D.A. Investigating Bell Gardens Councilman

May 4, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

A Bell Gardens councilman who simultaneously serves as a director on the local water board is being investigated by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which requested records of all transactions related to the city’s water services.

The D.A.’s Public Integrity Division made over a dozen public records requests last week, demanding copies of payments, invoices, agreements, budgets and any documents related to the city’s water services since 2012. The district attorney also singled out Councilman Pedro Aceituno, requesting all documents related to his campaign finances, compensation, stipends, reimbursements and benefits while serving as councilman.

“The Public Integrity Division is reviewing a matter related to Bell Gardens. However, we do not comment on the nature or the extent of the review,” the office said in a statement to EGP.

The D.A. seems to be particularly interested in any agreement “that restricts or prohibits Bell Gardens from purchasing its water from any other entities.”

In an email sent to EGP Wednesday, Bell Gardens City Manager Phil Wagner said the city council and staff intend to fully cooperate with the District Attorney’s request to review certain public records.

“The demand is very broad in scope and it will take some time to gather the documents, however, we will respond in as timely a manner as possible,” he wrote.

The investigation comes just weeks after Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez requested that the city attorney look into the legality of Aceituno serving as both a city councilman and a member of the Central Basin Municipal Water District Board of Directors, a position he was elected to in November 2016.

Rodriguez is at odds with her fellow council members, who recently took legal action to remove her from her council seat on grounds that she was absent from over half of all city council meetings held in 2016, effectively “vacating” her office. In response, she accused Aceituno and Councilwoman Priscilla Flores of political wrongdoing, and called for Aceituno to be investigated.

Aceituno currently serves as board vice president and represents Division 1, which covers the cities of Bell Gardens, Downey, Montebello, Pico Rivera, West Whittier-Los Nietos, and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

 

Bell Gardens Councilman Pedro Aceituno is being investigated by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. (EGP photo Archive)

Bell Gardens Councilman Pedro Aceituno is being investigated by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. (EGP photo Archive)

 

The D.A.’s public record’s request includes all documents related to the city’s interactions with its two water suppliers, Park Water Service Company and Golden State Water Company, including all contracts, invoices, payments, rate increases, water quality reports and any complaints from residents or businesses objecting to the costs or quality of the city’s water. It all asks for all communication between the city’s administrators, city attorney, councilmembers, staff or its water suppliers and the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

Central Basin received a similar request from the D.A.’s office last week, asking for any documents that relate to water services, water costs, water quality or water conservation that impact Bell Gardens. The D.A. was also interested in any documents related to the election of Aceituno, his compensation and any benefits he may receive, including life insurance, retirement, medical, car allowance and computer or technical allowance.

In a statement to EGP Thursday, a spokesperson for Central Basin assured the agency is working on responding to the D.A.’s request.

While it’s not clear what prompted the D.A.’s action, the items requested seem to suggest the integrity unit is investigating whether Aceituno should be barred from holding two offices or if he used his position on the council to approve favorable contracts with the city’s water wholesaler.

Under state law, an elected official may not hold two different public offices simultaneously if the offices have “overlapping and conflicting public duties.”

Bell Gardens City Manager Phil Wagner previously told EGP there was no legal reason for Aceituno to step down from office since the D.A. had not raised an issue. He went on to explain that Aceituno did not deal with the day-to-day activities involving the water wholesaler and that the councilman has always taken precautions to avoid conflicts, often abstaining from votes or even leaving the room during a vote that could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

During his campaign for the water board campaign, Aceituno touted his experience dealing with water issues. In 2007, he was recognized by Central Basin for his role making Bell Gardens the first city in the region to embrace a citywide conservation program through use of a conservation grant.

The councilman previously told EGP he saw no conflict in holding two public offices at the same time, pointing out that he has never hidden the fact that he was also a Bell Gardens’ councilman.

“Folks still chose to elect me,” he told EGP following the election.

Aceituno was elected to the Bell Gardens City Council in 1999 and is the city’s longest sitting elected official.

Aceituno did not respond to EGP’s request for comment on this article.

Update: May 4, 2017 11a.m. to include a statement from Bell Gardens City Manager Phil Wagner.

