Santa Ana Showdown

After Oscar Gallegos shot two Long Beach cops, he swore hed never be takenalive. His run for the border ended with a trip to a Santa Ana strip mall.

Frankie is sipping grape-flavored Smirnoff vodka coolers and chain smoking Camel lights. He also has tribal artwork on his bulging forearms as well as a "USMC" tattoo. Born a U.S. citizen in Long Beach in 1980, Frankie joined the Marine Corps in 1997, straight out of high school. He never joined a gang. By the time he was a teenager, his family had moved to a safer neighborhood further away from downtown Long Beach.

He now works with Tony as a supervisor at a hazardous waste disposal company in Long Beach. But the rest of the Gallegos brothers—Felix, the oldest, Tony, Carlos, and Oscar himself—were born in Tanhuato, a small pueblo in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Michoacan. Their father, a butcher, had already headed north to work as a cook in a Mexican restaurant in Long Beach.

With their mother, they crossed the border illegally in the mid-1970s and settled briefly in Wilmington before moving to a poor, gang-infested neighborhood northeast of downtown Long Beach. It wasn't long before the oldest brother, Felix, fell into the orbit of the local gang, the Viejo Varrio subset of the East Side Longos, a well-entrenched and ultra-violent Latino gang. According to Tony, every young male resident of the neighborhood seemed involved in the gang, especially after the local youth center, which provided after-school and summertime recreational activities, shut down in the early 1980s.

Frankie, left, and Tony with photo of Oscar in Mexico, photo by Russ Roca
Frankie, left, and Tony with photo of Oscar in Mexico, photo by Russ Roca
Officers Wade (L) and Yap: miraculously pulled through, photo courtesy LBPD
Officers Wade (L) and Yap: miraculously pulled through, photo courtesy LBPD
Oscar (l) with a neighbor, circa 2003, photo courtesy Gallegos Family
Oscar (l) with a neighbor, circa 2003, photo courtesy Gallegos Family

"You have a poor neighborhood where all the youth centers where a kid has something to do after school are closed, and you put in liquor stores, what is a kid going to do?" Tony asks. "We were poor kids. We didn't have any money. We had to wait for our parents to save money to buy sneakers or whatever, and you hear about some kid somewhere making a little money selling dope or whatever, to buy cool shoes that other kids who had money were wearing. And, well, that's how it started."

Tony's oldest brother Felix was the first of the brothers to join the East Side Longos. But after being arrested at age 16 for selling drugs, and spending the next four years in juvenile hall and state prison, he dropped out of the gang. "I guess you could say he reformed," Tony says. "He got out of the neighborhood and wasn't active in the gang. He started working, at first the typical job someone who is just out of prison can get at a restaurant or wherever. Now he's a big-rig mechanic—he has his own shop in Wilmington."

Tony says he stopped hanging around with gang members when he was 14 years old. On Christmas Day, 1982, a rival gang member shot and robbed him while he was sitting in front of an apartment building with his best friend, who lived there. A walkway from the building led to a small alley.

"I remember a figure walking to my left side along the walkway, but I didn't pay much attention," he says. As he continued talking to his friend, the figure suddenly approached them. "All I saw was a shotgun on the left side of my face," Tony said. In the instant before the person pulled the trigger, he was able to move a few feet away, but had to be rushed to the hospital with shotgun pellets buried in the back of his neck and shoulders. "That completely changed me around," he said. "I just figured that was it for me."

Three years later, when Tony was 17, he began dating a girl who lived in Fullerton. She urged him to move to Orange County to escape the neighborhood. He spent the next 10 years in Fullerton and Huntington Beach, visiting his brothers every other weekend. By then both Carlos and Oscar had become active members of the East Side Longo gang. Carlos, who was three years older than Oscar, rose to become the leader of the Viejo Varrio subset of the gang.

According to Tony, both Carlos and Oscar quickly found themselves being stopped in the street by police, beaten up, then placed in a police cruiser and driven to rival gang neighborhoods. They claimed there were two police officers who did this so often that whenever East Side Longo gang members saw their car approach, they'd scatter and run for cover. "A lot of the times people would get beaten up or stabbed, but they'd be okay," Tony says. "Oscar got stabbed by rival gang members one time because of this. It was always the same group of officers that were picking him up."

In 1989, police arrested Carlos for being in a car that carried out a drive-by shooting of a rival gang member and, a week later, for shooting at a woman who had testified against him in a vandalism case. Prosecutors charged him with two counts of attempted murder based on eyewitness testimony of the woman and rival gang members. After a jury convicted him of two counts of attempted murder in a week-long trial, a judge sentenced him to life in prison. He is eligible for parole in 2017.

Frankie claims he and Oscar were home asleep—they shared the same bedroom—the night police hauled Carlos away to jail. "That was a big blow to me," he says. "The case was a joke. One witness could identify him and the other couldn't. Their story was so fucked up. I was maybe 11 years old and when I turned 18, I thought, 'Man, I'm the same age as my brother when he was locked up and I'm still lost; I don't know which direction to go.' They never gave him a chance, and it was bullshit. Of course, he wasn't no angel."

Carlos never admitted guilt in the shooting and claimed he was framed by police because he was a prominent East Side Longo gang leader. According to Frankie, Carlos' arrest affected Oscar deeply. "It affected all of us; it was terrible," he says. "He was 18 and had a baby on the way. But it affected [Oscar] particularly, being in the same gang with him, on the streets and hanging out."

Tony claims he tried to convince Oscar to drop out of the gang, but he refused. "Whenever I heard he had been in a fistfight or was in another neighborhood when one of his buddies got shot, I would try to talk to him and say, 'Listen, that could have been you,'" he says. "But his relationship with his friends on the street was very tight. And a few years after Carlos went to prison, the same things started happening to Oscar. He was always getting picked up and harassed."

