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."

But under cross-examination by James Crawford, Orejel's defense attorney, Stow acknowledged that the shoebox had been retrieved from under Orejel's brother's bed. While under oath, Stow also acknowledged that Orejel had neither a gang moniker nor any tattoos that linked him to the Alley Boys.

The courtroom phase of the case against Orejel began in December 2002, and was handed over from Gyves to OCDA prosecutor—and fellow Watkins shooting witness—Mark Geller. Besides the two anonymous eyewitnesses, the only witness against Orejel was Stow. In court, Stow testified that his witnesses had seen Orejel fire a gun, but he didn't testify that those witnesses saw Orejel shooting at the Thunderbird that fled the scene.

Because of the lack of any physical evidence or testimony that Orejel shot at anyone, Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno dismissed the most serious charge—shooting at a vehicle. On February 25, 2003, shortly after Briseno's ruling, Geller withdrew the entire case against Orejel—and then immediately filed a new case against him.

The following month, when People vs. Orejel got under way for the second time, Stow's story had changed. This time, he testified that one of his confidential witnesses did in fact see Orejel shooting at the dark-colored Thunderbird. Under cross-examination by Crawford, Stow insisted that he hadn't actually changed his testimony.

"You did not testify that this individual had [seen] a person that he knew as Gus [Orejel] fire the firearm at or in the direction of the vehicle," Crawford said.

"I believe I did testify to that," Stow answered.

Crawford then asked Stow to review a transcript of his previous testimony.

"It appears I didn't," Stow said.

"Is that a 'no'?"

"That would be a 'no,' according to this," Stow said.

Crawford then asked Stow to look at his police report on the shooting, which Stow had typed up about an hour after the incident took place.

"In your report, did you make any mention that [the] witness saw him fire the firearm at a motor vehicle?" Crawford asked.

"It doesn't say that I—that he—saw [Orejel] fire the firearm at the vehicle," Stow testified. "Just fired two rounds."

***

At press time, more than a year after his arrest, the evidentiary hearings surrounding Gustavo Orejel's trial have just finished and the case is about to go to a jury. Meanwhile, to the dismay of his prosecutors, Orejel has posted bond and remains free, pending the outcome of his trial. But attorney James Crawford still hasn't been permitted by the court to interview the two confidential witnesses who supposedly fingered Orejel.

Crawford says he has no idea how he's supposed to do his job without being able to question the eyewitnesses whose identification of Orejel provides the only evidence against him. The situation reminds him of the plot of a Hollywood movie starring Michael Douglas, The Star Chamber, in which judges meet secretly to review secret evidence against suspected criminals, who are then dealt "justice" as the Star Chamber sees fit.

"From the very beginning, Gustavo has adamantly denied being anywhere near the scene of the crime," Crawford said. "There's no physical evidence against my client. And there are no identifiable witnesses—just two secret witnesses, which is tantamount to a 'Star Chamber.' It's unfair to allow the prosecution not to disclose the identity of the witnesses to the defense attorney, particularly in a case where the witnesses' credibility and ability to perceive what happened is so essential."

Crawford said he is particularly troubled by what he claims he heard Deputy DA Mark Geller say during a break from one of Orejel's recent courtroom hearings. "Geller was bragging to another prosecutor about how he routinely charges defendants with life sentences to get them—and their attorneys—to settle their cases, despite the weakness of the evidence," he said.

"Logically, the defendants would be inclined to plead guilty because of their fear over the severity of the sentences if convicted," Crawford added. "It's inherently unfair and unjust to seek a life sentence against someone who has never harmed anyone or ever been convicted of causing anyone a physical or emotional injury. And to have a prosecutor charging people with life counts to strong-arm defendants? I think that's corrupt."

***

In the meantime, the worst thing that will likely happen to Santa Ana police officer Derrick Watkins is that he will be reprimanded or suspended from his job—possibly even fired. If by some bizarre twist of fate he is charged with a crime, there's almost no chance he'll spend even one day behind bars.

There's a bitter irony here, given that two of his fellow passengers, Gyves and Geller, are directly involved in a prosecution that could send Orejel—whose behavior seems no more reckless than Watkins'—to prison for the rest of his life. Because the REO Speedwagon shooting took place in LA County, it's outside the jurisdiction of the Orange County District Attorney's Office. But there's no evidence the agency is conducting an internal investigation into the behavior of its employees who were in the car with Watkins. In fact, according to sources who spoke with the Weekly, the agency is doing everything it can to keep the embarrasing incident under wraps. Given that (outside this paper) there's been only one other story written about this—a whopping 355 words in the Los Angeles Times nearly two months ago—they're doing a pretty good job.

Rock on!
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