Uphill Struggle to Escape Life of Crime Isn't Over Yet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To administrators at Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes, Clemente Arrizon is a special success, a former gang member who struggled against the odds of failure to earn a college degree.

But to Buena Park police, the most notable triumph of the man known in his hometown as "Loco" or "Clem" was staying out of jail despite being a leading member of the Los Coyotes gang, a small-time, sometimes deadly, group of thugs consumed by territorial rivalries.

The truth most likely lies somewhere between these contrasting views of the 21-year-old Arrizon, who graduated from Marymount College on Saturday still facing armed robbery charges.

His struggle to better himself, and the seriousness of the case pending against him, reveal how difficult it is for a young man pegged as a gangster to rise above his troubled history. His story shows that the concern of just one person really can sow the seeds of change, but that the culture of a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood can be nearly impossible to escape.

"If you live in an area that is predetermined to be a gang area, and you're born into that area, you have to live there and find a way to survive," said Arrizon's attorney, Edward Munoz. "It's very easy to get sucked into a situation where you're getting in trouble. It's not as if you go out looking for a problem, but it's because of the dynamics of the neighborhood. The rivalries don't stop while you've been away at school."

For most of his life, Clemente Arrizon thought the world was limited to Los Coyotes, the five-block Buena Park neighborhood where he grew up.

It was a poor working-class area, Arrizon said, where gang membership was a birthright and hopelessness clung to the streets. Many of the youths who grew up there dropped out of high school. Several were sent to prison; a few were sent to their graves.

Arrizon, who bears the scars of nearly a dozen bullet and knife wounds from his days as a Los Coyotes gang member, was one of five children in a close-knit family. Although his childhood was filled with warmth, his opportunities were few.

His parents, Clemente and Maria Arrizon, emigrated from their native Mexico while still in their teens. Neither went to school beyond the third grade.

His mother, who has 17 brothers and sisters, speaks only Spanish. His father, who comes from a family with 16 children, speaks broken English and drives a forklift for a local company.

At one time, the Los Coyotes neighborhood where the family lived was almost entirely Latino. But the demographics of the area began to change in recent years as Asian families and some whites began moving in, police said.

In the 1960s, residents of Los Coyotes formed a car club. But in the next decade, the car club evolved into a gang with territorial loyalties. The members' drug of choice was heroin and outsiders turned into rivals, said Arrizon, who says that he himself never used any drugs. Pay-back shootings became common.

Like most of the kids from his neighborhood, Arrizon was pegged as a gang member almost as soon as he reached maturity. No one ever asked him if he wanted to join Los Coyotes. His membership was assured by geography.

"I grew up in it," Arrizon said. "I had no choice. That's where you're from. . . . You grew up in it and as you get older, you decide, 'Do I get involved in the shootings and fights?' "

Arrizon isn't sure why he chose to fight, except that he didn't know any alternative. And by the time he was in eighth grade, he and his friends were "already stereotyped as hard-core gangbangers," he said.

At age 13 he got in trouble for spray-painting graffiti. A year later, he was sentenced to 65 days in juvenile detention for possessing firearms. The same year, he tattooed the symbols of his gang, as well as a drawing of a mustached man holding a gun, onto his right biceps.

At John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma, teachers and administrators considered Arrizon a leader among school hoodlums, but some saw another side of him as well.

Despite his macho exterior, Arrizon "didn't want people to be hurt," said school psychologist Barbara La Monte.

"When I started talking to him, I found he was really intelligent, a sensitive young man and he had a lot of insight," La Monte said.

"He wanted more out of life. He couldn't say that in front of people because on campus he had to be the symbol of leadership," she said. "But he told you his feelings when you got him alone."

By the time he reached his 18th birthday, Arrizon had lost seven friends to drugs or gang warfare. The worst came in 1988 when Arrizon's 17-year-old best friend was shot in the chest while riding on the handlebars of Arrizon's bicycle. He said the friend died in his arms.

The battle-weary teen-ager was tempted to follow most of his friends in dropping out of school, but his baseball coach persuaded him to stay.

In his senior year, La Monte gave him $450 for the prom in exchange for a promise that he would give college a try. Later that year, she took him to Marymount College and persuaded school officials he was worth a risk. The college even provided enough financial aid to cover the $10,400-a-year tuition.

When he started attending the hillside, ocean-view campus, a 50-mile commute from his parents' home, Arrizon's reading skills were at a third-grade level.

