Settlement gives former gang member a new lease on life

‘I’ve got some important responsibility now,’ says the O.C. man about his commitment to leaving criminal life behind and his $2.5-million payout.

By H.G. Reza, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 14, 2008

Jose Luis Muñoz pocketed the $200 “gate money” and jumped inside a prison staff car that drove him to the bus station in Delano, just up California 99 from Bakersfield. Flames fanned by October’s Santa Ana winds had Southern California ablaze, but after a year behind bars, he was willing to walk through fire to get home.

The bus ticket set him back $20, but the man known by the gang moniker Dopey was returning to Anaheim richer than he ever imagined.

Waiting at home was his mother, a girlfriend he met as a pen pal while he was locked up, and a $2.5-million settlement reached two weeks earlier from a federal lawsuit against an Anaheim police officer who had rammed Muñoz with a police car.

After a year in prison earning 8 cents an hour scrubbing toilets, Muñoz faces perhaps his biggest challenge: Can $2.5 million turn his life around and help him atone for his bad choices and years in jail?

Muñoz says he’s eager “to do the right thing,” but California prison studies suggest the numbers are not on his side. The state has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation with more than two-thirds of inmates returning to prison, most within their first six months out.

And Muñoz said that doing the right thing had not always been easy for him. He prowled with an East Anaheim street gang and reveled in sex and drug parties. At 23, he is a high school dropout and a parolee who has spent four years in prison, jail or juvenile hall.

His ears stick out like cup handles and he has closely cropped hair, earning him the nickname Dopey, after the cartoon dwarf. His smile, which creases his face, can come across as bumptious or friendly.

It was a 2006 parole violation that landed Muñoz in the Delano Community Correctional Facility. But it was an earlier incident that made him a millionaire.

Muñoz was stopped for questioning in June 2005 by Officer Eddie Ruiz and his partner, who were in a patrol car. Unarmed and on parole, Muñoz said he bolted because he was afraid the officers were going to send him back to prison. The afternoon chase ended almost as soon as it started, and he stopped on the sidewalk to surrender.

According to court records, Muñoz was raising his hands when Ruiz drove at 32 mph onto the sidewalk and hit him from behind. Muñoz was wedged in the vehicle’s undercarriage and dragged a short distance. He was eviscerated and spent seven months in the hospital.

A police investigation blamed Ruiz, who is still on the force, for failing to yield to a pedestrian on the sidewalk. The 13-year veteran is a defendant in another lawsuit alleging excessive force. In that case, Ruiz shot and wounded a passenger and killed a man who police said was trying to hit him with a pickup truck.

Muñoz’s injuries were so severe his mother said doctors at UCI Medical Center in Orange told her he was not expected to live. Muñoz survived, though, and has no lingering effects from the incident.

While doctors were telling Maria Bravo, 62, to brace for her son’s death, other hospital staff members were advising her to hire a lawyer. Muñoz sued and two years later the city agreed to pay him $2.5 million and pick up $557,000 for his medical bills, his attorney, Arnoldo Casillas, said.

Casillas said he set up Muñoz’s settlement so that his client will receive monthly payments rather than a lump sum. He said this will encourage Muñoz to stay employed if he wishes to live at a comfortable level.

The idea that he and his mother, who raised him as a single parent, may never again want for anything is slowly sinking in.

“I really don’t have any idea how much money that is. But I know it’s a lot,” he said. “I pray for God to help me make the right choices. Little by little, I’ve begun to realize that I have a lot of responsibility now.”

Muñoz said he had severed his gang ties. But gang experts said dropping out is not always easy, and that it takes more than money to start afresh.

“Suddenly, you’re out there by yourself. It takes a long time to wean yourself from the gang lifestyle,” said retired Santa Ana gang detective Kevin Ruiz, who investigated gangs for 20 years and is not related to the officer blamed in Muñoz’s injury.

“You have to have a support system, like a mother or girlfriend, and you need something to keep you busy, like a job,” he said. “It can be done, but it’s a work in progress.”

Sitting at the dining table in his mother’s home, Muñoz talked about his troubled life and newfound dreams with the candor of a man who had nothing to hide. His life has been a contradiction. Bravo proudly tells a visitor that Muñoz was an obedient son, an altar boy for eight years and a good student until he turned 15. Muñoz picks up the story from there. “I dropped out in the 10th grade. I started failing, ditching a lot of school,” he said. “I started drinking, and I started on coke. I was smoking weed and meth.”

Muñoz said he was “jumped” into a gang when he was 18, a path he chose because he thought it would impress the girls. “We did stupid things. Get high. Have fun with girls. Tag on walls. But mostly we’d just kick it,” Muñoz said. “But like I said, I’ve got some important responsibility now. I’ve got to take care of the money and not waste it on stupid things. I never want to go to prison again.”

He began his most recent stint in prison months after he was discharged from the hospital in 2006. Muñoz said he was walking with four other gang members when they were stopped by police. Officers recovered a pistol from one and all were jailed, he said. For Muñoz, though, it was a parole violation, and he was sentenced to prison.

Muñoz said he was remorseful for the heartaches he brought his mother and wanted to repay her for the sacrifices she made. After years of working two jobs, Bravo saved $13,000 for a down payment on the three-bedroom, two-bath home she bought in 1992. To pay the mortgage, she rents out the bedrooms and sleeps in what used to be the family room.

“When he was little, he was all I had. He was my son and my friend,” said Bravo, who is retired. “We were poor and went through some bad times together. There were times when he made it more difficult.”

However, Muñoz insists that his gangbanging days are behind him. He says he is now following his parole officer’s advice and looking to buy a house for his mother and himself “in a nicer area in another county.”

“I’ll try to change. I’m staying away from gangs and spending more time at home,” he said. “If I continue like I’m doing right now, I won’t go back” to prison.

In addition to not associating with gang members, Muñoz is required to hold a job as a condition of parole. He has registered with a jobs agency, preparing for interviews. In the meantime, he works weekends as a church security guard and volunteers in a Santa Ana real estate office. He admits, his job skills are lacking.

Muñoz says he has a new appreciation for how “normal,” or law-abiding, people live and credits his girlfriend for this new outlook. He also looks back with regret for missing out on typical high school experiences because of his gang lifestyle.

“I never went to a prom or a school dance. Not even a football game, because I was messing around at the time with meth, weed and drinking.”

But thanks to his girlfriend, whom he met as a pen pal while in prison, Muñoz is seeing how normal people live. And he says he likes it.

He recounted a party his girlfriend recently took him to with others from her office. He did not have to stand with his back to the wall or constantly swivel his head to look out for danger.

“She takes me places with her. We went to Disneyland, and I was sober the whole time. It was pretty cool,” he said. “She took me to a party and there were a lot of white people there, and Asians. It seemed like I was the only Mexican. It felt kind of weird, but I can get used to it.”

Though he is rich beyond his dreams, and could coast through life on the money he’s getting, he said he wants to use some of it to open a business. That means going to work every day.

But, he reminds himself, that is what normal people do.

Photo credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times
Jose Muñoz says he wants to repay his mother, Maria Bravo, for the sacrifices she has made for him. Muñoz says they are looking into buying a home in another county, on the advice of his parole officer.

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