When tragedy occurs, those who are most drastically affected often find themselves searching for the exact point at which another path could have been taken, as if by doing so, fate can be rewound and played again, this time without a devastating ending.
Robert Leon has imagined a million times what he could have, should have done on the night that shattered his own and another’s life. So has his former girlfriend, his mother, his younger brother, his three sisters and the various friends and co-workers who invested in him emotionally. That was the thing with Robert Leon. People didn’t just like him, they endowed him with their own hopes. In particular, those who worked with him became convinced that, in this young man, they were witnessing an extraordinary success story, the kind that resurrects your belief that human nature is essentially good, that genuine redemption is possible, that even those who have made significant mistakes--with hard work and a little luck--can still fundamentally turn things around.
The arc of Leon’s self-initiated rescue was undeniably dramatic: A hard-core kid with a four-year prison record earns a second chance and respect in the city’s most competitive and status-conscious business.
Raised the fifth of seven children in the poorest and most crime-ridden of Los Angeles County’s public housing projects, by age 15 Leon had joined a gang. By 16 he was a “big head,” a gang leader. By 17, he was a juice-wielding, shot-calling, adolescent legend, known on the street as Crazy Ace. By 21, he was convicted of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and served 4 1/2 years in the California State Prison at Norco. In March of 1996 he was paroled, at age 25, with $200 gate money in his pocket, no material assets and no job prospects. What he did have was an 8-year-old daughter whom he adored, and a ferocious determination to yank himself from the wreckage of his history and become a good father and a good man.
For a long time, it appeared he had done exactly that.
In his first months out, Leon landed an entry-level job in the movie business, then worked so diligently that he attracted the attention of some influential Hollywood veterans. By the fall of 1998 he’d set a goal of becoming a cameraman, gained a famous cinematographer as a mentor and put in nearly enough hours as an assistant to qualify for Local 600, the cinematographers guild. This meant a big bump in earnings and a considerable boost up the professional ladder. Along the way, Leon had even been profiled on the pages of this magazine, and the editors and I found it hard not to expect wonderful things from him. So how was it possible that at 1 a.m. on March 31, 2001, Robert Leon stood outside a downtown nightclub, a .45 pistol in his hand, another young man dying on the pavement a few feet away?
For a boy coming of age in L.A.'s poorest minority communities during the late 1980s, there were three elements that, when found together, almost guaranteed gang membership: poverty; violence and dysfunction in the family; and the lack of a male parent--meaning a father who was absent, drunk, drug-addicted, incarcerated or, worst, all of the above.
Robert Leon’s childhood hit every mark dead on. His mother, a soft-spoken, pretty woman named Peggy, worked two jobs to support her seven kids. His father, Jose Leon, was mostly unemployed. He was also prone to drunken, mean rages that got the family regularly kicked out of apartments. When Leon was 6 years old, he remembers his dad and uncle grabbing Peggy by the hair and holding a gun to her head, shouting that they were going to kill her. The shooting was prevented when all four Leon boys jumped on their father’s back, screaming to let their mother go. It took Peggy another year and a half to gather the money and the nerve to load her kids into a borrowed station wagon and drive away for good.
For weeks the family lived out of a second borrowed vehicle until they found an apartment in the Pico-Aliso housing projects of Boyle Heights--the largest public housing facility west of the Mississippi, and one of L.A.'s poorest communities. The move to the projects provided Leon with his first real stability. He enrolled in the local elementary school, began playing football and soccer in nearby Pecan Park and made friends with kids whose family histories were similar to his own.
In seventh grade, Leon and other neighbor boys formed a break-dancing group they called The Mob Crew--TMC for short. They performed nearly every weekend at places such as the Hollenbeck Youth Center, at church fund-raisers and in front of Clifton’s cafeteria downtown. But in the mid-'80s, the character of adolescent life in the projects began to change. Gangs of one kind or another had existed in East L.A. since the 1920s, their organizing principle mostly pride and territory. Now, a new kind of narcotics-dealing gang was erupting in South Los Angeles. Soon, the drugs and violence began bleeding east. Leon and boys like him were pressured to affiliate with one “neighborhood” or another, mostly for safety.
