Advertisement

Sparks in the Darkness

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carrying doughnuts, a bowl of fresh vegetables and a stack of homework assignments, a tall woman in a silky skirt made her way down the long concrete path of L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall. Even balancing this awkward load, Karen Mezek Leimert moved with ease and confidence, as if she were in a country garden, not jail.

Suddenly, her eyes found those of an 18-year-old inmate named Silvia Sanchez. At once, they embraced. Then, from her pocket, the girl produced a small slip of paper, her latest report card. Sanchez waved it like a victory medal, and in a way it was. Sunlight made the teenager’s eyes crinkle, but so did the glee of earning straight A’s. Awesome, Leimert said: perfect marks, even in math and government.

And then, from Sanchez, the most amazing words of all: “I’m going to graduate!” Against all expectations, Sanchez, who dropped out of school in the seventh grade, had earned her high school diploma. Beaming, Leimert high-fived the girl in orange prison garb.

So from the outset, this is a story about unlikely intersections. At its center are two women: a pair of lives that by rights should never have come together. But it is also a tale of transformation, for because their lives meshed, neither Karen Leimert nor Silvia Sanchez will ever be the same.

Advertisement

At 41, Leimert is an accomplished author and illustrator of nearly two dozen books for young people, among them the popular “Rumpoles and Barleys” series. Acclaimed in this country and abroad, her books convey quiet spiritual themes. Leimert lives in Calabasas with her husband and three children in an affluent, gated community. She was raised in privilege, and her life today remains rich in so many senses. As a child, Leimert lived in Europe and fondly remembers a sojourn in a castle in Switzerland.

The daughter of a laborer and a homemaker, Silvia Sanchez, who speaks only Spanish with her parents, was raised in a bright pink bungalow on Orchard Street in South-Central Los Angeles. She and her older sister, Belia, shared the sole bedroom, leaving the living room to her parents and the younger three children. Sanchez left school at 13; soon afterward she was raped. In the spring of 1995, she was one of six people arrested in the murder of a neighborhood acquaintance. She was 16.

Had Leimert not felt a twinge of social conscience, their paths would not have crossed. But the fates had been generous, she said. She wanted to “do something.” She wanted to give back. One day in 1996, she read about an enrichment program for incarcerated youth, and the next day, her altruistic impulses sent her to Central Juvenile Hall. She was a writer, she explained. Maybe she could set up a workshop: essays, poetry, journals. The prison authorities rolled their eyes and told her to go work with the girls. Silvia Sanchez was in her first class.

They connected in spite of themselves. Sanchez was withdrawn and not at all convinced she had anything to say, on paper or otherwise. Leimert was, above all, earnest. The writing curriculum she had earlier developed, “Word Power for Kids!,” began to bore her the day one girl wrote that her biggest crisis was when her mother couldn’t find the right shoes on sale at Nordstrom’s. At Central Juvenile Hall, Leimert asked the half a dozen or so girls in her seminar to write about “Me.” Sanchez scribbled and scribbled. Out came a story about persistent abuse at the hands of men. Leimert was chilled. She seldom discussed why she left her first husband. But domestic violence was something she knew intimately. So was the net of a man who tells you you’re nothing, a man around whom, nevertheless, you wrap your hopes and dreams.

Advertisement

Keep writing, Leimert told Sanchez. Through writing you will find your heart. Through writing, you will reclaim your soul.

For more than a year before her trial, Sanchez was a regular at Leimert’s weekly writing classes. The instructor was anything but a courtroom junkie: She had never attended a criminal trial and knew little about the rules of procedure. Even the victim’s own family did not attend every day of the trial. But Leimert felt the need to be present.

She marveled that throughout the proceedings, the 25-year-old murder victim remained faceless.

“The only thing they ever said about him was in relation to stab wounds,” Leimert said. On trial together, the six defendants merged into one indistinguishable and not very attractive lump, Leimert thought: gangster wannabes, poster kids for a harsh sermon on What’s Wrong With America Today. Everyone--the court-appointed attorneys, the prosecutors and the judge--all seemed to be going through preordained motions, like a charade, Leimert reflected.

She concluded that the trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court was a study in mass-market justice: one-size-fits-all or, more accurately, none. Though a county-authorized psychologist described Sanchez as “immature . . . an adolescent with low self-esteem, a negative self-concept and an oppositional nature” and recommended that she be tried as a juvenile, the girl was tried as an adult. The psychologist, Adrienne C. Davis, determined that “a young man lost his life, but not at the hands of this minor.” She added, “There is no evidence that this minor in any way knowingly participated in . . . the murder. She was along for a good time.”

