San Diego police have received seven reports of migrant workers being robbed, attacked, or harassed by American teens in the Penasquitos area.
  • San Diego police have received seven reports of migrant workers being robbed, attacked, or harassed by American teens in the Penasquitos area.
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In the canyons and hills bordering Rancho Penasquitos, where third world meets first, they wait in hiding. They carry aluminum baseball bats and kitchen knives.

A dark figure approaches, a stranger in a new country, sweating, stinking from a day’s work as a gardener, painter, concrete mixer, or bricklayer. The stranger carries a plastic grocery sack and the $20 he has earned for the ten hours he has worked. The sun beats down on his black hair and baseball cap as six pairs of eyes watch him pass by.

They leap out from the eucalyptus grove They identify themselves as the border patrol. They demand money. They want mota, Mexican slang for marijuana. The Mexican stranger drops the grocery bag and sprints into the valley.

The teen-age boys, known in the neighborhood as the Bearer Bashers, shout taunts as the shadow disappears around a curve in a dirt path, heading toward the plywood shack he calls home.

What do you say?” Officer Hector Emerson calls over to a group of Guatemalan men waiting for work outside a small shopping center in Fairbanks Ranch.

What do you say?” Officer Hector Emerson calls over to a group of Guatemalan men waiting for work outside a small shopping center in Fairbanks Ranch.

Luis Ortega Calderon yanked the steering wheel of his 1978 Datsun station wagon left and right dodging mud holes on the unpaved portion of Black Mountain Road that connects Rancho Penasquitos and Del Mar. It was two o’clock on a Saturday morning and raining, transforming the road into a river of mud. The car rattled and fishtailed through the slop.

Luis was coming home from Allie's Restaurant in Poway, where he washed dishes for $4.50 an hour He liked this job much better than where he had spent much of the previous year — picking tomatoes and cucumbers in the fields. The car he had recently bought allowed him to pursue better work.

But he did have some complaints about Allie’s. The American waitresses did not share their tips. And there were those damn ice cream bowls with the chocolate sauce smeared on the bottom. He would scrub and scrub, but it seemed he could never quite get all of the chocolate out of the bowl. Why do all Americans have to put chocolate sauce on their ice cream? he’d grumble to himself every night.

Oaxacan men near the site of the attack

Oaxacan men near the site of the attack

The money the curly-haired 26-year-old was earning, however, was worth the nightly chocolate sauce wars. What he made in an hour at Allie’s equaled what he earned in a day in Mexico. There, in a small town near Acapulco, he had picked melons seven days a week alongside his father, two brothers, and cousin. Yet it seemed there was never enough money. For that, he would have to go north.

And so two years ago. he settled in a cardboard and plywood shack in McGonigle Canyon near Penasquitos, where hundreds of his countrymen lived, unwilling to pay the high apartment rental costs in the area.

It was there that he was heading the night of June 9 last year, when two headlights from an oncoming pickup flashed into his eyes.

He pulled to the side of the road. He thought the truck would pass.

Mike Felsinger and Al Martel were pumped up for some Saturday night excitement. Each had started on his second six-pack of beer, and they decided to go “four-wheeling" with some buddies. Mike and Al climbed into Mike’s father’s white Tbyota four-by-four pickup. They set out to take on the dirt roads that edge Penasquitos. Their friends followed close behind in their four-by-fours.

Al, 19, was home from college, where he was competing for the Fresno State wrestling team on a four-year scholarship. The year before, he had made a name for himself in San Diego County as a wrestler for the ML Carmel High School Sundevils in Penasquitos. He looked forward to a summer of fun. Beer parties and four-wheeling were the ticket.

Mike, 18 years old at the time, was taking it easy too. He knew Al from high school. Mike, strong and muscular, played four years as a linebacker on the Mt Carmel football team. His coaches and father always complained that he lacked the killer instinct on the field.

The four-wheeling convoy raced up and down Black Mountain as the young men whooped and howled. Tires spun, engines revved, mud spewed out from under wide, knobby treads. The bumpy road eventually got the better of Mike and Al’s truck. The pickup had two flat tires. None of the other boys had the tools to fix the flats, so Mike and Al started toward the paved portion of Black Mountain Road.

