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.
"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.
* * *
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."
But Quiñonez is proof it can happen—although not without a lot of pain.
* * *
Born in 1984 to parents Carlos and Cindy, Edward Miguel Quiñonez grew up in the same Dogwood Avenue neighborhood of Anaheim where he suffered near-fatal stab wounds 22 years later. His father came of age in the city's downtown and became a hardcore gang member, only giving up the lifestyle after several stints in prison. Carlos Sr. didn't want Eddie and his older brother, Carlos Jr., to follow in his footsteps. "If I wanted to buy a Pendleton or a pair of Nike Cortezes, he wouldn't let me because he knew what that symbolized," Quiñonez says.
But in junior high school, Quiñonez began dressing the part. The transformation is evident in his seventh- and eighth-grade yearbook photos. The cherubic young boy with a smile and a side-part haircut is replaced by a young teen with a menacing glare and slicked-back hair. In high school, he shaved his head, the trademark look of a cholo.
Films about gang life such as American Me; Blood In, Blood Out; Boulevard Nights and Mi Vida Loca became cult hits in his neighborhood in the early 1990s, just as such local gangs as DFWS emerged, first as a tagging crew, then a criminal street gang. Carlos Jr. was already a member when Quiñonez was "jumped in" with his official gang moniker of "Capone." His first encounter with authorities was with Fullerton Police at age 14, when he was stopped, searched and taken to the police station for possessing a knife and brass knuckles.
Gang violence raged throughout Southern California throughout the 1990s, and Anaheim was no exception. It was important that neighboring enemy gangs saw the presence of DFWS, which boasted 60 members at its peak, only 20 of whom were truly active at any given time. The Quiñonez family home became de facto ground zero for retaliations after active members engaged in crimes against rivals. "I'd be at my house, posted up [or guarding territory] every night," Eddie says. "Rival gangs would always pass by."
On Mother's Day 1999, when Quiñonez, his brother and his father were all behind bars, a rival gang drove by the house and fired several shots while his mother and grandparents were having a party. Another time, he nearly perished in a drive-by just down the street, where he and a fellow DFWS homie were "posted up" at a corner. All he remembers is an unfamiliar car driving by, someone shouting, "Fuck your neighborhood," then shots ringing out.
It wasn't just rivals who had Quiñonez constantly on alert, however. Because he and his brother were known as the main cholos with DFWS, there was constant heat from the APD's gang unit as well. "We'd get stopped all the time," he recalls. "The gang unit had about a good 15 to 20 heads at the time. They knew everything about me and my brother."
When the area wasn't hot, there was a lot of partying at the Quiñonez house, attended by a constant stream of neighborhood girls. School became an afterthought. "I didn't really care about it at that time," Quiñonez says. "I was in probation school. I just did what I had to do. I would just wait for the day to end so I could come home to my neighborhood because that's all I cared about."
* * *
It's midmorning at the Independent Learning Center at Anaheim High School. The program was established nearly four years ago to address youth at risk of dropping out of high school. Outreach counselor Joe Casas opens the bottom drawer of his desk to pull out a folder. It's filled with notes, invitations and other collected items from his 11-year mentorship of Quiñonez. He pulls out two items: Quiñonez's prom photo and a 2002 graduation invitation from Loara High School in Anaheim.
"I met Eddie when I was working with the 8 percent program for the Orange County Health Care Agency as a therapist at the time," Casas says. "Eddie was unique in so many ways. His personality was that of a curious teenager." In the eyes of Casas, the troubled teen showed some promise of being able to take on the challenge of leaving gang life behind. The two forged a mutual respect. "I saw him at his worst," Casas says. "If anything, during that probation time, a lot of seeds [of change] were planted."
Although Quiñonez left probation still locked in his old ways, he kept in touch with Casas. Negative encounters with Anaheim police, juvenile hall, jail and even his own homies gradually turned him off from a world he once found alluring. In January 1999, Quiñonez lost control of a car he was driving, crashed it and fled the scene. An Anaheim police motorcycle cop eventually caught up with him.