Leon resisted for a while. Eventually, however, he and his closest friends elected not to join a gang, but to form one. Thus, in the winter of 1986, The Mob Crew stopped dancing and picked up guns.
Most Latino gangs represent themselves as leaderless armies controlled by the democratic will of the collective. Yet every neighborhood has its shot-callers, young men whose natural leadership ability--a combination of intelligence, charisma and sang-froid--moves them to a position of influence. Robert Leon, who by then was calling himself Crazy Ace--Loco, for short--exuded all the necessary qualities. By the beginning of the ‘90s, Pico-Aliso had the highest level of gang activity in Los Angeles, according to LAPD statistics. TMC was the projects’ most notorious gang. And, at 16, Leon was its undisputed leader.
Leon was first convicted as a juvenile on a drug-related charge, and then again as an adult, in July of 1992, after he fired two warning shots above a car thought to be full of enemy homeboys readying for a drive-by. The good news: The car did not contain rival gangsters. The bad news: It contained two off-duty police officers on their way home from work. Leon was sentenced to seven years in prison; he served 4 1/2.
Following his release, Leon tried to normalize his appearance. he grew his hair to cover the TMC tattoo on his head and borrowed money to buy a few long-sleeved shirts to cover the pinta art--prison art--that decorates his arms and much of his upper torso. “I’m going to do whatever is necessary to fit into society,” he said then. “I see people who set themselves up to fail just because everybody thinks they’re going to fail. That’s not going to be me. I know I’m going to make it. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Leon scanned the want ads daily, made scores of phone calls and drove to every Home Depot store within a 75-mile radius to fill out job applications. He received no calls back.
“Serving time in prison is the most stigmatizing thing there is in terms of getting a job,” says Joan Petersilia, professor of criminology at UC Irvine and author of “When Prisoners Come Home.” “Nationally, 65% of employers say they won’t hire someone with a criminal record. Most landlords say they won’t rent to someone with a criminal record.”
Of course, in addition to his felony record, Leon had a gang past. “That’s hard to leave behind, particularly with his level of involvement,” says James Diego Vigil, professor of social ecology at UC Irvine and author of “A Rainbow of Gangs: Street Cultures in the Mega-City.” “These guys turn to the street life because their home life is lousy. Then they go to prison, which is essentially a holding tank. When they get out, what do we have for them? Certainly not any mental-health help or job counseling. So they often end up clinging to gangs as their source of social and emotional support.”
Leon was positive he would be the exception. He kept filling out applications and called everybody he could think of to ask for job leads. Father Greg Boyle, the Eastside priest famous for his work with gangs, had known Leon for years and offered to recommend him for Streetlights, an unusual nonprofit program that trains at-risk young men and women with barriers to employment for entry-level production assistant positions in the entertainment business.
Streetlights provides six weeks of class work, plus an additional two weeks of apprenticeship, after which graduates are recommended for their first job as a production assistant. Following the training, Leon’s first job was a two-day gig on a commercial. As an apprentice, he was not supposed to get a salary. But Leon worked so hard, the production coordinator broke the rules and paid him anyway. That led to two more commercials, followed by a feature, “187,” starring Samuel L. Jackson. With each new job, Streetlights received more glowing reports, and Leon gained additional supporters. His next big break came in September 1997. Leon was working a one-day job as a production assistant on a new ABC series titled “Nothing Sacred,” and he caught the attention of Cyrus Yavneh, a Hollywood veteran and one of the show’s producers.
“I saw this guy who had a lot of street smarts, a great attitude and a very good personality,” says Yavneh. “I told my assistant to hire him back the next day.” Leon stayed with the show for the remainder of its eight-month run. The weekly salary of $800, plus overtime, gave him the beginnings of financial stability. He put a down payment on a 1993 Honda Accord. A few months later, he moved out of his mother’s place into a small apartment on a leafy side street in Whittier. “Getting my apartment was the biggest deal to me,” Leon said, “because it made me independent.”
In the spring of 1998, Leon filed in family court for joint custody and visitation rights to his daughter, Robin, then 10. When in prison, he’d done his best to have weekly contact with her, sending homemade cards, phoning whenever he could. But by the time he was released, he was estranged from his daughter’s mother, who often kept the girl from him as a consequence.
