Imperial Valley arson and a boy named Angel

The haystack fires in Holtville

"The arsonist attempted to set 31 hay stacks afire the first night, and 17 of them burned."
  • "The arsonist attempted to set 31 hay stacks afire the first night, and 17 of them burned."
  • Image by Jim Coit

The arson suspect was nineteen years old and had short black hair, brown-yellow eyes, and a wide, plump face. He was sitting in the corner stall of the visiting room of the Imperial County jail in El Centro, a hundred miles east of San Diego. The air in the room was fresh from the swamp cooler outside, which was seldom overwhelmed in the wintertime. It was a Sunday morning in January, 1977 and the weather was clear and still. Driving down the rock-pile mountain from the west, I had seen the Chocolate Mountains across the valley, and had felt as though I could draw my finger on the line where the desert ended and the fields began, tilting toward the Salton Sea from the overflowing rims of the All-American Canal.

Angel Magallanez. Born in Mexicali, he was technically a Mexican, but had been raised by relatives in Holtville

Angel Magallanez. Born in Mexicali, he was technically a Mexican, but had been raised by relatives in Holtville

The suspect was at a desk behind a sheet of glass that rose to the ceiling. We spoke through telephone receivers. "Are you Angel Magallanez?"

"Yes," he said.

"Did I pronounce your name correctly?"

"Don't matter," he replied, and gave the Spanish pronunciation and then the English. Born in Mexicali, he was technically a Mexican, but had been raised by relatives in Holtville, a farm town east of El Centro, and his English was that of any Californian.

Maria Magallanez and family. All of the Magallanez children have a name that starts with A.

Maria Magallanez and family. All of the Magallanez children have a name that starts with A.

He drove a Ford pickup with a CB radio and oversize blackwall tires; his wardrobe included a rugby shirt, a marijuana leaf belt buckle, and his high school graduation ring. His large front teeth and an occasional squint made him look like Theodore Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver.

Tommy Hogue:  "Little things happen that make you wonder."

Tommy Hogue: "Little things happen that make you wonder."

When I told him who I was, he said, "How'd you know I was here?"

"There was a story in the San Diego Union about your arrest, and also about the fires."

"Really? What did it say?"

I recited what I could remember of the article, which was written by Bill Parry and which said: "The Imperial County sheriff's office said it has arrested a suspect in connection with the worst series of hay fires in the history of the Imperial Valley.... Sheriff's Sgt. John Lorenz said an estimated $300,000 worth of hay was destroyed in a series of 24 fires in November. The fires occurred within a five-mile radius of Holtville. The blazes destroyed about 3600 tons of hay, most of which was insured...

"The arsonist attempted to set 31 hay stacks afire the first night, and 17 of them burned. Night patrols of the Sheriff's Department immediately were expanded and aircraft and electronic equipment were used in an effort to catch the arsonist in the act. At the same time, farmers began guarding their haystacks at night and some carried rifles while patrolling fields.

"Investigators from the Imperial County Fire Department, Sheriff's Department, and police from cities all over the 2700 square-mile valley joined the search for evidence or a motive that would lead them to the arsonist. However, they were unsuccessful until an attempt was made to burn the Meloland Store in Holtville, operated by the suspect's mother, Maria Magallanez.

"Luckily, the store didn't catch and burn," Lorenz said yesterday. "We had handled her son as a juvenile so we interrogated him and he freely told us he had set the fires at his mother's store because he disliked her so much," Lorenz said. "Then he copped out to all the fires and told us where he had started the fires and how he had started the fires."

"The woman told investigators she had adopted Magallanez, whose given name was Angel Arrellano Gutierrez....

"Magallanez was given a preliminary hearing Tuesday [December 7, 1976] before Municipal Judge Harold Chaille, in El Centro, who reduced the suspect's bail from $100,000 to $50,000."

That may seem like a lot of money for someone suspected of burning Sudan grass and alfalfa (in face, bail initially was set at $500,000), but the number of fires, their frequency, and the adroitness with which the arsonist eluded the sheriff department's helicopter, the infrared scopes, the patrols disguised as joyriders and as hitchhikers, the farmers armed in their fields, and the $1000 offer of reward for information leading to the arsonist's arrest and conviction - these contributed to a peculiar state of mind in the valley, where farmers are used to tolerating a fire or two every season, set off by kids.

"At first we thought all the fires was union-connected," said Clem Miller, one of the farmers who stayed in his field at night with a rifle. "A bunch of farmers had just gone up to Los Angeles to rally for Proposition 14, which the Chavez people were not too crazy about, and when the fires started coming all at once, you were taking a hell of a chance just stopping your car and taking a piss."

The fires left only a few unburned matchbooks as evidence. Once hay has been cut and dried in windrows, it is baled in the field and the bales stacked two abreast and fifteen feet high by the side of the road. Some of the stacks are 200 yards long, or about the size of a freight train. The burned stacks left only a long track of ash and twisted baling wire. Nothing indicated who might have set the fires.

