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Getting under their skin

COLUMN ONE

A boy's tattoo calls into question his father's judgment — and stirs a community to confront how it deals with street gangs.

August 17, 2010|By Scott Kraft, Los Angeles Times
  • Enrique Gonzalez, right, and Travis Gorman celebrate in Fresno County Superior Court after being found not guilty of aggravated mayhem for inking a gang tattoo on Gonzalez's 7-year-old son.
Enrique Gonzalez, right, and Travis Gorman celebrate in Fresno County… (John Walker / Fresno Bee )

Reporting from Fresno — On that April evening, the mood in the house on East Redlands Avenue was festive.

Alisa Quillen had a pot of pozole simmering on the stove. Her twin daughters and other family members were out in the garage, where Travis Gorman was inking a new tattoo on his friend Enrique Gonzalez.

When Gorman finished, Gonzalez's 7-year-old son and namesake began pestering his father. "I want a tattoo like you, Dad," he said, Quillen remembered. Gonzalez said no, but the boy persisted.

Finally, the father relented and Gorman tattooed the outline of a dog's paw print, about the size of a quarter, on the boy's hip.

By then, Quillen was back in the kitchen. "Grandma, look what I've got," the boy said when he found her there.

"I was thinking, wow, that's not good," Quillen recalled. "But I said, 'Oh, that's cute.' He was so proud of it."

A few weeks later, the boy's mother spotted the tattoo and called the police.

What happened next would turn a father's questionable judgment into a major criminal case — and force a community to ask whether it was possible to go too far in efforts to battle the street gangs that threatened it.

When it was all over, the father and the tattoo artist were on their way to prison. The boy's tattoo was being removed by a dermatologist.

But the scar of an ugly, yearlong legal battle remained, and no one was happy with the outcome.

*

The paw print was the sign of the Bulldogs, a Latino gang that for more than two decades has taunted police and terrorized neighborhoods in Fresno, a proud community of Middle American values surrounded by some of the nation's richest farmland.

The Bulldogs, an independent street gang with more than 11,000 members, take their name from the mascot of Fresno State University. The bumper stickers hailing Fresno as home of the Bulldogs carry an unfortunate ambiguity: Gangsters wear red Fresno State jerseys, decorate themselves with teeth-baring bulldog tattoos and intimidate their enemies with barks and howls.

Four years ago, a close analysis of crime statistics in the city, as well as the shooting of a police officer and the rape and murder of a teenager by members of the gang, touched off Operation Bulldog, which led to thousands of arrests and a drop in violent crime. So far this year, the city has recorded eight gang-related homicides.

When Gonzalez's ex-wife, Tequisha Oloizia, called police in the spring of 2009, it touched a nerve in a Police Department that has seen ever-younger children initiated into the gang.

Oloizia's allegation that the boy, a first-grader, had been held down and forcibly inked with the Bulldogs' emblem shocked the community. But many were equally stunned by the charge that Fresno County Dist. Atty. Elizabeth Egan decided to bring: aggravated mayhem, which carries a life sentence.

Gonzalez, 27, and Gorman, 22, were Bulldogs and each had prior convictions for burglary, but they were small fry who had never been arrested for gang activity.

Michael Idiart, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor, saw the charges as an attempt to bend the rules to appease an angry public.

"Gangs ruin families and they ruin kids," Idiart said. "But if you resort to improper practices to root out evil, then ultimately you become no better than the evil you are rooting out. Catch them and prosecute them for what they did, not some bastardization of the penal code."

Others, such as former Dist. Atty. Ed Hunt, thought the severity of the charges was justified.

A district attorney, he said, "has an obligation to consider the public policy aspects of the charges they file and to say, 'If you do that in my county, I will attempt to punish you to the maximum extent of the law.' "

*

Early on, Gonzalez's attorney acknowledged that his client was guilty of something more serious than simply putting a tattoo on an underage boy, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. But the prosecution wasn't willing to plea-bargain.

Then last fall, a judge tossed out the aggravated mayhem charges, saying they were more appropriate for cases in which the victim was maimed or disfigured. But the reprieve was short-lived. Prosecutors refiled the same charges, and another judge ruled in their favor, again putting the men at risk of life in prison.

The trial opened in downtown Fresno in late May before a jury of six men and six women, several of whom noted on court questionnaires that they had tattoos themselves. Their decision would boil down to one question: Did Gonzalez and Gorman hold Gonzalez's son down to apply the tattoo, effectively branding him as a gang member against his will?

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