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David, Toni and Araceli were then taken behind the bushes, questioned repeatedly about “what they know” and “who they kick it with” in Orange Varrio Cypress, and had their photographs and fingerprints taken.
“They kind of just took over,” David says of the gang-unit officers. The car was impounded, and officers waited until it was gone to call Yvonne, David says.
According to Adams, the impounding was not unusual since “most cars” are impounded after a driver is cited for driving without a license.
“‘We’ve been following you guys since you left the party,’” David says one of the gang-unit officers later told him.
“It’s very possible [the officers] were following them,” Adams says. “It’s common for investigators, statewide, to travel out of the city for surveillance or investigative purposes.”
But why stake out a poolside barbecue for kids that was peppered with prominent politicians? “It was a nice day, this was for Yvonne and the kids,” says host Castillo. “Michele Martinez had spoken to all the kids, we were doing this for them, to mentor them. Why were the police out there surveilling my house? I don’t like that one bit.
“I believe Yvonne was targeted,” he continues. “There were other people who left the party, and they weren’t followed. But they followed her car and got to her kids.”
“The other kids [at the Bridge] used to tell me, ‘God, Yvonne, we try so hard, and this is always following us,’” Elizondo says. “Now I know exactly what they’re talking about.”
David, Toni and Araceli say they were tricked into giving their fingerprints for what they would later discover were “STEP cards”—the state’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, which allows police to issue “notices of determination” to people they believe are members or associating with members of a gang. The notices, created by Orange County Deputy DA Randy Pawloski and two Santa Ana P.D. investigators in 1989, are often damning evidence in “gang files” on individuals that can later be used against them in court or as proof to issue gang injunctions.
According to Adams, the three were given STEP notices because “somebody in that car was either a member or an associate of a gang.”
This conclusion is news to Toni, David and Araceli, who say they have no affiliation with any gang and who have no criminal records affiliating them with the Orange Varrio Cypress gang. Toni, who will be a junior at Villa Park High School in the fall, is on probation for her involvement in a fight in eighth grade; she says she was later told by her probation officer that the pool-party guest who had been dropped off before they were pulled over is named in the gang injunction. “All we did was drop him off because his grandmother was too old to come get him,” she says. “And they pulled us over after we’d dropped him off.”
After Yvonne arrived and learned about the pictures, she says, she was told by the police that they had snapped photos for “their database.” She remembered that she had a camera in her purse. “I took out my camera, and they said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m keeping a database of all the officers in Orange P.D.’ . . . Then they came around and smiled for the camera.
“[Then] I found out [my kids had] been ‘STEPed,’ too. My eyes watered. That was like a stab to my heart,” she says. “What were they guilty of? Not having a baby seat in the car?
“I don’t feel like [my children] are safe anymore. And now I’m afraid for my youngest son,” she says of her 12-year-old, who opted to stay in the pool that afternoon.
According to Adams, STEP notices are maintained indefinitely in a database by Orange P.D. “I don’t think you can get it removed,” he says. “It’s just an advisement; we’re just documenting that this person, on a certain date or time, was with a known gang member.”
Elizondo says she’s looking for ways to legally challenge the STEP notices. Her Toyota, meanwhile, is still sitting in the pound; she has accrued more than $1,000 in fees and doesn’t know if she can afford to pay them before the vehicle is sent to an auction.