Al drove. As they made their way to the paved road, they spotted an oncoming car that had just pulled over to the side. Al stopped the pickup. Mike jumped down to check it out.

Luis watched the large figure approach, framed by the lights from the Toyota four-by-four pickup. He peered through the rain that pattered on the windshield of his car. He stayed inside and waited.

Mike opened the car door. “Hey, you stupid Mexican illegal," he snarled. "You should speak English in this country, you stupid Mexican illegal. You beaner."

He grabbed Luis and pulled him from the car. Luis, trembling, unsure what was going on, his English limited, handed over his wallet and a ring his father had given him in Mexico for good luck on his journey north. Mike held up the wallet and waved for Al to join the interrogation. Al came over He saw Luis take a step toward Felsinger and, thinking the Mexican might have a gun, punched Luis in the side of the head.

Dazed, Luis looked into the dark canyon, a giant black hole He ran for it, his feet sticking in the mud, every step a hazard. He glanced back at the Toyota pickup and its illuminated license plate

Mike pursued, shouted at him, insulted him again for not speaking English. But Luis was faster. Mike gave up. The Mexican had gotten away. Mike then turned his attention to the abandoned 1978 Datsun station wagon.

Al had returned to the Toyota pickup and was trying futilely to drive it up the road with the flat tires. Mike followed in the Datsun station wagon. They came upon friends from the beer party who stopped to help.

Another teen-ager joined Mike in the station wagon, and the two embarked on a violent joy ride, running the car up and down, on and off the dirt road, until they overturned it in a gulley. The boys climbed out unhurt.

Felsinger, shaken, walked back up the hill to where the other boys were changing the tires on the Toyota pickup. He told them he had rolled the Mexican’s car. The boys eventually fixed the flats and went home.

The next morning Luis paid a visit to the San Diego Police Department’s Northeast Division in Rancho Penasquitos. An officer agreed to return with him to the scene of the previous night’s horror.

Luis discovered his car upside-down, the tires missing, the stereocassette player gone and his Mexican rancheros music tapes scattered in the brush. Beside the wreckage he saw ashes and burned clothing. He sifted through them, realizing the clothes were his own. He lifted his leather wallet from the ashes and shook off the soot He searched frantically for the card that gave him legal permission to work in the United States. He found it, half of it; the rest had melted away.

Back at the police station, the police officer introduced Luis to Detective Ed Reed. Reed spends a lot of his time in the computer room at the station, tracking criminals and investigating crimes.

Luis recalled four numbers from the Toyota pickup’s license plate. Detective Reed reasoned that someone from out of town would not use the back roads from Penasquitos to Del Mar, especially so late at night. He put the plate numbers and the color and make of the vehicle into the computer, limiting the residence search area to north San Diego. Bingo. A white Toyota four-by-four pickup was registered to a Rancho Bernardo address. The name: Donald Felsinger, Mike’s father.


In the past year and two months, San Diego police have received seven reports of migrant workers being robbed, attacked, or harassed by American teens in the Penasquitos area. Eight American boys have been arrested.

The police are quick to point out that most crimes against migrant workers are committed by other migrant workers. But Penasquitos seems to have become San Diego County's latest field of conflict, where American youths prey on Mexican migrants.

Last year it was the U.S.-Mexican border strip that received most of the attention. There, a teen paramilitary group called Metal Militia robbed and harassed undocumented Mexican border-crossers. Four youths were arrested in connection with 11 separate robberies. The arrests followed a nationally broadcast television report depicting the teens, outfitted in camouflage, rounding up and questioning Mexican immigrants looking for opportunities in the United States. The boys have since pleaded guilty to the crimes.

Now, San Diego police have turned much of their focus north from the border to the normally quiet, overwhelmingly white Rancho Penasquitos commuter community, where residents of tract-housing developments live within two miles of Mexican day laborers and fieldworkers who sleep in wooden hooches.

