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Minister Pleads Guilty to 1993 Gang Shooting in Santa Ana

Courts: Geronimo Galvan Burgos, who converted in prison years ago, is expected to receive probation for his role in a drive-by that left one dead.

January 26, 2002|STUART PFEIFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former Orange County gang member who moved to Alabama five years ago and founded a church pleaded guilty Friday to having been involved in a 1993 drive-by shooting--allegations that surfaced years after he reformed his life.

The plea bargain means Geronimo Galvan Burgos can go back to his congregation at least until April, when he is expected to return to Orange County and receive a probation sentence. Prosecutors agreed to the plea bargain after concluding that Burgos did not fire a gun in a street ambush that left one dead and two wounded.

"I'm thankful first for the mercy of God and for the very understanding court system," Burgos said after the hearing. "I'm living testimony of how the Gospel can change your life and keep your life changed."

Burgos said he was shocked when police arrested him last February at his church in Russellville, Ala., a small town where he lives in a mobile home with his wife and two children.

The minister spent three months at Orange County Jail, where he said he counseled young offenders and converted several to Christianity. At the same time, Burgos said, he lived in fear that his past actions might land him in prison for life.

But prosecutors concluded Burgos' role in the shooting was minimal. Deputy Dist. Atty. Joe D'Agostino dropped murder and attempted murder charges Friday, allowing Burgos to plead guilty to helping a murder suspect evade arrest.

The prosecutor said he was swayed in part because Burgos has turned his life around. There's a chance Burgos could be called as a witness if police arrest other suspects in the shooting that took the life of 20-year-old Christian Madera, a member of a rival gang.

"This was very fair for all sides," D'Agostino said. "He has turned his life around. He's not a danger to the public at all. And from our standpoint, we held somebody responsible for being involved in a gang incident. He's been very cooperative with us, so we can actually bring someone to justice."

Although Burgos faces up to six years in prison, defense attorney Vincent Oliver said he expects Burgos to receive probation.

Burgos, 30, said he plans to return to Alabama this weekend. He's scheduled to preach next week at a church in Indiana, then will focus on finishing the construction of a Russellville church.

Burgos, a minister for five years, has built a devoted following in Russellville, where he preaches in Spanish and English and appears on cable television.

His new life, Burgos said, is a far cry from his days running with a Santa Ana gang. He said he was a drug addict who robbed to support his habit. It was in prison, Burgos said, that he made a religious conversion he believes saved his life.

"It's a miracle," he said. "One of the greatest miracles is the change of heart. You can take the gang member out of the city. But if you don't take the gang member out of your heart, you'll start doing the same things."

He said comparing his current life with his past is "like comparing light and darkness."

"I was miserable back then. It was a miserable life. I was a drug-addict gang member. My probation officer told me he expected me to end up dead or in prison for life," Burgos said.

"Now I have a family. I have peace with God. And I don't have to fear nobody. One of the things gang life brings you is constant fear."

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