How OC's First Gang Injunction Fell Apart—And Allowed a Westminster Man to Achieve His Dream
On a June afternoon in 1993, Al Valdez approached a man with a shaved head who was wearing a wifebeater and baggy shorts while kicking it at Sigler Park in Westminster. A gang-unit investigator for the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA), he had spent hours looking for this vato, whom prosecutors believed was a shot caller for West Trece, the city's oldest and largest gang. The gumshoe didn't plan to question or arrest his target, though; he wanted to hand the guy a stack of papers.
"I'm here to serve you with a civil lawsuit," Valdez announced, gun in his holster. "I've served some of your homeboys already." He handed over a gang injunction, a then-novel approach in law enforcement designed to clamp down on gangs with legal arguments—the first in OC history.
But the accused was confused. Latino males in Westminster were long accustomed to cops roughing them up—but being buried in papers? "I don't want it!" the man said, dropping the pile of legalese on the ground. The two then got into a debate better suited for a mock courtroom than the mean streets.
"You don't have to read it, but you've been legally served because we are suing you in civil court," Valdez replied.
"I want a public defender!"
"You're not entitled to legal counsel or a public defender because this is not a criminal case; it's a civil case."
"You can't sue us this way," the alleged West Trece member insisted, as Valdez walked back to his patrol car, happy to have played his part in history.
More than two decades later, 15 gang injunctions blanket Orange County, targeting mostly Mexican neighborhoods in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Fullerton, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Orange, Garden Grove and Placentia. It's become a favored tactic of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, earning him nationwide attention. "The residents in these neighborhoods that consist of families, children and the elderly have been in the crossfire of these rival gangs for too long," he said in a press release last year. "Injunctions are tools that we will keep using to make communities safe from criminal-street-gang activity."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and local grassroots activist groups such as Chicanos Unidos continue to battle the OCDA in court, calling the injunctions a threat to basic rights that actually do little to improve the communities they proclaim to save. But lost in the controversy is what happened when the OCDA issued a gang injunction for the first time—and how a former gang member became an unwitting poster boy for civil liberties in Orange County.
* * * * *
Gang injunctions work by district attorneys suing gangs in civil court as "public nuisances" and creating "safety zones" around the turf they claim. These days, the gang is sued as the defendant, and any gang members named in the suit are banned from committing crimes such as drinking in public, vandalism, drug dealing and physical assaults in the zone. But an injunction also stops them from non-criminal behaviors including dressing a certain way and hanging out with other named gang members in public. Violations become criminally punishable, and that's where gang injunctions get controversial: Critics deem them as unconstitutional and fostering racial profiling, while law enforcement says they're a critical tool in the war on gangs, helping to restore peace and tranquility in neighborhoods.
And the strategy can trace its roots to Orange County.
Scholars cite People v. Rubacava as the first effort to implement something approaching an injunction. In that 1980 case, then-DA Cecil Hicks got a temporary injunction banning gang members from their hangout house on West Henderson Place in Santa Ana; a judge denied a permanent injunction, but the tactic successfully got the cholos to move elsewhere. Similar filings followed in Los Angeles County throughout the early 1980s. But the first full-force gang injunction in California history came in December 1987, when then-Los Angeles City Attorney Jim Hahn went after the Playboy Gangster Crips in West LA. The following year, California's state legislators passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act, declaring gangs a "clear and present threat to public order and safety," making it easier for prosecutors to use injunctions as a new weapon.
Gang injunctions spread across Southern California in the early 1990s, pushed by politicians who wanted to appear tough on crime when gang hysteria was at an all-time high. They finally came back home to Orange County in June 1993, when OC DA Michael Capizzi and Westminster City Attorney Richard Jones filed People v. Amaya against the city's West Trece gang. It was a curious choice: While West Trece had dominated city life since its founding in 1968 (originally starting as a dance club called the Gaylords at Westminster High), it was hardly the largest gang in Orange County, or even the most violent in Westminster—that honor went to the Nip Boys, a Vietnamese gang who'd get broken up later that year in a four-county raid involving more than 200 police officers.