In June 1990, Mike Felsinger and Al Martel were arrested for assaulting and robbing Mexican migrant worker Luis Ortega Calderon, then setting fire to his clothes and personal documents.

More recently in April, police arrested six boys — ranging in age from 11 to 14 — for ganging up on migrant workers as they made their way home from day jobs through undeveloped areas of Rancho Penasquitos. The boys hid behind eucalyptus trees or other times, stood out in the open, before they surrounded the migrants. Tb show they meant business, the teens brandished knives and baseball bats. (No beatings or knifings were reported, and no migrants were seriously injured, although one worker suffered a swollen wrist after being struck by a bat.)

Four Mexican day laborers have told police they were harassed. In all cases, the workers were taken by surprise. They found it hard to believe for instance that an 11-year-old boy wanted money or marijuana from them and would be willing to use a weapon to get it

One recent afternoon, Ramauldo Ramirez Paz was nding his bike home from work when he passed a group of boys huddled together. One thrust a bat into the spokes of the bicycle, sending Paz tumbling to the ground. He pulled himself up and glimpsed a young boy holding a shiny kitchen knife. He ran off. When he returned later, his bike was still there.

Another Mexican worker thought the group of American boys was joking when they grabbed a Coke and pocket radio away from him while he was walking through the canyon. So he grabbed them back. Earlier that morning, he had heard on a Tijuana radio station that it was “El Dia de Los Ninos” Children’s Day. Because the boys were so young, he believed they were playing a Children’s Day prank. But when he saw the bats and knives, he realized the boys weren’t joking. He, too, outran the boys and escaped into the surrounding hills.

When the boys harassed Celso Quiroz Medina, demanding money and marijuana. Medina took matters into his own hands. He slipped off his leather belt and slashed menacingly at the youths. The diversion caught the boys by surprise and allowed Medina to get away.

Catching the teens proved difficult for the police. At one point, an officer went undercover as a migrant worker. He wore a baseball cap tipped over his eyes, baggy jeans, and a pullover plaid shirt and carried a plastic grocery bag filled with trash. All day he walked back and forth between the canyons and neighborhood houses. The effort resulted only in a tired pair of legs and a new nickname for the officer: Jose.

The police eventually were able to track down the teen-age bullies after interviews with families and other teens who lived in homes closest to where the attempted assaults took place.

Other incidents took place in Penasquitos last year, unrelated to the teen-age attackers' case. A white man stole a backpack from a migrant worker and told the Mexican to go home, that he didn't belong in this country. Another time, an American stuck a knife in the ribs of a migrant worker outside the Alpha Beta (now Lucky) supermarket on Carmel Mountain Road.

Pblice officers believe there might have been other attacks that went unreported. In Mexico, the public generally fears the police Any encounter with the Mexican police could involve extortion, robbery, or even torture. The Mexican people often joke that Mexico is a country where a kid can play cops and robbers by himself.

Many newly arrived Mexicans carry that fear of the police with them into the United States. They figure they must handle crime problems on their own. They remain silent. They often shrug off the crime as the price one must pay to live and work in America. San Diego police are trying to change that mindset.

Inside the Northeast San Diego police substation. Officer Tracy Eckert's six-by-six-foot work cubicle is a Mexican migrant worker command post. Where do the men live? Where do they work? Where are they from? Eckert knows. You only have to look on the cubicle's panels.

She has pasted together enlarged copies of Thomas guide pages that detail Penasquitos, Rancho Bernardo, Scripps Ranch, and parts of Del Mar. Red stick pins on the giant map mark locations where police have identified migrant worker camps.

To the left of the map, computer bar charts show the number of Mexicans who walk through certain north San Diego neighborhoods at specific times each day. Another diagram traces the most popular walking routes through the neighborhoods and indicates where the men wait for work and where they simply hang out and chat with friends.