"So tell me how you came to be arrested," I said through the telephone.

"I don't know. I guess someone told Mike Singh [a sheriff's lieutenant] that I set the fire at my mom's store but I didn't; I was home in bed and you can ask her."

"Do you work at the store?"

"Yeah, well, I'm the only man at home. My little brother's only thirteen and still in school and my mom's not married. There's four kids home altogether and my mom needs me 'cause I'm the oldest. So I give thirty, forty dollars a week to help out."

"But who told Mike Singh that you set your mother's store on fire?"

"He says my mom told him but I think he's lying."

"Your mom told him. How does he know your mom?"

"He used to help me out sometimes when me and my mom weren't getting along, 'cause she's got a temper and she gets hysterical sometimes. I guess she thought of him as a friend or something but he's not a friend anymore, I'll tell you that."

"Well, what kind of troubles were you having with your mom?"

"She says I stole stuff from the store and I wasn't stealing anything."

"Have you ever been arrested before?"

"Once."

"What for?"

"Stealing baling wire, except I didn't take any."

"Who did?"

"Some guys took it from the place I was working."

"Then why were you arrested?"

"I don't know. I guess 'cause I knew they were doing it and I just let 'em, and so I took the blame."

I was writing in my notebook when Angel went on, "Say, are you gonna talk to Bill Hogue about this?"

"Who's he?"

"Farmer I work for — used to work for. Just tell him I don't know how they got Tommy's name but I didn't do it."

"And who's Tommy?"

"That's Bill Hogue's son. We're close friends and I didn't want him to think that I got him in trouble."

"Keep going."

"Well, I guess the sheriff picked him up and asked him if he set the fires and he said he didn't know what the hell they were talking about, and it got back that I told them that Tommy and me set the fires and I didn't."

"Did you tell them that you had set the fires?"

He leaned forward and brought his chair closer to the table. "I don't know - I probably said something like that. But I was scared, and they were talking, and I said yes, yes, yes to everything. And Mike said he'd help me out."

"Help you out how?"

"He said I could see a psychiatrist or something and he said I wouldn't have to come here."

Whether Lt. Mike Singh used some kind of inducement to obtain the confession, and when and where the confession was actually obtained, were questions raised by Angel's attorneys to disqualify the only solid evidence against their client. But the questions could be answered by none but Singh and Angel themselves.

On the morning that Angel's mother discovered some half-burned trash and boards against the side of her store, Singh was on his way to Calexico, where his men had a few hundred pounds of marijuana under surveillance. Singh at the time was in charge of the department's narcotics detail. He stopped at the Meloland Store to have a word with John Lorenz, one of the deputies who'd responded to the fire call. Then after talking with Mrs. Magallanez, he drove to the Hogue ranch where Angel and some other boys were grinding hay for cattle feed. There he picked up Angel for questioning and drove him back to his office, passing the store where a squad car was still parked. Angel wanted to know what the car was doing there. Singh told him about the fire and then about the neighbor who had see a dark-colored pickup driving around the store at three in the morning.

Angel, whose truck was a horse-bay F-100, put his head between his hands and told Singh that he was under a lot of pressure from his mom and he needed help. Singh suggested a psychiatrist, then started changing the subject to stall whatever Angel might say until he got to the office and could get it on tape. He also told him of his right to remain silent, but didn't follow the complete procedure of reading the suspect's constitutional rights from a card that he should have been carrying in his wallet.

After leading Angel into his office, he spoke with him for about five minutes, then stepped out to find another officer to witness what Angel was about to say. John Lorenz had just returned. Entering the room, he saw Angel looking downcast in a chair, and on Singh's desk, a Penal Code book opened to the section on arson. Singh borrowed Lorenz's card to read Angel his rights, then Lorenz sat down to take notes on Angel's elaborate confession, which lasted about an hour and a half.

"He showed us where he set the fires and how he set the fires," Lorenz said. "We took down a map and he showed us. He showed us what roads he used and everything. And he knew things that only the arsonist would have known, such as the materials used and the order in which the fires were set."

"Then you're convinced that Angel's confession was true," I said.

"No doubt in my mind. In fact it was kind of scary: when he got into describing how he set the fires, he really got off on it. His spirits seemed to pick up. It was like he was enjoying it."

"What about Singh's promise to have Angel see a psychiatrist?"

"I don't know about that, but I personally told the D.A. that the man was not in possession of his normal faculties, though I think he knew right from wrong, and I think he knew the consequences."

"Did Singh bully him into confessing?"

Lorenz paused a minute. "You know, I left the department a few weeks after all this took place, and so I guess I can say that Mike does get excited at times, and personally, I don't like working with him."

"Is that all?"

"Yes, that's all."

