It's as though all the world's grandparents have gathered in this crusty, muggy hall. The air smells of old person's cologne and stale popcorn, with the occasional sniff of secondhand smoke whenever the door to the patio opens.
Tucked between Main and First streets in Santa Ana and decorated with ancient elk heads mounted on layers of beige paint covering blocks of graffiti, Elks Lodge No. 794—the county's most venerable at 110 years old, considered the "mother lodge" of the 11-lodge Orange Coast District of the Elks—slumps next to a dilapidated Saddleback Inn and across the street from the Santa Ana Zoo. A steady stream of Latinos, none of them members, walks or drives by the lodge. The parking lot, which needs a paving job, seems to be a resting spot for old-timers and their motor homes. A little brown security tower stands in the middle of the lot, with a fake brown owl faithfully scaring away pests.
On this night, the lodge pulses with a mix of elderly people. Mexican families sit next to old white couples at the long folding tables that line the sage-painted hall. Pacific Islanders take their place among them too, and Asian elders are seen chatting with one another in their native tongues. An old black man sits alone near the stage, where a reddish-orange curtain is drawn back to make room for the night's entertainment: Monday-night bingo.
The convivial, celebratory mood belies the fact that just five months ago, this very building was the scene of the most heated ruckus in the recent history of the Santa Ana Elks, when the lodge's former exalted ruler, Ray Estrella—a 71-year-old, retired, bank senior vice president—confronted fellow Elk Dan Fernandez with an explosive allegation of sexual harassment.
A well-connected figure in the community who once worked as a community-relations aide to Governor Ronald Reagan and served as part of the Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Estrella had hoped to turn around the struggling lodge, which he joined in 2000. He has seen its numbers shrink from 4,000 members to fewer than 1,500, he says. When Estrella brought his accounting skills and leadership qualities to the office of exalted ruler in 2010, he embarked on a five-year plan to re-energize the lodge by bringing in new members through outreach efforts to veterans groups and young Latinos, as well as hosting powwows for Native Americans.
But the lodge was already in disarray, with a lack of accountability among high-ranking Elks, according to Estrella. Roughly $2.5 million comes though the lodge each year from bar sales and outreach events, as well as the rent it charges various groups to use the facilities. But with weekly financial reports routinely revealing red numbers, Estrella puzzles over where all the money is going.
Then there was the labor abuse, political backstabbing and nepotism, all of which are destroying what should be a benign brotherhood of military veterans and crusty old cusses looking to share a beer, he says. Despite his efforts to reform the Santa Ana chapter of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America, Estrella faces expulsion from the national organization.
There are even rumblings coming out of the lodge that his time as exalted ruler may be expunged from the record books. "The membership doesn't know [anything]," says Estrella. "They know what they're told. I made the mistake of trying to have full disclosure."
* * *
Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian was born into a clergyman's family on Oct. 22, 1842, in Exeter, Devonshire County, England. As an adult, he became a successful dancer and singer in London before immigrating to New York City in November 1867. There, Vivian led a group of theater performers who gathered on the Lord's Day to party—to spite the city's blue laws. The group called itself the Jolly Corks, a nod to a Vivian routine in which he used a cork trick to dupe new members into buying rounds of alcohol.
According to Elks lore, when a Jolly Corks member died just before Christmas in 1867, the group assisted the member's wife and children, who had been left broke. With a vision to help more people in need, the performers formed the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, with Vivian elected as head, on Feb. 16, 1868. Their numbers swelled as members put on benefits and held social gatherings, touting the lodge wherever they went, and the New York State Legislature eventually gave them the authority to form a Grand Lodge to oversee chapters across the United States. When a charter for the Grand Lodge was issued, Elks founders formed Lodge No. 1 in New York on March 10, 1871. According to the organization's Chicago-based headquarters, the Elks now boast 2,034 lodges and more than 869,000 members nationwide.
Estrella joined the Santa Ana Elks 12 years ago at the invitation of a business colleague. Within months, he was asked to run for lecturing knight, one of the lodge's top posts; he won the campaign. After a four-year hiatus from the lodge, due to a hectic work schedule, Estrella returned, rising to the elected position of exalted ruler, a title he held from March 2010 to April 2011.
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."
* * *
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."
