Indolence clings to San Diego like sheets to the skin in summer. It is a place rich only in time: the oil boom that fleetingly livened the South Texas towns of Freer to the west and Alice to the east bypassed San Diego. The compliant coastal plain gives over to the wild and inhospitable brush country here, land that submits to nothing but the inexorable pressure of the sky. “There is not a thing to do in this lonely land but drink and fornicate,” a turn-of-the-century traveler wrote, and to speed across Duval County today is to believe little has changed since then.
San Diego, the county seat, puts up a good front. It is, like most small towns, neither interested in nor of interest to the person just passing through. The Lopez convenience store and El Mercado supermarket indicate how little this insular and isolated place has in common with the small towns that line the interstate highways to the north, towns that are little more than far-flung suburbs with their own 7-Elevens, multi-cinemas, and strip shopping centers. English is spoken only intermittently in San Diego. In its heart, it is a Mexican town begrudgingly located in Texas.
In San Diego, Americans are people who live elsewhere; Anglos are people who bring or cause bad news. Faith soothes, fate rules: The Catholic church on the town square brims with people on Sunday mornings; on a weekday a young boy, pumped by a friend on the handlebars of his bike, crosses himself as he speeds past. A white horse, loose from the field, poses no inconvenience as it prances down a main street; instead cars fall into line behind in an impromptu parade. Cocks and dogs have the run of their blocks, where ancient adobe houses graciously permit frame bungalows and trailers on adjoining lots. The few spacious Spanish colonial mansions, their windows covered with extravagant grillwork, overlook the shacks of Naked City—a poor neighborhood so named because the babies run around without clothes. Reconciled to close quarters, San Diegoans present sunny faces to one another. There is always time for coffee at the Dairy Queen and Jerry’s Diner; one of the worst snubs imaginable is to refuse to say “hi” to someone. In this town of five thousand, everyone belongs.
Only after spending a longer time in a town might one question this congeniality, see it as a courageous attempt at wishful thinking. For San Diego is a kingdom of cursed. People here are epicures of talk, but the stories they embroider and embellish have the haunting beauty of a mournful corrido. When San Diegoans talk of their families, they talk of loss: the mother who went mad, the brother who stole the inheritance, the son killed in an automobile accident on Christmas Eve. Resigned to the price of passion, townspeople are all too familiar with tragic results of beer-joint fights and late-night lovers’ quarrels.
But the curse of San Diego is found not in the cruel mixture of poverty and passion but in its own hunger for accommodation. A student of history knows the secrets the insiders do not give up willingly—that this is a place where terrible things have happened, a place where justice has been as fleeting and capricious as the dust devils that swirl up and disappear along the back roads out of town. One of the oldest towns in Texas, San Diego is a place shaped by violence, oppression, and domination: first, as Anglo and Hispanic settlers battled bitterly for control of the land—“My grandfather killed her father,” a resident told me, her way of introducing a character into her family narrative—and later, as the people of San Diego fell under the spell of Archer Parr and his son George. The two men helped the Mexicans take over this parched Eden only to take their freedom in return; styling themselves as patrones, the Parrs used the threat of violence to maintain control for more than sixty years. To survive, the people of San Diego learned to submit—or to be cast out into a world they did not want, that did not want them.
Eventually the Parr empire collapsed, but the people of San Diego clung together even more fiercely in the aftermath. Marked by history, they had only one place to feel at home. They would acquiesce to their own: When toughs took over the club at the town’s only hotel, the respectable customers simply moved on. It did not matter so much that the hotel soon closed as a result—no one cared about visitors anyway. It did not matter that city-hall windows in San Diego had to be boarded up and white-washed because, one woman explained, “we have a man who doesn’t like glass.” In San Diego it is better to sit in the dark than to punish the man with the rock in his hand. Never did it occur to the people here that they had exchanged one form of tyranny for another.
It is occasionally noted that no highways lead north from San Diego, a detail that seems to reveal indisputably the town’s southward orientation. In fact, a few local roads do lead north out of town. One in particular, on the far west side, is a winding, desolate stretch that eventually turns to caliche before veering east to intersect State Highway 281. The mesquite and prickly pear form a curtain along the roadside; it is barely possible, beyond a rise a few miles outside of town, to make out a small colonia of shacks and treeless lots off the main road to the left. On one plot, incongruously prosperous, sits a neat white wide-bodied trailer with a raked caliche drive. A series of metal-roofed sheds is visible out back; the yard is enclosed by a wire fence supported by thick posts.
Here, late in the evening of March 26, an illegal cockfight scheduled as the night’s entertainment did not go as planned. The event wasn’t a typical South Texas cockfight. There were no families present, no soft-drink or taquito sellers. It was just a brush fight, arranged to test the roosters of one particular owner. The cockfight was really just an excuse for a bunch of guys from the tough side of town to get together and party. They certainly weren’t expert bird handlers—someone had to go back into town to find a person who knew how to put metal gaffs on the rooster’s legs.