Singh thinks of himself as having law enforcement in his blood. He says that in India, where his father was born, men of his father's size and strength were traditionally made guards of the temples and palaces. The elder Singh, in fact, made a name for himself in the Imperial Valley by being the first foreigner to defeat the local champion in wrestling. That champion, incidentally, was Swiss, which meant that whether or not he was born in America, he might legally be considered a native. California law in the early 1900s denied non-Europeans — the Chinese in particular — a number of civil rights, notably that of owning land. All of his winnings from wrestling matches were useless in buying the land he wanted for a dairy, until he married a native, a Mexican, and bought the land in her name. Their son grew up speaking Spanish and Punjabi as well as English, and his first job out of the Navy was guarding captives of the U.S. Border Patrol.

"About ten years after that I came to the sheriff's department to work with juveniles," he said behind his desk at headquarters. "That's how I got to know Angel. His mother asked me to help her with him; I think she wanted a man's influence in the situation, I guess you could say. The trouble was mostly minor things — where he might take some money from the cash register at the store. He was always in a financial bind, even as a kid, having more expenses than he could meet — and she'd ask me to talk to him.

"You see, whenever I dealt with him — and this was unusual for the kids I had to deal with - he always, always told me the exact truth. Whenever a situation came to my attention, he'd say, "Mike, I want you to know what happened," and he'd go right on and tell me everything, and then we'd talk it over, and we'd come to the end, and he'd have tears in his eyes, and he'd say, "I really want to do what's right: I think that I can take care of this problem," and eight, nine times out of ten he would. I didn't have much trouble with Angel. He's basically a good kid.... He told me on a number of occasions that he thoguht he might like to go into law enforcement some day."

To disqualify Angel's confession, his attorneys tried to show that Singh had suspected him of having set the haystack fires before he read him his full constitutional rights. They knew that Singh hadn't given him his full rights in the car; therefore they tried to show that Angel was a suspect in the haystack arsons while en route to Singh's office.

Singh's counter to this strategy was to point out his reason for questioning Angel about the haystack fires, without suspecting him of the crimes. On the worst night of the fires, Singh and Angel happened to meet and exchange a few words. This was at Bond's Corner, a lot on the edge of a field about a mile south of Holtville. Eight stacks, each one hundred tons, had been packed onto the lot, and the arsonist had set the two northern stacks on fire. Scores of people arrived to save the other stacks by pulling them out of the way. When Singh arrived, he spotted Angel leaning against his truck and sipping on a Coors. As he walked up, Angel put the can in his truck bed and told Singh that he'd heard about a farmer who had seen three boys running from a field near Holtville, across a road, and toward a phone booth. Singh said it might be a lead, and asked Angel to check into it further. A few minutes later, while the fire fighters were busy at the northern end of the lot, the stacks on the southern end were set ablaze. No one saw who did it.

Singh said later in court that he did question Angel about the haystack fires while riding back to his office, but at the time he thought of Angel as an informant, not a suspect. He'd asked if Angel had found out anything more about the boys the farmer had seen, and Angel had said that he hadn't.

The defense attorneys also tried to show that Singh had intimidated Angel. They put one of Angel's coworkers on the stand to say that Singh, in picking up Angel at the ranch, had acted as though he were sore about something. They also found a woman to testify that Singh had dealt with her child-custody troubles by offering to get her psychiatric help in exchange for her confession of making bomb threats.

But none of these strategies worked. Judge Don R. Work permitted Angel's confession to be used in the upcoming trial, finding that Angel had volunteered his information about the haystack fires with no deceit or coercion from Singh. At the end of the testimony about the confession, the judge asked Singh, who was then on the stand, "I take it it is clear that if the defendant had kept his mouth shut, from what you said he would not be a suspect?"

Singh: "Your honor, he would not have been a suspect in the hay fire."

Judge Work: "All right. That is all I am concerned about. That is a crude way of putting it, but I think that is what we are talking about in this case."

Late in January, after spending eight weeks in jail, Angel was released on a lowered bail of $5000, the bondsman's fee having been paid by Angel's mother, who had borrowed the money against her house and who held her son accountable for every dime.

"I tell you I don't know who's lying around here and I don't care," she said, summarizing her views on the arsons. "I know that I am telling the truth, and what the other people are saying is just what they are saying."

It was a Sunday morning, and Maria Magallanez was seated as usual at a long wooden table in the shade of the Meloland Store. She is a stout woman with reddish hair and light freckles, who hates to ride in a car that she is not driving. She says she has never ridden a bus in her life. Behind her was the silver grille of her pool-blue pickup truck, and beyond that was a feathery, rough-barked tree known as the salt cedar, so-called for its ability to thrive in alkaline soil. Some farmers uproot the shrub from their land when they see that it poisons the ground around it.

On her day of rest she was reading the comics and dipping into a bag of cheese puffs at her side. Her married daughter was also at the table knitting lace on the edge of a cloth, while her son-in-law, who is known as Dancing Bear (his CB handle) dozed in the cab of his pickup, deaf to the screams of the children playing under the awning by the gas pumps.

