Talk and be killed: How a lack of a local witness protection program lets killers walk free

(I started writing this 14 years ago when I used to live in and write about life in Santa Ana,  but could never find anyone interested in publishing stories about stories about the way life really works in the hood. I’ve always wondered what happened to Jose and his shooters. All names have been changed at the request of the victim.)

Jose knows who shot him in the head.

Only he can’t tell the police for fear of getting his whole family murdered. And unlike the drug dealers turned informants, he can’t get into a witness protection program. Instead, he keeps his mouth shut and two-more predators continue terrorizing yet more families.

Jose isn’t alone. While high-profile informants for federal cases receive may receive “star” treatment from the Federal Witness Protection Program, witnesses and victims of your run-of-the-mill gang homicides, shootings and robberies, etc… aren’t eligible for anything – except payback from the gang that committed the crime and their own local gang, which doesn’t believe in involving the police.


Jose was returning from a night of cruising on Bristol Street with his three friends when he turned on a side street to go home.

Stuck in traffic and pumping the Old School hits from the 70s, there was nothing he could do when two guys from a rival neighborhood spotted him. Even though he didn’t claim, they both pulled pistols from their waistbands and unloaded on him.

He ducked but it was too late. Glass, bullet slugs and blood blew everywhere. Seventeen bullet holes pierced the Chevy Nova. One slug hit his friend in the shoulder. One clipped his ear, burst through his skull and lodged itself just a millimeter from his spinal cord. Another ripped through his stomach area.

He lost consciousness before coming to a minute or two later, the glass sill tinkling to the ground and his friends screaming in horror and fear. Miraculously he stayed conscious long enough to drive to the hospital.

“I was just thinking about my family, my kid,” said the 23-year-old who was shot two years ago. “My wife was pregnant and I couldn’t leave them.”

Jose is not his real name. I cannot tell you his name, the street he lives on or the name of the gang who shot him. Jose like so many others is trapped in the code of silence, caught between the gangsters who shot him and the gang who controls his street. His neighborhood gang wanted to handle the justice, personally.

“My friends wanted to get payback, but I told them not to do anything,” said Jose. “‘Leave it up to God,’ that’s what my mom said. If I didn’t have my family, I would give payback, yah, part of me wanted to do that.  But what are you going to gain from payback, it’s just going to get worse – starts a whole war.”


When he finally got out of intensive care, investigators came to question him about the shooting.

“They were saying, I had to tell them who did it, that it was for my own good,” said Jose. “They don’t know what’s for my own good. I told them I didn’t see anything.”

Counseled by friends and family, he kept his mouth shut for fear of retaliation.

“They’d know who ratted and would come shooting into your house,” said Jose. “I would even take ’em to their house as long as they gave me protection or move me somewhere but I got out of the hospital, I can’t work, all I get is disability. I can’t afford to move, an apartment anywhere else is $700. Cops don’t do that, they see so much shooting, if they did it for everyone…” his voice dropping off into a sigh.

If he talked to the police, it wouldn’t just be allied gangmembers who would be after him, but he would be breaking the local neighbrhood code of silence.

“They respect me as if I was a gangmember but I still can’t break the rule – you can’t talk. I’m kind of trapped between two sides.”


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