Bikers and dealers made for a surly concoction, but the ’70s brought another recalcitrant element to the town. Vietnam vets. Local grunts drafted into the Army returned as less than hometown heroes, but there was also a covey of Navy SEALs, trained eight miles north in Coronado, who returned disillusioned too. In the bars along First Avenue, a vet could quietly anaesthetize a psyche bruised from that horrible war experience. He could also feed a picked-up addiction to drugs or an acquired taste for violence.
Geography had a hand in another way. Imperial Beach in that era was a floodgate for the thousands of illegal immigrants who crossed from Mexico, many passing through the town in their northward trek. Helicopter surveillance and Border Patrol cars proliferated year after year, while the separating fences and ditches got higher and deeper. Prior to the ’70s, IB was low-income, yet largely white. Not one black student graduated with me in 1965, and of the estimated 15 percent of the class who were Mexican-American, most lived in San Ysidro, about five miles away. Before long, the huge illegal influx helped to feed an already budding white supremacist sentiment. Increasingly, some of the tattoos on arms hoisting glasses of draft beer in the many bars were exhibiting the Nazi swastika.
It was a volatile mix of men.
NATURE VERSUS NURTURE
Early in 2003, Aaron French, a young man in his 20s, called me to inquire about a coaching position. As director of Starlings Volleyball Clubs, USA — a nonprofit program for girls from low-income backgrounds — I found him to be plenty qualified to coach one of our 40 teams in San Diego, so we grabbed him. The fact that he grew up in Imperial Beach piqued my interest. So did his last name. In my era, there were two French clans in town. Bob French came from one of them. He was a superb natural athlete whom I played with in junior and senior high school. The other French family all went to the Catholic school, and Aaron French was part of that family.
Eventually I asked Aaron about his uncle, Brian. Aaron had seen him in prison a few times as a kid but didn’t have many details on his current status. His uncle was now in state prison in Blythe, Aaron told me, and he recounted his received version of the crime: that Brian had killed a crazed drug fiend who was threatening him with a knife. He shot him, then for some reason shot him a second time in the head after the guy was on the ground. Which cooked his goose. Aaron described a gifted, highly intelligent man who wrote brilliant letters home to family members. He also said that Governor Wilson and then Davis had taken a political “tough on crime” stance whereby murderers effectively no longer had any chance of parole. Brian and his family had expected that Brian would be paroled years earlier.
It struck me that something was wrong with the system, and here was a guy from my hometown with whom I felt a kinship. I asked Aaron which family members would be most willing to talk to me in depth about Brian’s story. He gave me the phone numbers of his grandmother and his mother, Brian’s older sister.
Taking that slip of paper, I drove home with a vague intuition that I was headed for some deeper involvement with Brian French. Sure enough, that first lengthy call to Brian’s sister was the beginning of a pell-mell ride into a world I never imagined I’d be in. Her account of Brian’s character and his crime was much more detailed than Aaron’s, and it stirred my compassion. I had to jump in and learn more. My chat with Brian’s mother nudged me further. Still, there were obstacles I would have to get over if I was going to take on an advocate role for this guy. First, I detest guns. And although I have a dim view of formalized religion, I quite highly esteem the sanctity of life. So what the hell would I be doing trying to help a guy get out of prison…who’d committed the ultimate transgression with a shotgun!
In part, I suppose it’s what French himself described in a letter: “Basically, Byron’s an old hippie morphed into a present-day social-conscious liberal who’s fallen into a certain area of the modern prison reform movement. Fortunately for me he has fallen into the area that deals with me: lifer paroles.” Another factor is that French’s from IB; more so, he’s become a friend. Above all, today there are 25,000 term-to-life prisoners in California penitentiaries. Of those, 6000 are eligible for parole, including French. He and many other convicted murderers — in fact, most of the 6000 have committed murder — are getting a raw deal as defined by state laws. French was sentenced to a term of 15 years to life. That represents a huge span of time. At the time of his plea bargain, he had a good chance of being paroled after 9 or 10 years, provided he rehabilitated himself behind bars. Not today. Today it’s only life.
It cries out for scrutiny and change. Hence my efforts and why I’m writing this.
From the get-go, I had to know two things: One, why did he kill the guy? And two, could I be sure that he would not kill again should he ever walk out of prison?
So I’ve come to know the life of Brian French quite well. He grew up in a modest house three blocks from the beach, one of seven children of an enlisted Navy man. His childhood was basically “a happy one.” His mother, Ramona — an intelligent and energetic woman — was active in the local St. Charles Catholic Church and in its school, where she enrolled her children. French, the second oldest, emerged from Marian Catholic High School in 1969 at six feet four, 220 pounds, a superb athlete in three sports, with letters of interest from major colleges. I remember hearing murmurings of the talent this big kid from Marian had.