All of the Magallanez children have a name that starts with A. They are Amelia, 29; Angie, 27; Anita, 26; Julio Antonio, 22; Angel, 19; Anna-Maria, 19; Ayda, 18; Adelita, 15; Andrews, 14; and Alberta, 7 (adopted, like Angel, at birth). She also had two miscarriages and lost a son at four from polio, and a daughter at seven from meningitis. Altogether she had six children still at home, counting two who belonged to a friend who had recently divorced, and who paid her $300 a month in child support. Magallanez had divorced her own husband for drinking too much. She herself drinks only coffee, all day long. "I do this every Sunday," she said. "Sit out here with my kids. I don't go anywhere. I can't. I have to watch the store."

On a normal day she rises at 4:00 a.m. and calls for Angel to rise and help her load their trucks for the three-mile drive to the store, which stands near the corner of a lettuce field outside of Holtville. First they load the trucks with supplies for the grocery shelves, and then with the sleeping children. They leave in time to open the store at 5:00 a.m., after bedding the kids on the store's wooden floor.

She said that on the morning when someone had set a fire of trash and boards against the side of her store, Angel had been particularly hard to rouse, and that at the time she was after him to give back some money she had discovered missing from the register.

"But I don't care what anybody says because I know Angel wouldn't burn me out," she said. "He called me about three o'clock that day from jail and he was pretty upset, and I don't blame him because he thought I told Mike Singh he set the fire, and I didn't. I was inside the store and Mike goes around to look at where the fire was, and comes back in and I said, "Mike, what do you think?" And he said, "Your son?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Well, Mary, you asked me," and then he left and got Angel, and that's the truth."

Rising from his nap, Dancing Bear suggested a ride for all the kids in the back of his truck. He stooped to their upraised arms while Magallanez, still at her table, gave orders about not standing up when the truck was moving. The truck scattered gravel and jounced in a dip before gaining the bowling-flat highway.

No sooner was his truck out of sight than Angel's pulled into the drive. This was his second day of freedom after the weeks spent in jail, and he was wearing a red bandana on his forehead and blackout aviator sunglasses. As I raised my hand in greeting he smiled and said, "What's your problem?" and headed into the store for a minute, then came out again and seated himself on a plastic milk crate.

I asked him how the case was going and he told me he was broke. The Fireman's Fund insurance company had sent him a bill for $868, some sort of payment for hay destroyed by arson - and what the hell they were bothering him for he didn't know. And then the bail restrictions said he was supposed to stay home all day - so how was he supposed to get a job and make some money?

"Where have you just been?" I asked.

"I saw my girlfriend Kim Freeman."

I remembered her, the daughter of the pastor at the Jesus' Name Church. The pastor had told me that Angel was the kind of kid who always helped people on the side of the road. Asked why this might be part of Angel's character, the pastor had said, "He's the kind a fella who always wants friends, who needs friends, if you know what I mean."

"I give him a break in the afternoon," said Angel's mother, explaining his breach of the bail conditions. "But I don't ever let him out after five because I think some people would like to get to him, and I don't think he'd be safe out alone."

I said that wasn't likely, since most of the people affected by the fires had no idea who Angel was.

"That's crazy," he said. "They know who I am."

"No, they don't. Most of them say they've never heard of you."

"They're lying then, 'cause I've been working for farmers for a long time. Lots of people know me 'cause I've lived here all my life. Or at least they'd know me if they saw me."

"Whatever you say."

"Hey — you want a drink?" he said, standing up and adjusting his sunglasses. I looked at his mother, who was frowning at the newspaper in front of her.

"C'mon," Angel said, and opened the screen door.

The room was dark as a tavern and smelled of candy and soap. The first thing facing the door was a rack of Hostess baked goods, and next to that were various kinds of gloves arranged in tiers: rubber gloves for picking lettuce, cotton gloves to wear under the rubber ones on cold mornings, and gloves of rubberized canvas for loading baskets into pallets and pallets into trucks. Angel turned left and got me a Pepsi from the slide-door refrigerator. There were vegetables in cardboard boxes along the floor, and above were shelves of Gallo wine in the thin, short bottles called mickies. Then I followed him to the back of the store, where he disappeared through a door. I stopped, waiting to be invited in, but no word came. I was standing next to an old refrigerator with doors like thick-sashed windows and handles that look like they used to be part of a car. Behind them were packs of Budweiser and Coors. A shawl of plum-colored lace, spread and mounted like a specimen of butterfly, hung high on the back wall.

"Hey, let's talk a minute," I said as Angel returned to the room.

"'Bout what?"

"The fires."

"I ain't got nothing to say."

"Okay. Don't talk about the fires - just tell me why you confessed."

He was at the front door now and turned, and for an instant I thought he was going to reply, but his look skipped past me and went to his sister, Ayda, a mouth-breather, who was watching us from behind the counter with her arms folded and her mouth open. Angel pushed the door out with his foot and stepped outside.

In the privacy of the open air he looked around as though he were going someplace, then asked his mother if Alan Lee had come over while he was at Kim's.

"No, he might stop by later," she said.