But Sanchez’s own court-appointed lawyer was less persuaded. At the very minimum, said Arlene Binder, her client “may well have known about the plan to steal a car radio” from the victim. That in itself is a felony, said Binder. She had little face-to-face time with Sanchez. Even so, Binder said she felt the case against Sanchez was “really bad,” and the outcome was largely predetermined.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, Leimert rose to speak on her student’s behalf.

“I am the writing teacher, no more no less,” Leimert told Judge James D. Smith. “But I know a spark of light when I see it, and Silvia has the ability to shine.”

Advertisement

She looks back now on her small speech and on the sentiments behind it.

“Silly me, with my idealism, I kept thinking that if I could just say something, everybody would understand, it would all become clear,” Leimert said. “But, of course, it doesn’t work like that.”

Sanchez was sentenced to 25 years to life for murder in the first degree of 25-year-old Martin Quintanilla, the sometime-boyfriend of another of the defendants, Maribel Ochoa. Sanchez got the same sentence as that of her boyfriend, Gerardo Fuentes, who wielded the knife. The judge said the decision was merciful. Given the circumstances of the crime, life without possibility of parole would have been just as likely. In a further act of benevolence, Smith permitted Sanchez to remain in juvenile detention until the tattoos Fuentes etched onto her neck, arms, chest and face were removed. They were not actual gang tattoos, the judge observed, but they were identifying marks that could get her in trouble. Over a meal of processed meat and white bread at Central Juvenile Hall, Sanchez described the laser treatments that may one day erase Fuentes’ name and crude drawings from her body. They are thick and clumsily drawn, connoting ownership, like cattle brands.

“I hate the tattoos now,” she said. “I want them taken off. I want to change. I want to be a different person. I want no memories of the past.”

Love Fraught With the Threat of Violence

The crime took place at Dockweiler Beach, right under the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport. In a region renowned for its coastal majesty, no one would rank this strip of sand as a splendid piece of seashore. Young people are drawn to Dockweiler because, compared with where they live, it is exotic.

Around 11 p.m. on April 25, 1995, a beach guard told seven of these young people to leave. The beach was closed at dark, he informed them. They stayed. Quintanilla had agreed to drive the group to the beach if everyone gave him money for gas. His girlfriend, Ochoa, told him there would be a party. She told him to “dress down,” meaning dress like a gangbanger. Quintanilla drove his El Camino to the beach with the stereo blaring. Everyone was drinking, including Quintanilla and Fuentes, who made no secret of just how much he coveted the stereo, along with Quintanilla’s car and beeper.

The coroner’s report concluded that Quintanilla was stabbed numerous times “through his torso area and the back of his neck,” then left to die on the beach. Fuentes and his companions left in the victim’s car, taking with them Quintanilla’s beeper and stereo.

Advertisement

From detention, Sanchez said she hates Fuentes, and she loves him. She was barely 15 when they met. Fuentes, known in the neighborhood as Jerry, or sometimes by his street names, Midget and Lonely, was 21. He was handsome beyond her wildest dreams, she thought. Fuentes often beat her. But Sanchez shrugs: Isn’t that what love is? Just before the killing, he stood her against a wall and played darts with a switchblade. The outline of her body was the target.

“Even though he never knew how to show it, even though he would hit me, I still thought, ‘Oh, he loves me,’ ” Sanchez said. In their neighborhood, “he was known, everybody knew him. They would say, ‘Oh, you’re his lady. Oh.’ It felt good.”

With Fuentes, Sanchez loved to party. She drank and did drugs, mostly marijuana and cocaine. A party, not murder, is what she thought awaited the group that night at Dockweiler Beach. Fuentes told her that if she didn’t go with him, he’d take her best friend.

“To me that was worse than if he was going to kill me,” Sanchez said.

She said she hardly knew Quintanilla. But as they walked down the steep path to the beach, Quintanilla grabbed her. Sanchez feared the advance would enrage Fuentes. Besides, Quintanilla repulsed her. She said she hung back from the rest of the crowd. While they went down to the ocean, she lingered near the walkway. She said she didn’t hear or see anything that resembled murder.

From jail, Sanchez said: “I hate that night. I wish I could go back. I don’t know if I could have stopped it. I would have tried. It’s not fair that seven lives were lost that night. More, really. The victim, the six of us who were involved and all of our families.”

But she said this after the fact. In court, Sanchez said not one word, other than “yes, your honor,” when asked whether she understood the proceedings. Even that statement was subject to question. Sanchez says she was confused when, midway through the proceedings, her attorney took her aside and outlined a plea bargain. She did not comprehend the details, Sanchez said: “I didn’t know what it meant.” Besides, she said, the lawyer told her about the deal within earshot of Fuentes. She feared retribution if she accepted.

