Rene Enriquez's eloquence on the subject of the Mexican Mafia prison gang has impressed many. He wrote two books on the topic, prosecutors used him as an expert witness in gang trials, and numerous law enforcement officials turned to him for training sessions and conferences.
But when asked by a parole board last year why he joined the powerful prison gang and led a criminal life rife with violence until he quit in 2002, Enriquez had trouble explaining himself.
"I don't know what it was," he said. "I don't know what I was seeking."
Enriquez, who is serving a life prison sentence for two murders, appeared headed for freedom this month after the board found him suitable for release in September. His fate rested in the hands of a governor who has preached the idea that hardened criminals can find redemption and has released many more convicted killers than his predecessors.
But Gov. Jerry Brown late Friday reversed the parole board's decision, saying in a written statement that he believed the inmate had failed to show a complete understanding or acceptance of his violent past. Brown said he was troubled by Enriquez's statement that joining the Mexican Mafia was "kind of a survival tactic."
"Mr. Enriquez presents a rather shallow understanding of how he came to perpetuate so many extremely violent crimes," Brown wrote. "His involvement with the Mexican Mafia went far beyond self-protection and survival. He knowingly and voluntarily embraced the philosophy and goals of this dangerous prison gang and did everything in his power to promote its criminal activity."
Brown's decision came just before his deadline of Sunday to act on the parole board's decision, and a few hours after the family of one of Enriquez's murder victims, Cynthia Gavaldon, contacted his office to oppose Enriquez's release.
Gavaldon's son, who was 6 when his mother was killed in 1989, said he called the governor's office Friday afternoon and spoke to an official on Brown's staff for about 30 minutes. He said he felt, for the first time, that his family's voice had been heard. Neither he nor his sister — who asked not to be identified for their safety — had been aware of Enriquez's bid for parole until they were contacted by a Times reporter this month.
Later Friday, Gavaldon's son also got a call from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, explaining that his family was not notified about the September parole hearing because the agency didn't have their contact information, he said. Friday evening, he got one last call: It was the governor's office telling him Enriquez's parole had been reversed.
"It was an immediate sense of relief," Gavaldon's son said.
In recent years, Enriquez has kept a high profile for a prison inmate, writing books and speaking to journalists and law enforcement. But there was no publicity when he attended his parole board hearing.
Last month, Enriquez's appearance at a downtown speaking engagement drew criticism over the decision by Los Angeles police to use public funds to escort a convicted killer to a private event attended mostly by local business leaders. The Times then reported that parole commissioners had granted Enriquez's request for release.
Enriquez's attorney, James Spertus, accused the governor of making a politically motivated decision following the media coverage.
"This is not a case that warranted superseding the decision of trained professionals who decided he's been rehabilitated," said Spertus, who said his client is a different person from the man who committed murders, attempted murders, armed robberies and a gang rape. "The cooperation is a symptom of the guy who's changed."
Enriquez's cooperation with law enforcement since he left the gang has uncovered a murder-for-hire plot, helped secure lengthy prison time for gang members and provided vital information about the inner workings of one of the state's most notorious prison gangs.
Brown, in his decision, acknowledged Enriquez's extensive work to help investigators chip away at the organization he helped build up. The governor noted that he did so at great risk to his own safety, testifying in dozens of gang trials.
His work with law enforcement has earned him highly unusual treatment behind bars, including access to a laptop and income for his family from the books he co-wrote. Enriquez told the board he planned on continuing his work with law enforcement outside prison, saying he had a "really good career lined up with law enforcement."
"I cannot undo the past. But I can contribute to the future," Enriquez told the board. "I can contribute to dissuading other individuals from participating in this."
But Brown wrote that his contribution to law enforcement was outweighed by his violent history and the risk to society if he were to be released. The governor also noted that Enriquez had once lapsed into drug use and smuggling after leaving the gang, when his law enforcement work dried up in 2004 and 2005.
"There is no guarantee that Mr. Enriquez will have a lifetime role in giving anti-gang testimony, and it is not clear that his commitment to avoid criminal behavior and use of drugs is lasting," Brown wrote in the decision.
Brown has been far more liberal than past governors in allowing killers to go free on parole. In 2014, he let parole grants stand in about 4 out of 5 cases of murderers serving life, reversing 133 of 672 parole decisions.
Richard Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant once assigned to handle Enriquez, said that although he hoped Enriquez would eventually be reintegrated into society, the current process seemed rushed.
"It would be a disservice to him to release him before he was ready," he said. "You'd doom him to failure and possibly get him killed."