Update: May 4, 2017 2p.m. to include the D.A.’s request for Central Basin’s records and statement from the agency.

Bell Gardens PD Looking for Man Who Tried to Lure Teen into Truck

April 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Bell Gardens police Monday sought public help to find a man who tried to coax a 14-year-old girl into his truck.

According to police, the girl was standing on the sidewalk in the 5900 block of Live Oak Street about 2 p.m. on April 10 when a “suspicious man” drove alongside her in a white truck.

“The man attempted to coax the child into his vehicle by asking her to come with him,” according to a police statement.

The girl ran away, and the police department was notified the following day. The truck was described as white with a light green bed.

The man was described as Hispanic, about 30-35 years old, with a thin build and a black beard. He was wearing dark sunglasses.

Anyone with information on the case was urged to call police.

Finger Pointing Escalates in Southeast City

April 13, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Two longtime Bell Gardens councilwoman who until recently were close friends, made it clear Monday there is “no turning back,” with each accusing the other of being unfit for office.

The tit-for-tat of accusations became public during the March 13 council meeting, when Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez accused Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores of not living in the city, a violation of election law. On Monday, Flores responded by calling for an investigation into the finances of a nonprofit group run by Rodriguez.

According to Flores, she has received multiple complaints from parents who participated in Heroes of Dreams accusing Rodriguez of collecting fees for trips and lessons that never happened.

She also accused Rodriguez of failing to include information related to the nonprofit’s finances in in her Statement of Economic Interest, a form required by the Fair Political Practices Commission that must be submitted annually and is used to determine potential conflicts of interests.

“Where is that money going,” asked Flores, estimating the group had collected thousands of dollars in fees.

“Investigate all that you want because there is nothing there,” Rodriguez shot back, challenging her accusers to come forward. “I swear, on my daughter, I did not make a penny,” Rodriguez said.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Rodriguez said the nonprofit status of Heroes of Dreams – started to teach young children to perform on stage – was only active for a few months. She later told EGP a lawyer is helping her complete documents she did not know needed to be filed.

Flores accused Rodriguez of violating conflicts of interest laws by using city facilities free of charge for her financial benefit. She later told EGP facility rental fees should not have been waived for Rodriguez because it implies her group’s activities are city sponsored.

According to city records, Rodriguez used the facility periodically over the last year free of charge, most recently in December of 2016.

Recreation and Community Services Director Chris Daste, told EGP it’s “not out of the ordinary” to allow city facilities to be used free of charge for activities that benefit local youth and are a good cause, as long as there is no requirement for city staff to be on site.

If the group is profiting from the activity, however, “that would certainty be an issue,” he said.

Rodriguez scoffs at Flores’ claims she pocketed money, saying many of the children were not charged a dime.

“If anything, I have forked money out of my own pocket,” she said.

Rodriguez told EGP funds collected were used to lease studio space in Bell; rent on the site is now past due.

She complained that other council members have used city facilities for free and it was never a problem until now.

The latest round of accusations come on the heels of the city filing a complaint in Superior Court that alleges Rodriguez “vacated” her office after missing 10 of the 20 council meetings held in 2016. Rodriguez maintains her absences were related to an ongoing illness, but has refused to submit proof fearing it will be used against her.

Rodriguez fired back against the effort to oust her by launching a barrage of accusations against Flores and Councilman Pedro Aceituno. She demanded staff look into the legality of Aceituno holding two elected offices at the same time: he was elected to the Central Basin Municipal Water District board last November.

In response to Rodriguez’ allegations about her residency, Flores Monday asked city staff to conduct an investigation and report back its findings at the next council meeting.

“Even if she lived there a few months, that’s still a violation of the law,” maintains Rodriguez.

According to Flores, she invested in property in Downey but never lived there.

On Monday, Flores listed properties Rodriguez owns outside Bell Gardens and accused her fellow councilwoman of using a property owned by Flores, without her consent, to enroll her child in a school outside Bell Gardens. Rodriguez previously pointed out that Flores’ children do not attend Bell Gardens schools.

Rodriguez laughed off claims about using Flores’ address. She defended her decision to send her son to a Downey high school, saying the political climate at the time made it necessary.

