How a Mexican Mafia killer became a law enforcement darling

Gov. Jerry Brown weighs parole for Rene 'Boxer' Enriquez, former Mexican Mafia leader convicted of 2 murders

The man sitting in the back of the vehicle is wearing a light-colored shirt, a patterned tie and an air of authority.

He's headed to a conference in Anaheim to give a speech and, as trees, hedges and apartment buildings flash by, he rattles off a list of accomplishments — his book, his expert witness testimony.

"This has been a dream of mine," he says in the online video, referring to his speaking invitation. "You know how many people have said, 'You can't do it'?"

There was every reason to doubt Rene "Boxer" Enriquez could.

Enriquez, 52, is serving a life sentence for ordering the killing of one woman and for fatally shooting a man five times in the head. Behind bars, he attacked other inmates with jail-made shanks. His criminal history includes armed robberies, drug sales and a sexual assault.

"If I would have listened to those naysayers, I'd be sitting up in Pelican Bay right now," he says in the video, which promotes a book he co-wrote.

Instead, he was on his way to speak to hundreds of officials at a conference hosted by the California Gang Investigators Assn.

Enriquez was once a key figure within the Mexican Mafia. But since agreeing in 2002 to tell authorities about the prison gang's activities, the inmate once considered so dangerous that he was isolated from other prisoners has become a valuable law enforcement asset — providing expert testimony and other help in scores of cases.

The transformation of Enriquez has been held up as evidence that even the worst offenders can find redemption. His cooperation 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.

The near-celebrity status Enriquez has carved out for himself in law enforcement circles is unusual for an inmate.

He has been given a laptop and, from behind bars, has co-written or collaborated on books that provide financial support to his family. He has lectured college students and helped teach a course on gangs at UC Irvine. Last month, the Los Angeles Police Department escorted him to a downtown building, where he was the guest lecturer at an event primarily attended by business executives hoping to learn about a transnational criminal enterprise.

Officials with 11 law enforcement agencies have written letters on Enriquez's behalf, which he presented at a September parole hearing. The board decided he should be released — a finding Gov. Jerry Brown is now reviewing.

In the video showing his journey to Anaheim, Enriquez's reflections on his life are interspersed with photographs of him posing with police officials. In the background plays the indie rock song "Sweet Disposition."

"He becomes a rock star," said Richard Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant once assigned to handle Enriquez. "Why? What benefit does this give law enforcement? That's really difficult for me to answer."

The children of one of his murder victims, Cynthia Gavaldon, said Enriquez has been "glorified" and treated like a celebrity despite his role in murdering their mother.

"Nothing can make up for that, regardless of any other people he's put away or things he's offered to law enforcement," Gavaldon's son said. "Nothing can repay what he's done."

Enriquez, who has detailed his life in parole and court hearings as well as in a biography, was raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Cerritos, the son of a businessman father and a mother who both grew up in Mexico.

Young Rene idolized his older brother, Marc, who was in a gang from nearby Artesia. Marc gave him the nickname "Boxer" and asked him to break into neighbors' homes. At 12, Rene was jumped into Marc's gang.

He began drinking and using drugs. He stole a car and dropped out of high school.

When he was 17, he gang raped a woman he later described as "overly intoxicated." He pleaded no contest to sodomy and was sent to juvenile hall.

After his release, he committed armed robberies to fund his heroin addiction, which landed him in prison for the first time.

It was there he was exposed to the violent gang known as La Eme. He began doing favors for Mexican Mafia members — running drugs, collecting their laundry. Soon he began attacking other inmates at the gang's request to prove he could be a Mafioso.

"It's an accomplishment," Enriquez said in his biography about those early stabbings. "You feel a raw sense of power, inflicting violence on someone for the organization."

When he was invited to join the gang, Enriquez recalled, he felt as though he had "just won the gold medal at the Olympic Games."

In 1989, five days after he was released from custody, the body of Cynthia Gavaldon was found in a vacant lot in Boyle Heights. Enriquez told the parole board he'd ordered the 28-year-old killed because she'd been stealing drugs from him.

