And oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s
In deeper consequence.
In the first part of “Going to Gang School” I told you the story of my first few months working as a custody deputy and how an inmate named Ruben Martinez befriended me and helped me do my job more effectively.
After a while, I began to worry about my teacher, so I made a point of learning as much about him as I could.
Ruben “Cue-Ball” Martinez was born April 3, 1935. At an early age he ran with the Hoyo Soto gang just east of downtown Los Angeles. By the time he was 10, he was stealing cargo from the trains on the Alameda tracks and dealing in black market ration stamps. His apprenticeship with older gang members soon trained him in lucrative profession of 211PC or “Stick Up” man. Over the years, he also developed his addiction to the “speedballs.” He claimed that the use of this combination of heroin and cocaine heightened his sexual powers.
In the 1950s, the economy was good and Ruben “Cue-ball” Martinez was a Pachuco gangster with street credentials and at the top of his game. He would wear the typical gangster uniform of a “stingy brimmed” hat, heavily starched baggy khaki pants, a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the top and unbuttoned the rest of the way down to expose his beltline. A long Pachuco chain looped down from the waistband to his back wallet pocket. If the shirt tails were thrown back, you could see his pistol tucked in the waistband in what was called “the Mexican carry.” He gave this advice about personal firearms, “Kid, if you are going to carry a gun, carry a big ass gun.” His weapon of choice was a large .44 caliber revolver.
Hunting the Predator
One night in the ’50s after another successful liquor store robbery, Cue-ball came out of the doors to a warm Los Angeles sidewalk. He stopped to look up and down the street and noticed that there were no cars or traffic of any kind passing by. He knew then that he was in trouble because there is never a time in L.A. that there is no traffic…unless the cops stop it.
Cue-ball had become a target of LAPD’s infamous “Hat Squad.” These detectives targeted only the most violent and dangerous criminals in the city. They did not care where a bandit struck last week or even who he robbed yesterday. All they wanted to know is where he would strike tonight. They would then stake out the probable victim’s business. The detectives would allow the robber to complete his felonious crime and then tactically deploy and ambush him. I mean like, “ready on the right, ready on the left, ready on the firing line!” That kind of ambush.
Looking across the street Cue-ball saw a half dozen dapper detectives in their famous fedora hats (like Joe Friday wore on “Dragnet”) leaning over parked automobiles pointing their regulation .38 caliber pistols at him. He knew that his only hope tactically was to assault the ambushers. He began running toward the officers drawing his big ass gun.
The first round hit Cue-ball directly under his nose blowing out his front teeth and exiting the back of his head but missing the spine. He took several other hits in the torso but continued to advance until he fell over the hood of an old Buick. He fired one .44 shot down into the hat of an officer behind the Buick killing him. He claimed the remaining detectives unloaded their revolvers into him as he fell to the street.
The LAPD Detectives carried .38 revolvers with 158-grain round-nosed lead bullets. These rounds had a poor reputation for stopping power or lethality.
So Cue-ball was rehabilitated medically at the state’s expense. His bullet wounds were treated, and he was fitted with a nice set of dentures. A .38 caliber hole remained in the back of his palate. He was sent to prison but escaped the death penalty when the California Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.
But his criminal heart was never rehabilitated, and he continued to be a dangerous predator in prison. He eventually wound up in Folsom prison where he became a member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
My Learning Curve
I was starting to be suspicious of Cue-ball. Was he “all that,” or just an old con weaving interesting tales? How could the jail staff make him my trustee if he was a dangerous career criminal, drug addict, and cop killer?
But Cue-ball had apparently never lied to me about anything else. He had helped me turn my module into model of efficiency and order. I now had time to take breaks and drink coffee, and I recognized dangerous situations more often.
One evening I asked him why he chose to help me. Cue-ball said, “Cause I like you kid, I’m going to tell you the truth. “You had this whole module so screwed up, you were disrupting our business.”
He explained that everything convicts do has an overt or visible purpose and a covert or secret purpose also. He said that the Calo (gang language) term for trustees was “Trucha.”
He asked if I knew what that word meant. I said that it meant “lookout.”
“Right!” he said “…and just who’s lookout do you think they are?”
He explained that we (law enforcement) only control the walls or perimeter of any facility, but they (prison gangsters) control everything inside. If they were properly motivated and desired to do so, they could take over any jail or prison in the United States. But they prefer to let us think that we are running the program. They go along with the program and make good trustees so that they can put people in place to facilitate their covert criminal activities. “Like what?” I asked. “We make pruno (jail wine), sell dope, run stores, extort people, and even plot murders, all under your noses,” he answered.
I was stunned. I later learned that Cue-ball would roll his drugs into little .38 caliber balloons and stuff them into the hole at the back of his mouth. His dentures covered this hole and every time the prowlers searched him and made him open his mouth and wiggle his tongue, they were looking at his stash of heroin and coke. Cue-ball said that most cops were lazy, didn’t like to get dirty, climb, or crawl. So gang members have learned to hide contraband in places where cops don’t want to look. Body cavities, toilets, vents, and holes usually work very well.
