From gang member to team player
SAN FRANCISCO — Luis Aroche learned about violence at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School, across from the projects where his friend Carl lived.
He remembers sitting down at his desk and seeing his teacher, Mrs. Foster, in tears. His class had just finished the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Carl was playing on the swings and got shot,” Aroche said. “And died. Kindergarten. He got found laying in a pool of blood in the park,” Aroche paused. Swallowed. Started up again. “He was my desk buddy. He would go with me to the bathroom. And now, Carl wasn’t there.
“That was my first experience of loss. And I didn’t understand it. To this day, I don’t understand it.”
Aroche since has become something of an expert on violence — as victim, perpetrator and now as part of a hoped-for solution. Last year, San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon hired the former gang member to be his office’s first “alternative sentencing planner,” part of an effort to keep offenders from ending up back behind bars.
The position, criminal justice experts say, has no equivalent in any prosecutor’s office in the country.
And Aroche is as singular as his job. An Aztec skull tattoo stretches down his right forearm to his hand, its grimace partly wiped away by laser removal. The day his juvenile record was sealed, he says, was the happiest of his life.
Today, he helps prosecutors figure out who among San Francisco’s low-level offenders deserves a jail cell and who deserves a second chance.
He knows a lot about both.
If you were Aroche, 12 years old and living in the Mission District in 1990 — when gangs and crack cocaine meant funerals were as commonplace as quinceañeras — you got a tattoo, cut school and drank beer. You thought a stint in Pelican Bay State Prison was like going off to “Stanford or Yale.” You practiced how to sit and talk and smoke like the toughest prisoners.
“We would learn how to iron our clothes using a comb, ‘cause that’s how you iron your pants in prison,” Aroche said. “You iron it with the teeth of the comb … and then you put it underneath the mattress.”
Aroche’s first tattoo was a small cross on his left hand, in the soft web between thumb and forefinger. He got it in an alleyway not far from the studio apartment where he slept on the floor with his five brothers, three sisters, the occasional niece or nephew. His parents got the bed in the corner.
His Salvadoran mother was a chambermaid at a Fisherman’s Wharf motel, his Puerto Rican father a security guard in the Navy shipyards.
And his older brothers? They would disappear for years. Aroche didn’t know why until his father took him to visit San Quentin State Prison. They were “main men” in a notorious Northern California prison gang. When they were out, they were “the mayors of the Mission.”
By the time Aroche was 15, he was drinking so much and incarcerated so often that he gave himself a test every night before he went to sleep. If he put out his hand and felt warm, smooth drywall, he knew he was home. If he felt cold, slick concrete, he was in custody.
One night he ended up in the hospital. He’d been drunk, hanging out in Lucky Alley, when a car drove up and the doors flew open. Aroche saw his friend get sliced with a machete. Gunshots rang out.
“And I remember some guy grabbing me and hitting me with a crowbar and stabbing me in my stomach,” he said. “And I could feel the pierce of my stomach, just ripping me open.... And I thought, this is it. This is it. This is my life.”
At the computer in his spartan office at the Hall of Justice, Aroche is poring over the official tale of another life in the balance: a 28-year-old woman on a downward spiral.
The alcoholic, meth-addicted prostitute had lost custody of her toddler son, habitually robbed her aging parents, been in and out of rehab. She also suffered from postpartum depression.
The first time she accosted her father, her parents decided not to press charges. When she was arrested after breaking into their home last year, they refused a second time. Then in August, high on meth, she broke in again.
“The mom was just, ‘I’m tired of this.... I’m going to prosecute. I want my daughter to get the help, and I think she needs a stern hand,’” Aroche said.
The young woman was charged with two counts of felony first-degree residential burglary, with enhancements including elder abuse.
“The prosecution is like, ‘This woman can easily see prison time,’” Aroche said as he scrolled through her case. “She burglarizes, is verbally abusive with her parents when she’s under the influence. And she’s always under the influence. But the prosecution also wondered, ‘Will state prison rehabilitate her?’”
