The curvy road from Fallbrook to De Luz is posted at 20mph.
Cover illustrationby Martin Cintula/BGBLUE/iStock/Thinkstock
Nico said he had one arm up on the steering wheel, and that allowed the first bullet to enter his armpit.
The shooter was just a couple feet away, standing next to the opened passenger door of Nico’s truck. The force of the bullet slamming into him shoved Nico forward, he buckled into the steering wheel.
The next bullet entered at the top of his shoulder, near the base of his neck, and the angle of that blast shoved Nico back upright. He tried to grasp at the gear shift on the steering column behind the wheel, while one more bullet entered the back of his shoulder.
Finally Nico was able to jerk his truck into drive and he stomped the gas pedal and the truck fishtailed off the dirt onto the asphalt road.
Nico said he will never forget the last word that his old friend said to him just before he started shooting. “He just said ‘Dispensa.’” It meant “forgive me.”
Sergio, his friend since childhood, had decided that it is better to be feared than to be loved.
Varrio Fallbrook Locos
Before the day he acquired three bullets, which he carries today, Nico lived in Fallbrook. For decades the town has been known for its rich avocado harvests, but lately a new cash crop has sprung up: marijuana.
Nico grew up in a trailer park on Mission Avenue. His mother and grandmother still live there. He has fond feelings for his hometown, although he is not able to go back there, now.
There is one gang that claims the town of Fallbrook; they call themselves Varrio Fallbrook Locos.
Nico said he became part of the gang at an early age. “I was probably, like, 13 or 14. It was just the crowd I hung out with. I just ended up joining them.” Nico said that after some years he went through the ritual of being jumped into the gang. “It’s basically when your inner circle of friends just jump you, beat you up.” He thinks he was 17 years old when five or six men pounded on him for some minutes. “It’s basically initiation from all of them.” His best pal Torito, who is two years older, was present but did not participate in the beating.
Torito had a little brother named Sergio who was five years younger than Nico. Sergio had the nickname “Hunger” because he was always eating. Nico’s nickname was “Toker.” Because “I smoked a lot of weed.” Nico said he smoked pot since he was 15. “It makes you feel happy, jolly.” And he sold it, too.
Nico, Torito, and Sergio grew up together. They went to the same schools. Sometimes their families got together for birthday parties and occasions like that, but Nico remembered that his mom wasn’t so close to the other family.
As time went on and the young men proved loyalty to their gang, there were inevitable clashes with local deputies. Occasionally a member got arrested. Some did time in local jails and others went away to prison. Nico knew that if a homie had never been to prison it meant: “They’re real smart, ’cause they never got caught for their stuff.”
Nico got arrested when he was 19 years old, in 2009. He was convicted of two felonies: burglary and felony evading officers with wanton disregard for public safety. He was sent to prison and passed through four institutions before he was released on parole in 2012.
Before Nico entered the prison system, he already expected that he would “run with the race.” That is, Hispanic prisoners ran with Hispanics, black prisoners ran with blacks, and whites with whites. To survive.
And he was aware of La Eme, the Mexican Mafia. At each prison he went to, Nico learned the “chain of command” there. Nico knew they had authority over every Hispanic gangster in prison.
La Eme is Spanish for the letter M and is one term for the Mexican Mafia. The numeral 13 also signifies the letter M, since it is the 13th letter of the alphabet. A Latino gangster will not speak the words Mexican Mafia; that term is used by outsiders.
Normally, for any gangster from Fallbrook, their primary rival was the Vista Home Boys, from the town west of Fallbrook. But while in prison, Nico was expected to get along with his rivals, and even take orders from them. “There, we run together,” he explained.
“At first I would do what they would tell me to do,” Nico remembered. “I didn’t really have a choice.” But then he started to rebel, for example, he declined to pay “taxes.” And what happens if you do not pay your taxes? “They will usually send somebody to rob you, for your stuff.” But Nico is a large man, and he was healthy and strong while he was in prison. He must have made the collectors work for it because they eventually stopped trying to tax him, he said.
While he was in prison, Nico had the problem of a persistent rumor: he was accused of running off with money belonging to Varrio Fallbrook Locos. Nico had collected money intended to buy a tombstone for a “little homie” who was shot while on Vista Home Boys’ turf but had never handed it over.