Asking the Right Questions
Shortly after this I asked Cue-ball why he had come down from Folsom prison. He said that he had a minor case in Pasadena Court that he had to take care of.
So I followed with: “That’s the overt reason, what’s the covert reason? Cue-ball laughed and replied, “I like you kid, you learn fast.”
Then he shocked me again. “Because I like you, I’m going to tell you the truth. I’m down here to escape. But because I like you, I’m not going to escape on your shift so you don’t get in trouble.”
That night, after I locked Cue-ball back in his cell for the night, I got a prowler to relieve me and went to see the Watch Commander. I ran the Cue-ball story down to Lt. Robert Lewis. He said that it seemed incredible to believe, but he took me down to the Inmate Reception Center and pulled state prison returnee Ruben Martinez’ file. There was no documentation about him being a prison gang member, disruptive inmate, or even a policeman’s murderer. Only the stamped red star on his Jail Inmate Record (usually reserved for murderers) even suggested a problem.
Rather than forget it, as most watch commanders might do at midnight and the end of a long shift or pass it down to the day shift to handle, Lt. Lewis got on the telephone himself and called Folsom State Prison directly.
“You have who!” I overheard the other party yell over the phone. “He is a four-man escort here at Folsom, a member of the Mexican Mafia, and a danger to all inmates and staff. He is a convicted cop killer!”
Four of the biggest deputies on my shift returned with me to 2400 carrying cuffs, waist chains, and leg shackles. I felt a tinge of guilt as I opened cell A-1 and ordered inmate Martinez to “roll it up!” He was searched (even behind his dentures) and wrapped up in yards of chains. With a four-man escort, he shuffled toward the main gate on his way to the Adjustment Center (the hole). But just before he walked out of my module, Cue-ball turned and waved his open hands saying, “No hard feelings, kid, you did what you had to do.” And the huge metal door slammed shut behind him.
I stood there for a moment staring at the door. And then I began swearing using a long string of profanity. I had been played like a Stradivarius violin. That old con knew exactly what I would do when he told me what he did. It was somehow part of his diabolical plan.
The next day was my day off, and I learned later that Ruben Martinez had a court appearance that day in Pasadena Court. Using a small pen knife he picked the lock of the hard door in the special room used to hold him as a dangerous inmate. He changed unnoticed into civilian clothes hidden for him in the lock up and then walked out of the courthouse. He escaped as he told me he would, without getting me into trouble.
I was a much better deputy after that. I knew for every overt thing the inmates did there was a covert purpose. I suspected the cleanest, smartest, hardest working trustees of being in league with the devil. I never trusted a pair of cuffs to keep me safe, and I knew that anytime they wanted the inmates could take any facility.
But most of all I learned how to find contraband. I looked where others would not. I got dirty, but I found a lot of drugs, money, and weapons. My senior deputy wrote in my evaluation that “Deputy Valdemar finds so many weapons and drug stashes, one begins to wonder if he didn’t bring them in.”
When I was transferred to East Los Angeles Station in 1974 to begin my patrol officer training, I discovered that many of the gang members that had been my trustees in the Jail were the shot callers in their individual gangs. I had already established a rapport with them while they were inmates and I understood their code of conduct as gang members and this made dealing with them on the street a lot easier.
One afternoon at briefing, surveillance camera photographs of various robbers were passed around in the hope that some experienced officer might recognize one of the perpetrators. One particular shot showed a 40-something well-groomed Hispanic wearing the typical gangster uniform of a “stingy brimmed” hat, heavily starched baggy khaki pants, a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the top and unbuttoned the rest of the way down to expose his beltline. A long Pachuco chain looped down from the waistband to his back wallet pocket. A large caliber pistol was stuck in his waistband. It was Cue-ball.
Like a grammar school kid, I raised my hand and the briefing fell silent. I said that “I recognized the robber in this picture.” Several deputies chuckled in disbelief at the rookie. “His name is Ruben Martinez and he escaped from jail a year ago,” I blurted out. Soon the ELA detectives were staking out Rubens mother’s home. Cue-ball was captured without incident and booked at ELA station.
Because I had made the identification, I was allowed to talk to him in the interview room. He told me that after years of solitary confinement that he had needed a “vacation,” so he petitioned the court to order him down in a minor criminal matter. He had himself placed on a “suitcase transfer” transmittal, which brought him by bus to Los Angeles but stopped at each prison and county jail on its way down. In each facility and transfer point trustees had access to his file. He said they owed him favors. He did not ask them to change anything in his file; he only asked that they lose a page or two. By the time he arrived in Los Angeles, he had a clean file. He had enjoyed his vacation, but he now was ready to return home to Folsom Prison.
So you think you know something about gangs? In the criminal culture, gang members go to school in jails and prisons. Their grammar school is our juvenile hall, high school the Youth Authority. And their university is prison. Pay attention to these learned men. You might just learn a thing or two. I did.