Sometime around eleven o’clock, a maroon car pulled up with four men and a young woman inside. This is what happened next, according to law-enforcement officials, whose accounts are based on eyewitness statements. Three men got out and headed for the cockfight. The fourth, a thick, barrel-chested man with pale-brown eyes named Orlando Garza, stayed in the car with the woman. The two had known each other for some time, but tonight’s was not a friendly outing. In a statement the woman later filed with the sheriff, she said she had been abducted from the street near her home and driven to the cockfight after she had turned down an invitation for a ride. Now Garza made sexual advances; when the woman refused, they argued. Finally he began forcing her to have oral sex. In the meantime, another man had strolled back to the car. “Save some for me,” Corando Perez, a slight young man possessed of manic energy, told Garza and then, impatient, got into the car and started to have sex with the woman. Felipe Chew tried to get in on the act as well, but after the muscular Mexican national climbed into the car, the woman struggled and escaped. Garza caught her, however, threw her on the hood of a car, and began raping her again. Someone warned him not to tear her clothes—that would show they had used force.
Payo Briones, a lumbering man with a dazed look and a large growth on one side of his face, had drifted out of the cockfight and approached Garza while he was assaulting the woman. Briones had heard her crying—Garza told him to get away. Instead, Briones began playing with the woman’s breasts. Finally, because she was scratching him, Garza told Briones to hold her down. When Garza finished, Briones tried to take his turn but was impotent because he was drunk. A crowd that had formed began to laugh at Briones, especially when Garza “pushed me down between her legs like I was a dog,” as Briones later said in his statement. Other men moved in. Corando Perez pushed Briones aside and entered the woman again while Garza shoved his crotch at her face. When she could, the woman screamed for help and begged to be taken home, but no one was in a mood to listen.
Instead, the men formed a line as the cockfight ended. According to the woman’s statement and those of witnesses, Roel Torres, a long-haired man with a fierce overbite, mounted the woman, as did Ruben Vela, a twinkly-eyed 22-year-old with a halo of black curls and a pregnant wife at home. Alex Bear, a small man whose face is dotted with acne scars, raped her; so did Roberto Garcia, a young man with a haunted look, and Roberto Perez, Corando’s heavy-set older brother. One young man who had ridden to the cockfight on his bicycle took his turn, then bicycled back home. A few boys were dragged to the car and told, “This is what you can look forward to” —a nine-year-old was thrown on top of the woman. A fourteen-year-old took part, and then, while the men held her hands and feet, he placed his hands over the woman’s mouth to try to stop her from crying out. Eventually, unable to stand the woman’s screams, Briones tried to stop his friend: “I said leave her alone, because she was crying and yelling, but the guys got mad and almost got into a fight with me.” Finally after the woman fainted, Garza told Garcia to take her away. Briones gathered up her clothes and got in Garcia’s red Ford Galaxy with Roberto Perez, Garcia, Bear, and two small boys. But instead of taking her home, Perez, Garcia, and Bear dropped off Briones and the kids and took the woman to a shed on property owned by Garza’s brother, where they again took turns raping her. Afterward, Perez drove back into town, dropped off Garcia and Bear, and then proceeded to a third location, where he raped the woman again and warned her to keep quiet. Finally, according to the officials’ account of the rape, Perez dumped her near the railroad tracks around four in the morning. Then he drove the few blocks home to his place on Tovar Street, just a few short steps from the rickety King Street shack of the woman he had spent the night assaulting.
Frank Gaitan knew something was wrong when he got home around two in the morning and found his mother still there with the kids. He and his wife, Linda, had gone to a family barbecue at his uncle’s trailer around the corner that Saturday night, and as usual, Frankie, a 23-year-old tattoo artist, had talked and laughed and drunk with his relatives while his 19-year-old wife remained more subdued. Linda was a pretty enough girl—pale with shiny black hair, an inviting smile, and a nice light in her eyes—but because she wasn’t from San Diego, she wasn’t much of a talker. Frankie was a spindly guy—even his moustache refused to grow in fully—but he knew how to tell a story and would do so at the slightest request and for as long as he could hold a crowd. He didn’t mind that, after he announced he would go on to another party with his cousin Roel Soliz, Linda said she wanted to go home to check on Frank Junior, sixteen months old, and Sara, who was just four months old. The street was dark—because of hard times, there was no money to light the streets at night—but Frankie let her go. After all, home was just around the corner.
But now here was his mother, giving him nothing but a confused look, and no Linda. Uneasy, Frankie went back to his uncle’s house to round up his cousin and set out in search of his wife. Frankie wasn’t too suspicious when he spied a few of Linda’s friends collected on Corando Perez’s porch—it was, after all, a Saturday night. He asked if they had seen Linda; they said no. But when Frankie, after walking on about half a block, turned back to ask more questions and saw that the porch was empty, he began to worry. Frankie and Roel went home. No Linda. Later, Frankie went back to Corando Perez’s house; he heard sounds inside but got no answer when he banged on the door. Frankie caught sight of his neighbor, Felipe Chew, approaching on foot. The two men exchanged insults. Two of the women who had been at the Perez house appeared; growing more agitated, Frankie warned them that if anything had happened to Linda and they knew it, they would live to regret it. Frankie’s mother came out of the house and tried to calm him; instead, he demanded she bring him his gun.
Gradually, other men began returning from the cockfight. In his statement, Frankie told law-enforcement officials that Ruben Vela bragged to him and Roel that he had had sex with a woman at the Gallegos ranch. The neighbors began to crowd around Frankie and threaten him. He saw that one man had a rifle and heard him cock it. It was only when Frankie turned and saw a familiar figure limping toward him that the crowd vanished—in a hurry, it seemed. He thought he heard someone laughing. As his wife drew nearer, Frankie gave his familiar whistle. But when he was close enough to see Linda’s face he demanded to know where she had been. She looked at him and looked at Roel. “Out riding,” she said.
