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Riches did not change habits

$2.5 million could have been Jose Luis Munoz's ticket to a new life. But a parole violation put him back in prison.

June 17, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Nobody wanted Jose Luis Munoz to fail.

The Anaheim gang member raised by a single mother had received a second chance -- or maybe it was his first -- to turn his life around when he settled a lawsuit against the city and police for $2.5 million.

In December, he was waiting for the check and paving his future with good intentions. But four months later he was back in prison for violating parole; he had been caught associating with other gang members.

When he was released from prison, Munoz, 23, said he was eager "to do the right thing." He said he was going to move out of his gang-infested neighborhood and buy a house for his mother, who had worked two jobs while raising him.

Munoz's mother declined to comment last week when contacted at her Anaheim home where Munoz grew up. She and just about everyone else, including the police, hoped that a financial cushion would steer Munoz away from a lifestyle that had already cost him four years in prison and Juvenile Hall. His current prison sentence is 16 months.

"We were all pulling for him. All he had to do was stay away from friends who could only get him in trouble," said Anaheim gang Sgt. Dennis Briggs, whose unit is well acquainted with Munoz, whose moniker is Dopey.

In 2005, Munoz, on foot, was struck from behind by a police cruiser as he surrendered after a brief chase.

He was wedged in the vehicle's undercarriage and severely injured. Munoz said he bolted from police because he was afraid they were going to send him back to prison.

Munoz sued the city of Anaheim and the Police Department over his injuries and was awarded $2.5 million.

Attorney Arnoldo Casillas, who represented Munoz in the lawsuit, said he knew there was a possibility that his client would revert to his old ways.

"I knew his background all too well," he said. "But I had high hopes and expectations. It's tragic that he's right back in prison."

In a December interview with The Times, Munoz said he had been visited by two Anaheim gang detectives after he was paroled in October. One of the officers took a special interest in him, he said. She gave him her business card with her cell number and encouraged Munoz to call if he needed help or was in danger.

"There was a safety risk. He had all this money. She went to his house two or three times to make sure things were OK with him," Briggs said. "You always hope you can convince at least one gang member to get away from that lifestyle. Jose had a perfect opportunity to get away, but he didn't. It's sad."

Munoz said his parole officer also encouraged him to move and offered to help him get settled in another county. The parole officer could not be reached for comment.

On April 10, gang officers patrolling the northeast Anaheim neighborhood where Munoz lives spotted an SUV stopped in the street. The driver -- Munoz -- was talking to a female gang member who was on probation, Briggs said. The officers questioned Munoz and three other gang members in the vehicle.

Munoz and the girl were arrested on suspicion of associating with gang members, a violation of their parole and probation. He was returned to prison the following day.

Attorney Richard Longoria, who represented Munoz in a criminal case, said his client lacked self-esteem, "which makes it extremely difficult for him to find a way out."

"If you didn't grow up in that lifestyle, it's much harder to get out than you realize," Longoria said. "But the bottom line is that he screwed up. We are all disappointed."

Richard Ramos, a gang expert and author who grew up in Highland Park, agreed that identity and fitting in have a lot to do with Munoz's recidivism.

"People who don't have money transform their lives all the time," Ramos said. "In this case, $2.5 million wasn't enough. To kids like him, identity and belonging are powerful forces that keep them in gangs. There has to be an inside-out transformation or a life-changing event to bring change. Gangs compete with your family for loyalty.

"It appears that his gang won."

--

hgreza@latimes.com

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