Another thing on Nico’s mind was his son, who was newly born to his girlfriend before he went away to prison. “Well, I never had my dad, so I always wanted to be there for him.”
As the months and years went by in prison, Nico became disillusioned with gang life. “None of my so-called friends were really there for me. And I was just getting in more trouble.” He started to question his obedience to La Eme. “I got tired of it when I started catching more time [incarcerated].”
Nico was transferred from one prison to another. “I decided to drop out, probably my last five or six months.” While he was in Chino prison he asked his guards for different housing so he could be completely separated from all gangs. “I just had to tell an officer I wanted to go SNY.” That means “Special Needs Yard.”
This is also known as “protective custody” or “going PC.” Nico’s intention was to get out from under La Eme’s control. “So, basically you just run by yourself.” This could be a problem, if the other prisoners decided that Nico had turned snitch. “They just don’t like anybody from the neighborhood to go protective custody cause they just figure that you are cooperating with law enforcement.... If they kept us together, general population would want to do something to you, stab you or whatever.” To prisoners, a snitch is “really no good. They will do whatever they can to take you out.”
But Nico didn’t like the other prisoners in protective custody. “I didn’t really agree with the fact that I was going to be with child molesters and rapists.”
So, Nico was put into solitary confinement. He was “in the hole” for three or four months. The guards knew that sometimes a gangster would request PC as a ploy to “get somebody,” perhaps on assignment from La Eme, and the prison staff are obligated to protect prisoners from one another. So, Nico found himself in isolation. “You’re basically in a cell by yourself, 23 hours a day.” Finally, during his last month of custody, in the spring of 2012, Nico was allowed out into the yard.
Somehow, Nico thought he would escape repercussions for turning away from La Eme and the hometown gang. “I’m sure that people do get killed for dropping out.” But not always? “Just depends.” Why did Nico think he could escape consequences? “’Cause I’m cool.”
It was nine months after he was paroled that Nico collected three bullets from his old childhood pal.
You’re being a bitch
After release from prison, sometimes Nico stayed at his mother’s home and sometimes at his grandmother’s. Sometimes he slept in a camper shell propped up on a remote ranch outside of Fallbrook, in a community called De Luz.
As he rejoined life in his hometown, Nico often ran into the gang members. He said little homies (younger gangsters) would occasionally “try to hit me up.” He said these were verbal challenges. “A hit-up is, like, ‘What’s up? You’re being a bitch.’” Nico brushed off these little incidents. He believed there was a certain person, a competing weed dealer, who was behind the trouble. Because “I had better marijuana than him,” and Nico figured, “He didn’t like that, obviously, because people weren’t going to him.”
Nico said he did try to look up his best old pal Torito, but he was told that Torito had been deported to Mexico.
It was about six months after Nico returned to Fallbrook that another person was released from custody, Torito’s little brother, Sergio. Nico was glad to see his old friend Hunger again. They partied and smoked marijuana and meth together. “I would see him quite often.” Nico said he helped Sergio get food, clothes, and money. “Yes, out of respect for his older brother.” Torito had helped Nico in the past and he was happy to help his little brother.
Later, Nico’s mother remembered those weeks of renewed friendship. She said her son phoned her while she was at work in the winter of 2012.
“Several times he had asked if a friend of his named Sergio could come to our home to shower, and I asked why, and he said this Sergio was homeless and he needed a place to shower.”
Her son brought this friend over only when she wasn’t there, so she did not actually see him but she remembered his nickname, Hunger. She said her son asked these favors “the last couple months prior to him being shot.”
At that time, Nico was 23 years old and Sergio was 18. In Nico’s mind, his relationship with Sergio was close. “Really close.” They had a good friendship. “It was good, up until I got shot.”
Nico’s special place
Nine months after he returned to his hometown of Fallbrook, Nico planned a busy day. It was a warm and sunny Thursday, the first week of January 2013; not really unusual for Southern California. Nico planned to build a greenhouse. He wanted to grow his own marijuana, to smoke some and sell some. Although he didn’t have any land of his own, he had a pal named Borgia who had a sweet setup, and Borgia was willing to share — Borgia would get a little weed for himself out of the deal.