When the court-appointed mediator granted Leon joint custody and regular visitations over his ex’s strenuous objections, he was overjoyed. “Robert was really proud of being able to take on that responsibility, of having a respectable job where he could pay child support and health insurance for Robin,” says Sesha Walker, Yavneh’s assistant. “I think he felt that finally he was starting to live life the way it’s supposed to be lived, the way other people live it, instead of always just being on the edge.”
ABC canceled “Nothing Sacred” in March of 1998. But Yavneh made a point of bringing Leon along on his next project, “Town & Country,” a feature film starring Warren Beatty. The job brought Leon a new mentor: the film’s director of photography, William Fraker.
A six-time Academy Award nominee, Fraker is one of the grand old men of American cinematography. Like Yavneh, he picked Leon out of the crowd right away. “I’ve been in the film business for 55 years and I’ve helped a lot of people,” Fraker says. “But Robert is one of the few people I’ve ever really mentored. Most people want to be part of Hollywood because of the glamour. Robert just wanted to be good at what he did.”
A month into filming, Leon confided to Fraker that he wanted to learn how to use a camera. Fraker instructed his crew to teach him. “It’s a lot of time and effort to train a camera assistant,” says Ted Chu, the first assistant camera on Fraker’s team. “But Robert was very disciplined and eager.” At Fraker and Chu’s suggestion, Leon signed up for a camera class at UCLA Extension, then a hands-on training course at Panavision. For the first time in his life, Leon began thinking long-term. “The idea of being a camera operator gave me a real goal to work for,” he says. “Like maybe someday I’d be able to look at a piece of film and say, ‘Hey, I did that. And it’s pretty good.’ ”
“He absolutely had what it takes,” says Chu. “As far as I was concerned, Robert was on his way.”
Change isn’t easy--whether it be to quit smoking, lose 10 pounds or stop yelling at your kids. “Robert had to change nothing short of his whole life,” says Father Boyle, “which usually involves four steps forward, 3 1/2 back.”
The first setback in Leon’s new life was professional. When “Town & Country” wrapped in January 1999, the industry was slowing down, as production hemorrhaged to Canada and other less-costly locales. Nonetheless, Fraker, Chu and Yavneh did their best to make sure that their hard-working protege stayed employed. But when Leon’s next feature job ended in March of 2000, the industry had slowed to the point that neither his own initiative nor his ardent supporters could guarantee steady employment.
In addition, Leon was now a man with debts. Thinking to build up credit, Leon had bought both his car and apartment furniture on time. Those payments, added to rent and utilities, plus child support and health insurance for Robin, gave him a hefty monthly load. So, with work sparse, Leon began dipping into his minimal savings. When his savings ran out, he took cash advances from his credit card, figuring he’d soon get a feature or a series and wipe the debts away. But months went by, and the big gig did not appear.
The work deceleration had other consequences. During the years he had been continuously employed, Leon had little time for leisure. What spare hours there were, he spent with his girlfriend, Jennifer Perez, and with his daughter. Now the work/leisure ratio was reversed and, for the first time since his release from prison, filling time became a problem.
He began gravitating toward the friends of his youth, most of whom had also matured out of the gang. On the surface, Leon’s time spent with aging homeboys was innocent. They mostly played basketball, drank beer and hung out. Yet mere physical proximity to his past brought him within reach of danger.
The first incident occurred on a weekday afternoon in Pico-Aliso. Leon was in the projects to pack for a camping trip he’d planned with two friends. All at once, three masked gangsters emerged from the nearby shadows looking for “enemies.” Finding none, they spotted Leon plus another former gang member named Roman Gonzalez, whom Leon had known since boyhood. According to the rules of the street, the gunmen should have given retired homeboys like Leon and Gonzalez a pass. Unaccountably, they didn’t. Leon was the farthest away and ducked behind a truck to avoid the bullets. Gonzalez couldn’t find cover. Leon watched helplessly while Gonzalez was shot, first from a distance, then at close range.
