Grand Jury Testimony Reveals Sordid Details Leading to Fatal Shooting of Bell Gardens Mayor

May 4, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Details emerging from the grand jury probe into the shooting death of Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo tell a disturbing tale of dysfunction, abuse, and alleged serial infidelity in the years leading to the killing last fall.

The grand jury last month indicted the mayor’s wife, Lyvette Crespo, on a charge of voluntary manslaughter with a handgun for the shooting, despite claims by her attorney that the shooting was justified because his client had suffered years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her husband and was defending herself and her son at the time of the killing.

Lyvette Crespo, 43, pleaded not guilty and was released from jail after posting $150,000 bail.

The 1,500 plus pages of grand jury testimony released to the public Monday includes statements from responding officers, the Crespo’s two children – Crystal Crespo and Daniel Crespo Jr. – the mayor’s alleged girlfriend and others, media outlets reported.

According to the transcript, Lyvette knew about her husband’s alleged girlfriends, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

Crespo had multiple affairs during his marriage and even took part in a “faux wedding” ceremony in Las Vegas to one mistress in 2013.

That alleged girlfriend testified that the former mayor told her his wife had threatened to shoot and poison him, according to the Times.

The couple had a “very rocky … relationship,” a prosecutor told the grand jury.

EGP previously reported that the mayor’s brother William Crespo accused Lyvette of threatening several times before to kill her husband, citing text messages included in the grand jury testimony:

“I’ll find out who … u got flowers for. Has to be a bell gardens whore,” read one of the messages Lyvette is said to have sent her husband a few months before the shooting.

“It better [be the] last time U threaten to shoot me in [the] head!!!” came the reply from Daniel Crespo’s phone.

“People don’t like to be played with or be made a fool,” she responded. “I’ve put up with a lot of …. Don’t play with me. Don’t play with me.”

On the day of the crime, the couple got into a heated argument over the mayor’s alleged affairs, exchanging threatening and profanity laced text messages in the hours before the fatal confrontation.

The fight continued in person at the couple’s home, the Times reported.

The couple’s son said he received a text message from his mother telling him “Come home, it’s your father,” Bell Gardens Police Officer Victor Ruiz testified, according to NBC4 News.

Daniel Jr. heard the arguing and loud thumps coming from his father’s office and tried to intervene, but when he knocked on the door his father told him “Don’t f— with me” and punched him in the face, causing him to fall down a flight of stairs, Ruiz said Daniel Jr. told him following the shooting.  Then, trying to protect his mother, Daniel Jr. coaxed his father to follow him down the rest of the stairs: That’s when he looked up and saw his mother appear at the top of the stairs and shoot his father three times. Ruiz told the grand jury.

Daniel Jr. sustained a cut to his face during the altercation.

Both children testified their father had verbally and physically abused their mother over the years, with Crystal saying the abuse had become more physical in the last two years, according to NBC4 . Daniel Jr. said he told a school counselor about the abuse in 2011, reported the Times.

Crystal testified that she also was on the receiving end of some of that abuse. She claimed her father strangled her when she 15, according to NBC4.

Prosecutors told the grand jury that Daniel Crespo mistreated his wife, “going out at night … treats her  like she’s his housekeeper.” Lyvette  may have had every reason to be extremely angry with him, but she also repeatedly provoked her husband, showing she was not afraid of him.

If convicted, Lyvette could face 21 years in state prison. She is due back in court for a pretrial hearing May 29.

 

 

Official Applauds Herbalife, Special Olympics Partnership

April 30, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Saying he was speaking on behalf of Southeast communities, Bell Gardens Councilman Pedro Aceituno on Tuesday praised a partnership between nutrition company Herbalife and LA2015, the organizing committee for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.

As the game supplier, Herbalife will provide 300,000 nutrition bars to athletes, coaches, staff, volunteers families and honored guests during the games in Los Angeles from July 25 through Aug. 2. Herbalife’s headquarters in Carson will also serve as the uniform distribution and credential center.

“I would like to thank Herbalife…for their commitment and investment in our community,” said Aceituno during Tuesday’s announcement. “Your donation to the Special Olympics is very much appreciated.”