Once inside the house, Frankie saw that his wife’s eyes were wild. She couldn’t think straight. She was afraid. This time he ordered her to tell him what had happened. Finally, when her husband’s fury seemed more menacing than her attackers’ threats, Linda Gaitan told him she had been raped. If the men had assumed that Linda knew and understood the code of the neighborhood—poor women did what poor men wanted and shut up—they had seriously miscalculated. Hearing the news, Frankie walked out the door into the street, and yelling loud enough to wake anyone who dared to sleep, swore that he would get even. Then after sunrise on Palm Sunday, Frank Gaitan, betrayed by his buddies, betrayed them in turn. He reported the crime to the authorities. Later that morning, tearful and disoriented, Linda stood before an elderly justice of the peace and named her attackers so that warrants for their arrest could be issued. “Him too?” was all Frankie could say, as he sobbed along with his wife. These were men he had grown up with, gone to school with, gone drinking with, gotten into trouble with. Lots of them wore tattoos Frankie had given them. Just last week Orlando Garza—“Him too?”—had offered to help Frankie fix his van in exchange for a tattoo. Frankie had known Robert Garcia—“Him too?”—ever since they had been altar boys together. What Frankie could not have dreamed at that moment, when the treachery of his friends stung like the slice of a knife across his cheek, was that the worst was yet to come. He had seen evil for what it was and in so doing broke San Diego’s rule of silence. For him and his brutalized wife, the price would be expulsion.
San Diego has wrestled with darkness for most of its life. Like all of Texas between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, it was settled slowly. For years after Texas won its independence from Mexico, the region remained disputed territory, and even when the issue of sovereignty was settled, the issue of which race and culture would rule was not.
Any land held by the old Mexican families was too much for the restless Anglos who coveted it. Onto the old culture of refinement—Spanish spinsters once gave croquet parties on the lawn of the town’s only hotel—was grafted a culture of violence, where due process was dismissed in favor of shoot-outs and impromptu hangings. For a time, prosperity obscured deeper divisions. By the 1880’s Duval County’s population had soared to around five thousand; San Diego was a sheep-ranching boomtown, a rough-and-tumble stop on the railway between Corpus Christi and Laredo. But then, in a mysterious plague, the sheep began to die, taking with them the town’s vision of a glorious future.
It is fitting that a violent crime would be the definitive event that catapulted a shrewd ranch manager named Archer Parr to power. In 1912 racial tensions could no longer be contained when three Anglo ranchers murdered a Mexican deputy sheriff in broad daylight. Parr, who had sided with the Mexicans against the Anglos in an earlier attempt to move the county seat to a neighboring town, came forward again on behalf of the oppressed. According to Dudley Lunch’s history, The Duke of Duval County, Anglo powers paid off the crucial witness, and the men were acquitted. But what looked like another victory for the Anglos was actually the beginning of the end. Hispanics lined up behind one man whose loyalty had never wavered: Archer Parr.
Parr became their patron. If your aunt was sick or your son needed money for schoolbooks, you went to Mr. Parr. That the money came from the country treasury (and that Parr regularly helped himself to it) was of little importance—families could keep their land, their way of life, their identity. All Parr expected in return was their vote. Established law was something Parr cut to fit his needs: Anglo ranchers tried to roust him by convening a grand jury in 1914 to investigate his abuse of county funds; months later a mysterious fire engulfed the courthouse, destroying records that would have been used as evidence. He had proved- if anyone needed convincing- that opposition would not be tolerated.
Archer’s son George absorbed his father’s lessons and improved upon them. If his father had won the hearts of the townspeople because he tried to understand them, George, a burly young man whose smile glistened with mischief, captivated the people because he was one of them. San Diegoans didn’t consider George Parr an American, an Anglo, or even a Texan. He was a Mexican: Archer Parr had spoken a mangled and halting Spanish; George, who took over from his father in the thirties, spoke it flawlessly. George was macho—he hunted and whored and was afraid of no one. “He did not impose his morality on anyone, because he had no morality,” one former San Diego resident told me. It was George Parr who had orchestrated the stuffing of ballots in the infamous Box 13 that sent Lyndon Johnson to the Senate in 1948.
But there was a darker side to Parr’s power that increased as his grip tightened on the town. “When he laughed, everybody laughed,” one longtime resident of San Diego noted. The liberator has become the oppressor; Parr sealed San Diego off from the world. He controlled all jobs. Then as now, the two places to work were the county courthouse and the school district. The people learned what he wanted them to learn; when the American Legion campaigned to raise the country’s literacy rate, Parr abolished Duval’s veterans training program. There was only one law in San Diego, and it was brutally, elegantly simple: To stay on the inside—to survive—one did as Parr ordered.
To disobey him was to face punishments expertly devised to poison a close-knit community. Those who tried to oppose Parr by joining what was called the Freedom party would soon find themselves out of a job, with no prospects and only a sorry, embarrassed shake of the head in answer to further inquiries. Habitues of a local drive-in run by two brothers who opposed Parr were often arrested for drunkenness by Parr’s deputy sheriffs. Children whose parents tried to fight Parr couldn’t sell their stock at 4-H clubs. Friend turned against friend, brother against brother; one learned to go along or face expulsion. Few, if any, were foolish enough to assume the sheriff was on their side; Parr controlled not just law enforcement but the law as well. Just as he had his own deputy sheriffs, he had his own judges. “He wouldn’t let you breathe,” one citizen said.