The spot where Nico intended to build a greenhouse.
Borgia had a girlfriend who lived on a ranch in De Luz, ten miles north of downtown Fallbrook. This girlfriend named Lucy lived in a little house near the main entrance of the ranch. She acted as caretaker and was supposed to limit who came and went. Borgia was not supposed to be on the ranch at all, but in effect he controlled who got access to the ranch through his girlfriend Lucy. In fact, Nico thought of the place as Borgia’s Ranch.
This ranch is so large and sprawling that it is difficult for authorities to enforce law in the area. Deputies claim that illegal activity routinely takes place there. An officer said, “People who want to avoid police detection go there” and he described it as “a known crash place.”
With permission from Borgia, Nico had access to a camper shell on the property. The De Luz area is hilly, with slopes and valleys, and the tall chaparral and old oak trees all helped to hide Nico’s special place.
It was late in the morning on that sunny day when Nico left his mom’s house. He picked up a pizza in Fallbrook before he got onto the narrow, two-lane road that winds its way into De Luz.
Nico was proud of his truck.
Nico was proud of his big, white, Chevy truck. It was a four-door with an extended cab and big tires. And it had a Flow-master muffler, which he says, “sounds way cooler.”
When Nico drove onto the ranch he did not stop to check in with Lucy. He expected she knew he was there because of his noisy truck and her barking dog and the cloud of dust he raised as he blew past her house. He drove a little distance to his secluded spot, up a slope, on a level spot that overlooked Lucy’s house.
Nico had only been there a few minutes — he hadn’t even finished his pizza — when he heard Lucy calling his name.
The Big Homie
Lucy got a subpoena to testify in court more than a year after the shooting. In the summer of 2014, in the witness box, Lucy refused to look around the courtroom to see if she could identify anybody. She particularly declined the prosecutor’s request to look at the defendant, Sergio. She turned her chubby cheeks to face away and declared: “No, I’m not scared. I just don’t want to be involved, you know.” Lucy allowed that she was nervous. “’Cause I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be involved in nothing.”
And she didn’t have much to share about her boyfriend Borgia, either. “Well, he comes and goes.” Lucy said he was away working in Palm Springs at that moment.
With a lot of prodding, Lucy remembered that it was the middle of the day when her pit bull went crazy and she went outside to restrain him. As she was reaching for her dog she noticed a small, blue, four-door sedan driving away and two men walking toward her. She said that both men were strangers to her. The men asked for Nico. She told the prosecutor, “Two people came looking for him at my gate.”
Lucy said she was preoccupied with her dog and could not really identify the two men. The most she would say was that one was taller and one was shorter, and that they were both younger than her own 31 years.
Lucy yelled for Nico until he yelled back, “What?”
Nico walked to a place where he could look down and he saw Lucy with two men. He yelled that he would come down. He didn’t want the men to come up where he was; he didn’t want them to see his setup.
Lucy said she went back into her house and did not see nor hear anything else.
However, one week earlier there had been another encounter at her gate. It was late December when Lucy had come home from a shopping trip to Fallbrook and found a different group of four men. They were sitting in a Jeep in her driveway and told her they were waiting for Nico. Lucy informed them that they couldn’t come onto the property without the owner’s permission. The men apologized for the intrusion and said “Dispensa” before they drove away.
Sergio Huerta Ramirez
When Nico walked down he recognized Sergio from a distance. “He was with another person” who Nico did not know. The friends said “what’s up” to each other and used their nicknames, Toker and Hunger.
Nico asked Sergio how he got there because he knew that Sergio did not drive. Sergio was vague; he said he was doing something in the area. Then Sergio introduced the other man to Nico. “He just referred to him as ‘the Big Homie.’”
What does the Big Homie mean? “It just basically means that he has done work for the neighborhood, to be considered a Big Homie, and he needs to be respected.” In the gang world, a Big Homie has status. Nico knew the Mexican Mafia is able to exert influence both in and out of prison. Nico explained, “They’re everywhere.”
“Yeah, he was just, like, ‘This is the Big Homie right here. He just got out [of prison.] Sergio made it seem that he needed help to get him established, to help him get him some stuff that he needed. His family might have disowned him already. He probably just didn’t have anything ’cause he just got out.”
