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From the Field

"The Reporter and The Gang Banger: A Tale of How Persistence Can Pay Off"
By Robert Rand

I never should have met Tony Alvarado. He's a former gang banger who grew up in the hard scrabble projects of Pacoima just north of downtown Los Angeles. I'm an east coast, Ivy League graduate who spent two years on the debutante circuit. But thanks to serendipity and the Pot Prince of Bel Air, Tony and I ended up in the same courtroom one crisp fall morning nearly two years ago. Neither of our lives will ever be the same.

You don't bump into many TV reporters in federal court. That's because cameras are not allowed. Sketch artists just don't work as much they used to. Everything changed when California courts began admitting cameras to broadcast and record events in a never ending search for Perry Mason moments.

Then there was OJ . . . but that's a different story. I like federal courts. You can hear yourself think versus the cacophony that permeates local and state halls of justice. Also, one can frequently unearth unusual stories that never show up on media radar screens. I was attending a hearing in the long-running saga of Todd McCormick, a cancer patient and medical marijuana advocate LA reporters branded "The Pot Prince of Bel Air." The Pot Prince was late for court. "He must be stoned again" snickered one of my colleagues.

The 27-year old activist was busted for growing 4000 plants inside a Bel Air mansion on Stone Canyon Road. The late LA Sheriff Sherman Block (who was fighting his own cancer with chemotherapy) told reporters McCormick "must be very, very healthy since he claims he was growing the plants for medical use." Southern California media outlets collectively winked with stories full of double entendres.

McCormick, who fights constant pain from cancer of the spine, insisted he was growing the plants for scientific research. He was developing specific strains of marijuana to treat specific illnesses. Through source interviews and other reporting, I discovered there were hard facts that actually backed him up. [Recent studies at several prestigious universities and the National Institute of Health concluded pot could be effective for fighting pain, nausea and glaucoma.]

The feds couldn't come up with a shred of evidence that Todd McCormick had ever sold a single joint. So they indicted him for gardening. McCormick believed he was protected under California's Prop 215 which legalized the medical use of pot. The law was deliberately written to be vague. It doesn't specify what medical conditions allow one to smoke without fear of arrest. It doesn't say how much marijuana a patient can grow.

When I interviewed California attorney general Dan Lundgren two years after voters bypassed the legislature with a ballot proposition, even Lundgren, the state's chief law enforcement officer, awkwardly sputtered before admitting " growing a couple of plants for personal use sounded reasonable." Actor Woody Harrelson put up a half million dollars cash to bail the Pot Prince out of jail. Harrelson, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher and others contributed to McCormick's legal defense fund. McCormick's high priced San Francisco lawyer was there. But the PPBA was AWOL. Hearing delayed. Todd McCormick is serving a 5-year sentence at the federal prison on Terminal Island. He was not allowed to introduce a medical necessity defense so he accepted a plea agreement. That ruling is being appealed.

Judge George King called another case to fill the void. David Katz, a former AUSA who crossed over to criminal defense work, began reciting a lengthy but compelling story about his client, Antonio Alvarado Torres. I was drawn into Katz's tale. I studied Alvarado, a compact 28-year old former teenage gang banger with close cropped hair and a hawk-like nose. Tony Alvarado looked both scary and scared at the same time. I could envision people lowering their eyes if they encountered this guy strutting down a street wearing baggy clothes and a bandanna. Yet, I was drawn to the story.

I followed Katz into the hallway and expressed my interest in Tony's case. Tony Alvarado's parents brought him to LA from a small village near Guadalajara when he was only a few months old. He grew up in the Pacoima projects where gang membership was a rite of passage and survival. He had two minor juvenile arrests. By 1990, Alvarado was maturing. He gradually cut his ties and moved away from gang life. He began working with troubled kids at a local rec center.

On July 6, 1990, 19-year old Tony Alvarado got a ride from a friend, Luis Selvera. He needed to pick up a tuxedo for a wedding that weekend. The pair was pulled over and given a ticket for a broken tailight. Ten minutes later, they were pulled over again by officers from CRASH, the LAPD's anti-gang unit. The CRASH cops were familiar with the two gang bangers.

In court testimony later, one officer testified he "smelled PCP" when he approached the car. A search turned up a bag with sealed vials of PCP under Selvera's seat. 15-year old Selvera, whose nickname was Peanut, immediately admitted the drugs were his. He vigorously protested when officers handcuffed Alvarado. "Why are you taking him away?" asked Peanut. "He didn't know I had anything under the seat." But both were arrested and charged with possession with intent to sell PCP.

