Mary Ridgway dies at 66; widely respected L.A. County probation officer
By By Elaine Woo
Mar 08, 2009 | 12:00 AM
To those who didn't know her, Los Angeles County probation officer Mary Ridgway might have seemed miscast for her job. She was a woman in a field long dominated by men, who was fond of pink and purple outfits, jade jewelry, flower pins and floppy hats. And she was assigned to gang-ridden neighborhoods in East Los Angeles, even though, as one of her former probationers noted, "she didn't speak a lick of Spanish."
But she drove barrio streets at night, checking up on the dozens of juveniles on her caseload. She joined 4 a.m. police raids looking for violators and didn't hesitate to take one to juvenile camp or jail if she thought it would do some good. She worked unarmed but could push a young thug's gun away from her face and defuse the threat with little more than a terse word.
In her off hours, Ridgway took her youthful offenders to museums, restaurants, concerts and football games, paying for the excursions out of her own pocket. She guided many of her probationers to college and helped them find jobs. When they had families of their own, she went to their children's sporting events and cheered so loudly, one of her former clients recalled, "I had to say, 'Mary, turn it down a little.' "
So at her funeral last week, the sanctuary was filled with more than 700 mourners, including many former gang members and delinquents whose lives she turned around.
"She believed success is not how many you can lock up but how many can have lives," said Father Gregory Boyle, the celebrated gang interventionist and founder of Homeboy Industries, who spoke at the service about his close friend of 23 years. "She was quite extraordinary."
Ridgway, a 42-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, died Feb. 21 at Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills Medical Center after a short bout of cancer, according to her niece, Kelly Meskimen. She was 66.
Widely respected in the law enforcement community and on the streets, she was an expert on Eastside gangs who guided more than 5,000 youths through the challenges of probation. When she was offered a promotion to supervisor 14 years ago, she was reluctant to accept because she did not want to abandon "my kids," whose misdeeds, from minor infractions to murder, placed them under her watch.
"She was tough, but she had an enormous amount of compassion," said probation officer and longtime colleague Tim Brown. "She always held out that hope that people could change."
Ridgway considered herself a product of the '60s who was raised, she told The Times in 1992, "with this sense of responsibility to give back to society."
Born in Denver on July 24, 1942, and raised in North Hollywood, she majored in political science at UCLA and briefly taught junior high school in South-Central Los Angeles.
Never married, she is survived by a brother, Robert Ridgway of North Hollywood; a sister, Kathryn Moser of San Jose; nieces and a nephew.
In 1966 Ridgway left teaching to join the probation department. She was assigned to East L.A. in 1987, when Latino gangs were growing in number and complexity and increasingly drawing younger teens -- 13- and 14-year-olds instead of 16- and 17-year-olds -- into their ranks.
To reduce crime in gang-infested neighborhoods, she helped launch Community Law Enforcement and Recovery, a novel collaborative effort of the city attorney and district attorney's offices, the Los Angeles Police Department and the sheriff's and county probation departments. In 1995, its first year of operation, the program produced a 30% reduction in crime. It now operates in nine sites around the city.
According to Peter Shutan, assistant supervising attorney in the gang division of the city attorney's office, who previously directed the program, Ridgway "helped us facilitate matters on the enforcement side and the prevention-intervention side. She really understood the different systems in which we needed to work."
Ridgway knew from experience that probation officers were an essential part of the attack on gang violence.
"She could sit down with gang members, talk to them, and get all kinds of stuff about crimes, murders. They didn't know what they were telling her because she was like their mother," said John Tuchek, a supervising deputy probation officer who was her partner for 10 years. "She was able to solve a lot of community crimes."
Many of the young gangsters she guided didn't know what she saw in them. Gus Mojica, now 35, was 15 when Ridgway took him under her wing. "She sent me to juvenile camp, but she wasn't my probation officer," said Mojica, who works at Homeboy Industries, which provides job placement, training and education to former gang members and other at-risk youths. "I figured she didn't like me. What I found out later, she put us in jail to keep us alive. She was a really cool person."
Another former probationer, Sal Martinez, knew Ridgway was different the day she came to visit him at Camp Mendenhall, a juvenile detention facility at Lake Hughes, more than 20 years ago. She took his photograph and told him that one day it would tell a story about whether he became an honorable man "or if . . . I slid back and ended up being a criminal," recalled Martinez, who stole a car at 14 to buy food for his family. "She saw right through me. I was trapped in a situation, and I wanted to get out so bad."
That day, he began to follow her advice. He learned to steer clear of the gangs that were beckoning him, stopped smoking and drinking, and studied harder in school.
Now 38 and the father of two, he works as the operations manager for a soda distributor and devotes his free time to community service as a youth advocate and activist in Boyle Heights.
In 2007, Martinez was named one of LAPD's volunteers of the year.
"She loved that," he said of his friend and mentor. "She helped me be a normal productive citizen, against the odds."