The murder spooked him deeply, releasing a flood of anxiety about his own life. “Roman didn’t deserve this,” he said over and over the night of the funeral. “He wasn’t out on the street. He was just working, like me, trying to better himself for his family. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe we have karma that we can never get away from.”
Five months later, there was another close call. Leon was headed home on the 110 Freeway. By chance, two cars full of gangsters were in the lane next to his, and someone recognized him. The homeboys opened fire and a chase ensued. In his frenzy to escape, Leon rolled his car, but was able to extract himself and run to a police station. “Robert called me right before he got to the police, at 1:30 or 2 in the morning,” Yavneh says. “I’d never heard him like that. He was completely hysterical.”
The crash dealt another blow to Leon’s confidence. “When I was younger, if somebody shot at me, I didn’t care,” he said a week after the wreck. “But, I ain’t the same person I was when I was in the street. Now I care about my life. When you’re on the street, you don’t understand the pain that gangbanging causes. Now, all I see is the families, and the pain and the scars.”
Despite the near-misses, Leon was working, but not enough to recover financially. He fell behind on his child-support payments. His daughter’s mother retaliated by withholding visits. “On Thanksgiving, Robin was supposed to be dropped off to spend the day with him,” says his girlfriend. “He waited and waited, but she never came. That night Robert cried so hard I began to be scared for him.”
Perhaps Leon might have looked for work in another profession. But he held out, hoping his luck would change. By Christmas, he could no longer afford his apartment so he moved back in with his mother. “Losing his apartment hurt Robert greatly,” Yavneh says. “We all tried to tell him it was no big deal. But, in his mind, it took away his independence.”
At the beginning of 2001, things seemed to get better. He got a feature gig on “Crazy/Beautiful,” followed by eight weeks on the Denzel Washington film “Training Day,” in which he also had a small on-screen role. In addition, he found a way to buttress his industry work with something steadier. His youngest sister was doing computer programming and Leon pleaded to become her assistant. She agreed, and the new job was set to begin soon. To get in better shape mentally, Leon made several appointments with a therapist at Kaiser, “to work on my issues.”
“I’m not giving up on my dream of being a cinematographer,” Leon said. “It’s just that, right now, I need to get my life back on track.”
Then, on March 30, 2001, Robert Leon’s life flew off the rails altogether.
Things might have been different if he hadn’t had a fight with his girlfriend. Or if he had said no to the young homeboy who asked to tag along for the evening.
On that early spring Friday, Leon spent the afternoon washing his car at the home of a childhood friend, a former TMC member who lived with his wife and kids away from the projects. The house tended to be a gathering place for TMC gang members, past and present. Perez hated his hanging out there, and they argued over the phone. Leon lingered at the friend’s house for several more hours, hoping Perez would call back. Then, around midnight, he decided to go clubbing. As he was leaving, Ernesto Tinoco, a 21-year-old TMC whom Leon barely knew, asked if he could come too.
Tinoco had several disadvantages as a companion. For one thing, he was an active gang member. Worse, he was paranoid. He’d been shot the year before at nearly point-blank range. As a result, he never went anywhere without packing a weapon. Leon knew all this but, preoccupied by his quarrel with Perez, he told Tinoco to hop in the car.
Leon drove to a club on 1st Street and Vignes, just west of the L.A. River. By day, Little Pedro’s is a restaurant. By night it’s a bar featuring music and a lively melange of regular patrons: a cop contingent from Parker Center, blue-collar guys from the Budweiser plant across the street, plus couples and singles from nearby Boyle Heights. When Leon arrived, the parking lot was full, so he parked along Vignes. Tinoco told Leon he had a gun and that he wasn’t going in without it. Incredibly, Leon told Tinoco, “Just give the piece to me. The security guy knows me so he won’t search me. I’ll give it back to you as soon as we get inside.”
The music inside was loud and a half-dozen couples were dancing. Leon immediately ran into friends, who bought him a beer. When he looked around to return the gun to Tinoco, the younger man had disappeared into the crowd. Leon went back to talking. Ten minutes later, a fight erupted between a 36-year-old man named Richard Baray and two men from the Budweiser plant who’d just gotten off work.