Valdez: Involved in the first gang injunction
But West Trece had a determined foe in Valdez. Now director of the Public Policy Laboratory at UC Irvine, where he teaches an "Introduction to Gangs" class, the child of Mexican immigrants belonged to the first Tri-Agency Resource Gang Enforcement Team (TARGET) gang unit in OC and worked the Westminster beat in the early 1990s. He remembers learning about a gang injunction filed in San Jose in early 1993 and teamed up with Deputy District Attorney John Anderson to pitch a similar approach to Westminster Police Chief James I. Cook. Anderson began preparing files on people to be served, personally reviewing each one before finalizing a list of 59 alleged West Trece members to pursue. "Each file was a half-inch to an inch thick on every gang member," Valdez says. "Anderson was a slave driver, and everything had to be perfect."
Armed with the work of Anderson and Valdez, Capizzi and Jones argued that West Trece constituted a "sinister and coercive threat" and that constitutional rights of free association aren't absolute, citing an old anti-union case in which injunctions prohibited picketing on the basis that workers on the line carried an inherent threat of violence. They also noted that gang-related crime—shootings, drug dealing and even robbing pizza delivery people—in the proposed injunction zone had spiked at an alarming rate over the course of 18 months: at least 39 incidents involving West Trece members in one way or another between Dec. 14, 1991, and May 23, 1993.
The injunction became active just weeks after its filing, setting up a safety zone stretching across West Trece's claimed turf—east of Goldenwest Street, west of Hoover Street, south of Trask Avenue and north of Westminster Avenue. "Refusal of the injunction will allow defendants to continue their established patterns of criminal gang activity, whereas granting of the relief requested by plaintiffs merely requires defendants to conduct themselves in a lawful manner," the complaint argued. A hearing to make the gang injunction permanent was scheduled for July 21, 1993, in Orange County Superior Court.
"I helped write the injunction, collect the data on all the subjects, and I began to serve them," Valdez recalls of handing out the stacks, including the one at Sigler Park. "These hardcore gang members that'd shoot you on sight would drop the paperwork and get scared."
* * * * *
When the preliminary injunction took effect, Valdez says, it had a drastic impact on Westminster's barrio. "For the first time, I started to see kids at the playground, at the park and people in the front yard of their house," he says, claiming not a single violent gang crime happened that summer and that residents thanked him for his work. "We'd go out on patrol and see not one gang member."
But the ACLU of Southern California had serious misgivings about the West Trece injunction and decided to get involved in the legal fight. The group had unsuccessfully taken on the Playboy Gangster Crips case in 1987 and another battle in Los Angeles targeting San Fernando Valley's Blythe Street Gang. Staff Attorney Mark Silverstein had cut his teeth right out of the Illinois College of Law writing legal briefs for the Blythe case before appearing amicus curiae at the July 21 hearing on behalf of the Westminster defendants.
"Gang injunctions were like a prosecutor's shortcut around the Bill of Rights," says Silverstein, now legal director for the ACLU of Colorado. "One of the shortcuts was that the gang injunction case was a civil case, and there was no clear-cut right to an appointed attorney, even for indigent defendants."
Silverstein began by arguing that the defendants should be given the right to legal representation. The judge retorted by asking the ACLU to take on a limited role in filing a brief highlighting legal and constitutional concerns in the case. Suddenly, Silverstein found himself digging into the merits of the injunction itself much more deeply.
The ACLU found itself mostly alone in the fight. Latino politicians didn't want to appear friendly to criminals, and local activists had been left in the dark. Manos Unidas, a group formed after a 1988 Westminster police shooting that killed 18-year-old Frank Martinez during a birthday party in his own back yard, helped to eliminate gang violence and crime in Sigler Park in 1990 and tried to improve community relations with police. But former president Vero Palomino (whose husband, Jay, is a second cousin of the late Frank Palomino of Mendez, et al. v. Westminster fame) says, "We weren't aware of the gang injunction. Personally, had I known, I would have questioned it more."
Alleged West Trece members on the list ranged from ages 13 to 30, with aliases including "Puppet," "Bullet" and "Payaso." After the July 21 hearing, Silverstein met 30-year-old Jose Oscar "Oso" Saldaña, the oldest individual named in the injunction, and found the perfect case study to show the court the questionable criteria prosecutors used to label someone a gang member.
Teresa Saldaña holds a photo of her late husband
The OCDA's case against Saldaña rested on two pieces of evidence: a conversation he had in 1992 with another person deemed a West Trece gang member by police, and a "West Park" gang tattoo on his hand. But Saldaña's name appeared nowhere in the gang-related incidents compiled by the TARGET unit. When he was served, Saldaña was working out of a Santa Ana warehouse to support his children. "We're just a group of people that was born and raised there. They can't get us for that," he told the Los Angeles Times. "The gang does exist, but they're just putting it on everybody, blaming anyone they see. We're guilty until proven innocent. It's wrong."