“I wanted to protect him,” she said, adding it was Flores’ idea to use her address.

Rodriguez told EGP she expected retaliation, in fact she expected more.

“It doesn’t faze me anymore,” she said. “A couple of months ago it would have, but not anymore.”

One thing she is certain, Rodriguez believes the rest of the council will point the finger at her just as others have in the past, noting, “history repeats itself.”

“They will say I started this drama …[and] Yes I did,” said Rodriguez. “And there’s still much more to say.”

Updated April 13 11:20 a.m. to correct date of council meeting.

Fear In Wake of Raid On City’s ‘Crown Jewel’

April 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

The Bicycle Hotel and Casino reopened in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday following a raid by federal agents that temporarily closed the facility to the public.

But not before raising fears about the possible hit the closure could have on workers and the city of Bell Gardens where it is located.

Dozens of law enforcement officials with the Los Angeles High Intensity Financial Crime Area Task Force — which includes the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE), IRS Criminal Investigation, the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Gambling Control and the United States Attorney’s office — descended on the property around 7:00 a.m. Tuesday to execute a search warrant. Sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the warrant was related to money laundering by “high-rollers” who frequent the gambling facility.

Law enforcement officials with the Los Angeles High Intensity Financial Crime Area Task Force raided The Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens Tuesday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Law enforcement officials with the Los Angeles High Intensity Financial Crime Area Task Force raided The Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens Tuesday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Bell Gardens police have in the past taken part in these types of joint federal task forces, but told EGP Tuesday they were not involved in Tuesday’s raid.

It is not yet clear what the task force was looking for because, according to Virginia Kice of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “The search warrant issued by a United States magistrate judge was filed under seal in relation to an ongoing investigation.

“Because the warrant is under seal, we are not able to comment on the scope or nature of the investigation.”

The task force, however, is known to target money laundering, so there’s speculation Tuesday’s raid could be related to organized crime.

The Casino did not respond to EGP’s request for comment, but in a statement released prior to the reopening, said: “We are serving our customers and resuming normal operations immediately. Our priority is to provide a safe and fun environment for our guests.”

Federal task force raids Bicycle Hotel and Casino in Bell Gardens Tuesday morning. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

Federal task force raids Bicycle Hotel and Casino in Bell Gardens Tuesday morning. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

With the exception of a few hotel and casino managers, most employees were allowed to leave the premises Tuesday.

Boxes of items believed to be financial documents were removed from the Casino. No arrests were made.

As the raid got underway, players inside the Casino were told to leave immediately. Some were left scrambling to gather up their chips, unsure if or when they would be allowed to exchange them for cash. The Casino was closed to the public until 3 a.m. Wednesday, but hotel guests with a room key card were allowed inside.

News of the raid spread quickly through the small Southeast city, drawing people to stand outside the facility to get a closer look.

It also sparked conversation amongst neighbors, with some venturing their own ideas about the early morning raid.

Jorge Gonzales, a longtime city resident whose mother at one time worked for the Casino, told EGP he believes federal investigators are looking into criminal activity he says has been going on for years.

“I’m not surprised, it’s actually about time they look into what’s going on here,” he said.

“This place was put up with gangster money,” he said, referring to the Casino’s early history.

Founded in the mid-1980s, the Bicycle Club was seized in 1990 by the federal government after investigators said the club was partly built with laundered drug money.

For Bell Gardens City Manager Phil Wagner, retelling the past seems unfair.

“Some in the media have used the events of today as an opportunity to dredge up unrelated issues that happened 27 years ago when the Casino was under completely different ownership and management,” he told EGP in an email. “That’s totally unfair to the Casino and to this community.”

Many Bicycle Hotel and Casino employees live in Bell Gardens, so the raid Tuesday on the city’s top source of revenue is a serious concern to some residents, both for their wallets and their reputations.

“Most people who work here are honest, humble, good people,” said one employee, who did not want to use his name out of fear of putting his job at risk.

“The people gambling are not from Bell Gardens,” he added, implying the raid may have been targeting activity by foreigners.

Bell Gardens’ financial stability depends heavily on the Casino and Tuesday’s raid put the spotlight on the importance of that relationship.

“I can’t imagine what will happen if they close this place down,” said one worried employee.