“It was the usual thing,” says Jean-Pierre Laposse, then Little Pedro’s manager, who saw the fight start. “Somebody danced with somebody else’s girlfriend.”
When the trouble erupted, Leon wanted to leave so he found Tinoco, and the two attempted to exit via the side door that empties onto Vignes. A security guard managed to separate the combatants. Not wanting the fight to start anew on the sidewalk, the guard told the Budweiser faction to stay put and escorted Baray and company out the front door.
Once outside, however, they circled around toward the Vignes door with the intention of reentering. There they ran into Leon and Tinoco. Still combative, the Baray group decided Tinoco had been part of the fight inside. “We didn’t have nothing to do with you,” Leon replied, and he kept walking. The fighters persisted. “You [messed] with my homeboy,” said Steven Sanchez, according to witnesses. “Somebody’s going to [pay].”
It was then, according to the police report, that Tinoco and Sanchez fell to the ground fighting, and Leon stood to the side trying to keep anyone else from joining. He hoped it would stay a one-on-one, he says, since he and Tinoco were badly outnumbered. Matters escalated anyway. Soon, six men were brawling in the street. Someone shattered a bottle against Leon’s forehead, opening a 6-inch gash.
After that, events are a blur. Leon says he was afraid for his life and pulled the gun in self-defense, that--had he not pulled it--the thing would have fallen from his belt and been used on him, that he first tried to warn the fighters off, that they wouldn’t stop coming, that it happened so fast. Sanchez’s friends paint a different picture, depicting Leon as a brutal aggressor.
Only one thing is certain: at five minutes after midnight, Leon yanked Tinoco’s .45 semiautomatic from his belt and fired seven wild shots. Then he and Tinoco ran to the Honda and drove away in a blind panic.
Sanchez lay bleeding in the street. He was taken to County-USC Medical Center, where doctors performed emergency surgery. Sanchez was pronounced dead at 4:10 on Saturday morning. He was 31.
Certainly, Leon should have stayed at the scene. Or, failing that, he should have turned himself in the next day. But he did neither. Instead, he called Boyle from a pay phone, sobbing and saying he intended to flee. “What other choices do I have?” he asked when the priest tried to dissuade him. “I shot this guy and he died. There’s no way I can take that back. I’m an ex-gang member and a felon. I’d rather have a few good years than spend the rest of my life in prison.”
Over the next few days, Leon gathered what money he could and called Yavneh, Fraker and a handful of others to apologize and say goodbye. “I know I’ve let everybody down,” he said. “I know I’ve let my daughter down. I’ve ruined my life. But there’s nothing to do about it now.” On April 8, Palm Sunday, Robert Leon vanished.
It takes a particular kind of personality to be a successful fugitive. One must cut all ties. All ties. Most people simply can’t do it. During his first week on the run, Leon was convinced he had the heart for the amputation. By the end of week two, he had come to a more realistic conclusion. He called Perez and they talked about finding a lawyer who would help him surrender.
On May 4, while family and friends scrambled to raise cash for an attorney, the FBI held a press conference, where an LAPD spokesperson described Leon as “a ruthless, vicious coward.” Later, when Leon phoned Perez, she told him what had transpired. “Did they say I was armed and dangerous?” he asked. Yes, Perez said, the FBI spokeswoman had described him as armed “and extremely dangerous.” Leon was silent for a few beats. “That means,” he said finally, “that they’re allowed to kill me.”
By May 9, the details were nearly complete for Leon’s surrender. He ventured out from the Las Vegas apartment where he had been hiding to buy a new phone card and was approached by two men. “Robert Leon?” one asked. On old reflex, Leon tried to escape, vaulting a fence and thrusting himself into a dumpster. Within moments, he realized the absurdity of his actions and shouted his surrender as he heard the FBI vehicle turn slowly into the alley. “I’m over here and I’m not armed!” he yelled. The car pulled to a stop and Leon raised himself slowly out of the dumpster, arms overhead.
On June 6, 2001, Leon was arraigned on charges of first-degree murder. He also faces a charge of attempted murder for allegedly firing at one of the club’s security guards. After two years of continuances and bureaucratic delays, his trial is scheduled to begin in September, with Judge Lance Ito presiding. Leon, now 33, will plead not guilty, and self-defense will be argued.
