By Gustavo Arellano and Gabriel San Roman
It's being called another tragic case of gang violence claiming the innocent. Nine-year-old Ximena Meza was playing with her sisters outside their family's apartment near Brookhurst Community Park in Anaheim around 7 p.m. on Oct. 22 when, police say, a white car stopped nearby. A man emerged from the vehicle, shot at a group of men standing on an apartment lawn, then hustled back into the car, which sped off into the night. While the targeted men scurried off, Ximena ran to her father's arms and collapsed, fatally shot in the chest.
Ximena's death refocused a harsh spotlight on Anaheim, a city that has drawn national attention for all the wrong reasons over the past couple of years, thanks to killer cops, anti-police riots, poverty and nasty politics. It has sparked promises from Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada to look into a gang injunction for Ximena's neighborhood (police suspect the shooting was gang-related), as well as pleas from residents and Latino leaders for more services to keep kids from the cholo life.
Quezada's men worked long hours to arrest two suspects: 19-year-old Ricardo Cruz of Buena Park and 20-year-old Anaheim resident Alfredo Miguel Aquino. Both are documented members of Ready at War (RAW), a Buena Park gang allied with the notorious Anaheim FOLKS, which just happens to have a longtime beef with the Chicanos Kicking Ass (CKA) gang that claims the barrio where Ximena lived.
Her family welcomed news of the swift arrests. "The reaction of the whole family is that we're pleased," Ximena's uncle Francisco Ortiz told the Weekly while taking a break from a funeral fund-raising car wash at Servite High School over the weekend. "It's not going to bring Ximena back, but at least she can rest in peace knowing they got the guys who killed her."
The investigation is still ongoing, according to Anaheim P.D. spokesman Bob Dunn, who added, "We're certainly [including] the possibility of other people being involved" in the murder. But the biggest tragedy of Ximena's early death is that Aquino and Cruz shouldn't have been roaming free at all–especially not together. Instead, California's Byzantine sentencing laws and a lenient court let the cholos escape jail time despite violating the law and their probation again and again, a Weekly investigation has found.
Like two peas in a criminal pod, Aquino and Cruz have a history of breaking the law side-by-side. Aquino and Cruz already had a criminal past as juveniles, each having spent time in prison for assault with a deadly weapon and a gang enhancement, when Buena Park police stopped the white Honda Civic Aquino was driving on Oct. 29, 2013. The two tried to evade the cops after a traffic stop in which their passenger made a run for it, but were unsuccessful. Aquino was driving without a license; Cruz was high on marijuana. Inside the car was a billy club. Police impounded the Civic and arrested Aquino and Cruz; they were each charged with a felony for the weapon, gang enhancements, and misdemeanors for their respective crimes and general street terrorism.
They pleaded guilty to those crimes this past July 17; each could've received seven years in state prison. (Plus, Anaheim police had nabbed Aquino in January for vandalizing a continuation school.) Instead, the two got three years' probation, the terms of which prohibited them from hanging out with their gang, getting tattoos, carrying a cell phone or getting high and included an explicit condition each of them had to initial: "Do not, in any manner, directly or indirectly, initiate contact with, nor have any communication with" each other.
That didn't happen. On Sept. 20, Buena Park police officers saw Aquino and Cruz hanging around outside a liquor store in RAW territory, a direct violation of their probation. Cruz took off, jumping a wall before getting arrested; Aquino stayed put, deciding to be "uncooperative and argumentative with the officers," according to a probation report. Two days later, their probation officer, Michael J. Redwood, filed a petition with the court that showed the two should've been in jail for violating their probation long before. In July and on Sept. 9, Aquino had been caught with a cell phone (which held photos of him flashing gang signs) and failed a drug test; Cruz had failed a drug test, was caught with a knife and got three tattoos–one on his head reading "Ready at War," one under his eye of the three-dot sign symbolizing "mi vida loca," and one of a skull eating a bullet on his arm, which, Redwood said, Cruz told him he "knew he was not allowed to get."
Redwood wrote in his report that both of their progress for probation had been "poor," that Cruz had "blatantly defied court orders" and that Aquino "has done little since his release to improve his behavior." Of Aquino, Redwood added he "felt that [Aquino] needs to be held accountable for his actions, and time in custody could help him get back on track." He didn't have as much hope for Cruz, writing, "It is of concern that he continues to engage in inappropriate behavior, and it is felt that he needs to be held accountable for his actions." The probation officer finished his report by recommending 45 days in OC Jail for Aquino and that Cruz serve his original seven-year term in state prison.
On Sept. 24, Orange County Superior Court Commissioner Christopher Evans sentenced Aquino to 30 days in OC Jail; five days later, Evans sentenced Cruz to serve 16 months in state prison. Neither served a day of their sentence, though; instead, the two were credited for time served for previous stints, put back on probation and set free.
A month later, police say, one of them killed Ximena.