Indictments against Parr for fraud and tax evasion totaled 656 counts by the sixties, but nothing stuck. Ten more years would pass before his rule was ended; he was finally convicted of tax evasion in 1974. In response, Parr, who had gone to jail once in the thirties on a similar charge, shot himself in the head on his ranch near Benavidea in 1975.
For San Diego, it was a new beginning, though the new world was not so different from the old one. Hispanics controlled their destiny, but it was rarely a destiny of openness and reform—the lessons of the Parrs had been learned too well. The town remained one of the poorest in Texas, so controlling the vote (and in turn the jobs) remained the consuming passion as power passed from the Carrillos to the Urestis to the Garcias. Meanwhile a new evil has been introduced into the garden. Because of its location on one of the least-populated roads from the border, San Diego was fast becoming a center for drug smuggling. An unusually large heroin problem developed, and townspeople joke that anyone with a flashy new car must be selling dope. Still, after a century, the Anglo had been driven out and with him the days when little boys were told not to bring taquitos to school or were rapped on the knuckles for speaking Spanish in class. At last San Diego could have the world it wanted, a world of its own making, in its own image—that so-often-dreamed-of paradise in the desert. The shame of San Diegoans felt at their decades of submission would be forgotten. A curtain was drawn against the outside world; few were tempted to look beyond it, and even fewer asked to be let inside.
News of the gang rape did not appear in local newspapers, although almost everyone in town knew what had happened by late Sunday. Many people assumed it was a neighborhood thing—not a good neighborhood at that—something best left alone. That this would not blow over was apparent by Monday morning, when San Diegoans awoke to find that someone had painted “Cut the balls off the rapist” on the town-square gazebo. When the Corpus Christi Caller Times broke the story on March 31, TV news trucks with satellite dishes began patrolling the streets. The cameras whirred, and the news that a nineteen-year-old mother of two had been raped by upward of twenty neighbors at an illegal cockfight in San Diego, Texas went out not just all over the country but all over the world.
Arrests came slowly. Few of the men who had been at the cockfight would even admit to being there, much less offer themselves up as witnesses to or participants in a gang rape. Eventually ten men, mostly in their twenties, and one juvenile were arrested: Ruben Vela, Roel Torres, Jose Carlos “Payo” Briones, and the fourteen-year-old boy were charged with sexual assault. Alex Bear, Corando Perez, Orlando Garza, Felipe Chew, and Roberto Garcia were charged with sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping. Roberto Perez faced a charge with sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping. Roberto Perez faced a charge of sexual assault and two charges of aggravated kidnapping. Isidro Soliz, whom law-enforcement officials say drove the car in which Linda Gaitan was taken to the cockfight, was charged with kidnapping. All but two were swiftly released on bond.
As news accounts of the crime increased in number and intensity, hate mail poured into San Diego, like the letter addressed to “Whomever might possibly care in the Police Department of San Diego, Texas.” A group of Banditos threatened to come to town and eliminate the rapists forever. While there were San Diegoans, mostly women, who were outraged by the crime, many followed their first instinct, which was to protect the town by downplaying the episode. There were people who asserted that this gang rape wasn’t as brutal as the 1983 gang rape of a woman in New Bedford, Massachusetts (it was more so), and they complained that rapes occur in Corpus Christi and Houston on wealthy American college campuses without receiving this much media coverage. Alfredo Cardenas, the editor and publisher of the weekly Duval County Picture, editorialized that regional and national news media “have raped this town in a fashion not too unsimilar to the gang rape itself.” The publicity had struck a nerve. People in San Diego did not want to endure the scrutiny and disapproval of outsiders again, specifically Anglos. They didn’t want to hear their assessments of illegal cockfights; they didn’t want to hear their analyses of the Mexican character. Most of all, they didn’t want another stain on the reputation of San Diego and Duval County.
In reality, the attack and the subsequent pressure from the outside world threatened to tear the heart out of the town. “We hurt for the girl,” people told me, “but we hurt for the families of the boys too.” The survival of every small town is predicated on accommodation, and certainly few want to be confronted with the sins of their husbands, sons, or brothers; it is a sad truth that rapes can and do happen everywhere, although this case is extreme. Still, if the crime was not unique to San Diego, the town’s response was firmly rooted in its very particular history. Pressed to turn on their own, townspeople recalled the agonies of the Parr days and found themselves paralyzed. The people would not speak out against one another, and in refusing to choose sides, they chose one: Linda Gaitan had no family in Sand Diego, her husband had some but little compared with the defendants. In a slow, insidious shift, the couple became outsiders in the place they had called home.
The accused were finely woven into the fabric of the town; news accounts frequently noted that nine out of ten of the suspects were related through either blood or marriage. Their network tapped into the town’s power structure via Roberto Garcia, a member of one of the oldest and most prosperous families in San Diego. A young man who picked up the extra money by mowing the lawns of his parents’ friends, he was, in the words of many, “the shyest, sweetest boy you’d ever want to meet.” His mother, who worked at the First State Bank, was a deeply loved member of the community. Less well loved but far more critical to the survival of San Diegoans was Roberto’s uncle Frank, who was a county judge and the president of the school board and therefore controls virtually all of the jobs in town. The Garcia faction has even been embroiled in political scandals, proof that the old days are far from gone in San Diego.