The ACLU filed a laundry list of general arguments against the injunction, including that the First and 14th Amendments protected the defendants' rights of association and due process. The organization added that the court "should view skeptically the People's allegation that each defendant is currently a 'known, fully participatory member' of West Trece."
Superior Court Judge Richard Beacom presided over the Aug. 30 hearing. "They rob, they kill, they rape, they sell dope, they use it," Beacom said of the defendants before him. "As I understand it, West Trece is a terrorist organization, and it has no lawful purpose."
But in a surprise ruling, Beacom stated that probation terms made much of the injunction redundant for criminals and questioned the constitutionality of it all, calling the attempt an "impermissible invasion of privacy."
The ruling shocked Silverstein. "Having a court being persuaded by our arguments was, of course, a more pleasant experience," he says. "I was really a baby lawyer at that point. It was the first time I had the opportunity to argue in court without a supervisor there with me, holding my hand."
Valdez was less pleased. "Within a week, West Trece started acting up again," he says. "The kids disappeared from the park and in front of their houses. I felt bad for the people who lived there."
The OCDA and Westminster city attorney's office appealed the ruling to the United States Fourth District Court of Appeal. The ACLU agreed to take Saldaña as a client. "His defense would serve to provide defense to all," Silverstein says.
"Relying solely on its offer to prove these two facts, the People ask the Court to infer that [Saldaña] is a member of the West Trece gang who can be held legally accountable for any and all illegal activity of the gang and its members," read the brief filed by the ACLU. "Such inferences violate reason and common sense, as well as the Constitution."
The case dragged on until 1997. By that point, Silverstein had left the ACLU of Southern California for the organization's Denver, Colorado, chapter. "In my first year, the case was scheduled for oral argument," he says. "I had plans to come back to California, but then the prosecution withdrew the appeal."
No gang injunction would be filed in Orange County for another nine years.
* * * * *
Saldaña's surviving family members gather around the living room of his widow's apartment in Westminster, a shrine to his memory. Pictures of Oscar wearing jerseys of his beloved Raiders decorate the home. The Saldañas don't know much about the history behind Westminster's gang injunction or Oscar's role in the legal fight. They do know he battled the demons of a troubled childhood, found faith and left gang life far behind when becoming a counselor, a feat that might've been impossible had the West Trece gang injunction stayed in place.
"I met Oscar in high school—I was probably 13 or 14 at the time," says his widow, Teresa. By then, Oscar had already lived a tumultuous life. Looking for a sense of family and belonging, Oscar joined West Trece in his teenage years. He never got along with his alcoholic father, who turned abusive toward his mother. Tensions continued until a 16-year-old Oscar finally pummeled his dad out of their home. He had already dropped out of high school by the time both his parents died when he was 18.
Teresa moved out of Westminster shortly after high school in 1983, married and started a family. Oscar stayed behind, married his first wife and started a family of his own in 1982. But like destined lovers, Teresa and Oscar met up again and started dating around 1993, when she returned to Westminster. Oscar had just gone through the gang-injunction battle that summer. "I remember him talking about it," Teresa says, "but I don't remember him being a part of it.
Sigler Park: Kids at play
"He wasn't active in any of the gang stuff" at the time, Teresa continues. "I know for a fact he didn't want [his children] going down the same road as he did." But he still struggled with demons: partying hard, abusing alcohol and getting popped on a burglary conviction just a year after he had successfully fought the injunction. Teresa's pregnancy in 1994 changed his priorities. "He knew he had to do something with his life because of his kids," she says. "He had to grow up."
Had the West Trece gang injunction stuck, he never would've had the chance. His last run-in with the law in 1997 underscores that. Saldaña was convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon, and prosecutors unsuccessfully tried to pile street terrorism and gang enhancements on top of it. He got eight months in prison, instead of the heftier sentence that likely would've come had the injunction stuck.
Saldaña moved to Anaheim in 1998 after his prison stint, mostly to escape continual harassment from Westminster police. On one stop, he got pulled over near Hoover Street in Westminster after taking his kids to Wienerschnitzel. "They made us get out of the car and sit on the curb," Vanessa Saldaña, Oscar's eldest daughter, recalls. One officer peppered Saldaña with questions, seeing if he'd break his cool. "Finally, after 45 minutes, he let us go."