"I got arrested in a stolen car I had," he explains. Authorities sent Quiñonez back to juvenile hall but later transferred him to Los Pinos Conservation Camp near Lake Elsinore, a minimum-security facility. "To be up there was a privilege," Quiñonez says. "They had a lot of great programs." He excelled at the camp. "A lot of the teachers up at Los Pinos were telling me, 'What are you doing in here? You're a really smart guy.'"
Some of Quiñonez's changes were chronicled a decade ago in a series of articles by Nick Schou (see "The Wrong Profile," Oct. 13, 2000). Quiñonez already had a rap sheet boasting numerous arrests for everything from grand theft auto to street terrorism. Then, in July 2000, Anaheim police raided a house his father rented on Harbor Street. They arrested Carlos Sr. on weapons charges and jailed him.
Quiñonez came to pack his belongings the next day so he could move into his mother's house. Fifteen Anaheim police officers barged into Cindy Quiñonez's home with guns to perform a probation check while he wasn't there, handcuffing his siblings. When he arrived at the house, police cited him for having a pocketknife, in violation of his gang probation. In a complaint filed against the department by Cindy Quiñonez, she alleged that officers threatened her son, saying, "We are going to bring you down!"
A judge agreed with his plea to serve a six-month stint at the Santa Ana juvenile-detention center. In August of that summer, however, Quiñonez turned 18, so he was transferred to Santa Ana jail, where he spent two weeks in the hole, was allegedly handcuffed and beaten by authorities, braced a race riot—all experiences that made him want to leave gang life even further behind. In December, a judge released Quiñonez ahead of schedule, citing his aspirations to get a high school diploma, remove his DFWS knuckle tattoo, find employment and keep away from police.
At the suggestion of his grandmother, he also let his hair grow out. "I was thinking there was a bigger picture outside of the walls of just gangbanging," he says. "I just lost interest in it. My head was more in high school at that time."
During a visit with Casas, Quiñonez proudly showed off his grades at Los Pinos. "I always knew you had it in you!" he recalls his former counselor saying. Quiñonez continued to excel and graduated from Loara High School in Anaheim with a 4.0 GPA.
Quiñonez enrolled at Fullerton College in 2003 and remained out of trouble until he had an inadvertent run-in with Anaheim's gang unit in April of that year. Quiñonez says he was walking back from Wal-Mart with his sister through an alley where a group of DFWS gang members were being detained by police. A police car driven by officer Scott McManus pulled up on him. The exchange between the cop and Quiñonez was less than cordial.
"Hey, Capone," McManus allegedly called out. "What are you doing in the alley?" McManus pointed at the group of gang members. "If you weren't kicking it with them, why didn't you keep walking?" Quiñonez responded that when he saw the police arrive, he didn't want to get shot like Jeffrey Santelli. (In a case of mistaken identity, in February 2003, McManus had shot Santelli in the parking lot of the Garden Grove Crystal Cathedral.) According to Quiñonez, McManus posed him and his sister next to the arrested gang members and took several photographs.
When he went to the police department for a probation check-in later that month, Quiñonez was arrested for associating with known gang members based on the evidence arranged by McManus. He was back at Santa Ana jail facing six months. At sentencing, the judge took him off gang probation, once again citing his efforts to turn his life around. "When people ask me where I'm from," Quiñonez told the Weekly at the time, "I say, 'Nowhere, I ain't from nowhere.'"
Gang members from the neighborhood didn't appreciate the sentiment and came to "tax" him, roughing him up on two separate occasions for making that comment.
* * *
In 2005, the Quiñonez family moved out of the Dogwood Avenue neighborhood for good. By that time, DFWS was a shell of its former self, nearly nonexistent, with the last person jumped in around 2002, according to Quiñonez. It's a conclusion the police seem to share. "DFWS is a gang in Anaheim but is not currently active," says Lieutenant Schmidt. "The gang has been quiet the last four years."
