I’m sorry to see my old favorite town of Stockton going through rough financial times and moving toward declaring bankruptcy.
Things seemed to be turning around for Stockton a few years ago, when I wrote of what seemed to be its reemergence.
I was the crime reporter for the Stockton Record from 1988-92, years that were its worst, criminally speaking. Homicide records were set each year I was there. The town was awash in crack and Crips — both of which came up from LA — and Nortenos and Surenos, who were mostly homegrown. There was a schoolyard massacre in 1989 and a whole lot more.
Still, I loved the place, though not always for reasons having to do with quality of life. It was my post-graduate journalism education.
It was also a place that was daily dealing with the reality of “multi-culturalism” — a term then in vogue in universities, but often used by people who had few connections to any place where it was playing out. Stockton was a town where you’d find four kids in a car, each from a different race. It was a place where you’d hear people order a cup of coffee by saying, “I’d like a cup of coffee” and not whatever it is they were saying up in Seattle, where I moved for my next job.
Some favorite Stockton crime reporter memories:
-Interviewing a Crip named T-Tone, who asked me if I was going to portray the Crips “in a positive light.”
-Interviewing Jack Johnson, a heroin addict, in jail for burglarizing my house.
-Writing about every murder that took place in the county in 1989, finding photos for most of them, and putting it all out in a special two-part report (thanks to my editor, Bruce Spence).
-Getting a Christmas card from Gus, a member of the Nuestra Familia prison gang, in jail and accused of killing a witness in a crime, for which he was first convicted and later absolved. (At his sentencing, the judge gave him 80 years or something, and Gus said, “Why don’t you just shoot me right here?”) In the card he wrote, if memory serves, “Mr. Quinones, another year has passed and the people who killed Angel are still free to roam the streets. Merry Christmas.”
-Having a knife pulled on me by a heroin dealer at that park just north of Charter Way, just south of downtown.
-Corresponding with Danny Ray Horning, who’d dismembered a guy, then went on the lam, robbing banks through the Pacific Northwest before heading to Arizona, where he was caught. I wrote his story off those letters. Then, 20 years ago this summer, he escaped prison in Arizona and took law enforcement on a wild chase for weeks through the area around the Grand Canyon. He’s on Death Row, last I heard.
-Learning that everyone in a county jail has a story they want to tell — and they’ll tell it quicker if you bring them cigarettes (now, sadly, not allowed).
-Dale Wagner. I learned to read gang graffiti from Dale, a gang detective who probably forgot more stuff about gangs than most others knew. Dale was a great cop — a fluent Spanish speaker. He’d been in Vietnam as a Marine, then gone into policing and was sent to Berkeley to help quell the student riots of th3 1960s, where he bopped some heads. Somehow, me, with my earring and Berkeley student background, and Dale, with his Berkeley history, got along famously.
He told me once that a gang member was shot and dying on an emergency room table. Yet the kid wouldn’t tell the doctors or investigators who shot him. (This was when Latino street gangs were famous statewide for their unwillingness to talk to cops.) Dale shows up and the guy’s going in and out of consciousness. Dale leans over him and says, Chuy, you’re dying, buddy. Tell me who did it. The kid realizes what’s happening, rises up on the table in his last act on this earth, and takes Dale by the shirt and gives him a name. “Get him, Wagner!” he says, and lies back down and dies. (I think I have that story right.)
Anyway, these are a few of the reasons I love Stockton — perhaps not what the Chamber of Commerce would like to hear, but stories that I’ll never forget.