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Story of Rehabilitation Is Tale of Deceit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 18 months, Raymond Ronald Mendez was a model employee for the Orange County public defender’s office, an affable co-worker and crisp translator who interviewed Spanish-speaking defendants after their arrests.

But the Santa Ana native has now been exposed as a man leading a second life--that of “Champ” Mendez, a player in the sprawling La Eme prison gang. He was convicted in May as a conspirator to murder and drug trafficking.

Mendez, a 46-year-old Santa Ana native, is now sitting in a cell awaiting a sentencing hearing Sept. 5 that might put him in prison for life. His former co-workers, meanwhile, spoke out for the first time about the secret life of a once-trusted employee.

“We had absolutely no indication that a life different than one we saw was being led by him,’ said Chief Deputy Public Defender Carl C. Holmes. “It was a complete and total shock to us when we read about [the indictment] in the newspaper.”

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The burly Mendez came to the public defender’s office in November 1993 as a Rancho Santiago Community College student seeking class credit and work experience. The new intern’s past was no secret: Everyone knew he had served four years in prison after a 1989 conviction on robbery, burglary and weapons charges.

Still, the former boxer who grew up on 17th Street appeared reformed. A prominent local judge had vouched for him and, as one former colleague put it, “If the public defender’s office can’t give someone a second chance, who can?”

The intern’s work quickly earned his superiors’ trust and a part-time paid job as a translator. He interviewed hundreds of Spanish-speaking defendants so overworked public defenders could quickly verse themselves in the facts of the case.

“He did fine work, and he seemed to have a lot of compassion for people accused of a crime,” said Tom Mooney, an office manager. “He appeared to be a guy pulling his life together.”

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Mendez seemed careful to never speak in street slang. His pressed shirt sleeves always covered his tattoos. Fellow employees thought he was distancing himself from his past. Now, they wonder if he ever escaped it.

“If he was leading these two lives, as you would have to believe from the evidence presented, it must have been a nightmare for him,” Holmes said. “A nightmare.”

Mendez was among a dozen men convicted in May of plotting murder and drug dealing for La Eme (the Spanish letter “M,” and the common street name of the Mexican Mafia), a criminal enterprise founded in the 1950s that now has tendrils of influence spread throughout the state prison system.

The verdicts capped an 18-month federal investigation that marked the first time federal racketeering laws were brought against the gang, which reportedly has about 400 members.

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Prosecutors used video tapes showing Mendez meeting with his co-defendants to convict him of conspiring to murder a former gang member, distribute drugs and violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

At one point, the tapes show Mendez talking about the fate of gang members who turn to Christianity to escape the street life. An associate says death is the penalty for that perceived betrayal, and Mendez is heard to say, “It’s that simple.”

Prosecutors successfully argued that the tapes showed Mendez was a active participant in gang business. But Mendez’s supporters say they only show a man who changed his ways but was unwilling to turn his back on lifelong friends.

“It’s just guilt by association,” said Donald Aguilar, Mendez’s godson. “He was a role model for the young people around him, proof that your dreams are not dead just because you carry some baggage from your past.”

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The revelation that this organized crime figure was toiling by day in the public defender’s office has been embarrassing for his superiors and a cause of concern for investigators.

Mendez’s attorney, Yolanda Barrera, said investigators suspected her client of funneling sensitive information from the workplace to La Eme--an assertion one key investigator in the case has confirmed, although he spoke only on condition of anonymity.

That suspicion, however, was never aired by prosecutors during the six-month federal trial, and was refuted by Barrera.

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“There is no reliable or credible evidence that Mr. Mendez had access to sensitive information and we will present information at the sentencing to that effect,” Barrera said. “The government has tried to turn everything on its head . . . to make [his job] all very sinister.”

Holmes and Mooney also said Mendez had no access to documents beyond police reports of misdemeanor crimes, which he relied upon during his interviews with defendants. Locked doors and secure filing cabinets denied him access to the rest, they said.

Still, a confidential Department of Justice memorandum dated June 1995 suggests that investigators were worried that someone in the Orange County public defender’s office was gathering information for La Eme.

The intelligence bulletin, circulated to police agencies statewide and obtained by The Times, does not name the suspected spy.

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“The Eme had developed an intelligence network with informants employed at various local, state, and federal agencies,” the bulletin states. “One informant, who was also an Eme member, was employed at the Orange County public defender’s office and had access to various confidential documents and information.”

Assistant U.S. Atty. Lisa Lench, the lead prosecutor at the trial, declined to comment on any suspicions surrounding Mendez, citing the upcoming sentencing hearing.

Holmes said prosecutors contacted him after Mendez’s arrest but found no reason for further investigation.

“They asked if we knew anything about this guy, and we told them everything,” Holmes said. “We told them he seemed like he was worth us giving a chance.”

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That second chance for the parolee was due in large part to a recommendation by Orange County Superior Court Judge David O. Carter, who referred Mendez to a work program.

The jurist said he was stunned and wounded by Mendez’s fall.

“I’m absolutely responsible,” Carter said. "[He] asked me for help as a parolee. He was not put into contact with the public defender’s office by me, but I started the whole thing rolling.”

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Carter said he has helped more than three dozen parolees find jobs this year alone, but will be more cautious in the future. “It will make me rethink what I do,” he said.

For Mooney, the saddest part of the unfolding intrigue surrounding his former employee is that, at least for a time, the job may have truly been an escape route for Mendez.

“I believe he really intended to turn his life around and that he tried to, and somehow he was dragged back into this other life,” Mooney said. “I was not only surprised, I was disappointed.”

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Times staff writer Robert Lopez contributed to this report.


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