Alan Lee was one of the boys Angel had worked with at the Hogue ranch. On the night of Monday, November 15, when most of the fires had been set, Angel had watched the first half of the football game with the Lees, as he usually did, and had left around six-thirty to pick up some goods at the supermarket in town and deliver them to his mother's store. Dropping the stuff off, he'd told her he had heard a call for volunteer firemen to come and put out haystack fires south of town. The only other person who'd spoken with Angel after that was Mike Singh. His mother and the Lees therefore were the only people on whom he could rely for even the beginning of an alibi. Alan Lee, moreover, was the one on whom he relied for companionship.

When Alan arrived, later that afternoon, in a fire-red pickup with a gun rack and tape deck, he was followed in another car by two other boys who'd been schoolmates of Angel at Holtville High. Alan Lee was seventeen, and except for his reddish nose, was all of one color, like a polar bear: white-gold curly hair, eyebrows, sideburns, eyelashes, and faint whiskers. The other boys were Ronnie Moses, with an orthodontic smile, and Ed Tellez. Tell-Liz, he pronounced it.

"No way," said Alan. "You're supposed to say it Tay-yez. Aren't you, Eddie?"

"Sometimes," he said, grinning.

Angel offered everyone a Pepsi, which he passed around before taking a seat on the rail of his truck bed.

"So, what did you get to eat in jail?" said Moses.

"Junk tortillas 'n' stuff," Angel said. "I lost weight. Went from one-sixty-four to one-thirty-two. Couldn't sleep because of the noise so I had to get sleeping pills almost every night. You can get sleeping pills, drugs, marijuana, anything in there you want."

"Marijuana, God!" said Tellez.

"'cept I didn't smoke any," Angel said. "I've never smoked marijuana and I never will."

Moses picked up a handful of gravel and started slinging the rocks sidearm at the road. A moment passed.

"Did you see Singh while you were in jail?" I asked.

"I wouldn't see that bastard pig anywhere."

Alan burst into glee and told Angel he was crazy.

"I don't care," said Angel. "I'll call that bastard whatever I want."

I asked him to tell us what had happened at Bond's Corner.

"I went there 'cause I got a CB call for volunteer fire. So I show up and there's Mike Singh."

"He says you were drinking beer."

"Yeah — why deny it? I didn't do anything. And don't ask me any more 'cause I don't know. All's I know is I didn't do it."

"He's crazy," said Lee. "Crazy Angel."

"If I'm crazy then you're a queer."

Lee ignored this, gave a loose snort, and announced that somebody had just stolen the shotgun from his gunrack, plus thirty tapes out of his car which the insurance wouldn't cover.

"That's nothing," said Angel, and pointed to the tool box on the side of his truck where he said the police had broken in to look for drugs and had taken his tools.

"Ha!" said Lee. "What are you gonna need tools for in jail?"

"I don't know," said Angel, swinging his heels hard against the side of his truck. "I don't know what those bastards want. God! First they want me to plead insane-guilty, then they want me to plead insane-innocent. But I mean — God I'm not gonna do it. To hell with them, man, I'm not gonna plead anything 'cause I didn't do it."

His tone drew everyone's attention for a minute. Moses quit throwing rocks. Lee looked puzzled. Tellez kept on grinning.

At last Lee said, "Angel, you're crazy."

"Get out of here."

"I'm going," he said. "Want to come over to my house, watch NFL highlights after I do some stuff for my dad?"

Angel slid off the truck and went to ask his mother's permission to go, while Lee fired up his engine and the radio at the same time, then Angel joined him in the cab and they left, windows rolled down, elbows to the breeze.

I looked at Moses and Tellez. "Would you guys show me where Bond's Corner is? We can go in my car."

"Which one's yours?" asked Tellez. I pointed to it.

"Sure," he said. "Want to, Ronnie?"

He started walking toward it with a gait that made him seem to have springs under his heels, and a minute later we were settled (Moses in front, Tellez behind) and headed toward the road. "Out and turn right," said Moses, pointing with his Pepsi hand.

We were on a two-land blacktop road, dusty in the middle of the lanes and pencil-dark where the tires had been. The road was straight; farmland roads go straight for miles then make a sharp turn to the right or left to accommodate the corner of a field, or to cross railroad tracks at a right angle, or for no apparent reason whatsoever, which is why the turns are so surprising. Some farmhouses were off to our right — clumps of trees, a rooftop with an air conditioner on top of it, a truck and a sedan. On the left was a ditch and bank of weeds, then long rows of lettuce that ran alongside us like the spokes of a wheel, and above them the telephone line that swooped and dipped between the poles and the cement posts hung in the middle of the bights to keep the line hung low and steady for crop dusters.

"Do you ever work in these fields?" I said to Ronnie.

"Yeah, I work for Interharvest."

"Doing what?"

"Drive a tractor."

"It's a good job," said Tellez.

I turned to look at him, and saw that Ronnie was chewing on his Pepsi can, making teeth marks around the bottom and pressing the top against his nose and forehead.

"What's it like to drive a tractor, Ronnie?"