“It’s not beneficial for the casino or the city” for it to be closed down, interjected a woman in Spanish.

The Bicycle Casino Hotel opened to great fanfare in December 2015. Gov. Jerry Brown was at both the groundbreaking and grand opening of the $50 million, seven-story, 100-room hotel.

In years past, nearly half of Bell Gardens’ General Fund revenue has come from the Casino. It is expected to generate $13 million in funds for the city during the 2016-17 fiscal year that ends in June, an amount projected to be slightly higher in 2017-2018.

While Casino operations appear to have returned to normal, a long time closure or the revoking of its license, or any event that results in a big drop in business, could have a negative impact on city finances. In 2012, for example, when Casino revenue dwindled to an all-time low, Bell Gardens found itself with a budget deficit that required a great deal of belt-tightening.

However, such drastic action – long time closure or revoking the Casino’s license – seem unlikely based on similar raids of other casinos.

Federal authorities last year investigated the Gardena card club formerly known as the Normandie Casino for violating anti-money laundering laws.

The partnership that ran the Normandie was ordered to pay about $2.4 million to settle federal charges that the poker club failed to report large cash transactions to federal authorities, as required.

As part of an agreement with the government, the four partners agreed to pay a $1 million fine and to forfeit nearly $1.4 million for failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and conspiring to avoid reporting to the government the large cash transactions of some of the casino’s “high-roller” gamblers.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, casinos are required to implement and maintain programs designed to prevent criminals from using the clubs to launder the large sums of cash that illegal activity can generate.

For example, casinos must record and report to the government the details of transactions involving more than $10,000 by any one gambler in a 24-hour period.

Wagner said he does not believe the current Casino owners and management are the targets of this investigation, citing reports that the probe is focused on individual gamblers who may or may not have used the casino to launder illegally obtained cash.

“Unfortunately for the many law-abiding customers of the Casino, its employees and the community which has suffered a great deal of negative publicity,” Wagner told EGP.

Longtime Bell Gardens resident Nury Balmaceda calls the Casino the working-class city’s “crown jewel.”

It “helped build all this,” she said, pointing to the surrounding development that now includes high producing retailers like Ross and Marshals and the newly opened Dunkin’ Donuts and Chipotle.

“It helped bring all these businesses here.”

She found the presence of ICE agents in the Southeast city, home to a large immigrant population, alarming.

“A lot of undocumented people may be afraid to come out,” said Balmaceda, who hopes nothing bad comes out of the raid.

In addition to city revenue, The Bicycle Casino Community Foundation provides scholarships for local students, recognizes local businesses and hosts an annual Christmas celebration for low-income residents.

“This is hit for the people of Bell Gardens,” Balmaceda said. “In the end we are the ones who will pay for it.”

 

An earlier version of this story was posted Tuesday to EGPNews website. Information from City News Story was use in this report.

 

Feds Raid Bell Gardens Bicycle Casino

April 4, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Bell Gardens relies heavily on revenue from the Bicycle Hotel and Casino, but today’s raid by federal agents could lead to a substantial economic hit to the Southeast city if the Casino is closed for a prolonged period, or shut down permanently.

Dozens of law enforcement officials with the Los Angeles High Intensity Financial Crime Area Task Force — which includes the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE), IRS Criminal Investigation, the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Gambling Control and the United States Attorney’s office — executed a search warrant at the Casino around 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Federal task force raids Bicycle Hotel and Casino in Bell Gardens Tuesday morning. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez

Federal agents raid Bicycle Hotel and Casino in Bell Gardens Tuesday morning. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

Bell Gardens police, who have in the past taken part in other joint federal task forces, were not involved in today’s action, the department told EGP.

It is not yet clear what the task force was looking for because “The search warrant issued by a United States magistrate judge was filed under seal in relation to an ongoing investigation,” according to Virginia Kice of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Because the warrant is under seal, we are not able to comment on the scope or nature of the investigation.”

She said it’s “an ongoing investigation.”

Because the task force is known to target money laundering, there is speculation today’s raid could be related to organized crime.

A call by City News Service to the poker club’s legal department was not immediately returned.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

With the exception of a few hotel and casino managers, most employees were allowed to leave the premises.