Sanchez is shy on an ordinary day, and in court, she said, she was overwhelmed. She also said she was scared to death, less for herself than for her family. No correspondence exists to support this claim, but Sanchez said Fuentes had threatened to harm her brother if she spoke out.

“He knows that is what I love the most--that my little brother, Cesar, that’s what counts the most for me,” Sanchez said.

Powerful Voices No Longer Silenced

When she showed up for Karen Leimert’s first writing class, it was hard to tell what counted for Silvia Sanchez.

“She was angry and withdrawn. She thought she was nothing,” Leimert remembered. After she dropped out of school, Sanchez spent most of her time running around with men. “She’d been battered and abused. Anything that in your wildest imagination could happen to someone had happened to her. She didn’t think she had anything to say. But when she started writing, there was a flicker of something that came out.”

That is not so unusual. Leimert came into the jail through Sister Janet Harris, a nun and filmmaker who several years ago launched a program for juvenile offenders called Inside Out. Harris’ idea was to reach these tough, troubled kids by introducing them to the arts.

“I felt that to be involved in the arts was to open them up,” she explained. “But it also provides a voice for them that has been muted. People are always talking about these kids, but they never talk to them. The writing is really an attempt to get their voice out there. It’s just amazing the impact it has.”

Harris, a former high school teacher, faults the juvenile justice system for focusing on “punishment for its own sake, without the counterweight of restorative justice.” She believes the writing program is more than an exercise because it offers a path to rehabilitation.

“These young people, the people in our juvenile prisons, are really no different than the high school students I taught,” Harris said. “Sometimes they make mistakes, big time. But if you are patient enough with them, if you create an environment where they can learn about themselves, the vast majority will change.”

Leimert was the first to tailor Harris’ program to young females. Every week, half a dozen or so of the most hard-core girls at Central Juvenile Hall would meet with her at a picnic table. Right from the start, she remembered, “what amazed me was that they were immediately on such a deep level. I thought they would stare at me and say, ‘Who the hell are you?’ ”

One week, she instructed the 14- to 18-year-old girls to write about heroes. She was stunned when most chose their mothers: “I thought, ‘I have a 15-year-old. She wouldn’t write about me.’ ”

At another session, given the topic “Cuts Like a Knife,” 18-year-old Letisha--convicted of armed robbery--calmly wrote about being sexually abused by her stepfather, beginning when she was 6. In an essay called “Me,” 14-year-old Julie--doing time for theft--described how her uncle was shot in front of her when she was 12. The following year, when her brother came out of jail, he was killed--also before her eyes.

But from the start, Sanchez, “in particular, had a powerful voice,” Leimert said. Much of her writing centered on her relationship with Fuentes.

“You said to me many times, ‘You ain’t nobody without me.’ And I believed you,” she wrote in “Love and Regret,” an essay. “But now I look back and say, why did I allow you to do that to my life? All those times I said, ‘I love you,’ and you said, ‘I love you too’ was just a waste of time. Now I know love is not supposed to hurt, love is caring.”

In “Me and a Man,” Sanchez noted: “I did enough by giving my life away, but I’m working on getting it back. So from today on, it’s all about me, not about me and a man.”

For a young woman involved in what social psychologist Angela Browne calls a “companionate” crime, this is a dramatic realization. Browne, author of “When Battered Women Kill” (Free Press, 1987), said companionate crime occurs when someone is in a relationship with a very dominant person--and that person commits a crime, often a killing. Men can be involved in companionate crimes, when a female partner breaks the law.

But 85% of killings in this country are committed by men, Browne said, and when the companionate crime is murder, “the burden falls particularly hard on women.”

Sanchez’s understanding of just how seriously her involvement with Fuentes has affected her life has not come as an epiphany. She has been in jail almost three years now, and for much of that time she has worked with Leimert. Trust is hard for Sanchez: “I never trust no one,” she said. But Leimert has become the exception.

“I trust her, and she understands me, too,” Sanchez said. “She understands what I am going through without judging me.”

Adolescence is rarely an easy crossing, and study after study shows that teenage girls, in particular, respond well to steady and consistent mentoring. Incarcerated teen girls are no different. A one-on-one, direct relationship with a dependable adult seems to provide a rudder.

But when Leimert first arrived at Juvenile Hall, her sense was, “these girls are pushed over here on the side. What do we do with them?” At the same time, she felt oddly at home. “I don’t know what it was,” she said. “I just felt I belonged.”