Bell Gardens Councilmember Pedro Aceituno Tuesday thanked Herbalife for partnering with the 2015 Special Olympis World Games.(Courtesy of Michael Dorman, Herbalife.)

Bell Gardens Councilmember Pedro Aceituno Tuesday thanked Herbalife for partnering with the 2015 Special Olympis World Games.(Courtesy of Michael Dorman, Herbalife.)

A mini soccer match between LA Galaxy players Omar Gonzalez and Jaime Penedo and the Special Olympics Southern California players kicked off the partnership.

The world Games will feature 25 Olympic-style sports including basketball, cycling, gymnastics and volleyball. Over 7,000 athletes and 3,000 coaches from 177 different countries will take part in the Special Olympics World Games.

“We are proud to be a games supplier and to partner with an organization that embodies the positive impact of living a healthy active life,” said Michael O. Johnson, chairman and CEO of Herbalife.

Bell Gardens Man to Stand Trial for Kidnapping, Rape

April 30, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A 41-year-old man will stand trial on charges of kidnapping his former live-in girlfriend’s teenage daughter in Santa Ana and sexually assaulting her over 10 years, according to authorites.

Isidro Medrano Garcia of Bell Gardens was ordered held on charges of forcible rape, kidnapping to commit a sex offense and three counts of lewd acts on a minor. He is scheduled to return to court for a post-preliminary hearing arraignment on May 5.

After hearing testimony from Santa Ana police Detective Ricardo Diaz, Orange County Superior Court Robert Fitzgerald ordered Garcia to stand trial.

Garcia’s attorney, Charles Frisco Jr., tried several times to question Diaz about the lives of Garcia and the alleged victim in 2006 and 2007, but Fitzgerald upheld Deputy District Attorney Whitney Bokoksy’s objections for relevance. Frisco is expected to make the case that the alleged victim went with Garcia willingly and that they made a life together in which they were married and attempted to have children together.

Bokosky acknowledged to reporters after the hearing that the kidnapping count will be the toughest charge to win a conviction on. It’s a key count in the case but it mandates a life sentence.

The two left together after the defendant had a physical conflict with the alleged victim’s mom. The teen ran to a nearby park and the defendant, who followed her, convinced her she could not return home because the police were there and they would deport her, Bokosky said.

The key will be proving the victim’s “mind set” that she was “moved out of the area because she was fearful she couldn’t go home,” Bokosky said.

Garcia is accused of forcing his captive into marriage in 2007; he had a child with her in 2012. He’s being held on $1 million bail.

Frisco has said in the past that the alleged victim had multiple chances to leave the defendant over the past decade and go to authorities.

The girl, then 15, was reported missing in August 2004 by her mother, who suspected Garcia, her one-time live-in boyfriend, of abducting her daughter, according to Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.

The mother also suspected at that time that Garcia had been sexually abusing the teen for about two months, according to investigators.

Garcia met the girl in February 2004 and would buy her gifts and take her side when the teen quarreled with her mother, according to prosecutors.

Garcia is accused of molesting and kissing the girl between June and August of 2004, according to prosecutors. He sexually assaulted the girl three different times and raped her once, prosecutors allege.

The girl was born in Mexico and came to the United States to be reunited with her mother and sister, who lived with Garcia in the 800 block of Fairview Street, Bertagna said.

The alleged victim contacted her sister through Facebook on her birthday in April of last year, marking the first time her family had heard from her in years, Bertagna said.

A domestic dispute involving her and Garcia in Bell Gardens led to the suspect’s arrest, Bertagna said.

 

Slain Mayor’s Wife Facing Voluntary Manslaughter Charge

April 30, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

After nearly seven months of hearing no new information about the fatal shooting of former Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo, news that his wife has been charged with his killing has taken some local residents by surprise.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office last Friday announced that a County Grand Jury has indicted Lyvette Crespo on charges of voluntary manslaughter.

If convicted, she could face up to 21 years in state prison.

Twenty-four-year-old Celina Rodriguez told EGP she was shocked Lyvette was not arrested right after she allegedly shot the mayor multiple times during an domestic dispute on Sept. 30 of last year.