Tony Alvarado being interviewed by Robert Rand on May 5, 2000 at the Immigration Detention Facility Jail on Terminal Island, San Pedro, California.

Tony spent several months in the LA County Jail insisting he was innocent. He wanted a trial. [Alvarado insists there was no smell of PCP in the car. He argues the first LAPD stop would have led to search if there had been an unsual odor in the car. He believes the CRASH officers simply saw an opportunity to remove two gang bangers off the street.] By October, a public defender suggested an alternative. Tony could accept a plea agreement and be out in a few weeks. He would receive time served as his sentence. Going to trial could mean a six month wait behind bars followed by the uncertainty of conviction and state prison time. Still, Tony wanted to roll the dice. But the lawyer won out.

Today, Tony insists he was never informed (as a judge is required to do) that his acceptance of the plea agreement could negatively impact his immigration status. [A court minute order exists with a brief summary of the hearing but my search for the court transcripts ended in failure. The court reporter broke the rules by taking the transcripts (which are supposed to be archived) home to her garage. After she suffered a stroke, her family threw out all her files. This is a critical piece of missing evidence that can never be recovered.]

After being released, Tony stayed out of trouble and continued his work with troubled kids. "Without Tony, some of these children would be lost to gangs and drugs" wrote Congressman Howard Berman in a 1991 letter of commendation.

Tony married his high school sweetheart, Maricela, and began a family. Both his wife and baby son are US citizens. But in 1993, Tony's application for immigration amnesty and citizenship was denied because of his one adult drug conviction. The FBI offered a deal: Tony could stay in the US if he became an informant against the young people he was trying to save. He refused and was deported to Mexico.

He'd never lived south of the border. He didn't even speak Spanish. After 24-hours in Tijuana, Tony walked back across the border and returned to his family in Pacoima, the only home he'd ever known. Two years went by. Tony and Maricela had a second baby. They saved and bought a small house in San Fernando. They both became born again Christians. Besides Sunday services, they attended a Bible study class at Calvary Chapel in Sylmar two nights a week. Their faith was about to be tested.

One afternoon, Tony was walking down a Pacoima street when he ran into the same FBI agent who ordered him deported in 1993. Once again, Tony ended up in a small room filled with federal agents. "Help us out," the G-men pleaded, "and you can stay" they promised. "No thanks," replied Tony. He'd been out of the gang life for over five years. He had no desire to go back in.

Of even greater significance: he wasn't going to put his wife and now two boys in danger. The FBI agent gave Tony his business card. "I know you'll be back, so hang onto this, " he said with a smirk. Once again, Tony was bussed by the INS to Tijuana and dropped off. This time, he returned to the tiny village his parents had left. Most of the local men were sheep herders. For three months, Tony tried to herd sheep. Perhaps Maricela and the kids would join him and start a new life. But the culture shock was too great. He missed his family. He missed LA.

So one afternoon, he walked across the border at Tijuana and returned home. Fast forward two years. August 1999. A routine traffic stop. A routine question: are there any warrants out for you? Maybe. Tony admitted there might be an INS warrant. Within hours, he was back in the same room with many of the same FBI agents from two years earlier including the man who gave Tony his card.

Now, it was more serious. Work with us, said one, or else. Tony wanted to think it over. In his heart, he already knew what he wouldn't do. This time was different. Tony was charged with the federal crime of illegal re-entry. For two months, he sat in the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown LA.

He held an instant get out of jail card but refused to play it. An FBI agent invited Maricela out for lunch. The couple didn't cave. Which led me to the bail hearing that day in October 1999 where my path crossed with Tony Alvarado. Tony's story was sympathetic. The judge released him on bail from the criminal jail. Ten days later, his family scraped together the money to free him. But he never went home.

The INS was waiting at the jail door to grab him. They took Tony to the immigration detention facility on Terminal Island, directly across the street from the federal prison where the Pot Prince of Bel Air would be jailed three months later. (Illegal aliens can spend months or even years in detention until their case is resolved. There is no speedy trial clock running as in the criminal justice system.)

In November 1999, UPN News 13 broadcast the first of what would eventually become 18 months of continuing coverage of the Alvarado story. I interviewed Tony's wife and kids (there were now three sons) as well as his attorney David Katz. It was difficult to maintain my composure as Maricela Alvarado, with her eyes full of tears, begged for her husband's freedom.