Other defendants had close ties to local government and law enforcement. Felipe Chew played on the county volleyball team; quite a few of the accused had put up campaign signs for the sheriff before election day. Ruben Vela’s mother worked as secretary in the sheriff’s office. Over and over again townspeople insisted to visiting reporters that these were good boys from good families. “I don’t think these guys were bad guys,” police chief Oscar Hughes told the Houston Post. “I just don’t know what happened.”
In truth, San Diego had been turning a blind eye to these young men for years. The majority of these good boys from good families had had problems with the law. Men like Alex Bear and Ruben Vela had served probationary terms for petty theft. Payo Briones had been convicted for possession of heroin; Felipe Chew had been indicted for possession of cocaine. Department of Public Safety highway patrolmen had apprehended Chew after a motorcycle chase; later, when officers returned to the scene, they found a packet of the drug. Faced with a weak case, the DA’s office struck a deal: Chew’s charge was plea-bargained to possession of marijuana. Scheduled for deportation, Chew was out on bail at the time of his arrest for the rape of Linda Gaitan.
Other defendants had histories of violent crime. Roel Torres was placed on probation when, as a juvenile, he had cut a boy on his left arm and wrist with a knife at school. Roberto Perez, who dumped Linda Gaitan by the railroad tracks, had been indicted in 1980 on a charge of aggravated assault for shooting a man with a .22 rifle. Having pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor assault, he was sentenced to one year in jail and ordered to make restitution to his victim in the sum of $150. A motion to revoke his probation was entered in 1981 because he failed to fulfill those obligations; seven years had gone by without his arrest.
Orlando Garza, who seems to have provided the spark that ignited the incident, was well known to peace officers for his violent behavior. A deputy sheriff, responding to a call at Garza’s house, recalls that he arrived to find the man brandishing an ax. Garza’s criminal record begins with a 1983 theft indictment. He was sentenced to one year in jail, which was subsequently knocked down to one year’s probation and a fine of $400. Garza told the judge he could not afford to pay the damages; revocation was requested when it was discovered he had easily come up with a cash bond for a friend in San Antonio. The motion to revoke probation in 1984 included information that in November 1983 Garza had tried to run over a woman with a car. A warrant for Garza’s arrest was issued in July 1984. Revocation hearings continued to be scheduled for the next four years—the last motion to reschedule was pending at the time Garza was arrested for raping Gaitan. The town had taught the men that they would not be held accountable; there was no reason for them to fear harsh judgment for anything they did.
They were further protected by South Texas attitude toward sexual morality. Rape is a confusing crime in most places; in San Diego, where machismo still thrives, people are particularly ambivalent. This is the place where Pancho Villa bragged about his sexual conquests, where George Parr was justified in stopping his Chrysler to slap a young man he believed had made eyes at his wife. Beneath the surface runs the age-old assumption that men are weak-willed and women corrupt. The Casa Blanca Bar does not allow unescorted women—they cause trouble, I was told—yet a man is entitled to his infidelities as proof of his manhood. “Mexican men always have something on the side besides their family,” A woman from an old Hispanic family told me. “It’s almost a must around here.” Women may be idolized or scorned, but they are never equal. Those who stay in San Diego marry young, have children, and do as they’re told—those who do not, suffer the consequences. Only two rapes have been reported in San Diego in the last two years, which might indicate the crime’s rarity or, more likely, the rarity with which it is reported. Rape is viewed by man not as a crime of violence but as a crime of passion, something that has to do with sexual attraction. More than once I heard men comment with much puzzlement that the accused “had prettier wives.”
If rape was misunderstood, so too was the difference between it and gang rape. Though women whispered their disgust, few men would admit that gang rape is the result of a world that lets boys be boys to a grotesque extreme. “It got out of hand” was the most frequently offered assessment of the crime. The accused were powerfully bound together, not just through blood, marriage, and time but also by their pride in their role as tough guys. The gang rape was the final, most primitive extension of that bond; to refuse to participate made one less of a man, and also less of a brother. When the time came to choose between the world of men and an insignificant woman, the choice was easy.
If it was more wrenching for the town to choose between the woman and the accused, people slowly found the wherewithal to make the decision. Early on, families and friends and the defendants had begun the paint Linda Gaitan as a tattooed tramp who wore tight clothes and had been previously involved with one of the men she had accused; somehow she deserved what she got or simply invented the story to cover up an indiscretion. As in the New Bedford case, the accused who admit to having sex with Gaitan allege consent. Just after the ten men were indicted last May, Orlando Garza, his face partially obscured but recognizable on camera, told a Houston television reporter, “It wasn’t no rape. Whatever it was, she had fun with it. She enjoyed it.”
This was the approach taken by defense lawyer Nago Alaniz, an ancient attorney who had been a lawyer for George Parr. Implicated in the assassination of the son of a Parr enemy, Alaniz was acquitted in the fifties. Over the years he has shifted his focus from politics to criminal law—Alaniz has represented some of the gang-rape defendants before on drug-related charges and now represents five of the accused—but he remains a powerful reminder of the old ways. Alaniz’s hair is blacker now that it was in photos in the fifties, but that small vanity cannot obscure the weariness in his face and voice. As he speaks, his eyelids droop and his voice drops from a growl to a slow, weary rumble; he seems to be a man whose mission has finally drained him.
