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Last Honest Man in South Gate Bounces Back to Target Deceit

Theresa Gonzalez of South Gate turned over a potted plant in her backyard last month, pouring out the rainwater, and a metal pellet tumbled onto the patio.

Could it be the bullet that bounced off the head of her husband, the mayor at the time, in 1999?

Gonzalez looked up at the sloped roof of her house and thought back on that night, when she drove her husband, Henry, home from a South Gate City Council meeting. He was shot in the head the moment he got out of their Pontiac van, but the bullet ricocheted off the skull of the former linebacker from Jordan High School in Watts.

Gonzalez, who fell face-first onto his driveway and bled “like a stuck pig,” spent a week in the hospital but recovered like a champ. Police never found the slug.

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It’s possible, Mrs. Gonzalez speculated, that the bullet landed on the roof, rolled down the slope one fine day, and fell into the cactus plant.

“Do you think it’s a bullet?” she asked me, handing over a sandwich bag that contained the pellet.

I’m not a ballistics expert, but no, it didn’t look quite like a bullet to me. Such a shame, too. It could have been valuable evidence in solving the mystery of who tried to knock off Henry Gonzalez, 67, the last honest man in a corrupt town.

Gonzalez broke barriers when he moved to the town, which was mostly white in 1961, and became the first elected Latino in 1982.

But then he watched younger Latino turks rise to political power and turn South Gate into a national laughingstock. It was all he could do to keep the younger crowd from stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down.

As we already know, politics can be dangerous in South Gate. Vice Mayor Gonzalez found that out again this past February, when another shot came flying at him. This time it wasn’t a bullet, but the fist of then-mayor Xochilt “Bonecrusher” Ruvalcaba, who landed a sucker punch in the middle of a stacked-to-the-rafters City Council meeting.

Scandal-weary voters, convinced that city officials were treating the city treasury as their own piggy bank, had thrown the hogs out of office the previous week. Mayor Ruvalcaba, one of the recall targets, was presiding over her final meeting when a petty dispute flared over a citizen’s request to speak.

When Gonzalez reached for the written request, which Ruvalcaba clutched in her hands, the mayor walloped him in the chops with an overhead right.

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“She wasn’t Mike Tyson, but she’s a larger person,” Gonzalez told me. He laughed off Ruvalcaba’s silly claim that in the middle of a procedural dispute, he was suddenly overcome by a mad urge to grope her honor. “In front of 200 people, I’m going to commit political suicide by grabbing her breast?”

Theresa Gonzalez, who seems to be present during all blows to her husband’s head, rushed to the front of the council chambers and breathed a nervous sigh of relief when she saw that he was going to survive. Again.

Gonzalez, who hobbles along on two bum knees and steadies himself with a cane, doesn’t intimidate easily.

“If they try to kill me again, they’re probably going to be successful and I’ll be gone,” said the retired auto workers’ union rep. “So why worry about it?”

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He has some hunches about who was behind the shooting, but he’s not sure.

“They told me there were still some bullet fragments in there,” Gonzalez said, rubbing a spot at the back of his mostly bald crown. “But I don’t feel anything.”

On his desk at City Hall were several fat binders containing records of a two-year reign of alleged corruption. The county Grand Jury is sniffing around, and Gonzalez is at the center of attempts to nullify the contracts of political boss Albert Robles -- the former city treasurer now on administrative leave -- and all the hacks and sycophants in Robles’ fiefdom.

Robles is the punk who recently pleaded no contest to possessing semiautomatic weapons.

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Several other charges, involving threats aimed at political rivals and a threatened rape, were dropped when a jury deadlocked.

This week, the City Council dumped the police chief and two of his deputies, Robles cronies who were kicking back on paid leave, and Gonzalez hopes it’s only the beginning. Departing city leaders wrote themselves gluttonous severance deals that could cost the financially strapped city $2.8 million, and Gonzalez is trying to spike them.

After a drive to his house, where he relived the shooting, he talked up scruffy South Gate and all its potential.

Back at City Hall, where citizens had cheered in February after voting the dogs out, the banged-up survivor just sat for a while and stared at the building.

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“When I came here the first time after I got shot, there were 170 people lined up to greet me,” Gonzalez said. “I got kind of choked up.

“When someone says, ‘Thank you, Henry,’ it feels good, you know?”

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com.

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