Why one person succeeds and another doesn’t has been a topic of re-search and philosophical argument for centuries. Traditionally, social scientists have primarily assessed “risk factors” to predict whether or not an individual was likely to overcome a bad past. More recently, researchers discovered that to effectively determine the probability of recovery for any population--abused children, drug addicts, ex-convicts or former gang members--one must also examine “protective factors.” This new glass-half-full approach to recovery and recidivism is known as “resiliency” research.
When asked to review Robert Leon’s case, experts say he had many protective factors, but not enough.
“In simplest terms,” says Nan Henderson, author of “Resiliency In Action,” “there are six basic human needs that are also the main factors that build resiliency: caring and support, high expectation for success, opportunities for meaningful participation, positive bonds, clear and consistent boundaries, and good life skills. If people don’t get these needs met in a pro-social way, they’ll get them in an antisocial way, like in a gang, as Leon clearly did. Then when Leon found the strength to move out of the gang, he sought to get those needs met at work, which in certain ways he accomplished.
“The problem was, it was a house of cards. When the economics fell out, and then he had the trauma of those close calls, he felt uncomfortable turning to his work friends, so gravitated back to where he knew he could get emotional support. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be a healthy place to be.”
“The real irony of this story,” adds Joan Petersilia, “is that we now know that someone who’s made it arrest-free for five years has a 90% chance of being arrest-free for the rest of their lives.”
Robert Leon made it exactly five years and 53 days.
As it is with most lives, the meaning one takes away from Leon’s story depends on one’s perspective. For many people, it mostly proves that tigers do not change their stripes. “This tiger anyway,” says Det. Al Marengo, a homicide cop assigned to Leon’s case. “With Leon, I would say that maybe he never left the gang. He was still hanging around with his friends, his homeboys. If he was truly out of the gang, he wouldn’t have associated with them. There’s a thing called free will, meaning if he’d really wanted out he would have truly gotten out. And he didn’t.”
To those like Cyrus Yavneh and Bill Fraker, who have regularly attended Leon’s court hearings, the story is plainly a tragedy. “I’m just devastated by the fact that he’s up for murder,” says Fraker. “I don’t know what really happened that night. All I know is that Robert has such goodness in him, and I intend to do anything I can to help him.”
To Father Greg Boyle, it’s a tale that should not be viewed reductively. “This is a complex story that requires someone to take the aerial view of Robert,” he says, “as opposed to the kind of retributive justice that reduces someone to a single act. The people who are stepping forward in Robert’s behalf aren’t doing it because they excuse what he did. They’re supporting him because they know the entirety of who he is.”
Steven Sanchez’s sister, who declines to be identified, says the situation is far simpler: “He’s a murderer and we don’t care about his problems. We’re the ones who lost a family member. We are the victims, not him. We’re the ones who are suffering.”
In the end, of course, it’s Robert Leon’s story, and he struggles to find in it a redemptive meaning he can live with. “I’ll play that night over and over in my mind until the day I die,” he says on the phone from his cell in Men’s Central Jail. “Seeing what I could have done, what I should have done. But I can’t change it. So I try to be optimistic that eventually I’ll get a chance to get out and make up for the things I can’t take back. I have to believe that.” He pauses. “I accept responsibility. Nobody did what I did but me. But I believe I’m a good man. I try to be. I see so many things I’ve done wrong. But I think my heart is more open now.”
POSTSCRIPT: On June 7 of this year, just after Leon’s trial date was set, a $300-a-plate banquet was held at the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to raise money for Homeboy Industries, the gang intervention program started by Boyle in 1992. The high point of the evening was the First Annual Homeboy Hero Award, presented by actor Jimmy Smits. It was given to a former gang member who most epitomized “a complete transformation, a fundamental change in consciousness, a personal revolution.”
The tall, soft-spoken, 32-year-old former homeboy who accepted the award had spent 10 years of his life in some type of incarceration. He now has a wife, two kids, a good job with a vending machine company and a promising future. The honoree was Fernando Leon--Robert Leon’s younger brother.