Wannabe Shot In The Back
Friends say teenaged fieldworker killed for wearing gang colors just wanted to look cool.
Thursday, September 25, 2003
At 3:01pm on Wednesday, Sept. 10, Juan Antonio Arellano, a 17-year-old fieldworker, was standing near a tree on Towt Street in East Salinas when a killer gunned him down.
After the shooting, the gunman ran to a parked car waiting down the street and fled. While Arellano lay dying on the cement, school kids from nearby Fremont Elementary and El Sausal Middle School walked home, passing by the bleeding teenager, who had gotten off work early that day.
Arellano wore a blue shirt and baggy khakis. He had three dots tattooed on his hand. Salinas police called the shooting a "gang-type" homicide. Arellano looked like another thug killed over colors.
But that does not appear to be the case. Interviews with police, eyewitnesses and friends of Arellano suggest that the boy may have been nothing more than a poor immigrant lettuce-cutter who wanted to dress like the other guys in the neighborhood.
Veronica Ortiz (not her real name), an elementary school teacher, was dropping her kids off at her aunt''s day care center in the neighborhood when she heard the gunshots. Ortiz watched the gunman flee, and sat with Arellano while he lay dying. She doesn''t want her real name to be used because she''s worried for her own safety, and that of her two little girls.
Ortiz says she and the gunman made eye contact as she drove toward her aunt''s house before the shooting. "He gave me a weird look" as he walked down the street toward Arellano, she says.
"After I saw him on the floor and nobody came out, I ran over there across the street and tried to talk to him," she says. "It was too late. He wasn''t talking no more. His skin was changing colors. I saw three gunshots in the back, so I''m assuming he didn''t have a chance to run. I asked him his name, if he had family I could call. He was just lying there."
She says she wasn''t scared. She says she thinks she was in shock.
"I told the officers, I had a chance when I could have chased the car down." She didn''t, she says, because she didn''t want to put herself or her kids in danger.
"He looked like a Sureno," Ortiz says. "The baggy khaki pants, the blue top, the tattoos. But then I saw his dirty shoes. That''s when I thought, hmmm. His socks, his shoes and the bottom of his pants were dirty. I think he worked in the fields."
As Ortiz is telling her story, sitting in her car just down the street from where Arellano was killed, a man carrying a backpack and a plastic tray full of bobble-head cats and dogs walks by. The fuzzy animal heads wobble up and down with each of the man''s steps.
Just then, an Oldsmobile with two men and two women drive up. They take seven toy animals, get back in the car and leave without paying. The bobble-head salesman yells after them as they speed away.
"They didn''t pay you?" Ortiz asks. "Hang on."
She drives down the street after the car, returning a few minutes later with a license plate number. She tells the man in Spanish to call the cops. If he doesn''t, she says she will.
"I''m not scared," she says.
A week after Arellano was murdered, at a Salinas City Council meeting, police Chief Dan Ortega said Arellano wasn''t on the city''s list of known gang members.
"He was not known to our people," Ortega later told the Weekly. "We did not know him in this area as a gang member--but it would not be possible for me to say he was not a gang member. He did have some tattoos that identified him as a Sureno.
"He was a shooting victim, and it appears that his tattoos had a great deal to do with his death."
Lt. Henry Yoneyama, a Salinas police detective investigating the homicide, calls it a "gang-like crime" because of the manner in which the shooting was carried out. "In this case right here, whether Mr. Arellano realized it or not, he definitely looked like a gang member."
Yoneyama says the family that Arellano was living with told detectives he wasn''t affiliated with a gang. "Young people today need to be much more careful in how they dress," he warns.
Arellano moved to Salinas two years ago. Cops say he came from Los Angeles. He didn''t attend high school. For about a week after his death, no one knew for sure whether Arellano was 16 or 17 or 20.
A week and a half after Arellano''s death, no one on Towt Street will open their door to a reporter. Two men in a driveway near the tree where Arellano died say they saw nothing and they know nothing about the murder.