Even though he had status, the Big Homie needed help?
“Correct. They still get out like that. They can still be big in politics but the reality is, they don’t have shit.”
No, no, no
While they talked by the gate, Sergio asked Nico for money and marijuana and to borrow his truck. “So I said, no, no, no.” Nico said he knew that Sergio “did not drive,” and he refused the other two requests “because he still owed me money.”
Then Sergio asked for a ride back to Fallbrook and Nico agreed to that. “I told him that I was a little busy, but that, yeah, if he needed a ride, I would give him a ride back to town. Didn’t think much of it.” Nico wiped his face with one hand as he remembered the moment, “because I thought we were friends.”
Nico directed Sergio and the Big Homie to walk to another gate while he went to get his truck. He said he would drive over and pick them up there.
“When I got to the gate, I told them to let me pull out, and they could close the gate behind me.” And then they both got into his truck.
Sergio got into the front passenger seat and the Big Homie sat behind Sergio, on the bench seat in back. Nico said he turned in the driver’s seat and handed some cash to the Big Homie. “I think I slipped him 20 bucks. ‘Buy yourself some food,’ you know?”
While he drove, Nico made idle chat with Sergio. “We were talking about how I was stoned off weed, and he wanted some weed.” The Big Homie didn’t say much. Nico recalled one remark: “I just remembered he had said that he had just gotten out.” And Nico remembered that Sergio and the Big Homie discussed a gun.
The drive from the ranch into Fallbrook normally takes about 25 minutes; the posted speed limit on the snaky road is 20 mph. After a short while, Sergio asked to stop. “He asked me to pull over ’cause he had to pee.” Both Nico and Sergio were aware of a convenient turnout place coming up, and Nico pulled off onto that dirt drive.
“I was assuming he was just gonna pee. I don’t want to look at that.” So, Nico turned his face away when Sergio got out the passenger side. “I leaned out the window, like, that’s cool, and I was checking out the scenery, to my left.... He got out of my truck and the guy in the back opened his door as well.”
Sergio walked away from his open door and the Big Homie sat on the edge of his seat, dangling one leg out.
Nico lit a cigarette and hung one arm out his opened window. His right arm extended forward, that hand flopped over the steering wheel.
Sergio was gone 45 seconds or a minute. “He was going pee, supposedly. I didn’t look over.” It startled Nico when he heard a gun rack. “I was in the middle of taking a drag.” And then he heard Sergio say his nickname, “Toker.”
Nico looked over and saw “Sergio pointing a gun at me.” His old friend was standing next to the opened passenger door. It looked as if he was going to climb back into the truck, except he held a gun pointed at Nico.
“At what distance was Sergio standing, when he held the gun?” Sergio was asked in court later.
“No distance. It was lined up right where my door was supposed to close.”
Nico said he froze. “And I just looked at him and heard him say ‘Dispensa’ and he just started shooting.”
“What does dispensa mean to you?”
“My bad. Sorry. Along those lines. He said what he said, then he started shooting.
Nico felt the slugs hit him; they tossed him around.
Bullet hole in tattoo of Satan’s head, on Nico’s back shoulder
“I sort of hunched over on the first shot. And by the time I got shot the second time I tried throwing my truck into drive.” That first try failed. “It took me a second and he just stood there.” Finally Nico got hold of the gear-shift lever and yanked it down. “I just put it into drive and I floored it.”
“I remember my back door smacking one of them, though. Like smacked them or something.” Nico believes the Big Homie was still in the backseat when the shooting started.
A chain-link fence prevented the truck from going further.
“I just sped off. And I just tried driving myself into town. I started losing feeling in my legs and arms,” and he couldn’t get his breath. “I lost control.” First his truck slammed into the hillside. “And it bounced me to the opposite side of the road.” The truck spun around and skidded into a chain-link fence, which stopped him from going over a precipice. Nico had to climb out his driver’s side window because the doors were crushed shut.
Just then a woman drove up in her car.
Maria was on her way to work. “I just saw a young man lying on the ground, on the road.” The man got up and approached, “He just told me to give him a ride or he would die.” Maria was fearful but allowed the man to get into her car. He was having trouble breathing. “He just told me to go faster because otherwise he would die.” She got to the hospital in Fallbrook in about ten minutes. “He opened the door himself.”