What’s more, Eckert, the police department’s migrant liaison officer for almost a year, has collected information on the size of each migrant camp, sanitation methods, and the material used to build the makeshift shelters — wood, metal, cardboard, plastic, or tree branches. And she keeps track of the dialects spoken in the camps: Mixteco, spoken by some Mexican Indians from the state of Oaxaca, and K'onjobal, spoken by an increasing population of rural Guatemalans.

On most days, Eckert sifts through piles of migrant-related paperwork, attends planning-group meetings when migrant issues are discussed, and answers phone calls from homeowners complaining about migrant workers urinating on their front lawns. When there’s a break in the drudgery, Eckert climbs into a Chevy Suburban four-wheel-drive truck and hits the streets — and the fields, dirt roads, gulleys, canyons, bridges, storm sewers, or any other place migrant workers live.

On the street, the Mexican and Guatemalan men call Eckert the little guera, or white woman. She’s small, thin, has blond, curly hair and blue eyes. Her Spanish is not perfect but adequate.

When making rounds, Eckert stops at shopping centers and street comers to chat with the men, to listen to their problems — usually the frustration of not finding work in a currently depressed Southern California economy.

Eckert is only one of two officers on the San Diego police force whose job deals exclusively with migrants. The other is Hector Emerson.

Que dicen, what do you say?” Emerson calls over to a group of Guatemalan men waiting for work outside a small shopping center in Fairbanks Ranch. The tall, dark, muscular officer cruises by in his patrol car. The Guatemalans sidle up to Emerson's car window to complain again about the lack of work.

Emerson continues on, stopping to chat with a security guard who was hired to keep tabs on the Mexican workers.

The security guard notes that the number of Hispanic day laborers waiting at the shopping center has dropped off in recent months as construction of new homes has slowed. The guard watches the men closely to see if they step or lie down on the path of moist grass that rings the complex.

"I can kick them off the grass, but curbs are on county public property,” he says. “There’s nothing I can do. At first there was a lot of them drinking beer. But now they've shaped up. They know I mean business.” Emerson nods once and moves on.

Getting to know the workers and helping ease their fears about going to the police to report crimes is the bulk of Emerson’s job.

He spends more time as referral agent than chasing down violent criminals. The most common question he hears from migrant workers is what they should do when their boss doesn’t pay them.

“In most cases, we’re the only ones out here,” says Emerson, who wears a pin with a Mexican and American flag that identifies him as a bilingual officer. "We’re their only source, so we refer them to the proper places.”

The series of robberies and attacks against migrant workers in Penasquitos rubs Emerson the wrong way. He calls the teens “just a little group of punks” and puts part of the blame for their delinquency on the youths’ parents, some of whom have acted surprised that police would take crimes against migrants so seriously.

According to Emerson, ‘The parents say, ‘What’s the problem? They’re just a bunch of illegals anyway.’ ”


Of all sports, wrestling may be the most intimate. You share sweat with your opponent You lock legs and arms. You butt heads. You roll around on the mat together, grabbing and scratching at your opponent’s flesh, seizing any advantage With such close contact and high emotions, the match can easily turn into a cat fight. And when opponents come from different ethnic backgrounds, those tensions are only exacerbated.

In his four years as a wrestler at ML Carmel High School, Al Martel grappled with members of all races. Never once did the six-foot, 185-pounder lose control.

“In the hundreds of matches Al has wrestled, I have never known him to display any racism or to be prejudicial toward any opponents,” said Anthony Nunez, in a written statement to the San Diego court.

While wrestling at Fresno State, Al is pursuing a degree in business management. During the school year, he volunteers as a soccer coach Wednesday nights at a primarily Hispanic elementary school in Fresno. The previous summer, when he wasn’t waterskiing on family outings, he worked with a construction company in San Diego. Al, a native of Sacramento, has always strived to better himself, to be the best, his friends say.

“He's an individual with an intense drive to succeed and the willpower to remain focused on his goal,” said N.K. Newman, another family friend. "At the same time, he is a free spirit who could or would be viewed as rowdy if you observed him in certain situations with friends.”

But nothing he has done would even hint at what drove him to bash Luis Ortega Calderon in the side of the head on that rainy June night last year. His friends and family find it almost impossible to believe that Al played a part in the assault and robbery.