“I thought they were just going to leave it at that,” the Bell Gardens resident said in Spanish Tuesday, figuring that after so much time Crespo’s wife would never be charged.

The district attorney requested that a criminal grand jury hear evidence to determine whether a crime had been committed and what if any charges Lyvette should face. The grand jury’s indictment was returned April 16 but remained sealed until last Thursday, April 23, when Lyvette was taken into custody after pleading not guilty to the charges. She was released Friday after posting a $150,000 bail bond, and is due back in court for a pretrial hearing May 29.

Lyvette Crespo’s attorney Eber Bayona, center, maintains his client’s innocence outside the Clara Shorthridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles . (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Lyvette Crespo’s attorney Eber Bayona, center, maintains his client’s innocence outside the Clara Shorthridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles . (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Heidi Rummel, professor of law at the University of Southern California and former federal prosecutor, told EGP grand jury hearings are conducted in secrecy often to protect the individuals who testify or to avoid a stigma of being investigated if no charges are brought. According to the Superior Court of Los Angeles’ website, in some cases grand jury proceedings are used when they “involve prominent public figures.”

Why prosecutors chose the grand jury route rather than a preliminary hearing, however, is unclear.

“Prosecutors make the determination to file cases based on evidence,” D.A. spokesperson Jane Robison told EGP in an email.

According to Rummel, office politics are often involved.

“You don’t spend time in a grand jury if you don’t think they will indict,” she said, but added that going to the grand jury is a way to make sure the decision to prosecute does not fall on just the D.A.’s office.

Unlike in a pretrial hearing, during grand jury proceedings, the district attorney presents evidence without the defendant or their attorney being present.

Typically, a summary witness, such as a police officer, is used to provide an account of the case.

“I think it’s appropriate when you have doubts about what really happened,” Rummel said.

An indictment requires a vote in favor by at least 14 of the 23 members, who are all civilians selected from a random pool of registered voters.

An indictment by a criminal grand jury is not a finding of guilt, but instead contends there is probable cause to proceed using a lower standard of proof.

“It is definitely easier to indict” in a grand jury, explains Rummel.

In this case, “the grand jury made the determination based on the evidence we presented,” the D.A.’s Robinson said.

Eber Bayona, Lyvette Crespo’s lawyer, says his client was a longtime victim of domestic violence by her husband and evidence presented during trial will acquit her of all charges.

“I want to ask the public to maintain an open mind and to wait until all the evidence has been presented before they make a final opinion about what happened,” he said during a press conference last week outside the courthouse.

According to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s investigators, Lyvette and her husband were arguing when their 19-year old son Daniel Crespo Jr. intervened, leading to a struggle between the two men. Crespo Sr. allegedly punched his son and that’s when Lyvette allegedly grabbed a handgun and shot her husband three times in the chest.

Lyvette, who at the time was said to be cooperating with police, was not arrested following the shooting. Los Angeles County Sheriff Homicide Det. Phil Guzman told EGP at the time that in some cases it’s very apparent a crime took place, but “sometimes it’s not that apparent.”

“That’s when it needs to be reviewed by the D.A.”

The decision to not file charges initially led to public outrage and criticism by residents who were fans of the popular mayor.

Linda Garcia told EGP Tuesday that she broke down in tears when she heard her mayor had been fatally shot by his wife.

“I didn’t really know her, but he was a very good man who helped the community,” she said in Spanish. “His wife needs to face the consequences for killing someone.”

Since Crespo’s death, rumors have speculated that there was another, darker side to the public figure.

Lyvette’s attorney claims the former mayor not only abused his wife but other women as well, and had mentally and physically abused his children.

“To the outside world Daniel Crespo was a great mayor, a great community leader, but he was also an abusive husband,” Bayona said. “This is the man who took his wife’s face and shoved it into a computer screen when she was looking at an assemblymember after his election.”

Daniel Crespo’s brother, William, has denied the allegation, claiming Lyvette was angry and jealous that her husband was involved in extramarital affair. He claims Lyvette had often threatened violence against her husband.

