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Siren Song Lured a 'Homie' From Life on the Mean Streets

Andy Trujillo has gone from a member of one of L.A.'s bloodiest gangs to one of the nation's top rescue ambulance workers.

June 10, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

He used to respond to drive-by shootings by hitting the pavement. Now he responds by hitting the siren.

It's a dramatic change for Andy Trujillo, who has gone from being a member of one of Los Angeles' bloodiest street gangs to being one of the nation's top rescue ambulance workers.

Trujillo, 30, is among 115 paramedics and emergency medical technicians from across the country who have received Stars of Life awards from the American Ambulance Assn. He was cited for his "calm and controlled manner" and for being "not frightened to come forward and take a leadership role" at urban emergency scenes.

What went unsaid at last month's Washington, D.C., ceremony was that Trujillo has experienced the chaotic aftermath of shootings, stabbings and assaults from both sides of the ambulance windshield.

He survived three such attacks when he was a member of the notorious Harpys street gang, which has 450 members in neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles.

"I was a member from age 11 to 19," he said. "I almost lost my life because of it."

Trujillo means that literally as well as figuratively.

"I was shot when I was 13 in a drive-by. A rival gang in a car saw me and a friend walking and they started shooting. I got hit in the thigh and the leg -- I spent three weeks in County-USC hospital. Getting shot became sort of a macho thing. It was like 'I took one for the homies,' " he said.

"We fought with other gangs. I was stabbed with an ice pick and a screwdriver. Once I had a bottle broken on my shoulders. But I gave back as much as I got in fistfighting. That's why I never picked up a gun."

Trujillo dropped out of Roosevelt High School at 16. "I wanted to hang around with the gang. I graffitied a few walls. We brawled with other gangs."

It all changed one day when he was walking down the street with his high school sweetheart, according to Trujillo.

"A car drove by and they were looking at me. I told my girlfriend to go into a store and get out of sight. If something was going to happen to me, it wasn't going to happen to her. It dawned on me that she was never going to be safe with me. So in 1992 I quit the gang."

Just in time too.

The Harpys went on in 1994 to become engaged in a vicious turf war with a rival gang that resulted in four execution-style murders. The Los Angeles City Council put up a $100,000 reward after learning that seven other murders might have been connected to the feud.

In 1998, the city obtained a Superior Court injunction against the Harpys, ordering 30 members of the gang to stop publicly associating with each other. At the time, authorities asserted that the gang was engaged in such activities as extortion, robbery, intimidation and murder.

Trujillo, meantime, was headed in a different direction. Motivated by girlfriend Rosie Ramirez and her family, he returned to finish school.

Eventually he and Ramirez married. In 1995 Trujillo landed a job cleaning ambulances with American Medical Response. He was hired by the ambulance company, he said, because he had no criminal record.

"I was detained a few times, but never arrested," he explained.

Trujillo decided to train to become an emergency medical technician after learning that his then-2-year-old daughter had spied an ambulance racing down the street and had waved at its driver, thinking it might be her father.

"I decided I wanted to become a contributor to the community instead of a burden," he said.

Trujillo's turnaround is no surprise to those who knew him as a gang member.

Sandra Diana, a Roosevelt High English teacher, remembers how he taught her to form a Harpys' "H" gang sign with her hands. "I never felt he was so heavily into it that he couldn't handle getting out," she said Friday.

"But of course it's a concern when someone's in a gang. They can kill or get killed -- but for the grace of God there could have gone Andy."

Trujillo's ambulance work includes 911 emergency runs to cities and unincorporated areas around Los Angeles.

There is a sense of familiarity when he pulls up to find drive-by shooting victims lying in the street.

On several occasions, Trujillo has transported "some of my old homies," as he puts it.

"I struck up a conversation with one of them who said he was happy that at least one of the home boys got out of the neighborhood and was making something of their life."

Michael Reynolds, a spokesman for American Medical Response, said Trujillo serves as a company field training officer and has signed up to train to become a mobile nurse.

As for Trujillo, he said he will always remember his best ambulance rescue. It was of himself.

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