A convicted killer and former shot-caller for the Mexican Mafia who developed an unusually close relationship with law enforcement was granted parole by a state panel Friday, a year after the governor rejected his previous bid for freedom.
Wearing a crisp dark suit and tie, Rene "Boxer" Enriquez acknowledged to the parole board that he had committed brutal crimes — he has been convicted of a gang rape, two killings and a jailhouse stabbing — but insisted he was now a different man.
"I know that I've done a lot wrong," he said. "But I know there's hope for my future."
The adult children of one of his victims strongly disagreed, begging the parole board to keep their mother's killer behind bars. After the hearing, Cynthia Gavaldon's son and daughter — who were 6 and 8 when their mother was fatally shot in 1989 — said they felt "defeated" by the board's decision.
"I believe that everybody is capable of change," said her son, who asked that his name not be published out of concerns for his safety. "But you can't go from a devil to an angel."
The two-person parole panel took less than half an hour to decide to grant Enriquez's parole. Commissioner John Peck acknowledged that Enriquez's crimes were "horrific," but said they agreed that he had changed since dropping out of the gang. Friday's hearing marked the second time since September 2014 that a state board deemed Enriquez suitable for parole. After the ruling is reviewed by the parole board's legal team, it will be forwarded to Gov. Jerry Brown, who can decide to block Enriquez's release.
Self-help courses – including anger management — have helped reduce the threat Enriquez posed to the community, Peck said. He had "solid parole plans and a significant amount of support," Peck said. The commissioner also noted the "volumes of support letters" Enriquez had received.
"We believe you have insight into your behaviors … and how you can avoid those behaviors in the future," Peck said.
Since leaving the prison gang more than a decade ago, Enriquez has developed an almost celebrity-like status among law enforcement. He has testified in scores of cases, filmed training videos for police and lectured at law enforcement conferences across the state. He's also helped teach a college course via Skype and collaborated on books, including a biography of his life, "The Black Hand."
Prison officials declined to allow reporters to attend Enriquez's latest hearing, citing safety concerns. But a Times reporter was allowed to view the session via a closed-circuit video. The hearing was held at an undisclosed location.
Enriquez looked more like a businessman at a board meeting than an inmate who has spent more than two decades in prison. His hair was slicked back and cut short on the sides. He kept his hands tightly clasped in front of him, his watch glinting in the light.
Speaking for three hours to the board, he described the Mexican Mafia as an "egalitarian" group of "top apex predators." When explaining how when he was 17 he and other gang members raped an intoxicated woman behind a church, he apologized "to the women here who have to hear this."
He addressed the controversy that surrounded him last year after Los Angeles police brought him to speak to a group of elite business owners at a private downtown event. The January 2015 lecture, which was widely reported in the media, prompted criticism over whether it was an appropriate use of LAPD resources and raised questions about Enriquez's relationship with law enforcement.
Weeks after the event, Brown denied Enriquez's parole. The inmate's mother died soon afterward. Enriquez called it one of the most difficult periods of his life — "a series of devastating blows."
"I was on the cusp of parole and then it was reversed," he said.
In his three-page decision last year, Brown noted the "valuable information" Enriquez had provided authorities. But the governor expressed doubt that the former shot-caller had "deeply examined or forthrightly explained" what motivated him to commit violent crimes.
At Friday's hearing, Gavaldon's children grew emotional as they spoke about life without their mother and the pain they felt reading details about her death in "The Black Hand."
"Reading step by step how your mother was murdered is not something I wish upon my worst enemy," her son told the board.
The hearing marked the first time Gavaldon's children addressed a parole board about Enriquez's release. Keeping him behind bars will never bring their mother back, Gavaldon's daughter said, but it would bring them some relief.
"If there is one small chance that he is this changed person that he claims to be, then I hope hearing my voice pulls on his heart strings," she said.
A prosecutor with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office also spoke against granting parole.
Enriquez assured the board that he understood the negative influences — drugs and the gang — that were once in his life and would avoid them if released. He insisted that he could be successful outside prison even without participating in expert testimony or lectures.
"Who's Rene Enriquez without all that?" Commissioner Nga Lam asked.
"Just a normal guy. I finally found comfort in the normalcy," Enriquez said. "I just want to be a regular guy. If that means working at McDonald's, I will do that."
At the end of the hearing, the parole commissioners wished Enriquez luck.
"Thank you all so much," the inmate said. "God bless you all."
He picked up a water bottle, tucked a file under his arm, and walked out the door.