A Tale of Two Shootings

When it comes to cops and crew-cut Latinos, justice isn't blind -- it's suspect

Illustration by Ward SuttonOn May 20, LA's Staples Center featured a never-ending night of big-hair rock & roll. REO Speedwagon, Journey and Styx—a Who's Who of Where Are They Now?—each took the stage, delighting fans with tight pants and a vast repertoire of guitar-hero antics. Maybe it was the music, maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was the wheel in the sky, but for Derrick Watkins, a Santa Ana police officer attached to the department's gang unit, it was just too much of a good thing.

After the show, Watkins carpooled back home to Orange County with several pals—most of whom are gang-unit prosecutors with the Orange County District Attorney's Office (OCDA). As their SUV raced down the 91 freeway through Compton, Watkins took out his police-issue handgun, aimed it out the window and started shooting.

Rock & roll!

Also in the SUV was the wife of a high-ranking OCDA official as well as Larry Yellin, an OCDA homicide prosecutor, and Alison Gyves and Mark Geller, both of them gang-unit prosecutors working alongside Watkins in an office at the SAPD.

According to a source who requested anonymity, a few weeks after the shooting, Waktins was injured on the job and placed on medical leave. Sgt. Baltazar De La Riva, a SAPD spokesperson, refused to comment on Watkins' status, saying that he was prohibited by law from doing so.

It should take only a few hours to investigate gunfire witnessed by several people who were riding in the same vehicle as the alleged shooter, but more than two months after the incident occurred, SAPD is still investigating. Watkins has yet to be charged with any crime, although the LA County Sheriff's Dept. has finished its investigation and handed it over to the LA County District Attorney's Office. Sgt. De La Riva said that agency is expected to decide whether to prosecute Watkins in "two to three weeks."

In contrast, Gustavo Orejel—charged last year in a similarly victimless shooting in Santa Ana—faces a long jury trial and, if convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. About a year before the Watkins incident, on June 30, 2002, the 21-year-old Orejel allegedly fired two shots outside his home in the 1600 block of South Woodland Place. Police located two bullet holes in Orejel's house. A police officer also noticed bullet casings on the front lawn, but found no physical evidence inside the house linking Orejel or anyone else to the crime.

The officer returned to the police station and allegedly met with a witness whose identity remains secret, even to Orejel's defense attorney. The witness reportedly said he heard several gunshots, saw a dark-colored Ford Thunderbird leave the area, and then saw a Hispanic male in his early 20s who had a shaved head and was wearing a blue and white checkered shirt. The witness said the person was carrying a handgun and had quickly left the scene in the backseat of a light blue or green Honda that was carrying two other passengers.

The witness, who apparently knew Orejel, identified him as the man with the handgun. But since he didn't see the first burst of gunfire—and because those bullets were apparently aimed at Orejel's house—it's likely the shots came from the fleeing Thunderbird. Another witness who also apparently knew Orejel somehow failed to identify him until 10 days later. That's when she accompanied the first witness to SAPD headquarters, met with a gang-unit investigator, Donald Stow, and said she was certain Orejel did the crime.

Two days after that meeting, the SAPD arrested Orejel when an OCDA prosecutor—REO Speedwagon shooting witness Alison Gyves, to be precise—charged him with four separate crimes: actively participating in a street gang, carrying a loaded firearm in public, shooting at a vehicle, and carrying out those crimes on behalf of the Alley Boys street gang.

It's said that justice is blind—that the law is supposed to treat people equally without regard to race, religion or haircut. Or job classification. So why, two months after he shot a weapon from a moving car on a busy freeway, hasn't Watkins been charged with anything—not even littering—while Orejel faces a lengthy prison sentence? Let's see: Shooter No. 1 is a gang-unit cop. Shooter No. 2 is a crew-cut Latino who lives in a gang-infested neighborhood. You do the math.

***

The arrest wasn't Orejel's first brush with the law. In October 1999, he had been interviewed by SAPD in connection with a shooting involving the Alley Boys and Delhi gangs. During that investigation, he allegedly told a police detective that he had been "hanging around" with the Alley Boys gang "since the sixth grade."

Later, in April 2000, Westminster police arrested Orejel for carrying a firearm while riding in a car with his brother, Juan Orejel, and two Middle Side gang members. Orejel told police he wasn't affiliated with the Alley Boys gang but police still believed he was an active member of the gang, and that his brother was a "hard-core" Alley Boys gang member.

A major piece of the evidence showing Orejel is a gang member is a shoebox decorated with Alley Boys graffiti. Police found the box in Orejel's home shortly after the June 30 shooting. Much later, in court, Investigator Stow cited the shoebox as "a portion of what I base my opinion that he's an Alley Boys gang member."

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