Other witnesses said the wounded man poured out onto the ground.
There was surprisingly little blood on Nico’s white T-shirt; the entry wounds did not bleed much and there were no exit wounds.
The first deputy who came upon Nico in the hospital asked who shot him. Nico gasped, “Sergio Ramirez.” The deputy asked if he knew why he got shot. Nico replied, “Because I want out of the [gang] life.”
Nico was transferred by helicopter to a newer, better-equipped hospital in Escondido. “I got Life-Flighted!” Nico was pleased about that, later.
The surgeon in the trauma room at Palomar Medical Center said he found three entry wounds. With CAT scans he could trace the path of each bullet.
One bullet came to rest in a lung, one bullet was in a scapula, and one stopped in Nico’s abdomen. The doctor said he left all the bullets in the patient “because it causes more harm to remove them.”
Nico in the hospital. A bullet fractured one of his vertebrae.
Doctors informed Nico that one bullet bounced off his spine and shattered one vertebrae. This effectively broke his back. This is the injury that causes Nico the most pain. He wore a full body brace for three months and is still not able to sit upright for long because it becomes too painful. Sometimes Nico goes back to the hospital for relief from the pain, because they can give him morphine there.
Hunger on the run
Sergio was a fugitive for four weeks. On January 31, 2013, officers arrested him after he ran out the back of a house in Fallbrook.
After some months in custody, Sergio acquired a new tattoo under his right eye. The numeral 6 appeared, signifying the letter F, for Fallbrook. “It showed his continued affiliation or allegiance to his gang,” said sheriff’s detective Roy Mayne, who led the investigation.
Detective Mayne in court
Detective Mayne said he has never been able to identify the man referred to as the Big Homie. Nico said he believed that the Big Homie must have been there to keep Sergio on task, “To make sure that he did it.” And it would be useful to Sergio to have a witness “just so somebody can vouch for him, ’cause they get respected more. It is the whole objective of being a gang member, is to get respect,” Nico explained.
Green light to murder
“We believe the shooting was actually a result of a green light put out by other gang members,” said Luis Rudisell, a gang specialist. In his youth, Rudisell was a military policeman with the U.S. Marine Corps; later he was an Escondido police officer; when he worked on this case he was an investigator for the San Diego County district attorney’s office. “I am assigned to the gang-prosecution unit.”
Rudisell had ideas about why Nico became a target. “I had heard from certain sources that Nico was believed to be a snitch because he went into protective custody before he left prison.” The investigator also heard the rumor that Nico had collected money for a gravestone for a Fallbrook homie but never paid for it and never collected the gravestone, so the Locos considered it a theft committed by Nico.
Doctor explains x-ray of the bullets in the body
Another witness testified that the act of shooting his friend would bring status to Sergio. Ruthlessness is valued in the hyper-violent gang world. “You don’t get much more violent than hurting or killing your friends,” opined Zachary Harris, another gang expert in San Diego County.
Nico was put into a witness protection program as soon as he was able to walk. Against orders, he returned to Fallbrook after some months; he wanted to collect some of his belongings from his grandmother’s home. It was after 10 p.m. when Nico saw a young homie on the street and he called out, “What’s up?”
“He said, ‘This is what’s up,’ and he pulled out a big old revolver. Started shooting.” Nico ran around parked cars on the street. A side-mirror shattered over his head. On that occasion, all the bullets missed him.
The attempt on Nico’s life happened ten days before he was scheduled to testify at a hearing for Sergio’s attempted-murder case.
“I figured their mission was to take me out before I testified.” Nico said that was when he decided that he did want to testify. “If I was gonna die, may as well let the truth be known.”
Even now, Nico can’t believe that his old homies turned on him. “To this day, we don’t know why Sergio shot me,” he said during Sergio’s trial, in court, while the two men looked at each other.
Nico said he is more careful now. “I’m afraid of getting shot at again.”
Sergio was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life plus 25 years. He was admitted to the California state prison in Chino just after Christmas. He turned 21 last January.
All names of civilians are aliases, except the name of the convicted shooter, Sergio Huerta Ramirez.