A woman resembling Julie Coyne, executive director of the Bicycle Casino Community Foundation, was caught by a helicopter news camera being escorted by federal agents into the Casino early in the morning.

The task force is expected to seize financial documents from the Casino. No arrests have been made so far.

The Bicycle Casino – known to many poker players as The Bike – is expected to be closed to the public for the rest of the day, but hotel guests who could show a room key card were being allowed to return to the Casino.

News of the raid spread quickly through the small city, drawing people to stand outside the facility to get a closer look.

It also led to a lot of conversation amongst neighbors, with some speculating as to the reasons behind the early morning raid.

Jorge Gonzales, a longtime city resident whose mother at one time worked for the Casino, told EGP he believes federal investigators are looking into criminal activity he says has been going on for years.

“I’m not surprised, it’s actually about time they look into what’s going on here,” he said.

“This place was put up with gangster money,” he said, referring to the Casino’s history.

Founded in the mid-1980s, the Bicycle Club was seized in 1990 by the federal government after investigators said the club was partly built with laundered drug money.

 

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A number of casino employees — who did not want to be identified for fear of putting their already uncertain jobs at risk —told EGP they had not been told if they should show up for their next work shift.

“Most people who work here are honest, humble, good people,” said one employee. “The people gambling are not from Bell Gardens,” he added, implying the raid may be targeting activity by foreigners.

Many Bicycle Hotel and Casino employees live in Bell Gardens. Several said Tuesday they are worried about their jobs.

“I can’t imagine what will happen if they close this place down,” said one worried employee, who hopes he will still receive his paycheck this week.

“It’s not beneficial for the casino or the city” for it to be closed down, interjected a woman in Spanish.

The Bicycle Casino Hotel opened with great anticipation in December 2015. Gov. Jerry Brown was at both the groundbreaking and grand opening of the $50 million, seven-story, 100-room hotel.

In years past, nearly half of Bell Gardens’ General Fund revenue has come from the Casino. It is expected to generate $13 million in funds for the city during the 2016-17 fiscal year that ends in June, an amount projected to be slightly higher in 2017-2018.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A long time closure or the revoking of the Casino’s license could have a negative impact on city finances. In 2012, when Casino revenue dwindled to an all-time low, Bell Gardens found itself with a budget deficit that took a toll on some city services.

Call to Bell Gardens officials for comment were not immediately returned.

The possibility of such drastic action – long time closure or revoking the Casino’s license – seem unlikely based on similar raids of other Casinos.

Federal authorities last year investigated the Gardena card club formerly known as the Normandie Casino for violating anti-money laundering laws.

The partnership that ran the Normandie was ordered to pay about $2.4 million to settle federal charges that the poker club failed to report large cash transactions to federal authorities, as required.

As part of an agreement with the government, the four partners agreed to pay a $1 million fine and to forfeit nearly $1.4 million for failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and conspiring to avoid reporting to the government the large cash transactions of some of the casino’s “high-roller” gamblers.

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, casinos are required to implement and maintain programs designed to prevent criminals from using the clubs to launder the large sums of cash that illegal activity can generate.

For example, casinos must record and report to the government the details of transactions involving more than $10,000 by any one gambler in a 24-hour period.

City Manager Phil Wagner does not believe the current Bicycle Hotel and Casino owners and management are the targets of this investigation citing reports that the probe is focused on individual gamblers that may or may not have used the casino to launder illegally obtained cash.

“Unfortunately for the many law-abiding customers of the Casino, its employees and the community which has suffered a great deal of negative publicity,” Wagner told EGP.

Wagner went on to criticize media reports that used today’s events as an opportunity to  bring to light “unrelated issues that happened 27 years ago when the casino was under completely different ownership and management.”

“That’s totally unfair to the Casino and to this community,” Wagner told EGP.

Even if not closed, heavy fines would hurt Casino revenue, losses that could in turn hurt the city’s budget.

The Bicycle Casino has always been the crown jewel in the working class city, longtime Bell Gardens resident Nury Balmaceda told EGP.

It “helped build all this,” she said, pointing to the surrounding development that now includes high producing retailers like Ross and Marshals and the newly opened Dunkin’ Donuts and Chipotle.