A civil lawsuit filed last Oct. 20 by the brother on behalf of Crespo’s mother, alleges Lyvette picked a fight with Crespo knowing that their son would intervene, then opened a safe, grabbed a gun and killed her husband “with malice and in cold blood.”

Even if he was cheating on his wife or he had abused her, murdering him is not justified, says Bell Gardens resident Beatriz Ochoa. She told EGP that when Lyvette was not immediately arrested, she assumed money or some other form of influence was keeping her out of jail.

“It didn’t surprise me,” she said frankly. “I figured nobody wanted to touch the topic.”

Lyvette Crespo, left, was indicted of voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting her husband Daniel Crespo, pictured right during his oath of office as Bell Gardens mayor.  (EGP Photo Archive)

Lyvette Crespo, left, was indicted of voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting her husband Daniel Crespo, pictured right during his oath of office as Bell Gardens mayor. (EGP Photo Archive)

Robison assured EGP public outrage was not the reason why Lyvette was ultimately indicted.

“We do not file cases or take evidence to the Grand Jury based on public opinion or whether we receive calls or letters,” said Robison.

Transcripts of the Grand Jury proceedings that led to the indictment are released 10 days after they are received by the defendant’s attorney, which could be early next week, said Robison.

710 Freeway Reopens After Tanker Truck Fire

April 28, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Cities along the 710 Freeway suffered the impact of heavy traffic after a tanker truck loaded with gasoline tipped onto its side and burst into flames on the southbound Long Beach (710) Freeway in the city of Bell on Sunday afternoon.

The tanker, which fire officials said was hauling 8,500 gallons of gasoline, overturned about 3:25pm on the southbound freeway near Florence Avenue and catching fire and sending a plume of smoke that could be seen for miles.

The rig’s driver was freed by firefighters, and no injuries were reported, county fire dispatcher Cheryl Sims said.

The crash and fire shut down all freeway lanes in both directions between Bandini Boulevard to the north and Florence Avenue to the south, backing up traffic for miles.

The blaze, however, which grew into a second-alarm fire, was knocked down at 4:15pm Sunday. No other vehicles were involved, Sims said.

The inferno heavily damaged the roadway surface, leaving the entire southbound freeway closed Sunday overnight and through much of Monday. Late Monday morning, authorities closed the transition road from the southbound Santa Ana (5) Freeway to the southbound 710 Freeway to limit traffic from entering the affected area.

The north side of the freeway was reopened just before 9:30pm Sunday, but the southbound side remained closed, CHP Officer Peter Bishop said Monday.

City of Commerce City Administrator Jorge Rifa told EGP the accident jammed traffic on city streets after the CHP decided to divert freeway traffic  to Washington Boulevard, inconveniencing local residents and businesses in the area.

He said the City made deployed public safety units to the area to help move “the diverted traffic as quickly as possible through the city.”

“As soon as we were aware of the accident, the City posted on its social media page to inform residents,” Rifa said.

California Highway Patrol officials reopened all the southbound lanes at Florence Avenue on Monday at about 4:45pm, according to CHP Officer Patrick Kimball.

Bell Gardens Opts Out of County Emergency System

April 23, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Bell Gardens has joined a growing list of municipalities opting to not buy into a new countywide emergency radio network being built under a plan approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

“As more and more cities withdrew their support of the system, the projected operating cost, which will be shared by the public agencies participating, continued to grow to a point that LA-RICS officials have had difficulty projecting what the eventual cost will be for cities like Bell Gardens,” City Manager Phil Wagner told EGP in an email.

It could be cost prohibitive for smaller cities like Bell Gardens, Wagner explained.

He was referring to plans to build a network of radio towers to allow first-responders from dozens of agencies to communicate quickly in an emergency.

The plan originally called for building 177 towers at a cost of roughly a half-million dollars each, paid for using $154 million in federal funding earmarked for the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, or LA-RICS.

Most towers were proposed near county fire stations, prompting firefighters and residents to complain that radio emissions from the towers would pose a health hazard.