Among her findings: There was no adequate documentation to support the sales from bingo operations or segregation of duties to provide checks and balances. The bingo operation had a change fund aggregating $2,300 that was not accounted for in the leading knights' books of accounts. There were no written policies and procedures for physical inventory count, ordering, issuing and safekeeping processes. There were no records maintained to track all inventories—including the bar, liquor and kitchen—at any given time. The people ordering, receiving and counting inventory were all the same individuals. Lotto sales were not always rung up. The daily sales/deposit summary was not properly supported by the right documentation or audit trail, including sales from special events or functions. Banquets were not supported with contracts. Dining guests walked out on their bills.
Gow recommended several fixes, and Estrella, as exalted ruler, set about trying to implement them. Later, as a trustee, he says, he discovered that Fernandez had replaced off-duty Santa Ana police officers, who had been providing security at lodge events, with employees of a security company run by a woman related to Fernandez's wife. According to Estrella, all of the guards, with the exception of the woman's boyfriend, were untrained, unlicensed and uninsured, but they were nonetheless paid $35 per hour. They worked at lodge events for at least five months and billed the Elks more than $6,000, Estrella says.
Estrella went to lodge leaders, he says, including Norm Fisher, the house committee chairman, but was continually stonewalled. When he asked human resources to provide information about the security-guard company, Estrella says, he received a guard card with 99 percent of the information redacted and only the guard's name showing, plus a blank invoice.
But in a Nov. 22, 2011, email to Estrella, Arthur Echternacht, a former Santa Ana Police Department officer and high-ranking Elks official, claimed the licensed co-owner of the company "quit" and that the lodge's house committee was looking "into a legitimate company."
Still, Estrella claims he confronted Fernandez at a lodge meeting later that same night, handing him a letter asking why the lodge was using the security company. According to Estrella, Fernandez just glared and turned his back on him.
After the meeting, Estrella approached Fernandez once more, asking him to read the letter and respond within a week. Estrella recalls that Fernandez became angry and aggressive, telling him he had no intention of reading the letter, that Estrella had no business asking anything of him and that, as the lodge's new exalted ruler, he didn't have to justify his actions to anyone.
At that point, Estrella says, Fernandez got nearly chest-to-chest with him, and when Estrella said there could be consequences for his actions, Fernandez told him to "bring it on."
The next day, Estrella received an email from Echternacht, which held the subject line "Security Guards." Echternacht told Estrella that he understood his frustration over not receiving support in the matter. "Ray, if you really want to support me in my year as president, please use your energy in trying to see what we can do about the financial disaster in our lodge at this time," Echternacht wrote, adding that he considered the security-company case closed.
Echternacht declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
* * *
Money matters aside, Estrella says, he was also determined to overcome what he saw as a legacy of racism that had plagued the lodge, which, he says, remains about 85 percent white and 15 percent Latino, despite being based in the one of the most overwhelmingly Latino cities in California.
With membership bleeding and the lodge suffering what he says was a lack of vision, exalted ruler Estrella saw an obvious solution: reach out to Latino families in the surrounding community. He opened the lodge for quinceañeras, which, he says, brought in up to $20,000 per event. When Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido called and said he was looking for a place to host a breakfast for the sister of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Estrella didn't hesitate to offer the lodge; roughly 125 people attended the event. It created goodwill and extended the lodge's network in the community.
"I probably got three or four quinceañeras out of it," he says.
The reaction from the lodge was as predictable as it was ugly. According to Estrella, one member whined, "Pretty soon, we're going to have the Mexican flag flying out front." The enmity between many white and Latino Elks is most pronounced when it comes to the kitchen and serving staff, Estrella claims, with workers often referred to by white members as "Mexicans" and "wetbacks." According to Estrella, the staff logged several hours of overtime each week, often unpaid, in a work environment he likens to that of a prison.
"There's been constant abuse," he says, adding that Sue Kay, the lodge's club manager, has laid off club staff under the guise of cutting labor costs, but she has hired six new employees, five of whom, he says, are either related to her or Fernandez and his wife. (Kay did not respond to an interview request).In a November newsletter to the lodge, Fernandez wrote about the staff changes in the kitchen and bar of the club, saying the remaining staff was in support of the decisions. "Just to give you an example, our cooks are working extra hours before their shifts washing dishes and helping where they can," Fernandez claimed, with no sense of irony, given he'd just confirmed the overtime violations.