The Outsider Feels at Home

There she was, surrounded by young women who held the franchise on alienation, and Leimert felt preternaturally at ease. It was a powerful realization, because for all her sophistication and worldliness, Leimert grew up feeling like an outsider herself. Just when he should have been making a ton of money in business, her father had a revelation from God. Leimert was only a grade-schooler in Southern California when he chucked the business and packed his wife and four children off to Europe so he could preach the Gospel.

Yes, they lived in a 17th century castle in Switzerland, but only on account of the castle owner’s Christian generosity. Leimert’s family traipsed from country to country in a rickety VW bus. They smuggled Bibles, and they sang hymns for border guards. The revival business was an itinerant trade, so they never stayed long in any one place. Each time they plopped down in a new village, Leimert said, “I might as well have been on another planet.”

A dreamy child, Leimert coped by dwelling in her own private fantasy world. She created fairy tales out of daily events. She drew, she wrote, she dreamed. In her mind, Prince Charming was no idle reverie. She was 14 when she met Sasha Mezek, a handsome Slovenian rock star. He barely spoke English and thought the braces on her teeth were a beautiful form of adornment. Leimert molded a story around him. She was determined that her fantasy would come true. They married eight years later.

Overnight, Leimert said, “my dream just turned to a nightmare.” Her romantic prince turned out to be an abusive husband. He told her that she was stupid and had nothing to say, and so she was not allowed to speak at parties. She could not walk faster than he did on the street. If she couldn’t find his socks, she got hit. If the water dripped from a potted plant onto the floor, she got hit. When she drew pictures, he threw them out.

“He really controlled me,” Leimert said. She knew the description might apply equally to Sanchez and her relationship with Fuentes. “There but for the grace of God,” said Leimert. “Exactly.”

Only after her daughter Katya, now 15, was born, did Leimert think about getting out. She and Katya returned to America, where Leimert established a successful career as a writer and illustrator. She met her second husband, a land developer, at a park in Santa Monica. Their two young sons attend a Christian school.

But Leimert’s work at the jail and her role in Sanchez’s case consume increasing amounts of her attention. Leimert and Casey Cohen, a private investigator she met through Sister Harris, have spearheaded an appeals effort for Sanchez. They have filed a petition for appeal and found a lawyer to represent Sanchez.

Both acknowledge that Sanchez was present when a murder was committed, a crime that should not go unpunished. Neither paints Sanchez as an innocent gone astray. But both feel her sentencewas excessive, her defense inadequate. Richard Lasting, a Santa Monica criminal defense lawyer 2003332896Lasting called the case “a real microcosm of how the justice system has fouled up, how the name’juvenile justice’ is a misnomer.” (Calls to the prosecutor on the case were not returned.)

Sanchez’s growing cheering section--Leimert and Cohen, Harris and even some people within Juvenile Hall--also recognizes the irony of hauling the teenager off for 25 years to life in an adult prison, just as she has opened up to change.

“Her writing is turning out to be interesting. There is a Silvia inside there,” Cohen said. “Now that Silvia knows what she could have been, now that she has seen her value, she’s going off to prison.” Leimert’s writing program, he said, “kind of brought her up to the level where she could suffer.”

Leimert struggles mightily with precisely this quandary. Sanchez may not be the next Emily Dickinson, Leimert concedes. She probably is not some vast undiscovered talent that the world is waiting to read. But under her tutelage, Sanchez evolved from a girl who “couldn’t put two sentences together, who didn’t think she had anything to say, who figured she was dumb.” In Leimert’s class, Sanchez began to believe in herself.

“She discovered she can actually think,” Leimert said. “She learned she could make choices. She found something inside her that could shine.”

But there was a price.

“Because she was given some hope,” Leimert said, “it makes it that much more tragic.”

In the End, Hope Remains

Not even her own family thinks Sanchez should walk free. Her older sister, 19-year-old Belia, said, “She was there, and something happened. But it’s not like she planned it or anything. I don’t think the charges should be completely dropped. I think Silvia, she should do her time. But I don’t know, maybe five years?”

But at Central Juvenile Hall, Sanchez herself has stopped thinking about what might happen. She waits for the moment when, in the middle of the night, she will hear her name shouted out--when she will know it is time to go off to an adult women’s prison. She tells the younger girls who come to Juvenile Hall: “Just don’t have no hope.”

Still, she continues to write.

“I’ll never stop,” she said. Recently, she sent a letter to Leimert.

“Dear Karen,” she wrote. “You became my friend. I even thought that although we live in different worlds and had different lifestyles, I felt as if we were somehow both almost the same.”


Advertisement