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Slain Bell Gardens mayor battled public injustices, personal demons

Daniel Crespo showed up at Bell Gardens City Hall, a young man wearing a sharp suit and a perfectly trimmed beard. He was new to town but rattled off ideas for bettering it in his Nuyorican accent — a Puerto Rican from New York. His wife, high school sweetheart Lyvette, sat by his side, not saying a word.

Maria Chacon, then a council member and power broker in Bell Gardens politics, was impressed with his eloquence and composure.

This man, she thought, was made for public office.

She started showing Crespo around, referring to him as a future council member. And it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Crespo was elected to the council and held tight to his seat for 13 years, finally becoming mayor last year.

It was no small feat. In neighboring cities in Southeast Los Angeles County, other politicians were undone by brutal campaigns or indictments and convictions on public corruption charges. Crespo survived recall attempts, contested elections and death threats.

The 46-year-old held himself out as an incorruptible crusader waging a one-man battle against injustices in the small city. Critics described him as a stubborn Don Quixote who saw — or imagined — corruption everywhere, a moralist who wasn't above making his own threats.

Unlike other city officials, he rarely brought his family to public or campaign events. On the few occasions when his wife did accompany him, she spoke little and kept to herself.

There were whispers of infidelity, that Crespo saw other women as his wife remained in the shadows.

That ended Sept. 30, when Lyvette Crespo fired a pistol at her husband in their home's master bedroom, hitting him three times in the torso from close range.

In an anguished 911 call, the couple's son, Daniel Jr., told a police dispatcher: "He hurt me. He hurt me. He's on the floor dying. He hurt me."

His voice breaking, he said things at his home weren't as they appeared:

"Nobody ever knew."

::

Crespo liked to say he was forged in the toughest project in Brooklyn.

He and his brother, William, were raised by a single mother in Brownsville — one of New York's poorest neighborhoods, an area that's produced many more rappers than political leaders.

Once, in their early teens, Crespo came to William, just 11 months older, with his nose bloodied after having been beaten up by a larger boy, his brother recalled. William, who was on his way back from the corner store, ran over to find the assailant and whacked him with a can of beans from the market.

It was in Brooklyn that Crespo met Lyvette, William said. She came from an unstable home, and Crespo often brought her to his house so she would have a place to sleep, over his mother's protests. Sometimes he'd sneak her in after his mother went to bed.

When Crespo injured his foot on an amusement park ride in Coney Island, he got a $100,000 settlement and a ticket out of the projects. The teenage couple left for California and settled in Bell Gardens, then a blighted former defense industry town hanging its hopes on a new casino. A month before she turned 16, Lyvette gave birth to a daughter. Crespo was 18.

Crespo worked at a paint company by day and attended East L.A. College by night, later graduating from Cal State L.A. with a degree in criminal justice. In 1991, he became an L.A. County probation officer.

His first foray into elective office came shortly after the birth of their second child, Daniel Jr. The couple bought a condo in a new housing complex for low-income first-time homeowners, and Crespo began serving as a director on the board of its homeowners' association.

Politics in the 126-unit Vina las Campanas were as heated as in any municipal government. There were recall campaigns and lawsuits. Armed guards were hired to watch over elections, and the police were repeatedly summoned.

Several residents filed a lawsuit accusing Crespo and other directors of being "autocratic" and "mean-spirited" by levying fines on low-income residents for minor infractions, such as a gate being half an inch too thick.

In a sworn declaration, one resident alleged that Crespo yelled: "I am going to kill you because you sued me." Another resident filed a police report accusing Crespo of lifting his shirt to reveal a holstered gun during an association meeting and stating: "I have permission to use this gun." Crespo denied making the threat.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge sided with the residents, finding that the directors had taken some actions that were "misguided, abusive of authority and made without thoughts of impacts or consequences." He ordered the board to return fines paid by residents and to pay their legal fees.

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Crespo later said in court papers that the association fight caused him headaches, abdominal pain and anxiety. But it didn't curtail his political ambitions.

In 1999, he ran for a City Council seat. He got 75 votes and polled last. He ran again in 2001, winning a seat with nearly 10 times as many votes.

Losing candidates sued. A former city attorney accused the clerk of fixing the election in favor of candidates, including Crespo, supported by Maria Chacon. A few months later, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed conflict-of-interest charges against Chacon. A group of angry residents filed papers to recall Crespo as well.

The lawsuit was dismissed, and the recall effort quickly fizzled. Chacon eventually pleaded no contest to the charges.

On the council, Crespo settled into the role of perpetual odd-vote-out, butting heads with the other four members.

"There was a lot of mistrust on his end … toward folks within his own City Hall," said South Gate City Clerk Carmen Avalos, who was elected about the same time as Crespo and became a close friend.

At one point, then-City Manager John Ornelas accused Crespo of engaging in a "witch hunt" against him, saying that the councilman threatened him: "You [mess] with Crespo and you are a dead man."

Steve Simonian, a former Bell Gardens city manager who also previously served as chief of investigations for the district attorney's office, said of Crespo:

"He crusaded against what he said was corruption and his idea of corruption. If there was, I certainly didn't see it. And I would've been more attuned to it than others."

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Late last year, after Crespo had spent more than a dozen years on the council, his colleagues finally voted to make him the city's mayor. But as he seemed to be entering his political prime, life at home was rocky.

Crespo openly dated other women, his brother, friends and a former colleague said. Earlier this year, Crespo and his brother were at one of the mayor's rental properties when Lyvette came by fuming, suspecting that he was with another woman, William Crespo recalled. Lyvette kicked down the door and broke a window, he said. Lyvette's attorney declined to make his client available for comment.

Marjorie Betancourt, a friend of Crespo's who regularly sang at karaoke clubs with him, said he confided in her about problems in his marriage. She said he once texted her during a fight with his wife: "Here she goes throwing things at me again." Betancourt said Crespo dated a friend of hers from high school, a volunteer on his election campaign, for about two years.

"He had a lot of admirers," she said. "He had a lot of girls."

William Crespo provided The Times with text messages that appeared to be angry exchanges between his brother and his wife. He said he found them on an old phone of Lyvette's that his brother had given him to use a few months ago, and turned them over to detectives. Los Angeles County sheriff's officials told The Times that investigators believe the messages are a "legitimate" exchange between Crespo and his wife.

"I'll find out who ... u got flowers for. Has to be a bell gardens whore," read one of the messages sent to Crespo's phone number this year.

"It better [be the] last time U threaten to shoot me in [the] head!!!" Crespo replied.

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On the September day Crespo was killed, Lyvette fired the gun, she told investigators, to defend herself and Daniel Jr. He had intervened in a fight between his parents, and her husband had punched Daniel Jr. in the face, she said.

Her attorney, Eber Bayona, said his client was subject to violent outbursts by Crespo starting at the time she was pregnant with their first child.

It was Crespo who had a jealous streak, Bayona said. Once, when she was looking at election results and had a candidate's photo up on her computer, Crespo slammed her head into the screen, asking if she found him attractive, the attorney said.

At a news conference, William Crespo accused Lyvette of killing her husband for his philandering. He filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against her on behalf of his mother, demanding more than $53 million.

The criminal case is now in the hands of prosecutors, who must decide whether Crespo was a murder victim or an assailant killed while inflicting abuse.

Earlier this year, after a caustic text-message exchange, Lyvette wished her husband a happy anniversary, saying their marriage had had its ups and downs.

"Not all the years have been bad. There's been some good ones," she wrote. "More good than bad I believe."

victoria.kim@latimes.com

Twitter: @vicjkim

Times staff writers Ruben Vives and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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