out a gun and opened fire point-blank. Torres was hit several times, at least once in the head, relatives said. He died the next morning.
Both killings remain unsolved.
Lance Steaman, a San Fernando police detective who is working on the case with Tauson, said he, too, believes Torres was betrayed by a tattoo.
"They stay with you a long time," Steaman said. "Unfortunately, this guy made a dumb decision when he was kid. We have absolutely no information that he was active in a gang."
Robert Torres joined the Marine Corps in 1979 and served honorably for five years, earning his high-school equivalency diploma during that time, his mother said. Once out of the service, he worked for several years as a security guard and in a factory, she said.
But while he remained free of gang life, his own began to unravel over the past few years, she said.
His wife threw him out of the house. After that, he spent more time out of work than employed, picking up odd jobs. Finally, last year, he landed behind bars.
Even 20 years after the ink had dried, the tiny "SF" on Torres' hand earned him a cell in the gang section of the jail, Hernandez said.
There, depressed about being incarcerated and bored with the inmate routine, she said he picked up a second tattoo: A "San Fer" scrawled across the back of his neck.