I Aint From Nowhere

Anaheims gang unit saved Eddie Quinonesthe hard way

Photo by James BunoanEddie Quiñones is the poster child for reformed gang-members—he dropped out of Down Familia De Wicked Soldiers, an Anaheim-based street gang, got his gang tattoos removed, let his hair grow out, stopped affiliating with criminals, lost weight and ran two consecutive marathons, and graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA.

Quiñones stayed out of trouble for two years, but still ended up behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.

On April 11, Quiñones was walking back from a shopping trip to Wal-Mart with his sister, took a shortcut through an alley and almost literally ran into an Anaheim gang unit. A police cruiser pulled up beside him, and Scott McManus, an Anaheim Police Department gang unit officer, pointed his gun at Quiñones. McManus and several other gang unit officers had just detained several gang members in the alley.

"Hey, Capone, you're on gang terms," McManus allegedly said, using Quiñones' former gang moniker. "What are you doing in the alley? If you weren't kicking it with them, why didn't you keep walking?"

Quiñones says he pointed out that he stopped only because McManus was armed. "I told him, 'You were pointing your gun at me and I didn't want you to shoot me like you did that guy at Crystal Cathedral'"—referring to a Feb. 20 incident in which McManus shot and seriously wounded an unarmed IBM technician talking to his mother in the Crystal Cathedral parking lot.

"Don't believe everything you read in the papers," McManus said.

McManus didn't return telephone calls for this story. But according to Quiñones, McManus ordered him and his sister to stand next to several suspected gang members, photographed the pair and sent them on their way. Then, on April 30, when Quiñones showed up at the police department for his regular probation meeting, he was arrested. His crime: associating with known gang members. He was sent to the Orange County Men's Jail in Santa Ana. The evidence: photos arranged by McManus.

Police told Quiñones' grandmother, Emma Balderama, that he would likely spend six months in jail for the incident in the alley. She frantically called anyone who could help and persuaded several people who knew her grandson—including Amin David, chair of Los Amigos, the Anaheim-based community group—to write letters on his behalf.

Those letters paint a picture of someone who has done everything imaginable to turn his life around—exactly what Quiñones said he was going to do when the Weeklyfirst profiled him three years ago.

Leaving the gang life behind wasn't easy for Eddie Quiñones. Both his father and his older brother are serving prison sentences, and Quiñones admits to at least eight arrests—for everything from grand theft auto to street terrorism—during his days as an active gang member. Determined to change course, he left the gang. Police remained skeptical. They raided the senior Quiñones' home—where Eddie and his brother were packing up their father's belongings—and found Eddie carrying a pocketknife. They immediately charged him with violating his gang probation and allegedly told him, "We'll take you down."

Terrified, Quiñones went to court where he begged a judge to protect him from police by sending him to juvenile hall a week early. The judge complied and Quiñones spent five months behind bars. During that time, Anaheim police investigated him for a car theft, but dropped the charges after realizing the crime occurred two days after he was jailed. Lost in the corrections bureaucracy, Quiñones missed a Nov. 7, 2000, hearing where he likely would have been released—because Santa Ana jail authorities forgot to bring him to court. After the Orange County Public Defender's Office investigated his no-show, a judge ordered Quiñones to be released immediately (see "Going Home," Dec. 15, 2000).

Back then, Quiñones told us all he wanted to do was study hard and turn his life around. That's exactly what he did. He signed up for high school continuation classes at Gilbert High School. After a year of classes, he spent a semester at Loara High School and graduated in June 2002 with a 4.0 GPA. Since then, he has been working as a teaching assistant for AUHSD and playing football at Fullerton Community College, where he's registered to get his associate in arts degree, so he can become a public school teacher.

He's a new man in another way as well. When behind bars at Santa Ana's city jail, Quiñones weighed 280 and was on antidepressants. After exercising just about every day since his release, he dropped 110 pounds. He completed both the 2002 and 2003 LA Marathons.

On May 12, the day Quiñones was supposed to be sentenced, his grandmother shared the letters attesting to his remarkable turn-around with his public defender, who passed them on to the judge. At 1:30 p.m., the judge called Quiñones' name and ordered him to stand up. According to Balderama, he said, "Mr. Quiñones, I am very surprised at what you have done with your life. You have a lot of people supporting you." He then warned Quiñones to stay out of trouble and removed him from gang probation.

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