The situation boiled over when a 76-year-old Latino—a loyal knight and good friend of Estrella—visited the office of a lodge chef, also Latino, on the evening of Dec. 6, 2011.
To an outside observer, such a visit would seem innocuous, but according to Estrella and others, there had been an unspoken rule that lodge leaders were not allowed to visit the kitchen. In a Dec. 7 human-resources complaint, the chef alleged that the loyal knight (who refused to be interviewed) intimidated him during the visit, asserting that he thought the loyal knight "might know karate because of his gestures."
Based on that document, the loyal knight was banned from the kitchen and had his membership suspended. Amazingly, that's not where the kitchen kerfuffle ends. In February, the chef signed a notarized statement that he was forced to sign the document containing the charges against the loyal knight because he was in fear of losing his job. The loyal knight, "in no occasion, has neither mistreated nor threatened me ever in the years we have known each other," the chef claimed.
According to the chef, what actually happened was that Fisher, the lodge's house committee chairman, had walked into the office "very agitated and angry," demanding to know why the loyal knight was in his office. The next day, according to the chef, he was taken to a meeting attended by Kay, Fisher and representatives from human resources, at which time they pressured him into signing charges. (Fisher did not respond to requests for comment.)
The loyal knight claimed the charges were baseless. "These people have brought me great pain and suffering on both an emotional and health basis," he wrote in documents for an appeal hearing. "I am under doctors [sic] care for shingles. My doctor states that this because of the emotional strains that I am under. I have engaged an attorney to assist me in defending me, and to also hold the persons involved in this matter personally liable for their actions."
* * *
The phony spat between the Latino chef and loyal knight was, of course, just a sideshow compared to the real one between Estrella and Fernandez. After Estrella went public with the sexual harassment allegations against Fernandez at the December 2011 lodge meeting, Fernandez filed complaints with the lodge against Estrella, calling for him to be either expelled or suspended for at least six months and up to three years.
Although Fernandez didn't respond to an interview request, in his complaints against Estrella, he dismissed the allegations against him as false. "These three witnesses have never revealed themselves, and the alleged victim has never come forward," he said.
Fernandez's side of the story is that he was "pointing to a female lodge guest's military medals, asking what that particular medal was representing," and that his wife was nearby as he did so. When he left, Fernandez added, he "thanked the female guest for being part of the veterans program and gave her a gentle hug and a slight kiss on the cheek, all of which was welcomed by the female guest and not at all offensive to the guest."
According to Fernandez, the lodge member who filed the harassment complaint knew the allegation was false and therefore "defamatory." Based on Fernandez's March 6 complaint, the Elks suspended the member for one year. The lodge member has appealed the suspension.
In another written complaint against Estrella, Fernandez claimed that Estrella knew it would be slanderous to mention the alleged sexual harassment in front of the lodge members present at the December meeting and that, prior to the meeting, the presiding judge had told Estrella to not say anything because it was slanderous and hearsay. Fernandez also claimed that neither the victim nor the witnesses were named in the allegations against him, that the whole thing was a scheme cooked up by Estrella to purposely discredit him and "drag his name through the mud on the floor of the lodge."
But others have come forward to accuse Fernandez of sexual harassment.
According to incident reports filed with human resources, Fernandez allegedly harassed several women on the night of July 31, 2010. One alleged victim said she sat next to Fernandez and he pulled her chair closer to him. "He put hands all over," she wrote. "I pushed him away."
Another witness described Fernandez as drunk. "He was going up to the girls . . . all night," the witness claimed. "He was hugging them. He was in a kissing mode."
The witness added that Fernandez was trying to kiss a woman on the cheek while they were in the bar area. "He touched her on the butt," the witness stated. "He kept trying, saying, 'Come on, come on.' He wouldn't take no for an answer. He kissed her on the cheek. She finally got away."
The witness also stated that during her shift, Fernandez went to "kiss me on my cheek and lips. I turned to [sic] my cheek. It happened again later. I had to keep setting my boundaries, like 'no.'" The informant concluded that she now understands "not to hang out with Elks. They have a reputation for drinking."
