By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
The activist who fought the Orange gang injunction feels targeted by police after a traffic stop results in two of her kids being fingerprinted for allegedly being with a gang member
On the hot Saturday of July 11, Yvonne Elizondo was the guest of honor at a pool party and barbecue hosted by Santa Ana Human Relations Commissioner Albert Castillo. The day was meant to celebrate the efforts of Elizondo, a youth counselor and director of the local nonprofit chapter of the Bridge, in challenging what many felt was an overly broad gang injunction in the city of Orange (see “Uprising,” May 27). Among the politicos mingling with Elizondo and her three kids were Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez, county supervisor candidate and La Habra Councilwoman Rose Espinoza, and congressional candidate Christina Avalos.
Late in the afternoon, 22-year-old David Elizondo—who was still in his bathing suit—asked his mom if he could borrow her Toyota Camry to drive a fellow guest to his home, a few miles down the road. Yvonne was still recovering from major surgery under her arm just two days earlier, and it was too painful for her to drive. Piling into the car with David were her 15-year-old daughter, Toni; David’s girlfriend, Araceli Ramirez, 20; Araceli’s 3-year-old son, Raymond; and the teen boy who needed a ride home.
Yvonne waved goodbye and didn’t think much of the short trip. When an hour had gone by and she couldn’t get through to her daughter on her cell phone, Elizondo grew worried. After two hours, she received a call from an Orange Police Department officer telling her to come down and pick up Toni, whom they had detained on a curb.
In February, the Orange County district attorney’s office, with the help of Orange P.D., served its second injunction against alleged members of the Orange Varrio Cypress gang. Such civil lawsuits, which are filed by a DA’s office against a police-identified street gang and individuals they and the police conclude are “associates,” don’t ask for damages or restitution, but instead for the implementation of permanent restraining-order-like prohibitions that carry criminal consequences (jail time, fines, probation) if the terms are violated. Elizondo helped many in the Old Barrio Cypress neighborhood legally challenge the injunction. And after several court hearings, community protests, petitions and the recruitment of high-profile defense lawyers (including from the ACLU), the DA in mid-May dismissed its injunction against all those who had filed petitions denying they had any affiliation with the Orange Varrio Cypress gang. But in June, the DA served a repackaged permanent injunction to dozens of the same individuals and bound them to the terms of the previous injunction.
Because of her very public role in challenging the injunction, Elizondo had feared for the safety of her kids, so she sent them to live with relatives in other parts of the county for several months. The family had recently reunited and moved into a new apartment on a quiet street in Orange.
On that Saturday, a panicked Elizondo got a ride from a friend at the barbecue to the intersection of Tustin Street and Adams Avenue, where she discovered that her car had been towed and that her kids and Araceli had been forced to sit on the curb in the sun and be questioned for hours; the officers had also photographed and fingerprinted them. “I was furious,” she says, because that treatment didn’t seem to have anything to do with the traffic citations.
According to David, after he’d dropped off the other teenage passenger, he headed for his mom’s house to pick up the car seat. “I noticed a cop behind us, but it was no sweat, you know? I wasn’t doing anything unusual,” he says. He then heard the sirens. “As soon as I was pulled over, 10 to 12 cop cars surrounded us, including two motorcycle cops.” That’s when, he says, he noticed two unmarked vans behind the bushes near the Village Theatre on Adams Avenue—undercover gang-unit officers.
Traffic tickets were issued by the uniformed police without incident, say David, Toni and Araceli.
Sergeant Dan Adams, public-information officer with the Orange P.D., says he could not release the police report because the gang unit had not cleared it from potential ongoing investigations and that officers involved that day were not available for comment. According to Superior Court records, David was issued a misdemeanor ticket for driving without a license, and both he and Araceli were cited for not having a car seat in the car for Raymond (minor infractions). “The regular lady cop was being pretty cool about it,” he says. “She said they were going to let us drive home to get the car seat and told us to call our mom, to let her know everything was all right.”
But David did not get the chance to make that call. All but three police cars and the gang-unit vans then dispersed. The gang unit then began examining the car, David says. “The undercover cop was coming around the car, checking the VIN number and the license-plate number. And then he said to the other undercover cop, ‘Yeah, this car is registered to Yvonne Elizondo. This is the Yvonne from the Bridge.’ I heard him say it clearly, and I looked up.”
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.