A life on the noir side

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is at work on a book about the biblical book of Revelation and its role in American culture and politics.

WHEN a guard at Alcatraz threatened to throw a convict named Ernie Lopez into an isolation cell soon after his arrival in 1945, Lopez was reminded of the closet in which his father used to lock him up after a beating or a forced dose of castor oil during his early childhood. His ordeal in the California criminal justice system, so compellingly and movingly recalled in “To Alcatraz, Death Row, and Back,” was prefigured, in his telling, by the cruelties of an angry and brutal parent.

“ ‘This ain’t nothing,’ I taunted the screws. ‘I’ve spent my whole life in the hole.’ ”

Lopez is purely old school, and his book is cast in the black-and-white tones of a vintage gangster movie. His first arrest came in 1934, when he was only 12 -- some neighborhood kids had robbed a Buster Brown shoe store near the corner in Los Angeles where he sold newspapers, and he was nabbed after a fellow paperboy tossed police his name, he says. A year later he was arrested for hot-wiring a car and taking it on a joy ride, and he entered the California penal system, a place where he would spend much of his adult life.

“At that time I stood about five feet two inches, if I stretched a bit,” he recalls, “and weighed 120 pounds after a full meal.”


Lopez and his co-writer, Rafael Perez-Torres, have managed to compose a memoir of exceptional clarity, color and effect. At moments, his life story reminds us of an episode from Dickens or Victor Hugo -- his first crime was a theft of $40 in change from a tip jar, committed out of fear that his father would whip him with a belt if he did not bring home enough money from his newspaper sales -- but the book also invokes scenes, characters and incidents right out of a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy novel.

In one sense, Lopez’s autobiography is an extended argument for the proposition that career criminals are created out of bad childhoods and then hardened and sharpened on the anvil of the criminal justice system. “I spent fifteen months in Preston before I was released on parole, but I went out a hell of a lot different from the way I came in,” he writes of his first experience in a reformatory. “I had arrived frightened and heartbroken, but I left feeling that nothing could ever frighten me again.”

The argument that he was merely the victim of circumstance is often repeated but not wholly convincing. Soon after his release, he seemed to have resolved to go straight -- Lopez was married to his high school sweetheart, raising a young son of his own (“I never hit my boy,” he affirms. “Never”) and working at his brother-in-law’s tire shop. But he was repeatedly arrested on various criminal charges, and he made his biggest score during World War II by using a blowtorch to break into a safe holding gas-rationing stamps, which he promptly started to sell on the black market.

“In short order, by virtue of the stamps, I found myself being introduced to many celebrities from all walks of life, including politicians, motion-picture stars, professional football players, directors, and nightclub owners,” he recalls. “I bought two new automobiles as gifts for myself, and made a number of trips to Las Vegas to splurge. I spent a lot of time driving, since all my gas was free.”


But Lopez came under surveillance by the Secret Service, and when one of his customers, a “big-time local bookie,” was found dead, he was arrested on suspicion of murder. The murder charge was dropped, but in 1944, not yet 23 years old, Lopez was sent to the federal penitentiary on McNeil Island, Wash., for trafficking in stolen gas stamps. After a daring escape, he was hunted down, barely surviving a gun battle with pursuing police officers, and ended up back in custody with two bullets in his body, a thousand-dollar medical bill for the treatment he had received for the wounds, and a transfer to Alcatraz, where he was prisoner No. 697. “That meant that I was the 697th prisoner to be brought to the island since it became a federal prison in 1934,” he explains.

“To say that Alcatraz was simply the American version of Siberia is ... much too kind,” he observes, adding: “It was designed purely to punish, and the government made no bones about it.”

Lopez was back on the streets in 1956 on a conditional release but was soon arrested again, this time on a bank robbery charge. He asserts his innocence of that accusation, which was later dropped, but he ended up back in Alcatraz on a parole violation. Out again in 1959, he was promptly arrested on a weapons count and then charged with a bungled discount-store robbery in West Los Angeles that ended with the death of the store manager -- all false charges, he insists. “Given my past record and my reputation with the cops,” writes Lopez, “they were only too happy to charge me with murder and robbery.” A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

We do not really know whether Lopez is guilty of any or all of the various charges laid against him, and sometimes his protestations of innocence are a bit strained. Yes, he had weapons and wads of cash in his possession, as he describes one incident, but no, he didn’t rob or shoot anyone. Rather, he insists he was framed by lying snitches, intimidated witnesses, crooked cops and unethical prosecutors. “Of course, I’ve been no angel in my life,” he concedes. “This is no reason to have been tried, convicted and sentenced to death for a crime that I didn’t commit.”


Then too, we cannot know how much credit should be afforded Lopez’s co-writer for the good impression that Lopez makes in his memoir. Perez-Torres reveals that he wrote the book on the basis of tape-recorded interviews from which he tried to extract “the flavor and tenor of Ernie’s vivid stories,” as he explains in a brief introduction. But he readily attributes the “grace, irony and humor” of the narrative to Lopez himself.

Lopez was not put to death at San Quentin, a fact that may be the best measure of the justice of his cause, the quality of his character and the intellectual gifts he possesses -- the California Supreme Court reversed his death sentence in 1965, all on the strength of the appellate briefs that Lopez himself, a wholly self-trained jailhouse lawyer, researched, wrote and filed.

Lopez was discharged from prison in 1998, and now is a free man living in Los Angeles.