An Unsung Neighborhood Hero

Each former or active Sheriff’s detective was there to pay his last respects to a neighborhood hero. No one made them come, and many of their peers would have probably ridiculed them for coming to the funeral of a “snitch.” But none of the ridiculers knew what Mad Dog had done to make Los Angeles a safer place. Not many people knew, not even his own family.

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The storefront mortuary at Cesar Chavez and Mednic Streets was right in the middle of some of the worst East Los Angeles gang neighborhoods. It was an evening service and I was very conscious of where we were. I parked my car, then walked to the service with my wife’s hand in my left hand and my strong hand free. I was carrying my Beretta 92 duty weapon under my suit coat because it held more rounds than my 12-shot Smith & Wesson off-duty weapon.

As we approached the doors I heard some familiar “oldies but goodies” playing inside. When we entered I noticed that very few family members were in attendance and there were many empty rows of folding chairs.

Mad Dog’s coffin was propped up on the end so that everyone could see him in his heavily starched khaki pants and his wool plaid Pendleton shirt. I swear he was smiling at us.
In the back few rows, I found an L.A. Sheriff’s Department homicide detective, an LASD gang detective, and a former detective who was now a PI. Counting my wife and myself, I think we outnumbered the family members. Over the years Jessie had become estranged from his wife, child, and family.

Each former or active Sheriff’s detective was there to pay his last respects to a neighborhood hero. No one made them come, and many of their peers would have probably ridiculed them for coming to the funeral of a “snitch.” But none of the ridiculers knew what Mad Dog had done to make Los Angeles a safer place. Not many people knew, not even his own family.

Jessie V. Gutierrez was born in East L.A. on June 7, 1962. His father was a King Kobra heroin dealer and a Mexican Mafia associate. So Jessie grew up living with his mother in the “Lote Maravilla” gang area. This is a very small neighborhood of only a few blocks just north of the 10 Freeway. The adjacent blocks belong to their arch rivals Arizona Maravilla. In fact on Lote’s eastern border, the back yards of the houses backed up to the Arizona back yards on the other side of the block. Only thin wooden or chain link fences divided the gangs.

Both Arizona and Lote neighborhood kids attend the same grammar school and some became good schoolmates and even friends. This was OK for the majority of kids who avoided gang involvement, but for Lote and Arizona gang members open friendship with a rival gang member was forbidden.

Jessie became best friends with “Boxer” from Arizona. He would wait until dark, crawl over the fence, and sneak into Boxer’s house through a window. They would laugh and talk and then Boxer would help Jessie back over the fence to the safety of Lote turf. Both grew up into street combat veterans loyal to their separate gangs. They never told anybody about this strange friendship.

Boxer was called “Boxer” because he was excellent with his fists. He would commonly defeat Lote members in street fights and avoided gun play by challenging his rivals to “fight like a man.” One afternoon Boxer was talking to his girlfriend on a public telephone when a passing car full of Lote members spied him. One Lote gang member stepped out of the car to challenge Boxer to a “fair fight.” When Boxer approached his challenger, the gang members in the car shot him several times killing him.

Jessie had earned the name Mad Dog because of his ferocity in gang warfare. He was also already a heroin addict and just 20 years old. But he continued to be friends with Boxer. When he heard of the way his homeboys had murdered his best friend, he was shocked and ashamed. This was not the way street warriors were supposed to fight. This was a cowardly act perpetrated by his own neighborhood. His twisted moral conscience was offended.

So Mad Dog became a police informant. Boxer’s killers were identified, arrested, and convicted with Jessie’s secret help. He never was required to testify in court. He openly declared to me that he was a drug dealer and criminal gang member, but he was not a murderer. He also would not give information about his heroin connections. But over the following 20 years, he provided information on a dozen gang murders. That is why the other Detectives attended his funeral.

Mad Dog descended into the hell of heroin addiction, falling to the lowest rung of the street narcotics world. He was a taster. He worked for a major dealer and organization in downtown Los Angeles. He acted as a middle man and brokered heroin deals for the Mara Salvatrucha dealers and sampled the new supplies of heroin hitting the street near skid row. This required that he test the strength of the heroin by injecting a small amount. The drug dealer would then watch Mad Dog to see if he got high or overdosed and died. This job had a short life expectancy.

One day he watched his Salvadorian dealer cutting pure tar heroin with lactose in a blender. This is not a very efficient method and the resulting mix varies greatly in strength because it tends to clump up. In addition he watched the dealer throw in a few Valium capsules. When he questioned the dealer about the mixture, the dealer explained that the hypes thought they had better dope then they really had because of the soothing effects of the Valium. Mad Dog pointed out that many people might have bad reactions to the mixture and even die. “I don’t give a f__k!” said the dealer, “It’s all poison anyway.”