After doing more than three years in prison, Carlos Quiñonez Jr. followed in his little brother's footsteps and left the gang. Quiñonez resumed his studies at Fullerton College, which is where he was studying when he made the mistake of returning to the alley in Dogwood with people he trusted as friends and paid for it with 27 stab wounds.
Current Anaheim Police Association President Kerry Condon was the lead detective for the case, but the investigation resulted in no arrests. "The case was closed due to the victim being uncooperative and requesting no prosecution," Lieutenant Schmidt says.
Much to the surprise of his professors, the assault caused hardly a blip in his school schedule. "I went back to school the very next week," Quiñonez says. He completed his fall semester, finishing his time at junior college the next year, readying himself for a transfer to Cal State Fullerton. For more than a year, he was homeless. "I'd just stay at the school library in the study area and sleep for a little bit," Quiñonez says. He worked part-time for Aramark at Angels Stadium and collected financial aide, but it wasn't enough to get by. He lived out of his car for a year until it got impounded. Then he squatted at vacant houses for sale. On occasion, he stayed with family in Temecula.
If anything positive can be said about Quiñonez's near-fatal stabbing, it was that it united his frayed family. Relations between him and his father had been nonexistent. "We were estranged for two years; we just didn't see eye-to-eye with each other," Quiñonez says. He harbored resentments about his father's time away from the family and questioned his authority to discipline when he himself had been a wayward youth. Carlos Sr. had been in and out of jail for drug-related offenses as his children grew. Sobering up in 1991, he encountered Pastor Phil Aguilar of the Set Free Church in Anaheim and became ordained as a minister. He relapsed, and following more stints behind bars, he was released in 2003.
Father and son were on good terms when everyone got together for a Labor Day weekend party at Eddie's grandmother's house in Riverside on Sept. 1, 2008. Two years later, Riverside's Community Police Review Commission, a civilian oversight body, would issue a detailed public report regarding a fatal officer-involved shooting at the party shortly before 8 p.m. A partygoer allegedly saw Carlos Sr. taking several shots of tequila. "An apparent fight started in the back yard between Carlos [Sr.] and Eddie," the report states. "Eddie came into the kitchen and said Carlos had hit him."
Quiñonez never read the 79-page report before being asked to review it by the Weekly. He doesn't deny his father had been drinking, but "there are discrepancies in here," he says. "There was no fist-fighting. We were just arguing. He was drunk." The report also says that Carlos Sr. had struck Quiñonez's sister in the stomach after following his son to the kitchen. "My sister was pregnant at the time," Quiñonez recalls. Everyone was trying to calm things down. "[She] tripped and fell. He didn't hit [her] at all. The pool was outside. She just got out of the pool."
Quiñonez and his sister left the party, but the commotion led neighbors to call police. "I wanted to get away," he says. "My friend lives right down the street from my grandma's house. I just went there to go chill out."
Back at the party, Carlos Sr. continued to argue with family members. He agreed to leave, but not before retrieving a duffle bag. Riverside police officers James Heiting and Juan Muñoz arrived on the scene at 8:14 p.m. "The officers were approximately 20 feet from Carlos when the officers began to tell Carlos to stop and put down the bag he was holding," the report claims. "Seven witnesses saw Carlos pull a long gun from the nylon bag."
Other witnesses said he racked it, raising it toward the cops while ignoring their commands. Muñoz fired first, downing Carlos Sr. on the driveway. According to both officers, they again opened fire after he raised the sawed-off at them another time.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise ran a story about the shooting that noted that neighbors saw police drag Carlos Sr.'s motionless body, riddled with four bullet wounds, toward the middle of the street. The commission did a follow-up interview with a neighbor who stated that Eddie's father was pulled by his feet and that his head appeared to strike the street pavement along the way. The officer-involved shooting was ultimately found to have been justified within policy.