“It helped bring all these businesses here.”

Other residents were concerned by the presence of ICE agents in the Southeast city, home to a large immigration population.

“A lot of undocumented people may be afraid to come out,” noted Balmaceda, who hopes nothing bad comes out of the raid.

In addition to city revenue, The Bicycle Casino Community Foundation provides scholarships for local students, recognizes local businesses and hosts an annual Christmas celebration for low-income residents.

“This is hit for the people of Bell Gardens, in the end we are the ones who will pay for it.”

Information from City News Service was used in this report.

[Update 7:15p.m.] to include statement from Bell Gardens City Manager.

Mendoza Named Bell Gardens Mayor

January 26, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Bell Gardens Mayor Jose J. Mendoza and Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores were sworn in last week during a special ceremony at city hall.

This will be the first time Mendoza will serve as mayor since being elected in November 2013.

The lifelong Bell Gardens resident says he wants to focus on continuing to make the city a great place to live. He currently teaches dance at Bell Gardens Intermediate.

Bell Gardens Mayor Jose J. Mendoza and Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores during the city’s swearing-in ceremony Jan. 18. (City of Bell Gardens)

Bell Gardens Mayor Jose J. Mendoza and Mayor Pro Tem Priscilla Flores during the city’s swearing-in ceremony Jan. 18. (City of Bell Gardens)

“We’ve come a long way and I look forward to helping us continue to move forward and be a good place for families and businesses,” he said in statement announcing his new role.

Flores was first elected to the Bell Gardens Council in 2015 and has previously served as mayor in 2009 and 2010. She serves as an administrator at Bell Gardens Intermediate.

 

Judge OK’s Ex-Mayor’s Wife’s Plea Deal in Husband’s Killing

January 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

A judge today sentenced the wife of slain Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo to three months in county jail and five years of formal probation for shooting him in the chest, saying the couple’s relationship was abusive and bound to “end in tragedy.”

Over the objection of the victim’s brother, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy went along with a plea agreement negotiated between prosecutors and Lyvette Crespo that also calls for the 45-year-old mother of two to perform 500 hours of community service and complete a one-year anger management course.

Crespo — who has already served two days of the jail term — was taken into custody immediately after the sentencing.

She pleaded guilty Nov. 30 to voluntary manslaughter for the Sept. 30, 2014, shooting death of her husband, Daniel. The judge said then that she wanted to review a probation report on the case before deciding whether to go along with the plea bargain.

“I don’t believe that Lyvette Crespo deserves to go to prison for this,” the judge said Friday, noting that she was initially surprised by the terms of the plea agreement but subsequently spent hours reviewing evidence, including grand jury transcripts from proceedings in which Crespo was indicted
in April 2015.

The judge said she believed  the defendant “was abused throughout the marriage,” and that both she and her husband “had their demons.”

Daniel Crespo was “absolutely cruel” to his wife and flaunted his extramarital affairs in her face, and “she was not Mother Teresa” either, the judge said.

Former Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo, right, with his son, pictured center, and his wife Lyvette Crespo, left, during his swearing in ceremony in 2013. (EGP News photo archive)

Former Bell Gardens Mayor Daniel Crespo, right, with his son, pictured center, and his wife Lyvette Crespo, left, during his swearing in ceremony in 2013. (EGP News photo archive)

“But for what happened on September 30th, it would still be going on. It was inevitable if you look at all of this evidence … This was a train going down the tracks and it was going to end in tragedy at some point … It was going to be you if it wasn’t him,” the judge said, speaking directly to
the defendant.

Daniel Nicholas Crespo — who is now 22 — told the judge that his father was a “very complicated man” who was both loved and feared by him, his older sister and his mother. He described all three of them as victims of domestic violence.

He said he admired his father’s service to the city in which they lived, but said his dad was also a “liar,” “bully” and “cheater.”

“He had a lot of demons … Unfortunately, the demons won,” the couple’s son said.

He apologized to his mother, who wept in court as her son spoke across the courtroom, and told her that he wishes he had been stronger and could have done something to stop his father and that he has blamed himself for what happened.

Sheriff’s investigators said the mayor and his wife were arguing when their son intervened, leading to a struggle between father and son.

