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Manhunt Turns Up Only Ill-Will

San Juan Capistrano Latinos say they were unfairly targeted in a search for attackers of four Marines in July. No arrests were made.

September 22, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

In the hours following a summer evening brawl in San Juan Capistrano in which four Marines were beaten and stabbed, police fanned out rapidly through the town's immigrant community, looking for those responsible for the attack.

They came up empty, but some Latino residents say the aggressive manhunt left a lasting stain.

Residents said they were harassed, roughed up, and, in one instance, tossed in jail as deputies worked to find those responsible for an attack that authorities initially blamed on as many as 12 Latino gang members.

Orange County sheriff's officials now say they don't know if any of the attackers belonged to a gang and that the number was probably smaller.

The manhunt led to Aurelio Mendoza's home.

"They [deputies] just began looking through the house, throwing things on the floor," Mendoza said. Officers told him they were looking for his son, who was at work, and kicked in a door to a spare bedroom that he rents to a couple, he said.

"I tried to explain we didn't have access to the room," Mendoza said, "but they knocked me down and handcuffed my hands behind my back and my feet."

Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Christine Murray said deputies and probation officers searched numerous houses in San Juan Capistrano and other South County cities after the July 31 street brawl, often targeting people known to police. She said deputies did not use excessive force, and arrested Mendoza because he interfered with investigators.

Murray said deputies were targeting households not on the basis of people's race, but on suspected associations with a green Honda in which some of the suspects are believed to have fled the scene.

"What probably happened is that the people whose homes were searched were either linked to a green car or were associates of people who owned a green car," she said.

Deputies have since found the green car they believe was used in the attack and are awaiting test results before making any arrests, Murray said.

The Marines, all of whom recovered from their injuries, were attacked shortly after midnight while walking around looking for a place to eat, sheriff's officials said.

About 12 hours after the attack, deputies and probation officers fanned out into apartment complexes occupied mostly by immigrants and clustered around Los Rios Street, a neighborhood just off the railroad tracks near the heart of the historic mission city.

At least six homes of Latinos who were on probation or parole were searched by investigators for evidence linking them to the attack. But critics said the deputies targeted people solely because they were Latino and harassed those who complained.

"The police had nothing to tie these young men to the attack on the Marines; only that they were Latinos," said Patricia Mariscal, a San Juan Capistrano community activist.

Elvia Verrelleza, whose 22-year-old son was on parole, said deputies searched her apartment even though her 12-year-old son was the only person at home. "He answered the door and they just walked in and searched the house," she said. "They told him to sit on the couch and shut up or they would take him to jail."

Mendoza said that when he was arrested, officers left him sitting in a patrol car for 30 minutes with the windows rolled up. He said he spent three days in jail before being released on $500 bail and is scheduled to appear in court next month to answer to charges of interfering with a police officer.

Murray said investigators had probable cause to search the homes. She said deputies searched about half a dozen homes in the neighborhood where Mendoza and Verrelleza live and about half a dozen elsewhere in south Orange County.

Police are permitted to search the homes and property of those on probation or parole without a warrant.

Though legal, the searches have deepened the divide between Latinos in San Juan Capistrano and law enforcement, Mariscal said. The rift emerged in April when Border Patrol agents began arresting immigrants in the city. The arrests stopped in June, after protests organized by Mariscal and other local activists.

"The police don't know that they've alienated the community with their heavy-handed enforcement action," Mariscal said. "If the guilty ones live in our community, we want them arrested. But don't assume that every young Latino is a suspect."

Mariscal and other community leaders have encouraged those involved in the attacks to surrender to police. Amin David, a longtime Orange County Latino activist, offered to help hire attorneys for the suspects if they would surrender.

There have been no takers.

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