Lisa Dugum is 33 and lives in Northridge with her parents.
“I have to live at home until I get married,” she said. “My parents are afraid I'll walk out the door and never come back.”
The reason is not cultural or religious. Instead, it relates to a massive drug and murder conspiracy that Dugum got caught up in nearly a decade ago. Though all charges against her have been dismissed, the stories of those dark days remain online in our archives, frustrating her present and darkening her future.
This piece is a small attempt to tell the whole story, to give Dugum a chance to tell her side, and perhaps a shot at redemption.
In September 2003, police arrested Dugum and five other people — including her boyfriend, Randy Ward — on firearm and drug possession charges. According to a Glendale News-Press article, they seized three pounds of methamphetamine, 18 pounds of marijuana, 44 pounds of cocaine as well as ecstasy, about $200,000 in cash, and six handguns and assault rifles.
A Los Angeles Daily News article the following year said Ward — nicknamed “Rock Star” — was working for a Genaro Rodriguez. “Henry” as he was known, was a meth and cocaine kingpin whose wares, police said, could be found from Hawaii to Florida.
Rodriguez, federal agents said, was the Los Angeles connection for the Mexican Mafia as well as for a prison-based gang named Eme. In 2001, newly married, he and Eydi Guerrero were shot in the head in their Santa Clarita home, apparently for his refusal to pay kickbacks. Rodriguez recovered; his wife did not.
But he continued in the drug business, carefully covering his tracks. That is, until federal agents successfully recorded his voice on Ward's phone — in a Sherman Oaks apartment rented in Dugum's name.
It was a huge break for the federal agents, and a huge break against Dugum. She said she remembered the day she rented it — it was her 24th birthday — but she never slept over. She couldn't: It would violate her 10 p.m. curfew.
“Randy said he needed my help,” Dugum said. She never questioned why he wouldn't put his name on the lease. “So I helped.”
A few weeks later, she went by the apartment to find a swarm of police and federal agents. Panicked, she called Ward's sister, Kim, who told her to come to her place in Van Nuys.
Dugum said that agents followed her to Kim Ward's place, whose own boyfriend was deep in the drug trade.
“When I got there, all the firearms were on the floor, there was marijuana and the cash,” she said. “And then the feds came in.”
Dugum was arrested and spent 10 days in Los Angeles County Jail before making her $250,000 bail — a figure she said was reduced from $3.4 million.
“They thought I knew more than I did,” she said.
Prosecutors filed the criminal case against Dugum in January 2004. At one point, she faced more than a dozen separate charges and was looking at 25 years to life in prison. But by November, all but one charge had been dismissed.
Dugum said the reason was simple: Police and prosecutors finally believed her. She knew almost nothing, and was guilty of being young and foolish, but not much more.
The one charge that did stick was one for conspiracy — agents recorded her attempting to score some drugs from Ward. But Dugum said she completed probation related to that charge and the conviction was vacated.
Court records bear this out, noting the final charge was dismissed in April 2006.
But the intervening years have been tough ones. Dugum finished college, and is working in real estate. Customers, though, often walk away when they see our article about her arrest. The Internet is forever.
Dugum wrote in a few weeks ago, asking us to remove the article. I told her we would not do so, as the story was accurate. But it is incomplete.
The full truth is often messy, hard to nail down, and harder still to understand. But doing so, or at least trying, is the call of journalism. So, here's my pledge for 2013: We will do better to tell the whole story.
Happy New Year.
DAN EVANS is the editor. He can be reached at (818) 637-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.