Lyvette Crespo claimed she was protecting her son when she grabbed a handgun and shot her husband, who had punched the young man in the face.

William Crespo interrupted his nephew as he spoke in court, questioning why the defendant shot her husband instead of calling 911. He and his attorney walked out of court just as the judge began to read the terms of the sentence.

William Crespo has denied allegations that his brother was abusive, but has acknowledged that the mayor had a series of extramarital affairs that angered his wife.

His civil attorney read a statement on his behalf in court, in which he called his brother’s death “a planned killing” and said his sister-in-law had taken the law into her own hands and chosen “to execute him in cold blood.”

A civil lawsuit filed in October 2014 by Daniel Crespo’s mother alleges her daughter-in-law picked a fight with him knowing that their son would intervene, then opened a safe, grabbed a gun and killed her husband “with malice and in cold blood.”

One of Lyvette Crespo’s attorneys, Roger Lowenstein, said there was “no question that there was abuse in the relationship,” while another of her lawyers, Eber Bayona, described her as “the victim at the hands of Mr. Crespo for a number of years.”

Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman said the case was “thoroughly vetted by the District Attorney’s Office” before prosecutors concluded that “this was the appropriate disposition in this case.”

Outside court, the couple’s son said, “If there was a story, my father would be the hero and also the villain, like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He described the work his father had done for their city as “amazing” while saying that he had a “really, really dark side, very, very hateful, spiteful.”

He described the events the day his father died as “the first time I ever stood up to my father.”

“I wasn’t going in for a fight. I was going in to stop him and his reaction was violence,” he said. “I tried to hold his hands so he didn’t punch me, but he did punch me in my right eye and I fell backwards on a flight … of stairs. It took me a moment to realize, you know, what just happened and my father just kept coming towards me, kept walking towards me, and I had to run. I was scared for my life. But even though I was terrified, I knew that I had to do something because he could not keep beating up on my mom … When she shot him and I saw it, I’ll never forget it, but I’m not angry at her. I don’t have any hatred. It’s not her fault.”

The couple’s daughter, Crystal, now 29, said, “It’s not like you can just call and say, `Look at what my father’s doing’ because he held a political position as well as being a probation officer. And also, you don’t want him to go to jail.”

 

Updated 3:24 p.m.

Bell Gardens PD Offers Drug Prevention Workshop

January 5, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

A free workshop for Bell Gardens parents concerned about their children experimenting with drugs will be held Jan. 17, amid growing concerns of drug abuse in the city.

The Bell Gardens Police Department in partnership with the Recreation and Community Services Department and Bell Gardens High School’s Regional Occupation Program will host the workshop, “Drugs and Kids: What Parents Need to Know.”

The event will take place from 6 to 8p.m. at the Veterans Park Senior Center – located at 6662 Loveland St. Narconon Drug Prevention and Education, Inc. in conjunction with Fresh Start – a drug rehabilitation and prevention program – will provide the presentation. Staff from the city, police department and Montebello Unified School District will be available to answer questions.

For more info, contact Detective John Acosta at (562) 806-7649.

Culinary Students Build Gingerbread House Village

December 22, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

In what’s become an annual tradition, Bell Gardens High School Culinary students kicked off the holiday season by showing off their baking and cake decorating skills by building an entire village of gingerbread houses.

Over 80 students attending the Culinary Hospitality Opportunity Pathway (CHOP) participated in the 5th annual fundraiser held Dec. 9, where more than $1,000 was raised to buy chef jackets and uniforms for students in the program.

The fanciful creations filled an entire classroom, creating a towering neighborhood made out of gingerbread, cookies and colorful frosting.

Some of the creations were as tall as a wedding cake; others took over a month and a half to bake and build.

(MUSD)

(MUSD)

“These students are doing much more than just cooking,” said Elizabeth Kocharian, lead teacher for CHOP. “Our students use geometry and algebra skills to calculate the sizes of the gingerbread walls, engineering to keep them up and design skills to decorate the house.”

BGHS CHOP senior Cynthia Bernal said she really enjoyed making her house and knowing she could create something like this by herself.

“Our houses are all different because we put some of our own background and heritage into it,” Bernal said.