In another report, titled "Verbal Threats," a witness claimed that when Fernandez asked for a drink at one point, the bartender said they were closed, told Fernandez he was drunk and to finish his drink. Fernandez then allegedly said, "Since when do you tell us?" and "Why don't you come to this side of the bar?" According to the report, those present called for Fernandez to stop.
Ironically, in a separate report titled "Verbal Abuse," Fernandez tried to defend himself against the allegations, but in doing so, he acknowledged harassing a bartender who was trying to close the bar at 11 p.m. "I just asked why he closed it down," Fernandez wrote. "I did not get the 'last call.' I gave him a 'little harassment.' He said, 'I quit.' He always locks the front and side doors at 9 to 10. He acts like it was his bar."
Continuing to defend himself, Fernandez filed another complaint against Estrella, claiming the former exalted ruler defamed him by emailing "unjustifiable and untruthful charges" against him to lodge members. In one email, Estrella wrote that the danger to the lodge is not so much Fernandez, but rather a membership capable of entrusting an "inexperienced man" like him with the position of exalted ruler.
"It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of a Fernandez administration than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgement [sic] to a flawed system willing to allow such a man as its leader," Estrella argued. "The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Dan Fernandez, who is a symbol of an outdated process which had no checks or balances, yet allows persons with flawed morals and character to assume leadership."
Fernandez isn't the only one who has filed complaints against Estrella. Four others, including Fisher, have also done so, alleging Estrella made malicious, unjustifiable or untruthful charges against them. Fisher alleges that in one email, Estrella says Fisher puts "his normal spin on things so they don't appear to be as bad as they really are" and that Fisher continually gives out false information related to the lodge's financial reports.
Estrella recalls his time in the lodge was marked by good deeds punished at every turn, a vain fight to do the right thing for the future of the Elks, and the neighborhood that ignores it like some distant, doddering grandparent. With the outcome of his possible expulsion hanging in the air, Estrella has already moved on; he resigned as trustee on Feb. 25. Despite the fact his archnemesis at the lodge is a fellow Latino, he remains convinced that racism played an unspoken role in his ouster. "A small group of people control the lodge [with] consent from the district leadership," he claims. "The whole thing was racist."
Some of his friends from the lodge have transferred to other chapters or quit the Elks altogether. "I love Elkdom," Estrella says, and it's clear he hasn't yet come to terms with everything that's happened. "It broke my heart to walk away."
* * *
Back at the Elks Lodge on bingo night, the little hopper of balls sits silently on the stage, beneath the caller's perch and between two large boards, on which, in a matter of moments, electronic numbers will light up, flashing rays of hope into hundreds of hearts. Gaudy chandeliers hang above the crowd; a green carpet held over from some dead era spreads beneath them. With jackpots in their eyes, the gray phalanx of bingo players is settling into its seats, stuffing its faces with the mini-buffet's lasagna and mashed potatoes; more frugal mouths masticate homemade sandwiches.
They prepare their bingo sheets, silently hoping the gods of gambling will bless them with good fortune during rounds of "Corner Stamp," "Crazy Kite" and "Hardway." An Elk in a blue shirt with etched gold lettering that reflects the lodge's name and number alights the bingo caller's perch and announces the first game of the night, "The Big Cheese."
One of the younger women—white, perhaps in her mid-50s, with dyed-black hair—gives two unironic thumbs up and yells to a friend, "It's time for bingo!"
Over the course of the next four hours, the steady drone of B4, G46, I27, etc. is interrupted only by the ecstatic gasps of winners shouting, "Bingo!" followed by an immediate, echoing murmur of "Ah, shit!"
Four hours, $20, one Diet Coke, a slice of apple pie, and an interminable number of "Ah, shit"s later, Bingo Night is over. As the last number is called, four ladies who appear to be regulars grab their purses. Asked if they have ever heard the names Ray Estrella or Dan Fernandez, they collectively shrug.
"No," answers one, looking puzzled.
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"Hmm," says her friend. "I haven't heard of them."
The women trash their bingo sheets and join the stampede for the door.
This article appeared in print as "Elk In Exile: Ray Estrella, exalted ruler of the Santa Ana Elks, fought the lodge and the lodge won."