His boys need him, she pleaded. Tony called in from jail while we were shooting the interviews. It was our first brief conversation of what became months of nightly phone calls. After weeks of dogged persistence, the INS let me interview Tony at the immigration detention facility just before Christmas 1999. Cameras are rarely permitted inside the jail. Tony looked much smaller and less threatening up close. It was an easy interview.

We'd become familiar with each other's lives through nightly calls that typically ran 15 or 20 minutes. I was happy to be able to finally shake his hand. Just before Christmas, we went back to interview Maricela and the kids. They were facing a bleak holiday. The only presents under the tree were books from a prisoners' support group. They could go and visit Tony on weekends but the trip consumed an entire day of travel and frustration. A few days later, the INS finally agreed to an interview.

I had been speaking almost daily with the PIO. Now, I was going to meet Leonard Kovensky, the deputy director of deportation. When I showed up with a camera, everybody looked confused. "Oh, we can't do this on camera," said the PIO. "We simply said we'd talk with you for background. We didn't agree to on camera." Hello? This is TV news! What did they think I meant by setting up an interview? Four months went by. Numerous phone calls. INS. US Attorneys' office. Maricela. And, of course, every night about ten, Tony himself.

I managed to convince management at UPN News that they should do an update ever couple of weeks. I became adept at coming up with pitches that made it sound like there was something new even though there usually wasn't. This had become more than a story for me. I wanted to help this guy out. Finally, a major break.

I unearthed the ten year old court file and began tracking down witnesses. Luis Selvera, a.k.a. Peanut, was in the Wayside Jail on an unrelated new drug charge. He was about to be shipped to state prison where no cameras are allowed. On a day when there were no cameras available at UPN News 13, I lucked out at the last minute. (Thank you Bob Guerrero.) Selvera told a compelling story that pointed to Tony's innocence. He took complete responsibility for the PCP that had been in his car. We ran the story with these new developments.

Two weeks later, the LA County DA's office announced they would not oppose overturningTony's 1990 conviction, the foundation of his deportation problem. The INS, however, wouldn't budge. Our stories were full of good journalism, but the government didn't seem to care.

Tony was still in jail, one of 100,000 pending cases in the INS' LA office. Out of sheer frustration, I approached a friend at the LA Times and filled her in on Tony's situation.

In late April 2000, Anne-Marie O'Connor wrote a lengthy story about Tony's case. The Time's front page investigation called Tony's 1990 plea agreement "a dubious conviction." Three days after the Times story ran, my phone rang at 7:30 in the morning. "Mr. Rand, this is Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Attorney," said the caller. He wanted to discuss Tony's case. My six months of phone calls to his office had gone unreturned. Five months of UPN News 13 stories were ignored. But somebody noticed the front page of the LA Times.

Mayorkas became my new best friend. A few hours later, the INS called. Suddenly, they wanted to do an on camera interview. Three weeks later, on May 23, 2000, Tony Alvarado was released on an INS bond of $10,000. I hugged him as he walked through the gate. It was an incredibly powerful TV moment as his three sons sprinted down a street to the father they hadn't been able to hug for nine months. The story made the front page of the Times and the Daily Journal, a legal trade paper.

It marked the first time in US history that an illegal alien had ever been released on bond while his case was still pending. Two weeks later, The US Attorney's office reduced Tony's illegal re-entry charge to a Class B misdemeanor.

On July 4, 2000 UPN News shot a poignant interview with Tony Alvarado and his family as Tony celebrated his first legal 4th of July in the USA. Tony was expected to receive time served at his sentencing on April 30, 2001. It never happened. The judge postponed sentencing when he realized three INS agents with chains and handcuffs were in the back of the courtroom waiting to arrest Tony.

I swung into action again with phone calls and letters. Leonard Kovenksy, now deputy district director (the number two job in the INS' LA office) graciously spent a half an hour discussing the case with me over the phone.

On May 21, 2001, the INS issued an order allowing Tony Alvarado to remain free on bond pending an INS review of his case. The INS review of Tony's status could take several years. Maricela Alvarado has applied to obtain citizenship for her husband. In the end, it was persistence (and a little luck) that freed Tony Alvarado.

UPN news 13 has entered the story for numerous journalism honors. I've already received the best award: that was the day Tony Alvarado walked out of the immigration jail a free man.

About the Author
Robert Rand is a freelance journalist who works in both TV and print. On June 23, 2001, Rand received a Los Angeles Emmy award for his reporting on the Alvarado case. He is currently finishing a hardcover book on the Menendez murder case which he covered for the Miami Herald and Playboy.