The Incredible Shrinking Shooting Case

Photo by James BunoanNo reporter likes to be proved wrong. But based on the surprise e-mail I received from Susan Schroeder, spokesperson for the Orange County District Attorney's office, things weren't looking good for me. "Thought you might want to know that your 'innocent' defendant pled guilty last Friday," her e-mail said.

Schroeder was referring to Gustavo Orejel, a young Latino arrested in July 2002 for allegedly shooting at a car full of gangbangers who had just done a drive-by on his Santa Ana home. Nobody was hurt, and no weapon was ever directly tied to him, but Orejel faced a possible sentence of life in prison.

Over the past two years, I've written a series of articles criticizing the DA's tough stance against Orejel. In my first—and favorite—story, I pointed out that two of the DAs involved in his case were passengers in an SUV returning to OC from an REO Speedwagon/Journey/Styx concert in LA when a third passenger, Santa Ana gang unit cop Derrick Watkins, got trigger-happy. As he sailed away to that wheel in the sky, Watkins took out his service revolver and started popping caps out the window on the freeway.

I had written that, while Orejel faced life in prison, Watkins was never even charged with a crime. I had interviewed neighbors who denied Orejel was a gang member, unlike his brother-in-law, who also lived at the house. I had raised questions about the two unnamed eyewitnesses whose statements that they saw Orejel with a gun shortly after the shooting comprised the entire case against him. As it turned out, they didn't come forward for a week, and neither of them ever said they saw Orejel shooting at a car. In another story, I pointed out that DA Tony Rackauckas himself helped author the state law that allows prosecutors to shield the identity of witnesses in gang trials until shortly before those cases reach the courtroom.

And, although I never wrote about it, I had also been told off the record by Vincent La Barbera, one of Orejel's attorneys, that a Santa Ana gang member, also a client, had confessed to being the shooter, which is why La Barbera had to take himself off the case.

So imagine my surprise and shock when I received Schroeder's e-mail saying Orejel had just pleaded guilty. Except, as I read Schroeder's e-mail more closely, I realized that Orejel hadn't done anything of the sort.

What he haddone was plead guilty to drug possession, charges that stemmed from a Feb. 17, 2005, raid on his new house in Garden Grove—a raid that (somewhat suspiciously, you might say) took place right as the original case against him—the one involving the alleged shooting—was about to go to trial.

On that date, Garden Grove police raided Orejel's home and discovered two known gang members, 10 baggies of methamphetamine, a digital scale, and a loaded .38-caliber handgun. Schroeder refused to say why the cops raided the house, but Orejel's Santa Monica-based attorney, Louis Sepe, claims police were actually targeting one of his visitors, whom they followed to Orejel's house. He said none of the drugs belonged to his client, whose only previous drug-related arrest involved marijuana.

"The cops were looking for another kid, and they apparently trailed him to that residence and that's why the cops showed up at the door," Sepe said.

Because of Orejel's criminally poor judgment, Sepe had no choice but to have his client plead guilty to possessing both the drugs and the gun found in his house. "If it wasn't for the new arrest, I think the [shooting] case might have gone away," he said. "The new case really screwed him up. He was still facing life in prison for the shooting. I felt that in Orange County, you put drugs and guns and gangs together, and with the jury you've got a problem. So we worked out a deal."

In that deal, Orejel received a sentence of three years and four months in state prison. "He was facing life in jail for shooting at an inhabited vehicle," Sepe added. "That's a heavy, heavy charge, so I'd say we did really well. He'll go to Chino, and since his employer supports him, he'll have a job waiting for him when he gets out. His sister is married to a gang member, so it's kind of hard for him to avoid bad company. But he should do okay, as long as he stays away from certain people."

So whatever happened to the shooting case—the one that could have landed Orejel in prison for life?

Put simply, it disappeared.

The DA's office dropped all charges relating to the alleged shooting, except for possession of a firearm. "That gun charge is pure fiction," Sepe said. "There was no gun. All they found was a gun box in a closet in the house. This was just an accommodation to the DA's office."

In fact, the gun possession charge didn't add any time to Orejel's sentence, because he is serving that time concurrently to the rest of his sentence. Meanwhile, Sepe claimed, the DA's office dropped the other, much more serious charges because they had no case against Orejel. He says he heard the taped statements of the two eyewitnesses, and it was obvious neither of them was sure they even saw Orejel.

"I heard the tape, and the female eyewitness implicated someone else in the beginning of her interview," Sepe said. "Then [police] showed her a picture of [Orejel], and she said, 'Oh, yeah, his car was there, maybe it was him.' Then her brother said on the tape that the reason he knew it was [Orejel] was because his sister told him it was."

So what about the person who admitted he was the actual shooter?

"It wouldn't do any good to tell you his name, but the DA has a copy of his statement, which is on tape," Sepe said. "But I doubt they'll ever charge him, because they want to say that [Orejel] did the shooting."

That's pretty much what Schroeder said when I called her.

"The witnesses we had were cooperative and extremely credible," she said. "But we wanted to be sensitive and take into consideration that they had to continue to live in the same neighborhood as Mr. Orejel. We're happy with the sentence and pleased that Mr. Orejel is being held responsible for what he did."


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