Gang Banged

Gustavo Orejel faces life because cops linked him to gangsdespite mounting denials

Photo by James BunoanGustavo Orejel, a 22-year-old Santa Ana resident with no record of violent crime, faces life in prison for allegedly shooting a gun at a car full of gang members who had just fired several bullets at his house. No victims were ever identified in the shooting and Santa Ana police uncovered no physical evidence tying Orejel to the crime. But because Orejel stands accused of belonging to a gang, prosecutors aren't even required to reveal the identity of the two witnesses they say have fingered Orejel in the shooting.

The incident occurred on the night of June 30, 2002. Orejel closely resembles many if not most of the young Latino males who live in his neighborhood in terms of body build, hairstyle and dress. Two of the young Latino males who fit that description are Orejel's older brother and his brother-in-law, both of whom live in the same house as Orejel and are self-acknowledged members of the Alley Boys street gang. Those factors raise the question of whether Orejel might be the victim of mistaken identity.

One neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said she didn't know Orejel well, but had no reason to suspect him of being a gang member. But she added that she believed Orejel's family had problems with his live-in brother-in-law. "I always get him [Orejel] confused with his brother-in-law," said the neighbor. "I can never tell them apart from over here."

A major piece of evidence authorities say proves Orejel is a gang member is a shoebox decorated with Alley Boys graffiti, which police found in Orejel's home shortly after the shooting. Much later, in court, Santa Ana police investigator Donald 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 then-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.

Police began to suspect Orejel of gang membership in October 1999, when he was questioned 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. At that time, Orejel told police he wasn't affiliated with the Alley Boys gang.

Orejel's current attorney, Vincent LaBarbera, refused to allow his client to discuss the shooting with the Weekly. But LaBarbera did allow Orejel to answer questions about whether he is a gang member.

"I knew gang members through school, but we separated and went our own ways," Orejel, who works full-time as a photocopier technician, said in a Nov. 21 interview. "I'm into watching sports. I visit my godkids two times a week. I don't do drugs. I am mostly with my girlfriend at her house or visiting people. Every Sunday, I go to church with her and her family."

He conceded he's been pressured to join gangs over the years, "but I was always beyond that. It was not me. I was always into school. . . . I feel scared and disappointed that I'm looking at spending the rest of my life in [prison]. I ask myself every day, 'Why is this happening to me?'"

Several of Orejel's neighbors said they were shocked to learn he was accused of involvement in a shooting, and said they didn't believe he was a gang member.

"He's always been really nice to me and my family," said Flavio Paez Jr., who lives across the street from Orejel. "He's never given us any problems, and no neighbor has ever come up to me and said anything bad about him. I would have heard about it from someone."

There are many gang members who live in the neighborhood, Paez said, but he doesn't believe Orejel is one of them. "I don't think he's affiliated," he said. "He's bald-headed and wears baggy jeans and all that, but that doesn't mean he's affiliated. Everybody dresses like that. It's a fad."

Paez added that he has known gang members who fled to Mexico after being accused of serious crimes in Santa Ana. "Everybody here has family in Mexico," he said. "It's an opportunity to get away from the law. I'm sure he has family over there, [but] he's not leaving, because he didn't do it."

"I wouldn't label him as a gang member," echoed another neighbor, 21-year-old medical secretary Vanessa Chavoya, who says she has known Orejel since they were both in junior high school. "He is a good person. He plays basketball with kids in the neighborhood. He's a good kid. We see each other every single day. I would be nowhere near him if I ever saw him with a gun or anything like that. It is difficult for me, as a friend, to know that he's been accused of this and is an innocent man."

 
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