* * *
In the summer of 2010, Quiñonez and a friend went to Club Envy in Fullerton's downtown area. "We weren't even drinking," he says. "At that time, I was really tight on money. We just drank soda." While taking a cigarette break outside the club, Quiñonez happened upon Fullerton police officer Kenton Hampton as he performed on a traffic stop. The two exchanged words, and Hampton arrested Quiñonez, who claims the officer slammed his head against a wall after handcuffing him. A digital audio recorder taped Hampton telling his partner he cuffed Quiñonez because he "was a fucking asshole" who made a "fucking smart-ass comment."
Hampton would go on to be one of six officers present on the infamous night of July 5, 2011, when Fullerton police beat to death Kelly Thomas. Quiñonez filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the Fullerton cops the following year, citing the fact that, while the pretext for his arrest was "public intoxication," his blood-alcohol tests came back at 0.00. The city settled the case for $25,000, with Quiñonez taking less than half after attorney fees. He plans to put the money to good use. "I'm just going to invest it in my education."
Last summer, Quiñonez finally graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in human services. He plans to continue his education in graduate school, with the hope of becoming a youth counselor, like his mentor Joe Casas. The two still faithfully meet every December before Christmas and every June before school graduation. "The same mentality that he had as a gang member is the same mentality that it takes to survive. It's just redirected," Casas says, adding that he hopes Quiñonez will succeed in becoming a teen counselor. "His experiences have been lifelong lessons for him, and a lesson is never complete until you re-teach it."
* * *
You'd never guess Quiñonez was once a gang member. Today, the 29-year-old looks like an everyday Chicano with slicked-back hair. His left hand is still partially paralyzed and nicked with scars from the knife fight. He's unable to fully bend his thumb. Another scar starts at the base of his throat and curves out toward his ear.
On an overcast day, we return to his old neighborhood. It's a working class residential community bookended by Servite High School to the east and a high wall shielding residents from the noise of the 5 freeway to the west. There are no dilapidated, densely populated apartment complexes that inhabit other Anaheim barrios. As we cruise through the area once claimed by DFWS, Quiñonez lifts his pant leg to reveal the street name, Dogwood, still tattooed in bold, Old English-style lettering above his right knee. "I'm trying to get it taken off," he says.
The neighborhood isn't nearly as hot as it once was. The only graffiti to be seen is from taggers marking up an occasional stop sign or brick wall. No DFWS placas are visible anywhere. An elotero stops his cart on the street for a customer hungry for corn. One of the APD's helicopters appears overhead, but it's on its way elsewhere.
"Back in the day, the cops were always around here," Quiñonez remembers. "They were always patrolling, pulling us over. The cops were always coming to our house."
That's where we're headed next: the old Quiñonez family home on Fern Street.
Iron gates wrap around it, with a big driveway leading up to the garage. Returning to the one-story house where Quiñonez survived drive-by shootings and other acts of retaliation from rival gangs summons no real nostalgia. "I have no ties or feelings or emotions connected to this neighborhood no more," he says.
At the west end of the neighborhood, we come to the alley off Dogwood Avenue where the stabbing occurred. Seven years ago, the stretch of pavement could have been the site of a makeshift shrine complete with photos of Quiñonez and votive candles of the Virgen de Guadalupe, but he survived. The exact location of the attack is instead marked by random shards of glass from a broken beer bottle.
"I just think, 'Fuck, this is where my life almost ended right here,'" he reflects. "It almost ended right here devoted to a gang that don't exist no more. . . . I don't care about fighting with my fists anymore. I use my mind to fight."
Two summers ago, Quiñonez was waiting at a bus stop in Anaheim near a Jiffy Lube. A rival gangbanger he remembered from juvenile hall pulled up in his work van, looked out the window and pulled a U-turn.
"What's up! Let's get down," the man said.
Quiñonez laughed. "You're in your work van," he answered. "I will sue you for everything you're worth. I'll report you to the Better Business Bureau because you're doing this while on the job. I'll have everything that you own."
His old enemy looked both ways, rolled up his window and drove off.
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