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A hard fall for lawyer who struggled to escape gang life

Isaac Guillen gave up the violence of his early years to graduate from UC Berkeley and UCLA. But defending gang members drew him back to his old lifestyle.

June 05, 2012|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Isaac Guillen got his law degree from UCLA.
Isaac Guillen got his law degree from UCLA. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

On an unseasonably warm day in May 1997, Isaac Guillen marched in a stream of graduates to collect a diploma marking a new stage in his life: Juris Doctor.

Beneath his gown were tattoos of barbed wire, reminding him of his violent younger days and the years he spent in juvenile lockup.

This was the first time many of his friends and family had set foot on a college campus. Surrounded by a pearls and cashmere crowd, they cheered loudly for the triumph of one of their own.

On stage at the UCLA commencement, a graduate crooned a Beatles tune:

I know I'll never lose affection

For people and things that went before

I know I'll often stop and think about them

Guillen, then 36, had struggled to escape a difficult past. As he received the purple velvet hood that signifies a law school graduate, he seemed bound for a very different future.

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In the 1970s, Riverside's Casa Blanca barrio, not quite a square mile, was ablaze with violence between gangsters and the police.

Guillen, one of five children raised by a single mother, joined the gang life before puberty, according to a picture of his life that emerges from court testimony and interviews with friends, former colleagues and other sources.

At 11, he was initiated into the Devil Wolves and soon racked up arrests for burglary, assault and car theft. He was in and out of the California Youth Authority. His longest stint was on charges of assault with a deadly weapon involving a baseball bat and a knife.

In his early 20s, he was married with children and still living the street life when his apartment was shot up by a rival gang. Dodging the gunfire with his toddlers, he made a decision, he later told a colleague.

He entered alcohol rehab and quit drinking. He began classes at community college, then transferred to UC Berkeley. He and his wife divorced, and he began caring for two sons and a daughter.

At Berkeley, where he carried a blue Jansport backpack nearly bursting with books, he excelled and was admitted to an honors seminar.

He took classes with sociology professor Martin Sanchez-Jankowski, a renowned gang scholar. When he visited the professor during office hours, Guillen's eyes would light up discussing theories about urban poverty and gang life.

"He was excited about ideas," Sanchez-Jankowski recalled. "He wasn't a one-dimensional person. He was smarter than that."

In 1994, Guillen graduated with high honors and went on to the UCLA School of Law.

There, he applied for an internship at the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. But with his lengthy rap sheet, he was turned down.

Next, he headed to the federal public defender's office, where attorneys took a chance and gave him a position as a law clerk. He met Ellen Barry, a deputy federal public defender, who thought: This man is a living embodiment of the credo defense attorneys live by — people are more than their worst mistakes.

Guillen asked to work on Barry's current case, involving a 1995 indictment of Mexican Mafia members. She represented Alex "Pee Wee" Aguirre, who was accused in the murders of four fellow gang members.

Guillen knew something about the Mexican Mafia — his Berkeley honors thesis was on Latino prison gangs. He also knew the streets. Barry took him along when she visited the murder scene and interviewed witnesses. She relied on him to tell her when they weren't welcome in a particular place.

Working on the case, Guillen got to know Aguirre, who put out a query among California Youth Authority alums and on the streets of Riverside, asking for information about the young lawyer.

Word came back: Guillen's street credentials were real, and he wasn't an undercover cop.

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When Guillen finished law school, defendants in the Mexican Mafia case signed a hand-drawn card congratulating him, Barry recalled.

Barry and other attorneys wrote to the state bar urging that Guillen be admitted despite his criminal record. In 1998, after passing the bar exam, he became an attorney.

He set up shop in a tiny office in El Monte. The connections he made on the Mexican Mafia case proved valuable. In the jails, he became known as the attorney from the streets, who would take time to talk to clients.

A few years into his practice, some clients urged him to see a man known as "Puppet" about possible work.

Francisco Martinez was a Mexican Mafia member serving multiple life sentences for racketeering. From behind bars, he oversaw a lucrative crack cocaine operation run by an 18th Street gang clique near MacArthur Park, according to federal authorities.

Martinez had risen to power through the 18th Street gang and still controlled the clique, known as the Columbia Lil Cycos.

Guillen had been handling the appeal of Alberto "Nefty" Pina, a soldier in the Lil Cycos, in a racketeering case.

When they met in 2003 at a federal lockup in downtown Los Angeles, Martinez asked a favor. He wanted Guillen to pass messages to Pina:

"How're you doing."

"Everything OK."

"He sends his regards."

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