Supervisors in March voted to delay construction of the towers to do more outreach, but last week, seeking to balance public safety with health and aesthetic concerns raised by firefighters and homeowners, they approved a scaled-back network with about 60 sites, none of which are near county fire stations. Twenty-nine are county-controlled properties that already have transmitters on site, including 20 Sheriff’s Department facilities, four county hospitals or rehabilitation facilities and the county Fire Department’s command and control site. Another 16 are sites owned by various cities including the Bell Gardens Police Department, which has now decided against building a tower at the station.

Public hearings will held be in each of the five supervisorial districts to educate residents on the plan and to get feedback. Until those hearings occur, construction of the towers set for four sheriff’s station locations will be on hold.

There is little disagreement that a system that allows first-responders to communicate during a disaster is ideal, especially in earthquake prone California.

The 1987 Whittier Narrows and 1994 Northridge earthquakes, 5.9 and 6.9 magnitudes respectively, and the Southlands’ cycles of fires and floods, are all reminders of the vital role first-responders play in a major catastrophe.

Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorists attacks, on the other hand, are potent reminders of what could happen when emergency communications fail and first-responders cannot communicate with one another because their radio systems are incompatible.

“When I started at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department there were only two frequencies,” said Patrick Mallon, executive director for LA-RICS. Today there are 81 public safety agencies using 40 different systems in the county, Mallon told Commerce City Council members on April 4.

Mallon was at the meeting to respond to concerns raised by city council members about the impact the project would have on the city, given that the original plan called for a tower to be built at a county fire station in the city.

At the time of the meeting, LA-RICS was under pressure to complete the towers by Sept. 30 or risk losing the federal grant. They were worried delaying the process would keep them from meeting that deadline.

LA-RICS and other public safety agencies such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department shot down any potential hazards.

“I would be the first to opposed its implementation if I thought the radio towers to be…any risk to the health and safety of the men and women in this department or the residents of the community we serve,” said LASD Sheriff Jim McDonnell in a letter.

Mallon said the signals from the towers are far less than what most people are exposed to during their day from electronic devices.

“There’s certainly a public safety need for a communication system that would work with each other, but if the people who are meant to be protected by those systems feel endangered we must respect those concerns,” Peter Hong, Supervisor Hilda Solis’s chief of staff, told the council, explaining his boss is also concerned about the potential health risks.

The cost of the system to the city was only briefly mentioned during the meeting. City Adminstrator Jorge Rifa said participating in the system could cost Commerce $12,000 to $70,000 a year, depending on the number of agencies that ultimately participate.

A dozen L.A. County cities in addition to Bell Gardens have already opted out of the program due to the possible ongoing costs they would incur. The higher number of agencies that opt-out the higher the costs will be for the remaining agencies.

Those that opt-out would still be allowed to use the system on a subscription basis. It is still unclear what those figures would look like.

Mallon told the Commerce Council LA-RICS had looked into using commercial towers, but that option was cost-prohibitive.

Wagner said Bell Gardens was initially “very interested” in participating in the radio system.

“Building a communications system that would allow separate police and fire agencies to work together quickly and efficiently during major emergencies is critical,” he told EGP.

However, the rising cost of the system and LA-RICS’s proposal to build a 70-foot monopole in the police department parking lot, adjacent to the LA County fire station on Garfield Avenue, has raised the concerns among the City Council and staff, Wagner said.

“The City Council is not interested if there is even the slightest chance of a health hazard.”

Bell Gardens has informed LA-RICS of the city’s decision not to participate.

Bell Gardens will instead explore joining the Interagency Communications Interoperability System (ICIS) radio network formed in 2003, Wagner said. He said the system is already successfully linking several L.A. County public safety agencies and would not require building a tower at the city police station.

“Participation in ICIS would provide Bell Gardens with the use of a state-of-the-art interoperability radio network at a reasonable cost,” linking city’s “police department’s existing radio system to other police, fire and first responders throughout LA County.”

Information from City News Service was used in this report. 

 

Developing A Transportion Plan from the Seat of a Bike

April 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A coalition of southeast cities is working to change their streets one pedal, one foot at a time, reaching out to bicyclists and pedestrians who travel through their cities.

Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy, Vernon and now Maywood are hosting free, informal bike rides where they hope to obtain feedback from residents to help them create a master pedestrian/bike plan for the region.

“Nearly all our neighboring cities already have [bike] plans,” but “none of us have a plan in place,” said Chau L. Vu, public works director for Bell Gardens  – the city spearheading the initiative.

The cities are applying for Active Transportation Program (ATP) grants to pay for a study that would ultimately be used to pursue infrastructure funds for bike paths, new sidewalks or traffic roundabouts.

The application process calls for outreach to the community, which the cities are doing during 6-mile long bike tours organized by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Each tour features a discussion on how to make streets safer and travelable for cyclists and pedestrians.

A ride was held Thursday place today at 1p.m., taking off from Bell Gardens High School. Riders  discussed how walking and biking can support the goal of creating a healthier region.

“Our communities have been historically under-resourced,” said Mark Lopez of East Yard Communities – which was scheduled to moderate Thursday’s discussion.

During a bike ride last month in Cudahy, participants said more bike lanes and wider sidewalks are what’s needed, said Bryan Moller, policy and outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

“Many [bicyclists] said they currently don’t feel drivers pay attention to them,” Moller said. “People don’t feel safe.”

About 25 bicyclists ranging in age from 21 to 60 took part in the ride along the Los Angeles River, stopping along the way to discuss how to improve access to the river and downtown L.A. for southeast cyclists and pedestrians.

“We just want to get a gauge” of the needs in the region, Vu said. “These meetings are giving residents an opportunity to express the type of problems or safety issues they face.”

Commerce Public Work Director Maryam Babaki told EGP she is excited about the health benefits that such plans could bring.

Southeast residents at bike ride in Cudahy last month. (Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition)

Southeast residents at bike ride in Cudahy last month. (Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition)

“Encouraging biking and walking reduces a community’s dependence on automobiles, brings vitality and allows the residents to become more active, as well as participatory in their communities,” she said. “It also reduces air pollution and creates an equitable transportation network for all regardless of age, physical ability or income.”

“These are cities with huge numbers of bicyclists and people who use public transportation,” Moller pointed out.

The cities say before now they did not have the resources to fund the cost of developing a master transportation plan for the region, but that could change if they receive an ATP grant.

The application is due in June and award recipients should be announced by the end of the year.

“Here in the southeast, we all have similar demographics, we are so close to each other…it makes sense to work together,” said Vu, adding that “Some of our residents work in the rest of the cities and vice versa.”

 

4-10-15: Story updated to reflect ride already took place. Headline Changed.

Local Women Recognized for Service

March 26, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

For nearly three decades, legislators across the state of California have been recognizing women who have made a difference in their district.

Last Friday, Assemblywomen Cristina Garcia recognized nine women from the 58th district, which spans through the cities of Artesia, Bellflower, Bell Gardens, Cerritos, Commerce, Downey, Norwalk and Pico Rivera.

Celebrated in the month of March as part of Women’s History Month, the tradition dates back to 1987 when the California Legislative Women’s Caucus presented the first Women of the Year awards. All state legislators now take part in highlighting the accomplishments of women from a variety of backgrounds, from teachers and pharmacist, to city employees and business owners.

“We should be celebrating” women all year, said Garcia during the event held at the Southern California Edison headquarters in Downey.

Nine women were recognized by Assemblywomen Cristina Garcia last week as part of her Women of the Year recognition.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Nine women were recognized by Assemblywomen Cristina Garcia last week as part of her Women of the Year recognition. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Among the nine honorees were three local women: Marilyn Thompson from Bell Gardens, Carmen Marquez of Commerce and Shushma Patel of Montebello.

Thompson is a teacher at Bell Gardens Intermediate, Garcia’s alma mater. She was recognized for her work in the classroom and coordinating efforts to organize leadership camps and trips to the state capital for her students.

Thomson said humbly she considers what she does a part of the job.

Marquez, a retired teacher with over 35 years working for the Montebello Unified School District, was recognized for her past work on various committees in the city of Commerce and with groups such as the California Association of Bilingual Educators.