Here was the man that Mad Dog risked his life for every time he tested the heroin, saying he didn’t care what happened to users like Jessie. Later a 12-year-old gang member came in with a roll of cash. He asked to buy a gun. The dealer sold him a pistol for about $50 and laughed as the kid walked out the door. Now Mad Dog was a believer in violence and had no problems with gang members carrying guns and shooting each other when the opponents were equally armed, but selling guns to kids was too much for his conscience. He called me up and began informing on the Salvadorian drug dealers.

I was temporarily assigned to the Custody Division in 1992 and became the gang sergeant at our Biscaluz Center jail facility. This was a medium level facility nicknamed “Camp Snoopy.” We had several dormitories there and a few experimental programs. One was a mental health program and the second was a drug boot camp. The drug boot camp was a voluntary program run like a military boot camp that followed a 12-step format like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. 

While working there I got a call Mad Dog. He was busted again, and it looked like he was going to be sentenced to some serious time. Jessie wasn’t afraid of doing time; for several years he had been a trusty at the license plate factory at Folsom State Prison. He had enjoyed this assignment and proudly gave me a photograph of the crew. But Jessie said, “Rich, I never asked you for anything before, but my problem is my addiction. Can you get me in a drug program?”

I checked on Mad Dog’s heavy record and it placed him in the higher security level, unqualified for Camp Snoopy or the boot camp program. However, I sensed a genuineness in the normally cynical Jessie’s request for help, so I “modified” his classification and brought him into my facility and placed him in drug boot camp.

From time to time, Jessie would stop by the gang office and tell me how stupid the system was. He said the staff was smuggling in cigarettes (and who knows what else) and the boot camp staff was naive and unsophisticated in the ways of inmate gangs and the jail underworld. All the inmates were pretending to change but found the 12 steps corny and they all continued to use drugs.

I told Mad Dog that I had to admit that he was much better than anyone on my staff, and even me, in his skill and understanding on how to operate covertly in the underworld. He was smarter than us all. But in the end he would only be cheating himself by choosing not to honestly try to complete the program. Yes, he could continue to use drugs and fool everyone by completing the program and getting his certificate, but he would then only remain the same old addict.

This talk must have had an effect because he did not stop by the gang office for a couple of weeks. But one afternoon he appeared. He seemed nervous and apprehensive. He asked to speak to me alone. Normally my chief gang deputy Angel Jaimes would remain when I had a private talk with an inmate, but Jessie seemed almost embarrassed to speak in front of anyone else. So I asked Jaimes to step outside and I closed the office door. But as I walked back toward my desk Mad Dog rushed me with a huge grin saying, “I know my higher power, I know my higher power!” He gave me a bear hug and rattled off the story of how he had changed.
Jessie completed the program and remained clean and sober for the rest of his life. He received a light sentence and soon was on the street. He apologized to his wife and reestablished his lost relations with his son, in accordance with steps 5, 8, and 9. But then working on the 10th step—to take personal inventory—he went for a physical.

Jessie was diagnosed with advanced AIDS caused from his many years of intravenous drug use. He was a walking dead man. At first he wanted to give up and shoot dope until he died. “I finally got my life together and now its over!” He called me up and said, “Tell me why I shouldn’t just buy a big clavo and slam it all?” I said, “That’s the coward’s way out, Jessie. Do you want your son to find you like that dead with the needle in your arm?”

On another occasion he called up to say, “I’ve got a pistol sitting in my lap, tell me again why I shouldn’t blow my brains out here and now.” I argued, “Is this the Mad Dog that spit in the Mexican Mafia’s face? The one who refused to knuckle under to taxes and threats to kill him? The one who faced the wrath of his own homeboys to stand up for what was right? You gonna let this sickness take you out like that? …or are you gonna fight?”

Jessie chose to fight. He volunteered for the testing of experimental drugs and helped perfect the “cocktail” used to combat the HIV/AIDS disease today. He became a popular speaker for Teen Challenge and would start by saying, “I am a walking dead man, proof that dope kills.”

I was inspired to write this article because recently I met with a Hollywood writer and producer who are working on a story about gangs in Los Angeles. When I suggested that the story could feature a police informant as one of the heroes they seemed shocked and incredulous. People don’t like “rats” and “snitches,” the producer said.

That’s because they don’t know them, like I do. I said. And I thought of Mad Dog.

About the Author
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Sergeant (Ret.)
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