Eddie Quiñonez, Street Scholar

The transition from Anaheim gang member to college graduate has been anything but easy

Eddie Quiñonez, Street Scholar
Photo: John Gilhooley | Design: Dustin Ames

The luckiest day of Eddie Quiñonez's life just happened to arrive on a Friday the 13th. It was just after midnight in mid-October 2006, and Quiñonez, a former member of the Anaheim-based gang Down Familia de Wicked Soldiers (DFWS), had spent the afternoon at a local high-school football game with some old friends.

The then-22-year-old Quiñonez hadn't been an active member of the gang for years. He'd grown out his hair from the close gangster shave he used to sport, wore clothes that covered his old tattoos, and was on his way to graduating from Fullerton College. But there's a saying about old gang members: They never really leave their barrio.

After the game ended, Quiñonez met up with some of his old homies from DWFS. Together, they headed to one of the places where he used to hang out: an alley near where Dogwood Avenue dead-ends at Interstate 5 in Anaheim. At some point, Quiñonez began arguing with one of his old friends. He tried to leave and had just sat down in the driver's seat of his truck when one of his ex-homies confronted him.

Eddie Quiñonez
John Gilhooley
Eddie Quiñonez
Quiñonez with Casas, who put him on the right track
John Gilhooley
Quiñonez with Casas, who put him on the right track

"Give me your fucking truck!" the guy demanded.

Quiñonez took the keys out of the ignition. He wasn't giving up the truck without a fight. The next few minutes were a blur. Punching wildly with clenched fists, Quiñonez landed several blows, breaking bones in his own hands. His attacker wielded a knife, and by the time Quiñonez managed to grasp the blade, he'd already been stabbed 27 times. Blood spilled from cuts to his chest, hands, face and neck.

"I knew I got stabbed, but I didn't realize how bad it was," he recalls. Pulling a cell phone from his pocket, he called a friend who lived close by, asking her to give him a ride to the hospital. Then he tried to drive himself to her house. "I started feeling dizzy," he says. "I almost went head-on with a car. I passed out and woke up with the airbag in my face."

Quiñonez had just crashed his truck into a telephone pole at a nearby park. "When I looked into the mirror after I crashed, that's when I saw all the blood gushing out of my neck and hands," he says. Quietly, feeling his life slipping away, he prayed the Hail Mary in Spanish: "Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia . . ."

Onlookers cautioned him to stay in the vehicle, but Quiñonez got out, sat on a curb and fainted again. Someone took off his shirt and, to staunch the flow of blood, wrapped it around Quiñonez's punctured neck. An ambulance arrived and whisked him to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. He spent 17 hours in a coma and eight days in the hospital. An Anaheim police detective tried to interview Quiñonez about the stabbing, but he refused to cooperate with any investigation. The crime remains unsolved.

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As Orange County's largest city, Anaheim faces some of its biggest problems, especially when it comes to its youngest residents. The city internationally known as the home of Disneyland, with its corporate brand of childhood innocence, had its image shattered in the summer of 2012. Controversial officer-involved shootings, allegations of police brutality, gangs and stark income inequality came to a riotous head in downtown Anaheim's streets on July 24, 2012.

The contradictions sparked self-reflection, but not much. A Disney-sponsored study by the Olin Group reported that Anaheim was failing its youth, particularly those between the ages of 13 and 18, by affording them few programs—or places—besides the streets to go to after school. Gangs lie in wait for those falling through the cracks. "The current number of truly active gangs in Anaheim is 25," Anaheim Police Department spokesman Lieutenant Tim Schmidt says. In the past decade, APD reported a total of 55 "gang-related" homicides and 20 officer-involved shootings that have slugged documented gang members.

It was this dangerous underbelly of Orange County, where young lives can be ended by endemic gang violence or destroyed by lengthy prison sentences, that welcomed Eddie Quiñonez in 1996, when he became a gang member at age 13. His run-ins with the law would pipeline him into the Orange County Probation system, where he was fortunate to be exposed to the so-called 8 percent program (a county-run intervention system focused on the 8 percent of youth defined as repeat offenders) and Los Pinos, a minimum-security conservation camp nestled in the Cleveland National Forest near Lake Elsinore. He credits the two with helping him to eventually turn his life around.

Unfortunately, the 8 percent program Quiñonez benefited from doesn't exist now as it did then. In 2010, specific funding ended for the program, and it was rolled into the OC Probation Department's Youth Reporting Center partnership, a move that shuttered the program's last two affiliated Youth Family Resource Centers. And citing the effects of the Great Recession and federal funding cuts, Los Pinos also shut down that year. The 156-bed facility came to an end after 39 years of operation. "The trends over the past decade make for grim prospects for at-risk youth" in Anaheim, observes Gina Peralta of W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness & Equity. "Their chances are slim."

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