“We feel Al has pleaded to a crime he did not do,” said one neighbor.

Mike Felsinger had the size (six foot two, 200 pounds) and strength to mash heads on the football field from his linebacker spot with the ML Carmel Sundevils. But he never lived up to his coaches' expectations in his four years with the team. He would pull down opposing running backs but wouldn’t slam them to the turf. He would sidestep offensive linemen but wouldn't butt them head on.

“He was never really aggressive,” his mother said in an alternative-sentencing report. In fact Mike’s soft-spoken, subdued nature possibly made him a better problem solver and mediator than head cruncher. At school, he was a member of ML Carmel’s Human Relations Committee, a group that tried to ease tensions and disputes between ethnic groups on campus.

Mike was born in Safford, Arizona, a small farming town m the southeastern part of the state. He was never a great student in school, so he put his energy into sports until his sophomore year in high school, when he decided to concentrate on football.

Mike's arrest strained his relationship with his father, according to a court report. Don Felsinger. a vice president of marketing for SDG&E. has expressed disappointment with his son. The two spoke little to each other in the months that followed the robbery and subsequent arrest.

“I think it’s been hard on him because he’s always tended to see himself as someone inclined to screw up,” Felsinger said in an interview with attorneys. "He not only broke the law that night, but he broke a lot of family rules too."

At the same time, Felsinger describes his son as someone who would “dig into his closet and give his old clothes to some of the illegals who come through the neighborhood." His son, he says, is not a bigot.

“This was not a hate crime, it was a lapse of common sense. It was a crime of stupidity, drunkenness, and immaturity. Kids that age can be irrational, even good kids."

Judge Frank A. Brown runs his downtown San Diego courtroom in a relaxed yet efficient manner. His bailiffs refer to the former beat cop and prosecutor simply as "Brown.” And that’s the way Judge Frank A. Brown likes it. What he doesn’t like is people picking on Mexicans. Brown owns a home in Ensenada, where he enjoys spending time with his Mexican neighbors.

So last October’s preliminary hearing for Mike Felsinger and Al Martel was not going to be a Sunday afternoon picnic They would have to plead their case in Brown’s courtroom.

Al and Mike walked into the courtroom, looking like twin brothers. They both wore grey slacks, white shirts, ties, and penny loafers. They stood erect and occasionally whispered to one another or to their lawyers.

On the opposite side of the wood-paneled room sat Luis Ortega Calderon, dressed in jeans, plaid shirt, and work boots. Victor Nunez, the prosecutor, stood by his side, reassuring him, asking last-minute questions. He introduced Luis to the woman interpreter who would help him make sense of the unfamiliar court proceedings, which would follow

The short, dark Nunez, who speaks with a Spanish accent, handles many of the cases the District Attorney prosecutes involving Hispanics. He is all business. When Martel s court-appointed lawyer, at one point, tried to pump information from Luis about a possible civil suit against his aggressors, Nunez intervened. He scolded the defense attorney and threatened to mention the apparent misconduct to Brown.

The hearing was delayed more than an hour as Nunez and the defense met in private to hammer out a plea-bargain deal. Mike and Al were originally booked into the San Diego County Jail for two days on charges of robbery, auto theft, battery, and vandalism. The prosecution agreed to drop all charges, except robbery, the most serious count. On that charge alone, the boys could be sentenced to several years in state prison. They agreed to take that risk. They decided to plead guilty. But first they would have to listen to a dressing down from Judge Brown.

"I particularly do not like the racial overtones that accompanied this incident, and I can't just shrug it oft to alcohol consumption." said Brown. “It’s just outrageous behavior. This is a terrible label to have on your record. It's terrible. Real sad."

Mike's right leg jiggled nervously, but both young men stared back with straight faces at the judge. Brown then called for Luis Ortega Calderon to stand up.

"What happened?" he asked.

“They hit me and took my car” was Luis's only reply.

“I'm sorry for these young men behaving like this," the judge told him. “It doesn’t reflect most Americans’ attitudes toward Mexican nationals. I think that they were drunk and they were young and they’re very sorry."