That a district attorney’s office would even consider the question is “just amazing,” said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. And what Aroche does on a daily basis is “just so far outside the box of California district attorneys. You’d have a hard time finding it in a public defender’s office.”
Gascon, the D.A., views Aroche’s position — along with a new local sentencing commission — as “a work in progress” and says he hopes his department will become a national model “in how to be smart in dealing with the criminal justice system.”
For the woman whose fate Aroche was weighing, not just any rehab would do. Between 2009 and 2011, she’d dropped out of voluntary programs half a dozen times.
His prescription? Let the woman stay in jail and detox. Then, as a condition of her probation, she should be placed into a strict, 24-hour-a-day residential facility called Grace Center for two years. In addition, she should receive case management services from a program called SAGE, for women who have been sexually exploited.
And if she backslides? State prison is still a possibility.
Even Aroche finds himself asking: “You wonder, can probation really save this woman?”
It saved Aroche.
At age 16, tanked on a fruity “bum wine,” Aroche was hanging out near the Army Street projects around 26th Street and Folsom when he decided to steal a bike.
But the owner was still on it.
“He turned out to be the wrong guy to mess with,” Aroche said. “He started whupping on me.… The cops came.”
The Juvenile Court judge sentenced him to 18 months at a facility for young offenders called Log Cabin Ranch, south of San Francisco. Bad behavior kept him there for two years.
But at Log Cabin, he read the two things that began to change his life. One was the first book he’d ever finished, “Down These Mean Streets,” the memoir of a Puerto Rican street fighter in New York City who went to prison for shooting a cop and, somehow, turned his life around.
The other was a letter from one of his older brothers.
Two years before Aroche landed at Log Cabin, this brother had taken part in an ordered hit on a fellow gang member named Frederico Arevalo. A second man was killed in the attack. Aroche’s brother was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Hey, Bro,” the letter began. “How you doing? Everything’s good. How you behaving inside? Don’t catch more time. Hey, you wanted to know that my case was over. I’m not coming out.”
After reading that, Aroche said, “I sat in my bunk, tripping. Oh, my God. So that means 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, if God allows him, 80, 90 years, he’s gonna sit in that cell. And that woke me up.”
Aroche was set to be released from Log Cabin in 1996, when he was 18. His prosecutor and probation officer told him they could give him a job or one day lock him up again. They asked him, “What’ll it be?”
“They saw something in me that was different and wanted to give me a second chance,” Aroche recalled, still sounding a little mystified 16 years later, sitting in a coffee shop across the street from the Hall of Justice. “I said, ‘I want a job.’”
He cleaned pools at Garfield Park. He scooped ice cream at Mitchell’s. He got a warehouse stint at MacFrugal’s discount outlet. The CalWorks program that taught him to be an ironworker didn’t work out (he caught his overalls on fire). But the job counseling at-risk kids at Paul Revere Elementary School did.
He enrolled in City College, then went on to San Francisco State, where he ended up on the honor roll and graduated with a degree in social work. He started working with Project Rebound, a program for ex-offenders. And he got some therapy.
“I had to accept who I was, an ex-offender,” Aroche said. “I had to admit that I had PTSD … that it wasn’t normal seeing my friends being shot.
There is still a tinge of “pinch me; am I really here?” in Aroche’s demeanor, even though he has worn a badge from the D.A.’s office for nearly a year. A photograph of that laminated ID hangs on the wall of his mother’s apartment. His father, murdered in 2001, did not live to see it.
Another tattoo, the Japanese characters for “unconditional love,” crawls from beneath Aroche’s collar to the back of his left ear.
“It has taken me years to reshape who I am now,” he said. “Folks can see my hands, my neck, my face, and already put together an understanding of who I am.
“But with my street knowledge and my education, I can see someone and say, ‘This person’s a bad dude. Based on his rap sheet and history, this person’s not safe to go back to the community.’ I can also know what can give somebody a second chance.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.