School''s just letting out, like it was on Sept. 10. Kids walk home and mothers push babies down the sidewalks in strollers. A crossing guard stops traffic across the busy street, but says he wasn''t on duty the day of the shooting.
Ortiz''s aunt, who runs the neighborhood day care, says she believes Arellano was wearing cholo attire to disguise himself from immigration police.
Ortiz''s cousin chimes in. "A lot of people who come from Mexico, they dress in baggy clothes so that if la Migra happens to see them, the officers will think they belong here," he says. "They dress to fit in with the thugs. They dress like gangsters so they won''t be deported."
At a Salinas community meeting after the string of five shootings on Sept. 10, a pretty young woman with sad eyes stood holding an eight-by-ten picture of Juan Antonio Arellano. The young woman''s name is Shi (she asked that only her first name be used) and Arellano was a friend of hers.
"He wasn''t a gang member," she says. "He was a fieldworker. He was providing food for the community."
Everyone knows gang members are lazy, she says. They mug people and rob banks for money. Picking lettuce is difficult work. Arellano worked long hours. He didn''t have time to gangbang, Shi says.
"You see him walking--he was so tall and thin. He was like a giraffe. Maybe that''s why he was a target. And because of what he was wearing."
Maria, who also asked that only her first name be used, was another friend of Arellano. She said he had a 10pm curfew every night.
"His aunt used to tell him, ''Come home early. I don''t want you out late because people might think you''re a gangster.'' They knew he worked in the lettuce fields. From his knees on down was all muddy."
Arellano was born in Michoacan, Mexico on Dec. 31, 1985, on a ranch near the mountains outside of La Piedad, Michoacan.
According to the story he told Shi and Maria, his mom moved to Los Angeles when he was 10 years old. For the next four years, he bounced between his dad and his grandmother. In his early teens, Arellano moved to L.A. to live with his mom and go to high school. He only lasted two days, so his grandmother suggested he move to Salinas and work in the fields with his aunts and uncles.
"He came to Salinas, he started working in the fields, I think he was 15," Shi says. "No one ever talked to him about education. No one ever encouraged him to do anything beyond what he knew, which was to work hard."
Both Shi and Maria say Arellano was kind and funny and timid.
Shi says Arellano had three tattoos on his arms--his initials, JAA written in old English script, and two faces. She says he let an older drinking buddy, a former Sureno, ink three dots on his hand.
"He wanted to fit in," Shi says. "He didn''t have any enemies. The street he lived on, the whole street is Nortenos. The people on that street knew him. Everybody knew he wasn''t a gang member."
"I used to tell him, ''Don''t wear your blue,''" Maria says. "''Don''t wear your beanie.'' He stopped wearing blue for a while, but he would tell me, ''I like blue. There aren''t a lot of colors for a guy to wear.''"
"I said, ''Wear gray.''
"He didn''t claim, but I think he was a wannabe," Maria continues. "He wasn''t a Sureno. He didn''t have any friends."
Since Arellano''s death, Shi frequents the neighborhood where he was killed. She says she looks out for Mexicans, especially those who look like they work in the fields. She tells them about her dead friend, a victim in a gang war that he wasn''t fighting, and she tells them not to wear colors.
"It''s just something I have to do," Shi says. "I know Juan''s not going to be able to cansando en paz (rest in peace). I know I''m not. Not when there''s a murderer out there."
On Sept. 14, the same day as the big El Grito celebration in East Salinas, Arellano''s family held a rosary service for him. They told Shi they don''t want to talk to any reporters. They are frightened the gang members will come after them. Arellano''s funeral Mass was held at Christ the King Church the following day.
On Sept. 16, the day Chief Ortega asked the Salinas City Council for five additional police officers to fight gang violence, Arellano''s body was flown to Mexico. He''s buried at his family''s ranch in Michoacan.
A candlelight vigil for Juan antonio arellano and all homicide victims will be held sept. 25, from 7-9pm at seaside city hall.