In 2004, Saldaña started visiting Westminster High School regularly to speak with at-risk youth. Accompanying him was Santos Chavez, a former gang member turned pastor of Westminster's Street Light Church. "They had a class right after lunch, and it was with a lot of the kids going into the gang in Westminster," Vanessa says. Her dad commanded the kids' attention with his raw honesty, cautioning that gang life would only lead to prison or the grave. "Listen to your parents," she says Saldaña told them. "I know it's hard, but they know what you need to do to get where you need to be, and it's sure not behind bars." Saldaña often stayed after class to talk one-on-one with kids; a classmate once told Vanessa that she didn't know where she'd be if she hadn't met her dad.
Helping youth gave new hope to an old dream Saldaña had of becoming a drug-and-alcohol counselor. He worked a number of construction jobs to get on solid financial footing so he could enroll at InterCoast College in Orange, becoming a certified counselor in 2007. After graduation, Saldaña worked at a number of counseling centers, including Twin Town in Orange and La Familia in Santa Ana. "I still remember the first day I fearfully walked into your office," one letter of gratitude to Saldaña read. "Thank you for counseling and assisting me in my quest for complete sobriety."
He helped those in need outside his office, too, including a brother-in-law who finally kicked his crack addiction and is now a substance-abuse counselor at Pacific Palms in San Clemente.
But Saldaña's dream job didn't last long. Two years in, he started falling ill; doctors diagnosed him with hepatitis C. "The week before he got put in the hospital is when he had told us that his doctor told him that he needed to get put on a donor list for a liver transplant," Teresa says, wiping tears from her eyes. "Being under doctor care, I didn't know the severity of it either because I just assumed we were going to be in the right direction and everything was going to be fine."
Oscar passed away on Jan. 16, 2012, at age 48.
* * * * *
The West Trece gang injunction remains the sole injunction the OCDA has ever lost. In 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against an injunction targeting Orange Varrio Cypress, saying defendants initially dismissed from the case had their due-process rights violated when later enjoined without a court hearing [see Daffodil Altan's "Orange's Barrio Cypress Residents Fought the DA's Gang Injunction—and Won (Sort of)," May 28, 2009]. But it's still in effect, and the OCDA now solely names gangs as defendants, not individuals. "It's not so much a 'change of strategy,' but rather our gang-abatement efforts evolving with the law," the OCDA wrote in a statement to the Weekly.
The ACLU sees Rackauckas' change-up as one still wrought with problems. "In the over 200 gang injunctions brought throughout the state of California since the STEP Act passed, I don't know of a single case where the gang has defended itself," says Caitlin Sanderson, staff attorney with ACLU of Southern California. "It's basically a rubber stamp for DAs to get these very powerful gang injunctions that will never get challenged."
Despite Westminster's failure, Valdez looks back at the overall effort with pride, saying it laid the groundwork for future injunctions. "The legacy is that non-gang members in the community got their lives back," says Valdez. "Gangs criminalize communities; injunctions don't."
The ACLU continues to play a supportive role in OC gang-injunction fights, most recently in Placentia's Plas and La Jolla barrios; there, Sanderson is arguing that one man's intellectual disabilities should afford him court-appointed representation. Silverstein hasn't had a single gang-injunction case come his way since moving to Colorado, but he is pleased to hear his organization is still at it in Southern California. "The ACLU has to keep fighting for civil liberties," he says. "One of the founders of the ACLU always said civil court victories never stay won. You have to fight the battles again and again."
The lives of the defendants in the West Trece gang injunction have followed different paths. Some stayed locked up; others got deported. Few of those still around wanted to talk about those days, even those whose lives have changed for the better. But Saldaña's family is proud of Oscar's legacy. "What he taught me was how important family was," says Jose Saldaña, his eldest son. "As big and as angry as he was, to us, he was a big teddy bear."
The Saldaña family, including Oscar's six children and nine grandchildren, gets together on the 16th of every month since he passed to share dinner and celebrate his life.
Teresa wonders how different things might have been for her late husband if the OCDA had gotten its way and made the Westminster gang injunction permanent. "He wouldn't have been able to move forward with his counseling," she says. "He would always be looked at as a gang member."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.