Getting under their skin

On that April evening, the mood in the house on East Redlands Avenue was festive.

Alisa Quillen had a pot of pozole simmering on the stove. Her twin daughters and other family members were out in the garage, where Travis Gorman was inking a new tattoo on his friend Enrique Gonzalez.

When Gorman finished, Gonzalez's 7-year-old son and namesake began pestering his father. "I want a tattoo like you, Dad," he said, Quillen remembered. Gonzalez said no, but the boy persisted.

Finally, the father relented and Gorman tattooed the outline of a dog's paw print, about the size of a quarter, on the boy's hip.

By then, Quillen was back in the kitchen. "Grandma, look what I've got," the boy said when he found her there.

"I was thinking, wow, that's not good," Quillen recalled. "But I said, 'Oh, that's cute.' He was so proud of it."

A few weeks later, the boy's mother spotted the tattoo and called the police.

What happened next would turn a father's questionable judgment into a major criminal case — and force a community to ask whether it was possible to go too far in efforts to battle the street gangs that threatened it.

When it was all over, the father and the tattoo artist were on their way to prison. The boy's tattoo was being removed by a dermatologist.

But the scar of an ugly, yearlong legal battle remained, and no one was happy with the outcome.

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The paw print was the sign of the Bulldogs, a Latino gang that for more than two decades has taunted police and terrorized neighborhoods in Fresno, a proud community of Middle American values surrounded by some of the nation's richest farmland.

The Bulldogs, an independent street gang with more than 11,000 members, take their name from the mascot of Fresno State University. The bumper stickers hailing Fresno as home of the Bulldogs carry an unfortunate ambiguity: Gangsters wear red Fresno State jerseys, decorate themselves with teeth-baring bulldog tattoos and intimidate their enemies with barks and howls.

Four years ago, a close analysis of crime statistics in the city, as well as the shooting of a police officer and the rape and murder of a teenager by members of the gang, touched off Operation Bulldog, which led to thousands of arrests and a drop in violent crime. So far this year, the city has recorded eight gang-related homicides.

When Gonzalez's ex-wife, Tequisha Oloizia, called police in the spring of 2009, it touched a nerve in a Police Department that has seen ever-younger children initiated into the gang.

Oloizia's allegation that the boy, a first-grader, had been held down and forcibly inked with the Bulldogs' emblem shocked the community. But many were equally stunned by the charge that Fresno County Dist. Atty. Elizabeth Egan decided to bring: aggravated mayhem, which carries a life sentence.

Gonzalez, 27, and Gorman, 22, were Bulldogs and each had prior convictions for burglary, but they were small fry who had never been arrested for gang activity.

Michael Idiart, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor, saw the charges as an attempt to bend the rules to appease an angry public.

"Gangs ruin families and they ruin kids," Idiart said. "But if you resort to improper practices to root out evil, then ultimately you become no better than the evil you are rooting out. Catch them and prosecute them for what they did, not some bastardization of the penal code."

Others, such as former Dist. Atty. Ed Hunt, thought the severity of the charges was justified.

A district attorney, he said, "has an obligation to consider the public policy aspects of the charges they file and to say, 'If you do that in my county, I will attempt to punish you to the maximum extent of the law.' "

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Early on, Gonzalez's attorney acknowledged that his client was guilty of something more serious than simply putting a tattoo on an underage boy, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. But the prosecution wasn't willing to plea-bargain.

Then last fall, a judge tossed out the aggravated mayhem charges, saying they were more appropriate for cases in which the victim was maimed or disfigured. But the reprieve was short-lived. Prosecutors refiled the same charges, and another judge ruled in their favor, again putting the men at risk of life in prison.

The trial opened in downtown Fresno in late May before a jury of six men and six women, several of whom noted on court questionnaires that they had tattoos themselves. Their decision would boil down to one question: Did Gonzalez and Gorman hold Gonzalez's son down to apply the tattoo, effectively branding him as a gang member against his will?