“We don’t do everything alone, we are all connected,” said Marquez at the event. “I brought my village with me,” she added, before recognizing the people who have helped her feel confident about what she does.

Patel owns an independent community pharmacy and serves as the chairperson for the Indian Pharmacists Association of California Advisory, serves on the board of the Montebello Rotary Club and routinely provides free counseling to the community. After receiving the award, she told the audience she enjoys giving back.

Other honorees included: Veronica Bloomfield (a historian) of Artesia; Sandra Espinoza-Perry  (owner of a child care center) of Bellflower; Mae Lovgren (president of PTA) of Cerritos; Alison Elaine Kirby (English teacher) of Downey; Dr. Linda Lacy (president of Cerritos College) of Norwalk; and Lizet Olmos (city employee) of Pico Rivera.

Bell Gardens Teen Mom Overcomes Adversity

March 19, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

When 15-year-old Shantell Gomez found out she was pregnant, she was scared. She felt lost and all alone.

“How am I going to do it? How am I going to finish school? How will I provide for my baby?” she asked herself.

Fast-forward two and a half years and Gomez is now the recipient of a $60,000 academic scholarship to attend Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles this fall where she will pursue a nursing degree.

Despite the many obstacles young girls in her situation face, Gomez is proof that being a teen mother does not have to mean your dreams are over or academic success out of reach.

She is on track to graduate on time with a 3.5 grade point average, and will be the first person in her family and the first graduate of Bell Garden’s teen parent program to attend a four-year college.

“I never thought it was possible to go college,” said Gomez Monday, still in disbelief.

The road to where she is today has not been easy. In fact, it’s been very hard.

Shantell Gomez plays with her two-year old son Aidan outside the Infant toddler center at Bell Gardens High School.   (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Shantell Gomez plays with her two-year old son Aidan outside the Infant toddler center at Bell Gardens High School. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Both of Gomez’ parents work so the luxury of free, grandparent provided childcare while she continued high school was not an option, and the grandmother she and her son now live with is too elderly to be a full-time caretaker.

“Some mothers get help at home, but some just don’t get [any] help at all,” explains Carmen Herrera, a counselor with Bell Gardens High School’s program for pregnant teens.

That’s when special programs like Montebello Unified’s California School Age Families (CAL-SAFE) program at Bell Gardens High School can make a difference.

For Gomez, the program has been her savior.

Like many teen mothers lacking resources, support and guidance, she quickly fell behind at school. Figuring out how to stay in school and care for a baby at the same time was complicated, she said.

Then there was the stigma that comes with being a teen mother.

“…People assume that we are not going to graduate,” says 18-year-old Karla Fuentes, another of the teen-aged mothers in the program.

But Gomez wanted to graduate and enrolled in the CAL-SAFE program, which provides childcare for her son Aiden, now two years old, while she attends class. Started in the 1990s, the state program – also available at Montebello High School – offers free childcare, parenting classes, counseling and encourages the minors to graduate from high school.

“The struggle is balancing being a mom and being a student,” says Herrera.

On average, the program enrolls 50 teens a year, including several young fathers. The program has helped many young mothers from Bell Gardens, “… a city with great need,” says Jennifer Gonzalez, a three-year program instructor.

Bell Gardens’ teen pregnancy rate has been high for years, at one time the highest in the country.

Fuentes told EGP that when she was pregnant she felt “everybody was getting pregnant. I see a lot more teen moms now,” she observes.

When Fuentes started her junior year after delivering her baby, she only had 30 class credits, the equivalent of a freshman.

She said before getting pregnant she didn’t care about school and often ditched class. That changed after her child was born, and she is on track to graduate on time.

“I feel getting pregnant was a good thing for me,” it changed my priorities, says Fuentes. “I see the world in a different way because I’m a mom,” she said.

For some of the girls it’s like a light bulb went on, says Herrera. “They become self-driven.”

CAL-SAFE offers an independent studies track that allows the teens to take extra classes to catch up.

Graduating high school is important, but getting them into college is the real goal, says  Gonzalez.

Most of the teen mothers are taking the technical studies pathway that could lead to better employment opportunities, she said. Although none of last year’s graduates went on to college, many of this year’s seniors plan to attend community college, she said.

