SANTA PAULA — A day after her only son was arrested in the 6-year-old slaying of a Ventura High School football player, Maria Castillo stood outside her home weeping.
It was the memory of her son, 21-year-old Jose "Pepe" Castillo--before he dropped out of school, before he joined a gang--that tore at her now. She remembered him as the Little League pitcher who struggled to learn to play the saxophone in elementary school.
Not as the man police say fatally thrust a knife into 17-year-old Jesse Strobel's chest during an attempted robbery.
"I don't know how something goes so wrong in life," she said, struggling through tears that fell from red, swollen eyes. "But sometimes you can't get a grip on it. And you want to do the best for your children, but there is so much going on with the youth now. It's so hard to reach them."
Maria Castillo watched while police roused her sleeping son from his bed in their Santa Paula home early Tuesday morning and arrested him on suspicion of murder.
It was on Jan. 29, 1993, and Strobel was walking home about 10 p.m. after working a shift at his father's Pierpont pizza restaurant.
Strobel was a bright student and a member of the varsity football team at Ventura High School. He was a responsible young man, a "true blue friend," his mother said, who stayed away from gangs and drugs and worked hard at his father's shop to earn spending money.
It was just after one of his shifts at the pizzeria that Strobel, just a few blocks from his mother's home, was confronted by a group of gang members, police said. Strobel fought back until Castillo, police say, pulled out a knife.
Strobel, found lying in a puddle of blood on the porch of a nearby home, died that night. Castillo was 15 years old at the time.
For years, police believed they knew who the killers were--a group of gang members from Los Angeles--but never had enough evidence for an arrest.
But while looking into last June's killing of 25-year-old Mirna Regollar, who was shot to death during a botched robbery of her family's Santa Paula grocery store, a police source told Santa Paula detectives the Los Angeles gang was not responsible.
The source said it was a local resident, Castillo, who killed Strobel and participated in the slaying at Junior's Market, police said.
The informant also said Castillo's friend, Alfredo Hernandez, 21, of Santa Paula, was involved in the death of Regollar, a mother of two who was a nursing student at Ventura College.
Hernandez, who authorities say is an associate of a Los Angeles street gang, was also arrested Tuesday at his home.
Maria Castillo, a county employee who raised her son and older daughter, Xochito, alone since her husband left the home about seven years ago, said she knew her youngest child was having problems.
He was not doing well in school, and by the 10th grade he quit attending Santa Paula High for good.
He tried to hold down some jobs, she said, usually picking up warehouse work for temporary agencies here and there.
But Castillo said it was more than just problems with school and work that plagued her son.
"It's just the whole scope of things, learning how to deal with life," Castillo said.
She suspected that eventually he became involved with a Santa Paula gang, though young Castillo tried to hide his membership whenever his mother quizzed him about it.
"I think sometimes kids, they don't want to talk about things like that with you, they don't want to hurt their parents," Castillo said.
As an adult, Jose Castillo had few run-ins with the law, though he was convicted on a drunk-driving charge in 1997.
Neighbors, too, recalled Castillo as a troubled but respectful young man.
They knew he ran with gang members, but they considered him a nonviolent boy.
Neighbor Norm Danielson, the parent of two teenage daughters, said his family befriended the young man.
Whenever planning trips to the desert area to check on some property he owned there, Danielson invited Castillo to tag along.
"He liked that," Danielson said. "It gave him something to do."
Danielson's wife, Charlene, said she last saw Castillo on Easter, when he sat on her front porch eating some of her homemade cheesecake.
"He told me, 'Cheesecake, how did you know I liked cheesecake?' " she said before beginning to cry.
The Danielsons said their hearts go out to the families of the victims, Strobel and Regollar.
They have shed tears for all the families, the couple said.
"I know there is another family that lost a child," Charlene Danielson said. "But the other side is mourning a child, too. If [Castillo] goes to prison, that's another loss for another mother."
Jail officials said Castillo and Hernandez, who remain in custody, are expected to be arraigned on murder charges today.