"Hot. In the summer really hot. I don't know. These fields are kinda weird. You'll be driving along with your shirt off, and all wet because it's so muggy and hot, then all a sudden you run into a cold patch of air. I mean really cold - like all of a sudden you're freezing. Sometimes you catch cold, so you gotta watch it."

"Why is the air cold?"

He shrugged and went on biting his can.

"Comes off the river, maybe," said Tellez, "or settles in low spots or something."

I asked him what he did for a living.

"I'm still in school."

"What do you take?"

"General ed. Home ec. P.E."

"And what do you do for fun?"

"I sell ads for the annual."

I looked in the mirror. He was straight-faced, watching something out the window.

"And," he said, "I'm in a drama class. We put on a one-act play."

"Really?" said Moses, turning around. "When?"

"Last semester. Next semester I'm gonna be in one."

"You mean in front of everybody?"

"Yeah."

"God, how weird," he said, crumpling the circum-bitten can before tearing it slowly in half.

We passed a field where the pickers had been through twice, taking grocery lettuce, and where the scrappers were stooping for the undergrown and trampled fruit for wholesaling to the fast food chains. You have to get low for grocery lettuce, but scrapping is lower still. All the motels in Holtville had been booked for weeks around the lettuce crop. I remembered Magallanez saying once that she had picked lettuce, and I wondered if that had brought her and her husband here from Texas, originally.

"What do you guys think of Angel, anyway?" I said.

Silence. A car passed and both of them turned to see who was in it.

"I mean do you think he could have set all those fires, and then set fire to his mother's store?"

"I don't know," said Moses.

"I think he might be covering up for somebody," Tellez said firmly.

"Why do you say that?"

"I don't know. He's like... always part of a group. But I don't really know why I said that."

"Well, why do you think he's always part of a group?"

"Because-"

"Whoa!" said Moses, reeling back in his seat and putting his hand out to the dash. Around the corner ahead of us — Bond's Corner — came a white, square sedan, a Dodge or something heavy like that, squealing on all four tires and tipped like a boat on a cross tack, with a young woman driving behind bug sunglasses and lipstick, two hands high on the wheel, her body hunched forward in full escape.

"Where's Mrs. Schwab going?" Moses yelled and jerked his head around to catch the receding backside of her car, trailing a CB whip antenna. "I knew she was weird but not that weird!"

On the afternoon of Angel's confession, back in December, Singh and Lorenz had driven in separate cars to Holtville High School and had told the principal, Charles Beaman, that Angel's confession had implicated Tommy Hogue, and could they please speak with him? Singh said later that interviewing Tommy in the presence of the principal had probably been a mistake, as the boy might not have been so resolute if talked to alone. In any case, Tommy curtly denied what Angel had said. After that, Singh took Tommy home and Lorenz drove to the Modern Grocery on the north side of Holtville, in what might be called the suburban part of town, to talk with Tommy's sister, Jana, who worked there as a cashier. At first Lorenz thought he had something on Tommy when he got Jana to say that her brother wasn't home when most of the fires were set. But later, during the trial, she said, "He asked me questions about Tommy, and then about the fires, and I didn't connect the two... I sort of got confused."

She testified that she'd come home around seven o'clock on November 8 and had just sat down to watch TV with Tommy, when a girlfriend called to say that somebody was burning all the stacks around town and they had better get out and protect their own. She said Tommy had left to check on their stacks and had been gone for forty-five minutes at the most.

According to Angel's confession, as recalled by Lorenz, Angel picked Tommy up early in the evening and the two of them rode around drinking Coors for a while, then decided to do something raunchy. Angel said he told Tommy to drive his truck while he held a road flare from the back of it, dragging it along the stacks by the roadside.

"I really don't know what I told that policeman," said Jana to me one Sunday afternoon in the Modern Grocery, a few months before the trial. "He just came in and started asking me questions — not being mean or anything - and I didn't know what he was doing."

She paused to check some groceries, looking for each key on the register and punching it carefully, and turned back to me and said, "My mom was there when the policeman brought Tommy home. She can probably tell you more. She's right here."

Pat Hogue, a thin, neat woman with short hair, pushed her cart to the stand. "I know that Tommy was real wound up when he got home," she said. "He didn't say anything, but bits of the story came out later on. He said that the policemen had threatened him, but he isn't the kind to go for that sort of thing."

She lifted some groceries to the checkstand, slowly, one at a time. "I think it's terrible what they're doing to this boy," she said, meaning Angel. "As far as I know he's always been a good kid, and I know his mother and she's just a fine person. Did you know that no one ever told me they were going to question Tommy in school? And when Mr. Singh came up to the house to look for Angel that morning, he never got out of the car to talk to me. Maybe he was afraid of the 'Beware of Dog' sign, some people are, but he just stayed in his car and spoke to me very politely, and then, from what the boys said later, he was pretty rough when he talked to Angel. Came up in a cloud of dust, I believe. You know?

"I think that Angel has been through something pretty rough and I admire the way he's behaved. You know he came over and apologized for what happened to Tommy, which he didn't have to do, and we appreciate it. I think all of them have been through a lot and I admire them, I really do."