Frankie remembers one such occasion when Oscar was 15 years old. "He and a buddy were walking to our apartment and he felt something hit him on the back of his head," he says. "He fell face first and woke up at the police station and they were yelling at him. They asked his age and couldn't believe he was 15 because he had facial hair and everything. He told me he knew it was the police who had hit him from behind."

In 1990, police arrested Oscar for illegal possession of a firearm. He was convicted and went to county jail for several months. Four years later, he was arrested again, this time for selling crack. He did another stint in jail and was deported to Mexico. In 1997, after illegally entering the United States, police arrested Oscar yet again, this time for assault with a deadly weapon and making terrorist threats. The charges were later dropped. In 2001, cops busted him for public intoxication.

The following year, police arrested Oscar for a much more serious crime—raping a woman in Texas. But after he spent five days in jail, they determined that the real culprit was a person in Texas with the same name. Oscar sued for the false arrest, but a judge dismissed the case. The experience not only seemed to solidify Oscar's hatred of police but to justify his self-destructive refusal to take responsibility for his own problems. Tony tried to get him work at the hazardous waste disposal firm where he worked, but Oscar would always find an excuse not to show up. He frequently disappeared for days and would travel to Mexico for months at a time.

In the months before he shot officers Yap and Wade, Frankie and Tony claim, their brother seemed especially angry at police. He felt he couldn't leave his mother's apartment without being followed by cops. Lt. Dave Cannan, a Long Beach Police public information officer, said both Yap and Wade have told police investigators that neither had ever seen Gallegos before. "At no time did either officer Yap or Wade ever come into contact with him before that day," Cannan says. "One of them was still learning his way around a police car and the other was a good cop trying to work his beat when that person tried to take their lives."

*    *    *

When police play him the message, and Tony Gallegos hears his brother say he hopes the two cops he shot would "fucking die," he tries to explain what Oscar meant when he claimed he pulled the trigger to exact revenge for "what they did to Carlos and me." But the police seem convinced Oscar must have been high on drugs. "They kept playing that message over and over," he recalls. "One of them kept telling me, 'Your brother was doped up, right?' I said 'No, you heard the message,' but they wouldn't let me tell them what he meant by what he said."

Instead, police ask Tony to call Oscar and offer to bring him money. He refuses to help arrange a meeting that would lead to his brother being arrested. "I felt very weird with what they were asking me to do," he says. "Of course I was shocked at what he had done and wanted him to turn himself in, but I felt like I couldn't betray my brother that way."

At 9 a.m., police let Tony go. They have already sent squads of detectives and patrol officers to every location that Oscar has ever visited. But they don't catch up with Frankie Gallegos until later that evening, as he walks out of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center with his wife and young daughter, who has just acted in a performance of The Nutcracker.

Earlier in the day, Frankie had called one of the police detectives working his brother's case and told him he hadn't seen Oscar in two days, but that he had heard the description of the Pathfinder Oscar was driving and recognized it as his car, which he had recently given to his mom. He offered to drive down to the station to talk some more, but the cop told him he'd call him later.

At the Performing Arts Center, police handcuff Frankie and drive him and his family to the police station. "They immediately took my wife to another room and I figured they were going to question her first," he recalls. "After a couple of hours went by the kids were sleepy and lay down next to me and I went to sleep as well. I felt a dude kick me in the leg." The detective brings Frankie into a room where two U.S. Marshals are waiting for him. "I told them the last time I saw [Oscar] was two days ago," he says.

A detective tells Frankie his story is "bullshit." Frankie repeats the lie—he hasn't seen Oscar since days before the shooting and has no idea where he is. The detective leaves the room and returns with Frankie's wife, who is in tears. "Just tell them the truth," she says.

Frankie looks at the detective. "I'm not going to turn my brother over to you guys," he says. "I love the dude. I know what he did was wrong, but he's my brother, man. I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

Then Frankie takes a deep breath and admits that he helped Oscar escape Long Beach just hours after his brother shot and nearly killed two cops. He tells them he knows Oscar will never surrender without a fight. "I told them that Oscar wasn't going to let them put handcuffs on him again," he says. "There was no way. I just knew it."

*    *    *


Immediately after the shooting, Frankie is at home when Oscar calls him from the apartment unit he shares with his mother. "He told me, 'I fucked up, Frankie. I shot at the police,'" he says. "I was like, 'What the hell did you do that for?' and he said, 'I just wanted to get home to mom and get her out of here.' My mom got on the phone and I told her to get out of there, but she said, 'No, he's my son. They're not going to kill my son. If they do, I'm going to die with him.'"

Instead of begging Oscar to turn himself in, Frankie tells his brother to come to his house. "It took a while, but he made it here," he says. "I told him to hang out and I started driving around and I didn't even know what direction I was going in." Finally, Frankie calls his brother-in-law, tells him to go to his house and pick up Oscar, then drive to Santa Ana to meet him at a Sears outlet where they had recently purchased furniture. "That was the only place I knew in Santa Ana," he says. "I just wanted to get my brother out of the city."

After his brother-in-law drops Oscar off at the department store, Frankie exchanges vehicles with him and orders him to return to Long Beach with his truck. Then he drives off with Oscar. "We just drove around for a while," he says. "We got into a nice part of town, near Irvine, I think. There were big houses. It was a nice area. We talked briefly, just a normal conversation, and I gave him some money I had in my pocket and said that I had to get back to Long Beach—the police were going to be at my house."

Frankie knows he's never going to see his brother alive again. Not once during their drive does either mention what Oscar has just done or discuss why he did it. There is no tearful farewell. As Oscar gets out of the car, he looks back at Frankie and thanks him for the ride.

"Later bro," he says.

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