On July 4, while Disneyland fireworks exploded overhead, a gunman shot Eric DeSoto and left him to die in the bushes of an Anaheim apartment complex.
DeSoto, a 23-year-old college wrestling coach and up-and-coming Ultimate Fighter, had come to Anaheim to visit a friend who lived in the complex. Nearly two months later, Anaheim Police Detective Mike Hidalgo says DeSoto's murder investigation—he calls it a gang crime—remains open. The department has no suspects and no solid leads.
Hidalgo says the 6-foot-2, 245-pound DeSoto was, if not a gangbanger himself, certainly associated with them up until his murder. "Eric had a rough past," Hidalgo said. "I've heard he was trying to disassociate himself from gangs. Obviously, if he had done that, he would never have been in that area."
Family members, notably DeSoto's 27-year-old brother Jason, insist Eric may have had a history of street fighting and drunkenness but had moved on. They say he had become a decent, good-natured family man.
In any case, DeSoto leaves behind a pregnant girlfriend and a young daughter and son.
DeSoto lived the life of a Damon Runyon character—a hard-drinking, streetwise brawler who, despite trying to go straight, could never entirely escape his past. In high school, he hung out with taggers—the source of a few adolescent arrests. For most of his brief adult life, DeSoto drank heavily and often. He frequently appeared at his brother's home with cut hands, bruises and black eyes from fighting. Familiar with most of his brother's troubles, even Jason admitted that Eric "probably did stuff he never told me about."
"High school was difficult," said Jason DeSoto, who lives in Newport Beach. "He ran around with a tough crowd of friends, and he was always fighting. When he was with them, he felt he had to prove himself."
At night, the section of Westchester Drive in Anaheim where DeSoto died can be terrifyingly dark and quiet. The dead-end street is narrow, lined on either side with dimly lit dingbats. Hidalgo hesitated to call the street a gang neighborhood, but he did say some gang members live in the building DeSoto visited.
Westchester Drive is a very different place from the sleepy canals of upscale Huntington Harbor, where DeSoto grew up and lived. Raised in relative affluence, the DeSoto brothers spent their youths surfing from Huntington to Pismo Beach. Eric skateboarded until he became too big for the board. According to his brother, Eric had choices.
There is a photo of Eric DeSoto that shows the most important of his choices. Taken just a couple of months ago, the photo has washed-out color and torn edges, as if someone tried cutting the photo out of its frame. It shows DeSoto holding his little boy and girl on his front lawn, smiling as only a young father can.
This is the man Jason DeSoto prefers to remember—an easygoing guy who hung around in Huntington's Ultimate Fighter circles. A skilled tattoo artist who was about to make that his career. A wrestling coach and serious student at Golden West College. A laughing, joking brother whose idea of a fun night was ordering a pizza and staying home with some rented videos.
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"A year and a half ago, he was arrested with his friends for being drunk in public," Jason said. "The judge gave him a choice: go to jail or spend the next three months sober in a clinic. After the three months, he decided to remain sober. He realized he had kids to raise. At the time, he told me, 'My kids saved my life.'"
But on the night of July 4, just after getting off work at an Orange restaurant where he waited tables, Eric reverted to form. According to Jason, Eric received a call from one of his "hardcore" friends who was in trouble and needed help. DeSoto did what he'd always done: rather than call the police to intervene, he went to his friend.
The exact circumstances surrounding DeSoto's death remain unknown. All Hidalgo would say was that he was shot more than once. Whether words were exchanged between DeSoto and his attacker, whether there was a scuffle, whether DeSoto even knew his killer, no one knows or likely will know.
"Loyalty to his friends, even hardcore ones, was everything to Eric," said Jason, who is now helping to raise his dead brother's children. "Every time he got into a fight, it was because he was defending one of his friends. A couple of years ago, he took on three Marines to protect a friend. It got to the point where I finally asked him, 'What are you going to do—die for your friends?'"