The months went by. Spring drew into the valley, pulling the day-long, night-long train of summer. Angel remained broke, paying debts to his mother, paying on his truck, paying gas for weekend trips to San Diego to see a psychiatrist in preparation for his defense, and weekday trips to the Grant Hotel, where a polygraph examiner gave him lie detector test, for which he paid.

He asked the court to relax his bail restrictions so that he could get a job, and then Alan Lee's father hired him to grade and till land on a Cat-640. In hot weather the tillers work at night, with two headlights off the front of the Cat and one behind, illuminating the squeaking blades of the plow. His weekend days were pretty much the same: work at the store, take time off in the afternoon (no money for the drag races at the airstrip), maybe have to drive to San Diego to see the shrink.

"Is Angel around?" I asked one Sunday morning in early spring, stepping to the porch of the Meloland Store.

Magallanez was drinking coffee from her NFL mug. "No, he went up to San Diego for a visit with the psychiatrist and won't be back till late, and I'm worried about him because he said he was going to call on the CB when he got to the top of the mountain because there was supposed to be some kind of high wind, but he didn't call, so I don't know how he's doing or anything. But I'll let him know you were here."

I left and took the road for Holtville, thinking Angel might have gone to visit Alan instead of the psychiatrist. Packing houses stood by the western edge of town. Then there was the park with its city hall and Masonic lodge, and further east a new subdivision called Settler's Village, and beyond that, only fields and side roads, and then the All-American Canal, and then the sloping desert.

North was a tract of suburban houses, which looked about ten years old on average, telling by the height of the trees and the depty of the crankcase drippings in the driveways. Although the tract was surrounded by farmland and desert, when seen at this level, through a windshield, it looked like Otay Mesa, or El Monte, or Manhattan Beach, or Livermore. It looked like jellied pop music, like pure and unmistakeable suburbia.

In front of Alan's house on Brentwood Street, Angel's truck was parked in the driveway, nudging a white LTD, and Angel was leaning against the car's long hood. His tape deck was playing "Bennie and the Jets." "Did you go to the store?" he said as I walked up.

"Yeah."

"Does my mom know I'm here?"

"No."

"Well, don't blow it."

I said I wouldn't.

"I figured I'd be in San Diego Tuesday for a lie detector test so..." He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. "Why not spend the day here?"

Alan walked out of the house barefoot and tilted his head back in greeting. He asked if I were going to the Boston concert that night in San Diego, and said that he was thinking of driving there and back with his girlfriend.

"You want to come, Angel?" he said.

"Bastard, you know I can't."

"Just checking."

Ronnie Moses came bounce-walking down the street, which made us a four-some, enough for driveway basketball. We played for an hour or so, Moses and I against Angel and Alan. Alan was athletic and quick - he'd been a wrestler and a nose guard in high school — and was the kind of muscle player who can score like crazy, given confidence from one good shot. Moses, though, played him perfectly, keeping him out of range of the goal. Angel was easy to guard; he had good ability but had never developed his whole body. He dribbled only with his right hand, so you could always tell where he was going and what he was going to do.

Afterward we drank water from the garden hose. Then Angel stood up from the grass and started walking to the middle of the street, as though he were going to flag the brown Fairlane coming toward him, but instead he positioned himself like a toreador, his right side facing the oncoming car, and stood rock still while the car slid by his feet at about five miles an hour. There were two girls in the front seat. He might as well have smooched at them for all the notice they took.

"Wonder what's the matter with them?" he said, just when someone opened a side gate to the house next door and a dachshund ran frantically out, its butt drifting left as it galloped down the sidewalk with a boy in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt screaming, "Queenie, Queenie, come back, come back," while Angel walked into the street again, this time toward a Truck of Many Colors, a basic Chevy pickup with a metallic-rainbow paint job, driven by a guy in a dazzling white T-shirt.

Angel leaned forward on his toes and yelled, "Beaner!" The guy in the truck ignored him and drove on.

In October of 1977 the trial took place in the marble courthouse of El Centro, with two days of testimony that revealed nothing beyond the discoveries of previous hearings. The court found Angel guilty of fourteen counts of arson and two counts of attempted arson, including the fire at the Meloland Store.

Angel's mother stayed away on the morning of the verdict, as did Alan Lee and Alan's father and sister, all of whom had testified on his behalf. Angel rose from the counsel table and stood first with his hands in his pockets, then at his sides, then on the back of the cerise chair in front of him as the judge pronounced the verdict on the juriless proceeding. A window was open and the Venetian blinds clacked. When the judge had finished, Angel strode up the aisle, free to go while still on bail, and slapped the back of every chair as he passed it, and shouldered his way through the courtroom door and was gone.

I followed the district attorney back to his office to ask what recommendation he might make when Angel came back for sentencing. Richard Chamberlain, the deputy D.A., had one foot on his desk and snapped a rubber band between his fingers as he talked. "The kid's a torch," he said. "I don't think he should be allowed to remain out there on the streets. I don't think he's going to hurt anybody, or that he's dangerous... but yes, I do think he's a menace to society, if that's the term you want to use."