About a week after Gavaldon's body was found, Enriquez and another gang member gave an overdose of heroin to David Gallegos, a Mexican Mafia member considered a coward for running from a fight. They propped the 47-year-old up in a car, driving him past the home of another Mafia member to show they were "gonna go take care of it," Enriquez told the parole board.

The men thought Gallegos might already be dead, but Enriquez shot him anyway.

While awaiting his murder trial in July 1991, Enriquez and another inmate stabbed a man in a visiting room, according to his probation report. When a deputy ran to help the victim, Enriquez held out a shank. "Stay the … out of this," he said.

The victim was stabbed 26 times.

Enriquez pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and to assault. He was sentenced to life in prison.

"I had dedicated my life to this organization. I had willingly killed for it," he said later in court.

But with time, Enriquez said life as a Mafioso became more stressful. The gang divided into factions. In his biography, Enriquez described a constant fear that fellow gang members had turned on him. He became convinced he was on the hit list and never left his cell without a weapon.

He later testified that he was struck by a "60 Minutes" special on child murders that included the Mexican Mafia.

"The core reason" for leaving the gang, Enriquez told the parole board, "was the targeting of innocent people and families.... The Mexican Mafia had taken a turn for the worst."

Richard Valdemar, the former L.A. County sheriff's sergeant, said he told Enriquez that "the best thing he could do was make himself available to law enforcement. Apparently he took me on my word."

Investigators and prosecutors say Enriquez has provided unique insight into the workings of the Mexican Mafia: how members funnel money and drugs into jails, how they relay orders to those on the street, how they use code words to avoid detection from prison guards.

"He can take you by the hand and take you inside the organization, with its rules and rituals," said Matthew Umhofer, a former federal prosecutor who used Enriquez as a gang expert on a prison stabbing case. "He's smart, he's articulate, and he doesn't sugarcoat anything."

In 2006, Enriquez told his handler that his cellmate had offered him $150,000 to kill the man's estranged wife, according to a letter written by a federal prosecutor. Enriquez wore a wire and gathered enough information — including photographs of the woman and details about her daily routine — that authorities determined the cellmate was serious. They credited Enriquez with saving the woman's life.

James Spertus, one of Enriquez's attorneys, said his client's cooperation has come at "great personal risk" — putting him and his family in danger of retaliation. Spertus declined to make his client available for an interview.

More than a decade after he left the gang, Enriquez maintains he is still useful to law enforcement. Court and parole transcripts show he helps decode Mafia lingo on recorded telephone calls from jail and prison.

In some cases, however, judges have questioned Enriquez's knowledge. An appellate court in 2013 called his expert testimony in a Riverside County drive-by shooting gang case "only marginally relevant" and "out of date."

One parole commissioner drew a parallel between the respect Enriquez commanded in the prison gang and the sense of power he appears to enjoy in his new role.

He has conducted interviews with major media outlets — CNN, BBC, NPR. In addition to collaborating on a bestselling biography, "The Black Hand," Enriquez has helped write two other books about the prison gang. He testified that he had not made money off the sales but that his family has benefited. He put the figure at less than $100,000 for all three books.

Enriquez filmed a training video for the LAPD — "I personally would like to thank you," Chief Charlie Beck wrote him in a 2010 letter — and helps teach the UC Irvine class via video and email. Al Valdez, who teaches the course and co-wrote a book with Enriquez, said the inmate "brings some authenticity to the class."

"It's like listening to a Fortune 500 CEO if you didn't know any different," Valdez said. "He's a good public speaker. He's very charismatic. That's one of the reasons he was so successful in the Mafia."

Valdez said he noticed Enriquez's demeanor start to soften two years ago, when he began removing his Eme tattoos. The first to go, he said, was the gang's signature "black hand of death" on the inmate's chest.

Enriquez's favorable treatment and possible release from prison have horrified Gavaldon's two adult children. The siblings, who asked that their names not be used because of safety concerns, are worried Enriquez will be freed from prison.

The parole board concluded that he no longer remains an unreasonable danger to society. The governor has until Feb. 22 to decide whether to reverse the parole board's decision to release him.

"He stole a piece of our lives from us," said Gavaldon's daughter. "And it's not fair."




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