After telling me that he had no intention of trying the case in the newspapers or of smearing Linda Gaitan’s reputation, Alaniz offered a preview of coming attractions, as he had done for several other reporters and countless coffee drinkers in town. Deftly, Alaniz told a tale highlighting that crucial element, reasonable doubt. “She knew them all. She knew them better than she should have,” he said. “She’d been keeping company with one of them on the QT. The whole town knows it.” Alaniz further reminded me that Gaitan had withdrawn an accusation against one of Frankie’s cousins, Adolfo Quintanilla (law-enforcement officials say that she had mistaken him for Roberto Perez, whom he resembles.) To hear Alaniz talk, the entire case was concocted by outsiders. “They built this thing up in Corpus. They buy her a car. The Corpus people had money to spend,” he told me. “They made it into a crisis.”
Loyal to their friends, afraid of reprisals (it is somehow revealing that the person most vocal in his support of the Gaitans was Richard Yaegar, a semiretired soldier of fortune with little family left in town), the citizens of San Diego turned inward. A local fund established for Gaitan came up with only $70; a fund administered by Corpus Christi Crisis Services and fueled by the Chorpus Christi Caller-Times’ stories raised almost $10,000. Outsiders donated a Corpus apartment to the couple when it was reported that they were being threatened by the accused. San Diego spoke with silence.
There seemed to be only one person in San Diego who was not afraid of the “boys”—a real boy, aged twelve. Small for his age, he walks with a confident swagger and has a few tattoos, crosses mostly, on his arms and legs. He appeared alone at the DA’s office a few days after the gang rape and told his story. The boy had been spending the night at a friend’s house, when on the way to buy a Coke, they saw his friend’s relative Alex Bear, who from a crowded car invited the boys to the cockfight. Once there, the boy noted the arrival of Garza and the others and saw Linda Gaitan struggling to get away. From then on, his story matched those of Gaitan and Briones. The boy’s mother had not known he had gone to the cockfight, nor did she know he had contacted the district attorney. “They were going to catch me anyway” is the way he explains his confession.
Shortly thereafter, the boy says, he became the subject of threats. The defendants began driving by his house, calling his sisters names like “masota” (“big mama”). His best friend–the fourteen-year-old accused in the gang rape—would have nothing to do with him; the boy caught a glimpse of his former friend near school one day and fainted from fear. Sometimes some of the accused could be seen near the junior high playground. The principal assigned a teacher’s aide to watch over the boy—she turned out to be an aunt of one of the suspects. Eventually the boy’s mother took him out of school, and he was put into a home-tutoring program. He was afraid to go outside. A doctor prescribed medication for his heart. He had bad dreams: once he had a nightmare that the men were at the window. His mother came in, checked the window, and took him into her room to sleep, promising him that they were safe. Just as the two were drifting off, there was a knock on the door. When his mother went to answer, no one was there. “I never gone to one of those rapes before,” he says with a shudder, as if it were something he expected to get used to.
After the Caller-Times wrote a story about the boy, he too became the recipient of donations and letters of support—once more, from out of town. Someone gave him a few weeks at camp, and the family moved away temporarily. At midsummer, the small frame house he shared with his mother and siblings was empty. No laundry hung on the line, and the curtains were knotted behind open windows and rusted screens.
“I don’t talk about it,” Linda Gaitan tells me with a toss of her head, a grimace, and a finality that brooks no argument. We are sitting in the living room of the Gaitans’ donated apartment, a small, dark place in front of a trailer park in Corpus Christi. The children—round-faced, their heads a mass of silky curls—rest placidly in diapers on a pile of blankets in front of a donated color television tuned to a children’s cartoon show. Donated toys are strewn about the floor, and velveteen hangings from Frankie’s mother decorate the walls—one of Christ, the cross inside his heart ablaze, another of bears frolicking in the stream filled with pink fish. In spite of the efforts of family and newfound friends, the place is overwhelmingly grim.
In San Diego, the Gaitans’ lives had been on a fixed, if predictable, course. Both Frankie and Linda had grown up in poverty. Frankie is the only surviving child of a widow who cleaned the church for a living; his father died when he was a boy. Linda, born in Irving, was one of twelve children. Her parents split up after they moved to a ranch near San Diego; her father runs a bar in Benavides. Linda did well in school in Irving but was more distracted in South Texas (“Boys,” she says sourly. “They were always teasing me”). She dropped out her sophomore year and went to work in the fields to help her family.
Their courtship, Frankie says, shaking his head, grinning, and dragging on a cigarette, “wasn’t all champagne and wine.” He met Linda after a basketball game, when he bet a friend his last cigarette that he could get her to tell him where she lived. He walked up to her and asked for a light; Linda reached into her pocket and produced a handful of lighters for him to choose from. They started dating. Frankie would hitch a ride to her ranch every weekend, or he would mail her pictures he had drawn on handkerchiefs—of the Virgin, of two horses rearing, of an eagle flying. They were married by a justice of the peace on Halloween 1985. She was sixteen, he was twenty. The ceremony at his grandmother’s house was interrupted by trick-or-treaters so often that they finally had to send a relative out to the yard to distribute the candy. Later Frankie gave his wife a tattoo on her shoulder, “Soy Gaitan”—“I’m a Gaitan”—it said, over a rose that bloomed.