"Do you think he set the fires by himself?"

"Who's to say?"

"Well, Angel himself said in his confession that somebody helped him set at least some of the fires."

Chamberlain looked at his hands snapping the rubber band. "So? You still need corroborating evidence. And we had no evidence other than Angel's confession — and his confession, by the way, was the only thing we convicted him on. Those fires didn't leave anything. Nothing that we could find, anyway."

"So he's going to jail?"

"Not necessarily. We're probably going to send him for some psychiatric observation. Ninety days and we'll know what we're dealing with. Right now we don't really know much more than we see on the outside. I mean, everybody knows the boy wasn't getting along with his mother and there was his whole family always ready to let him know that he was adopted. I don't think anybody can blame him for feeling like he doesn't fit in. But to burn I don't know how many tons of hay and to set fire to his mother's store — there's got to be something wrong."

On March 10, 1978, after three months at the diagnostic facility of the state prison at Chino, Angel was released with the recommendation that he remain free on bail and be sentenced to probation instead of prison. Later that month his sentence was adopted: five years of probation with psychiatric therapy to be overseen by the probation office, together with a fine of $1000 and a separate penalty of $250 to be paid to the county in installments.

Appellate Defenders, Inc., appealed Angel's case on grounds that the confession had been improperly induced since Singh had held himself out to Angel as a friend, not as a policeman, and had tried to soften Angel with promises of leniency and psychiatric help. The appeal was denied.

Angel stayed in the valley for a time after his release but couldn't find ranch work, and eventually moved to Needles, a resort town on the Colorado River east of Barstow, where he had done some plowing for Alan Lee's father around the time of the trial. Today his life is much the same as it was when he was nineteen. His truck was repossessed while he was in Chino, but now he has another. He lives with a roommate in the upstairs apartment of a wood-frame garage on Broadway in Needles, behind a burned-out house. He is married and has an infant daughter, but can't afford to support them, so they live with his wife's parents in nearby Bullhead City. He is continually in debt. He applied to become a reserve policeman, but the department refused him when it learned of his convictions. He continues to claim that he is innocent. "And the only people back in the valley who still know I didn't do it," he said, "are my mom and the Lees."

Actually, Tommy Hogue believes he is innocent, too. I talked with him last Saturday at his home near Holtville. He was sitting in the living room and had just taken a shower, which had left his hair parted in the middle and matted against his head. He is 21 years old now and lives with his parents. In the fall he will work for his dad or for a construction subcontractor, laying tile. He was calm, and gave the impression of not being particularly ingratiating.

I asked him about the questioning by Singh and Lorenz in the high school principal's office. "Oh, they came out to see me at school," he said, "and they brought out this big map and set it on the desk and said stuff like, "You started these fires with Angel, and here's where you started them," and they said that Angel and I had stolen a six-pack of beer and had ridden around drinking it and lighting fires, and that we'd used this road and that road to get where we were going."

"And what did you say?"

"I said I didn't know what they were talking about. I mean — I didn't even know all the roads they were talking about, and I still don't."

"Why do you think Angel named you in his confession?"

"I guess 'cause we were friends, and the police knew we hung around together and they figured I musta helped him do it."

"But why did Angel say you'd helped him?"

"I don't know. The police were tellin' me stuff that I didn't do. I don't know where they got their ideas. There was one time that Mike Singh had seen us together at the store. Sometimes we'd stop by after work and grab a couple of Cokes, and one time he was there, which was the first time I ever saw him. This was after the fires but before Angel got picked up, when Angel was having fights with his mom about stealing money and stuff from the store. I didn't know who Singh was, but Angel said he was there talking to his mom about the thefts. Angel was in trouble at the time."

Hogue got up and moved the conversation to the front porch. He asked if I thought Angel had set the fires, and I said that, knowing Angel, the only sure thing was that he wouldn't have done anything so bold by himself.

Hogue squinted at the plowed field across from his house. "Little things happen that make you wonder. Like, I remember, around the trial, one night a friend and me decided to drive around in the desert. And so we went east of here just when it was getting dark, and we passed this stack and saw a blue Datsun parked by the road. Then, about five minutes later, we decided to come back to town for some reason, and we passed the stack and saw it was starting to flame. We kept on going and told some men down the road working with a hay loader, and they went back and started tearing off the burning hay, and then we just kept going back to town. A sheriff's car passed us going to the fire, but we didn't stop or nothing to tell them about the Datsun. We figured, "Why bother?"

I asked if he knew what Alan Lee was doing these days, and he said that Alan was a fireman in El Centro. "That's funny," I said. "Have you heard about Angel?"

Hogue said he hadn't talked to his one-time friend since he'd been picked up four and a half years ago. I said that Angel had taken a first-aid course and was an ambulance driver, and a volunteer fireman. He hopes one day to become a full-time employee of the Needles fire department.

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