The top three gingerbread houses will be displayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Montebello. Winners include: Alexander Castillo’s “Peppa Pig Village” in first place; Jazmin Ramos’ “Farm Stand and Bakery” in second place, and in third place, Dominic Jimenez’ “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

 

Las Posadas: The Mexican Tradition Continues in Bell Gardens

December 22, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

While growing up in Mexico, Gloria Casillas could hardly contain her excitement as she counted down the days until Christmas. It wasn’t the presents she was looking forward to, but the annual Mexican tradition known as las posadas, which begin Dec. 16 and continue for 9 consecutive nights, ending on Christmas Eve.

Celebrated throughout Mexico and in many Latino neighborhoods in the United States, las posadas are a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for a posada, the Spanish word for “inn” or “shelter,” where they can spend the night.

Now, with three children of her own, Casillas is continuing the religious ritual in her new hometown of Bell Gardens, hoping her children will carry on the tradition and come to understand the deeper meaning of Christmas.

“We want to remind our children Christmas is not just about getting presents, it’s about love, family and the celebration of the birth of Jesus,” Casillas told EGP in Spanish.

Over 200 people, most of them neighbors, attended the community posada Dec. 16 at Bell Gardens Intermediate School (BGI). Most of the organizers are parents who want a safe and neutral location to celebrate the religious/cultural tradition while getting to know one another.

Past posadas were held at local homes, but many parents were uncomfortable allowing their children to take part in the caminatas or walks that are part of the annual observance.

“For some time, people didn’t feel safe because of the gang activity” in the area, said Martha Cabral, one of the event organizers.

With their children close by, a group of mothers sing traditional songs during las posadas festivities Dec. 16 in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

With their children close by, a group of mothers sing traditional songs during las posadas festivities Dec. 16 in Bell Gardens. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“In an effort to create a bridge between the school and the community, we [decided] to hold the event in a healthy family environment where parents felt at ease and comfortable,” explained BGI Principal Jose Cuevas, who has for the last eight years played a role in organizing the event.

Each posada kicks off with a candlelight procession and the singing of Christmas carols in Spanish. The procession winds its way from ”inn” to “inn,” where two people dressed as Mary and Joseph ask for lodging only to be turned away. Finally, one of the neighbors agrees to open their doors to the group, symbolically providing shelter and the birthplace for the baby Jesus.

The festivities continue with a piñata full of treats for the children, traditional Mexican food and more singing.

Because BGI is a public school, the religious aspects of the Christmas tradition have been tuned down by eliminating many of the prayers usually recited, while keeping intact the festive cultural elements of the pageantry.

Prayers usually recited during traditional las posadas were left out of the Bell Gardens’ caminata/walk in order to be respectful of all religions, and to maintain a “separation of church and state” given the involvement of the public school, according to organizers. The rest of the festivities were held at the school site.

Carla Dominguez — holding a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and waiting for a bowl of pozole — told EGP she attends the posada every year to make sure the tradition is not lost in her family.

“Many of our children did not know what a posada was,” chimes in Conrada Marquez.

“Now they can’t wait for it and ask when the next one will be held,” adds Dioselina Chavez.

The mothers vividly recalled the posadas they attended as children in Mexico. They spoke of the sparklers they were allowed to hold, reciting the rosary and the people dressed up to recreate the nativity scene. The festivities traditionally last for nine nights, with a different neighbor serving as host each night. Attendees enjoy tamales, champurrado (a hot chocolate type drink), and receive a small gift bag or bolo filled with peanuts, fruit, and candy.

“Over there [in Mexico] we all sang and knew the songs by heart at a very young age,” Carla Dominguez recalled with a smile. “You just can’t compare” the two.

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Casillas’ son Derick Froilan, 9, told EGP he has learned some of the songs and looks forward every year to the posadas.

“I like walking around and singing … making friends,” he said enthusiastically. “I like that it reminds me of God.”

After a turn at hitting the piñata, Chavez’s 9-year-old daughter Brisa Figueroa told EGP she plans to continue the Mexican tradition when she grows up.

“I learned a lot about Mary and Jesus,” she said. “It taught me it’s important to be nice to our neighbors.”

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