The prosecution's star witness was the boy, now 8 years old and referred to in court as "John Doe." He testified that the tattoo, which Gorman applied by puncturing his skin with needles, "was my dad's idea" and that he had later tried to hide it from his mother. He said it hurt too. "I didn't want it and I cried," he said, and he calmly turned down his pants to show the tattoo to the jury.

Defense attorneys argued that the boy loved tattoos and had grown up in an environment where nearly everyone, including his mother and father, had them. The attorneys showed jurors a family photo of the boy with "Fresno" written on his neck and said he had bragged about the paw print to friends.

The key defense witness was Alisa Quillen, a small woman with long, graying hair and the names of her children and granddaughter tattooed on her back and arms. One of Quillen's twin daughters was married to Gorman, and the other was dating Gonzalez, whose son called Quillen "Grandma."

The adults and several of their children were hanging out together that night at the home of Gorman's father, and they watched as Gorman inked a new tattoo on Gonzalez. It was the name "Brownie," which is what Gonzalez called his girlfriend.

Afterward, the boy pestered his father for a tattoo, Quillen testified, "and of course he got his way, like he always does."

Quillen said she didn't approve. "If it had been my house, I would have raised a big stink," she said. "But it wasn't my house, and I wasn't about to go up against all the adults and kids in the garage and fight."

Both Gonzalez and Gorman told the jury that what they did was wrong. It was a "dumb decision … an irresponsible decision as a parent," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said that, growing up, all his friends were Bulldogs, and he had joined the gang to fit in. Gorman said he had joined while in prison, for protection.

Gonzalez said his son had begged him for a dog-paw tattoo similar to one he had on his shoulder. "I was proud that my son wanted to be like me," he said. "He thinks I'm Superman."

The father testified that he was immediately filled with regret and worried about what would happen if his ex-wife or school officials found out.

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In closing arguments, William Lacy, the prosecutor, argued that the defendants' actions fit the legal definition of aggravated mayhem — a disfigurement that reflected extreme indifference to the physical well-being of the child.

Douglas Foster, Gonzalez's court-appointed attorney, countered: "Are we at a point in society where a tattoo is disfiguring? Body art is normal.

"It was a terrible thing to do to his kid," Foster said, "and he deserves to be punished. But not for life."

After two days of deliberations, the jury acquitted both men of aggravated mayhem and deadlocked on lesser charges, including simple mayhem, battery and child abuse.

The jury foreman, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ryan, said the panel concluded that the child wasn't held down against his will.

A few days later, the defendants accepted a deal, pleading to a felony charge of corporal injury to a child. Gonzalez was sentenced to six years in prison, Gorman to five.

Egan, the two-term district attorney who had declined to comment on the case for more than a year, broke her silence after it was over.

"This father was branding his child as a member of a criminal street gang for the rest of his life," she said in an interview. "The kid was being recruited by the dad. I have no doubt about that."

But, she acknowledged, if she had decided to retry the case, she would have charged the two with a lesser crime. "I don't know that I did it wrong the first time," she said. "But once I heard the jury's point of view, I certainly took that into consideration."

Since the sentencing last month, the people of Fresno have been looking for lessons from the affair.

"If they had let this one go, if these men had not been held accountable, it would have sent a sad message," said Debra McKenzie, coordinator of the county's gang task force.

But Manuel Nieto, Gorman's attorney, said that trying to send the two to prison for life was "an abuse of power and an abuse of a little boy for political reasons."

It was also counter-productive, he said. "It creates a feeling of lawlessness among the poor people in this town. If they can't rely on their government to be honest, then what's the point?"

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Alisa Quillen was drinking iced tea in a Fresno restaurant the other day, not far from the rough neighborhoods controlled by the Bulldogs.

"When you do something bad, you need to pay for your crime. That's just the law of the land," she said. "But just because somebody has tattoos or piercings doesn't make that person a bad person."

She had been on the phone with Gonzalez's son the night before, she said, and he had asked a favor that tugged at her heart.

"Please," he said, "tell my daddy that I love him and miss him."

scott.kraft@latimes.com

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