By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
During that time, Estrella sought to establish programs for young people and to reach out to the entrenched Latino neighborhood By the time he left, however, Estrella and a group of Latino Elks had grown disillusioned with the organization over failed attempts to reform policies and prepare the lodge for the future. Longtime members and high-ranking officers—old white men one and all—dismissed him and other Latino members who were trying to bring the lodge out of the stone age as members of "the Mexican Mafia."
Estrella's clash with the old guard finally reached a climax at the lodge's Dec. 20, 2011, meeting, at which time he was serving as a trustee. At first, Estrella sat patiently, listening to committee reports. Then Estrella asked Dan Fernandez, his replacement as exalted ruler, for permission to approach the microphone. As two of the relatively few Latino members of the lodge, Estrella and Fernandez had struck up a friendship over the years, but increasingly, the former viewed the latter as a figurehead of the old-school Elks who was being groomed to stymie his efforts to reform the lodge.
Nobody, least of all Fernandez, was prepared for what Estrella announced—serious allegations had been made against Fernandez, a stocky, mustachioed man in his early 60s. Without explaining what those allegations were, Estrella demanded an investigation. This won an immediate rebuke from the meeting's presiding judge, who, Estrella says, screamed at him, telling him he was out of order. Finally, a lodge trustee asked for the matter to be tabled.
As Estrella walked away from the microphone, another lodge member asked what the allegations were about. Estrella responded—sexual harassment of a guest—and sat down. Another member asked if the harassment was against a man or a woman, at which point the meeting erupted into chaos, with several members shouting at Estrella, calling him a liar.
But Estrella wasn't lying. One lodge member who asked to not be named had indeed filed a formal complaint against Fernandez with the lodge's House Committee, alleging that on Nov. 8, 2011, he and three other witnesses saw Fernandez sexually harass a female guest who had volunteered to play "Taps" at the lodge for a Veterans Day observance.
The member—who was suspended in March after Fernandez filed a complaint against him, claiming the member had maliciously and falsely maligned him—says he introduced the woman to Fernandez in the lounge. Soon after, he says, Fernandez kissed her inappropriately and touched her breasts. Two other witnesses signed letters saying they saw an intoxicated Fernandez approach the woman, who was "already very uncomfortable by his presence."
"He stood at her left side, and after the introduction, he reached around her with both arms and gave her a long and tight hug while giving her a lingering kiss on the cheek," one witness stated. "Then he was facing her left side, so he didn't reach his head around hers for a quick peck on the cheek but a straight long kiss on her check [sic]." According to the witness, Fernandez "ran his right index finger across her name tag slowly with pressure and asked what the tag meant."
The Weekly was unable to interview Fernandez, who lives in a mobile-home park near the lodge. He did not respond to messages left at his home or the lodge.
But a series of Elks documents and emails obtained by the Weekly reveals that Fernandez's partying proclivities were hardly the most toxic aspects of the Elks Lodge that Estrella found himself pitted against. There was also abuse of kitchen staff, missing money, and the replacement of off-duty police officers with unlicensed, untrained security guards.
To this day, little has been done about any of those issues, says Estrella. Explains the former exalted ruler, "We have a history of cover-ups."
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Between bites of breakfast at a Denny's in Anaheim, Estrella, a full-blooded Yaqui Indian with short, gray hair and a paunchy midsection, speaks with a quiet authority as he sits at the middle of a table surrounded by Elks. Indeed, Estrella—who served in the U.S. Army for more than 16 years, earning the rank of warrant officer in the Special Forces—seems at ease holding court, whether it be in a restaurant or a fractious fraternal lodge.
"I thought [joining the lodge] was a good idea," Estrella says.
And it was, in the first few years of his tenure. Even now, he recommends people join the lodge if they are looking for new friends and a fraternal order that helps the community through charitable outreach, with scholarship programs playing a prominent role. Under the right leadership, he says, a lodge can do wonders for the community.
But along with a soft spot for good deeds comes a veteran's fighting spirit. "The thing is," he says, "I don't take shit from anyone." It was with that kind of resolve that Estrella took leadership a decade after joining, quickly realizing that things were a mess. That, at least, was the conclusion of an outside accountant's audit. In a June 22, 2010, letter to the lodge's audit committee, just months after Estrella was elected exalted ruler and began to review the lodge's finances, West Covina-based Glenda H. Gow identified what she called "significant deficiencies" in the organization's internal controls, saying its assets were exposed to "high risk of losses."