The tattoo may have been the only thing that flourished. Frankie found work intermittently on construction crews; they supplemented their income by selling homemade tamales or scavenging aluminum cans. Sometimes he made money by doing tattoos, like the penguins he applied to the chest of a wrestler known as the Ice Man. Over the next two years Linda and Frankie had two children, and the days blended together. Sometimes, when he had money, Frankie took his wife to Jerry’s Diner for a night on the town.
Even without the horror of the gang rape, Linda and Frankie’s lives are tinged with bleakness the rest of us would rather not imagine. Frankie, his chest and arms covered with his own tattoos, has a face that is deeply lined for his age, a combination of sun, cigarettes, and hardship. Behind his expansiveness lies a certain freneticism—he downs a beer like a man on a mission. In person Linda is neither the shy saint her in-laws have fashioned for the media nor the sinner the town rumor mills have generated in response. She is simply a sturdy, pigeon-toed girl who wears that air of stolid resignation common to poor women who, raised to expect nothing, get even less. It was she who fought with Frankie’s mother over the distribution of the welfare check in San Diego; it is she who now fixes those rummaging through her neighborhood dumpster with a fierce, competitive stare. Frankie may be the head of the household, but Linda has always been responsible for sustaining it. Long ago she made peace with the conceit that the man of the house was also just another child to be pampered and soothed.
Many who saw Linda after the gang rape noted that she would shrink from contact, as if slapped. At home now, four months later, she speaks in anxious spurts, telling the story of how once on the ranch they nursed an injured seagull until it died or the story of how once she and Frankie were driving up Leopard Street in Corpus Christi and a man exposed himself to her. Unlike her husband, Linda has the curiosity of someone who has not given herself to only one place. She would have liked to have become a cop, she would like to learn to read. Instead, the reality of the gang rape has made her small world even smaller.
When she struggles to understand the budget consciousness that he counselors at the crisis center are trying to instill in her, she is desperately afraid they will abandon her. She would like to buy a hand wringer so she can wash clothes at home because she is afraid to go to a public laundry. She is, actually, afraid to go outside at all. The only time she ventures out is once a day, when she lets her children play in a plastic pool right beside the front door to the apartment. Most days she minds the children and waits for Frankie to come home from his donated job at a department store so she can eat and sometimes go to the counseling crisis center. Sometimes she blacks out while she is talking to Frankie: The gang rape comes into her mind, her mouth tightens, and she seems to leave the room. Then she gets a headache on the side where she was thrown against the car; her relief comes from prescription medications. San Diego is a place she tries to obliterate from her memory. “I don’t want to go back there,” she insists, an urgent hatred wrapping itself around the syllables.
Frankie cannot conjure up such anger. He, after all, has been banished from home. His family has been in San Diego for generations, and a brief job in Irving served only to convince him that San Diego was the place for him. Being from San Diego, he can accommodate his own homesickness and his nager at what happened to his wife; he is pulled back by a powerful psychic tide—for a few days each month, for Memorial Day, for Father’s Day, to have the baby baptized. His mother misses him, and he misses his friends, who thought of him as “kooky—a sweet guy.”
In San Diego he belonged. In Corpus Christi he is just another Mexican, an anonymous stockboy made all the more anonymous because his coworkers do not know why he is there. He is having trouble with his job, partly because his skills are in construction work and partly because he is terrified every time he sees someone from San Diego come into the store. When he does see someone he knows (Orlando Garza’s brother was a recent shopper), Frankie runs to another part of the store, which gets him in trouble with his boss, who doesn’t understand his behavior. Once, when some of his coworkers learned he was from San Diego, one of the men teased him about being one of the rapists. Frankie grabbed hold of his tie and warned him not to make that joke again. On his way to work Frankie sometimes winds up at a stop sign across from Roel Torres, who lives in Corpus Christi. He pictures Torres assaulting his wife and fights the urge to ram the car of the he once considered a friend.
Frankie plots vengeance as quickly as he dismisses the notion—he knows all too well the odds are stacked against him. But he wants the accused to know he has their number. “They’re not bad guys—they’re assholes,” he tells me, using pachuco logic; to give his former friends credit for the evil they are accused of is to elevate them to a powerfulness they do not deserve. Besides, Frankie has other worries—he wants to keep his marriage together, he wants very badly for the outside world to believe his wife was really raped. Being from San Diego, he assumes that the larger world shares the doubts of people in town.
Around five on a sunny evening, I ask Linda and Frankie to dinner. Given her pick of restaurants, Linda opts for Chuck E. Cheese because the kids like it. Although she hasn’t eaten all day, she spends thirty minutes letting her children play on the mechanized toys—she smiles when Frank Junior grins in a car that shudders down an imaginary highway, and she giggles and pats his belly when he leans out of a rocket that twists four feet off the ground. Threading her way through the crowd, a baby on her hip and Frankie Junior toddling beside her, she could be any mother out with her family on a Friday night.
