When Donald Trump gave his much-vaunted Aug. 31 immigration speech in Phoenix, he brought more than a dozen family members of people murdered by illegal immigrants on stage. One of the speakers in Trump's “A Stolen Life” stage show was a diminutive woman named Kathy Woods, who gave a three-sentence speech blaming her son Steve's death on a “local gang.” The killers, she claimed, created a scene of carnage not unlike “Beirut” at the height of the Lebanese civil war. “All I can say is if Mr. Trump had been in office then,” she concluded, “our border would have been secure, and our children would be alive today.”
The audience cheered, Trump gave Woods a kiss on the cheek, and she went back to join the other grieving parents standing behind the podium. All of which brings us back to one of the most influential murder trials in Orange County history, a case that led directly to the anti-immigrant hysteria that has now somewhat improbably fueled Trump's rise.
It all began on Oct. 15, 1993, when a group of about 20 white teenagers went to Calafia Beach Park in San Clemente to blow off steam after a high school football game. At the beach, they encountered a smaller group of Latino youths. Insults were traded, then several of the white teenagers raced toward the Latinos in their car as they sped out of the parking lot. Fearing the car would run them over, several of the Latinos hurled objects from a nearby truck at the vehicle, including a clump of dirt and a paint roller, which somehow managed to pierce the skull of 17-year-old Steve Woods.
Woods spent a month in a coma before he died. By that time, what had originally been described by law enforcement officials in newspaper accounts of the incident as a “fluke” and a “one-in-a-million chance” accidental event, had been transformed into a major murder case. Thanks to allegations that at least some of the Latino teens were gang members—at least two were also members of a local Christian youth ministry—every defendant charged with the crime was automatically presumed to be equally culpable.
By tricking one of the youths into fingering everyone else present that night in return for a 10-year plea deal, police and prosecutors were eventually able to win convictions for several defendants, including Rogelio Solis, who had no criminal record prior to the incident and allegedly threw nothing more than a clod of dirt. In 1997, Solis was sentenced to 15 years to life. Now 40 years old, he remains behind bars at Calipatria State Prison, ineligible for parole until 2020.
The old-school racial undertones of the Woods trial was so notorious that legendary leftist scholar Mike Davis wrote a 1994 article on the case for The Nation titled “Behind the Orange Curtain: Legal Lynching in San Clemente.” The Woods tragedy became political fodder for the rise of viciously anti-immigrant sentiments in Orange County in the 1990s. Kathy Woods allowed the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR) to use a grisly X-ray image of her son's impaled skull on campaign literature that helped sway California voters to approve November 1994's Proposition 187, which sought to bar undocumented residents from obtaining health benefits or public education. The passage of Prop. 187, in turned, emboldened anti-immigrant lawmakers across the country to copycat similar efforts nationwide, a veritable orgy of onerous laws and xenophobic campaigning that continues to this day.
For her part, Kathy Woods personally took her son's case to Capitol Hill on May 9, 1995, when she spoke on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building about the “carnage of our citizenry” at the hands of illegal immigrants. “There is no doubt in my mind and I defy anyone to tell me differently, that if our government had done their job in enforcing our immigration laws, my son would be alive today,” Woods is quoted as saying in flyers featuring photos of her son's high-school graduation photo next to the skull shot. “We hope and pray that all of our elected representatives will take immediate steps to prevent even one more loved one's murder by these invaders of our land.”
Yet despite this purposeful racialization of the Woods tragedy over the past 23 years, it began as the same type of testosterone-fueled rumble that has unfolded at American high schools since at least the 1950s. It was then, and should remain now, exactly what the cops originally described: a fluke, a “million-to-one” shot, an accident. And now, it's in Trump's small, small hands.