Luis nodded and sat down. It was Mike and Al's turn to face Brown again.

“I can tell you this, Mr. Martel, you better not sign up for the second semester. You’re going to miss a semester of school, both you guys. Don’t sign up."

Al and Mike held their stares and answered “yes” when asked if they had stolen Luis Ortega Calderon’s wallet and committed robbery. Mike agreed to pay Luis $1,800 for wrecking his car. Martel would pitch in $700 to make up for Luis's lost wages. Without his car, Luis no longer could get to and from his dishwashing job at Allie’s and was forced to quit.

Brown told Al and Mike that the sooner they made financial reparations to Luis, the more lenient he would be when it came time to sentence them. As the hearing drew to a dose, the judge paused, shook his head, and looked squarely at the defendants one last time

"You guys really did it. didn’t you," he said.

Mike and Al put their heads down. They said nothing.

Brown set the sentencing date for December 21, his 47th birthday. He promised Al and Mike he would be in a better mood that day.

The judge was indeed happy on his birthday.

He sentenced both teens to serve two months this summer and next in the county’s work furlough program. The boys will work during the day and spend nights locked up downtown in a minimum-security dormitory. The sentence included three years’ probation and 120 hours of community service Mike and Al had avoided time in state prison, due in part, to paying Luis in less than a week. With the summer sentence Al can still wrestle during the school year. Mike has enrolled in Palomar College

In a conversation with attorneys before the sentencing. Mike expressed deep regret for what happened the night of June 9, 1990.

“It was all wrong on our part,” Mike said. “We bullied Mr. Calderon and stole from him. He’d be justified to hate people from the U.S. after what happened to him, and that’s not right.

“We’re not the kind of people you’d think we were, and I hope he can understand that we’re not racists or truly bad people. We embarrassed ourselves and our families. I can speak for myself and say that I wasn’t brought up to act like that. And I’m sure Al wasn't either We acted like fools, and I don’t know about Al. but I sure feel like a fool.”

Luis collected his money and bought a used white Nissan four-by-four pickup. He took off to Mexico to spend Christinas with his family. Every afternoon Luis cruised up and down the streets of his home town of Atoyac de Alvarez, a small hamlet 45 minutes north of Acapulco. The townsfolk waved as he passed by, impressed by the modem pickup. Luis tooted the truck's horn. The four-wheel drive was perfect for the rural roads of Mexico. When he wasn’t dodging potholes, he was swerving to avoid the dozens of stray pigs and donkeys that roam his neighborhood. His visit to Mexico, however would last only a month.

Earlier in December, immediately after the court hearing. Judge Brown had invited Luis into his back office to chat The judge owned several apartment complexes in town and offered Luis a job painting and maintaining them. He gave Luis his home telephone number. The phone rang in February.

Judge Brown was more than an employer to Luis. He took him for rides in his Porsche He brought him to his home in Ensenada. And when Luis contracted a throat infection and had had several unsuccessful treatments in Tijuana, Brown sent him to his own doctor, who prescribed medication. Luis was better in two weeks. Brown paid the medical bill.

Before he went to Mexico. Luis filed suit against Al and Mike, seeking damages for -the trauma he went through during the robbery. The lawsuit has yet to be settled. In February, Luis’s attorney dismissed himself from the case after learning that Mike’s father, Don Felsinger. was a vice president at SDG&E, which Luis’s attorney’s law firm represented in a separate matter.

While working for the judge, Luis moved into an apartment with his cousin’s family in El Cajon. He was earning good money and sending much of it to his family in Mexico. But by May, Judge Brown no longer had work for his employees. Luis looked elsewhere for a job but found nothing.

In July, Luis moved back to where it all began a year ago, to live again in the camp in the canyon, a stone's throw from the potholed road where neighbors from separate worlds crossed paths one June night last year, changing each other’s lives forever.

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ceehound619 Sept. 9, 2019 @ 11:08 a.m.

We don’t need people living in canyons. It’s a health hazard.

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