Since having Aidan, Gomez strives to be above average. She is enrolled in the nursing pathway, takes honors classes and interns two days a week at Beverly Hospital in Montebello. The former “C” average student now wants nothing less than an “A.”

“Some of my classmates are surprised when they find out I’m a mom” and still doing well in class, she said.

In 2014, Generation Her, a non-profit dedicated to promoting support and motivation to teen mothers, named her Teen Mom of the Year.

“She’s definitely self-driven,” Herrera said. “More than just doing it for her child, she is doing it for herself.”

The counselor said being a teen mother forces them to grow up quickly and to “deal with the lack of support, feelings of isolation and changes in routine.”

“They can’t relate to other students,” adds Gonzalez.

Other students have a whole afternoon and evening to get assignments done, but Gomez must spend much of that time caring for her child, waiting until the energetic toddler falls asleep to crack open her books.

“I’m always so tired,” says Gomez, who does everything on her own. “Sometimes I just want to go to sleep, but I know I can’t.”

Shantell Gomez, a senior at Bell Gardens High School, was recognized as “Teen Mom of the Year” last year by the non-profit Generation Her.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Shantell Gomez, a senior at Bell Gardens High School, was recognized as “Teen Mom of the Year” last year by the non-profit Generation Her. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

She can’t help but laugh to herself when she hears her fellow classmates complain that an assignment kept them up late. “I think to myself ‘I do that every night,’” she said. “They don’t know how much easier it is for them.”

Fuentes, on the other hand, has the support of her family and says she never felt alone. She is still with her baby’s father and has his support, unlike 80% of the girls in the program.

“I feel really bad for some of the girls who talk about how their ‘baby daddy’ doesn’t want to help out. I can’t imagine the stress they go through and how hard it is not to have support,” she said.

Having childcare is a major benefit, but there are times when a sick child or doctor’s appointments will disrupt the school day, forcing the teen parents to miss class.

“The biggest trouble for our students is attendance,” acknowledges Herrera. “But don’t think they get special treatment…they still have deadlines like everybody else.”

“Do you get the looks and stares… yes,” says Fuentes, who explains she lost many friends after becoming pregnant, but adds for the most part her fellow students make it a point to not treat the teen mothers differently.

As one of the younger mothers, Gomez says it is harder for teens like her. Looking back at her struggles to raise her child and her grades, the 17-year old understands the significance of the example she has set for others in the same position.

“I feel very proud of myself,” Gomez admits. “It makes me feel good that people are acknowledging my accomplishment.”

Southeast Cities Team Up For Bike Access

March 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Four southeast cities are joining forces to encourage residents to contribute ideas to the development of a master bike plan for their region.

But rather than holding the usual round of in-door meetings, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy and Vernon are holding free, informal bike rides in April and May to gather feedback from area residents on how to make streets safer and travelable for cyclists and pedestrians.

The cities have some of the most heavily traveled roadways in the region and hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the number of cars on local streets and increasing the number of people riding bicycles and walking, goals set forth in the Active Transportation Program (ATP).

Bell Gardens is spearheading the initiative that will also look at connecting bike and pedestrian routes between the cities.

Each ride will be about six-miles long with stops along the way to allow for discussion and refreshments.

Participating cyclists are required to wear a helmet.

Data collected during the rides will be used by the cities to apply for ATP grants to pay for enhanced safety measures in their respective cities.

The first of the three information gathering cycling events was held last week in Cudahy and focused on how to improve access from the southeast communities to the Los Angeles River and Downtown Los Angeles.

The next bike rides will be held:

—Thursday, Apr. 9: Riders will meet at Bell Gardens High School (6119 Agra Street) at 1p.m. The topic will be: “How can walking and biking support the bigger goal of creating healthier, safer and more livable southern region?

—Saturday, May 23; Riders will meet at John Anson Ford Park (8000 Park Lane) in Bell Gardens at 10a.m. Topic:  “How can walking and biking connect the people and places that make our neighborhoods unique?”

For more information, contact Bell Gardens Director of Public Works Chau Vu at (562) 334-1790.

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