"It was like a culture shock," Arrizon said. "I was born and raised in a barrio. . . . People up here are driving Lamborghinis and back home the only car we drove is the one we borrowed from Lucky's" parking lot.

"I wasn't used to this kind of environment," he added. "I thought 'What is this? Is this the White House?' These houses were huge. I felt so out of place. I felt like, 'Wow, I don't belong here.' "

In his baseball cap and baggy jeans, Arrizon's heavyset, battle-scarred frame cut an unusual figure on the Catholic campus. He nearly flunked out in the first semester and made few friends.

"I hated this place," he said. "I didn't want to be here. I was lost in my own world. It was my fault. I didn't talk to anybody. I just went to class and then went home."

Although they had little understanding of the life he led during the day, his parents and friends back home were proud of his achievement. When he talked about dropping out, they insisted he stay.

His feeling about school changed after he met Ruth Proctor, an academic counselor and reading disabilities instructor whom Arrizon calls his "angel." Proctor helped him find a job in the student activities office and spent several hours a week for two years tutoring him in reading.

His friendly, gentle demeanor eventually made him a popular figure on the campus. He earned a 2.6 grade point average and even started writing poetry. On Saturday, he received an Associate of Arts degree as more than 70 of his family members and friends watched with pride.

"I feel kind of fortunate to have known him, to have had the opportunity to have worked with him," Proctor said. "I see him as somebody who wants to make his life matter, to change the lives of kids like him. I think he'll probably do it. He's very special."

Irene Herrera, an assistant manager at the campus bookstore, agrees. "He steals everyone's heart," she said. "What really attracted me to him was his will to want to succeed and get out of where he came from. . . . I wonder sometimes where did it come from, that drive?"

Last November, after he was shot in the arm while walking to the store with a friend, Arrizon decided it was time to move out of the old neighborhood. He's now living with a friend in Rancho Palos Verdes.

But the journey that led Arrizon from Los Coyotes to Rancho Palos Verdes is far from over, and it is unclear where its rocky course will end.

Last month, the Orange County district attorney's office charged Arrizon with vehicle theft, second-degree armed robbery and the receipt of stolen property in connection with an incident last November in which a man was pulled out of his car at gunpoint just a few blocks from the Buena Park home of Arrizon's parents. Also charged were David Granados, 19, and Anthony Escalera, 27.

Arrizon, who plans to enroll at Cal State Northridge in August to study criminal justice, could face more than 10 years in prison if convicted of the felony crimes. He has pleaded not guilty and maintains that his innocence will be proved at trial. His parents had to put up a $50,000 bond to keep him out of jail while the case is pending.

Buena Park police say Arrizon is still an active member of the gang and that he was seen associating with fellow gang members as recently as March.

"That's great that he's graduating from college, but he's still a gang-banging crook," said Buena Park Police Detective Paul Bellamy. "He hasn't been caught too many times. He's too smart for that."

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Kimberly Menninger suggests Arrizon is a complex character who is still drawn to the life he claims to have left behind. Gang members commonly lead a double life, she said.

"I don't know about his personal life in college . . . but I wouldn't be prosecuting him if I didn't think he committed a crime," Menninger said. "I feel the case is strong, and I have no doubt he did it."

But Arrizon says Bellamy hates him and has ever since they first crossed paths. Although he sees some of his old friends when he goes back to the old neighborhood to visit his parents, he insists he has not been involved with the gang since 1988.

"To them, a gang member will be a gang member for the rest of their lives," Arrizon said. "They have a different point of view. They don't realize a guy can change. They don't realize when a guy is trying to make a better life for himself."

La Monte says Arrizon's success in college sparked a lot of resentment in his community, with some police officers teasingly calling him "college boy" on his visits home, she said.

"A lot of people asked 'Why should he get this break?' " La Monte said. "He not only had every strike against him, he didn't have a lot of people cheering either."

Arrizon says he feels sorry for the ones who didn't finish school, because unlike him, they were never given a chance to succeed. He wants to complete his education and find a job working with children.

"I want to give them that opportunity and chance because someone gave me an opportunity and chance," Arrizon said. "I know I can make a difference because I can relate to them. If they don't believe me, I can take off my shirt and show them my wounds.

"The way I grew up saddens me," he continued. "But at the time I thought it was the best. I used to think that barrio was everything. My vision of the world . . . was just five blocks. But now I know there's a whole world out there. I've grown up a lot."

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