After dinner we decide to go to the beach. We settle on some concrete bleachers north of the Holiday Inn and watch the color drain out of the sky. There are people on the sidewalk, kids on skateboards, two bearded, heavyset men lolling against a Cadillac parked behind us. Frankie drinks a beer, studies the water, and then squints down the sidewalk. Suddenly he freezes. “That’s Roy,” he says slowly under his breath. A young man in aviator glasses is walking towards us; he has the long-legged gait I recognize from television clips. It is Roel Torres, one of the men accused of raping Linda. Linda turns and looks at Frankie hard, an unmistakable challenge in her eyes. I ask them if they would like to get back into my car. Frankie says there is no time. “Act like you don’t see him,” he hisses. “But he’ll recognize Frank Junior,” Linda whispers, frantic. Linda clutches Sara close while Frank Junior waddles gaily across the concrete steps. Torres ambles forward until he is directly behind us. Then, slowly, he makes an arc, sauntering back toward his blue truck. I suggest to Frankie that we leave, and he agrees, reminding us that Torres was once in a knife fight with a kid at school.
On the way back home, the Gaitan are silent. Finally, Frankie curses and sighs from the back seat. “Seeing one of those guys can ruin your damn day,” he says. “Your whole damn day.”
Linda pulls her daughter close and winces from the pain that has returned to one side of her head. “Your whole damn day,” she repeats under her breath, softly, slowly, as if a day could ever be anything but.
“The truth will come out at the trial,” I was told with great assurance by defense lawyers and other champions of the accused, a curious sentiment for a town that has always viewed the law with a jaundiced eye. Actually, a few weeks in San Diego will turn a nagging question into an anxious aria: one comes to wonder whether Linda Gaitan will receive justice in any form. As the summer wore on, townspeople wished the trial would be moved—almost impossible, unless the defense were to request a change of venue, and unlikely, since the odds for the defendants were so much better in Duval County. The assistant district attorney, Rodolfo Gutierrez, however, is confident that Gaitan will receive her due. It is possible that he will not be the prosecutor for all the rape and kidnapping cases; the Duval County DA lost to a man from Starr County in the last election, so come January Gutierrez will most likely be out of a job. Gaitan could face up to seventeen trials, though no one in San Diego believes such a thing will come to pass. There will be deals, there will be payoffs, knowledgeable cynics say with certainty. No one believes the fourteen-year-old will ever be prosecuted.
In late June pretrial hearings were held for the accused. By then the town had wearied of the gang rape. “San Diego is under pressure,” the DA’s investigator told me, and indeed it had been a difficult spring. Along with the drought, there had been a series of incomprehensible tragedies that sent the small town reeling. One man was charged with murdering his wife and son, the son of a leading citizen had committed suicide. That another round of publicity would begin on the gang rape made San Diegoans edgy; they wanted to forget while the outside world seemed to remember.
As the nine o’clock hearing approached, the men took their places at the courthouse. Garza, Torres, and Vela loitered on the west-side steps. Corando Perez occupied himself on an east-side landing, clicking his heels and snapping his chin when a woman passed who struck his fancy. It was possible to see in the courtroom seating arrangements portents of divisions to come: Briones sat alone, apart from his friends, worrying a weather-beaten hat between his splayed legs. Garcia sat far to the left, surrounded by family. Garza, Soliz, and Corando Perez sat in the back but at some distance from Torres and Vela, who are not burdened with kidnapping charges. They viewed the proceedings with moderate interest, scratching, stretching, yawning; they were like men slipping into old, familiar roles—defendants before a legal system that has let them off before.
Felipe Chew, who had never made bond and had remained in jail since the indictments, was called to the stand the next day for a bail-reduction hearing. It was brought out that he could be deported if released on bond; it was brought out that he had had a previous wife who had been a heroin addict. When asked whether he had used cocaine, Chew licked his lips, leaned to one side, and shrugged his shoulder. His lawyer advised him to take the Fifth. Leaving the courthouse to go back to jail, Chew shot the bird at a television cameraman.
There was, however, a glimmer that all might not go as predicted. Later in the summer, when the original trial date of July 11 was rescheduled for September 12, Orlando Garza’s probation was finally revoked, and he was thrown in jail. Perhaps the hostile glare of the outside world had finally forced San Diego to see its own in a new light.
The biggest house in San Diego sits on the road to Benavides, just a short distance from the spot where the town gives over to the brush country to the southwest. It is a two-story white-washed Spanish colonial; clearly at one time it was very grand. Bald palm trees lean in toward the house; a brick fence encloses a swimming pool. It was the home of George Parr, and it is for sale.
Parr’s widow, Eva, lives there now with her second husband. She had married Parr when he was in his fifties and she was fifteen, the courthouse janitor’s daughter. Eva remarried after Parr’s suicide but kept the house, though she and her new husband occupy the downstairs only. The upstairs bedroom where George and Eva slept looks almost as it did when he was alive. A portrait of the couple hangs over the bed. In another room, Parr’s hats remain preserved in a plastic hanging bag, a Christmas card from Price Daniel lies abandoned on the floor. Parr’s Chrysler, the bloodstains cleaned away, sits in the garage with hundreds of deer mounts, triumphs from his hunting trips. The house is dark, the drapes pulled against the summer sun. Eva does not want to sell the house, but she has to. It is the only way to pay off liens against the estate for back taxes.
The old bills have come due for San Diego too. The gang rape has forced the town to confront its corrupt past. It remains to be seen whether it will throw off its legacy of silence and lawlessness, or whether the town will submit to the curse once more, drawing the curtain ever tighter, sentencing itself to live in darkness.