One Friday night four years ago, Fernando Rojo Jr., 26, was sharing a beer cooler with friends outside his parents’ home in southern Los Angeles when a white SUV pulled up in front of them.
“Where are you from?” someone called in the car. Rojo and his five friends who were not in a gang did not answer. Her silence was hit with gunfire. A bullet shot through Rojo’s back and pierced his heart.
Two weeks ago, the man prosecutors claim drove the SUV appeared for a court hearing. Rudy Dominguez, a licensed member of the 18th Street gang, was charged with Rojo’s murder, attempted murder of Rojo’s five friends, and six charges of unloading a gun from a vehicle. If convicted, Dominguez, 24, faced a maximum sentence in prison without parole.
As the hearing closed on December 15, his attorney, Assistant Attorney Traci Blackburn, mentioned “an offer that was put on me” – a deal that would send Dominguez to prison for seven years.
“Of the?” Judge Mark S. Arnold asked for a record of the proceedings.
Blackburn said that Mario Trujillo, a newly appointed member of Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s executives had expanded the offerings of Dominguez’s former attorney Tiffiny Blacknell, an associate defense attorney and member of Gascón’s public order committee, during his campaign. Blackburn told the judge that Blacknell, from whom she had recently inherited Dominguez’s case, forwarded Trujillo’s offer to her.
The disclosure of the deal terrified both the judge and the prosecutor assigned to the case. Blackburn told the judge she believed Trujillo was involved in Dominguez’s prosecution and called on District Attorney Jeffrey Herring to say, “It is new to me that I am not the attorney on record on this case.”
Blackburn emailed Trujillo a week after the hearing. She acknowledged that Dominguez’s case was “serious and complicated,” but given his lack of criminal records and other “reasonable problems,” she “wanted to investigate the possibility of disposition,” according to correspondence verified by The Times. Trujillo told her to make the request with “the responsible representative from our office”.
That supervisor, Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Droeger appeared in court on Monday and told Arnold there was no offer on the table. If Trujillo had extended one, Droeger told the court, he would have done so outside of the office’s policy of following a chain of command in curtailing deals with defendants. A policy he believed was important to protect himself from or from “improper influence or bias”.
Droeger, who oversees the prosecution of gang killings, said he was not contacted by Dominguez’s lawyers about a possible offer and was unaware of a deal that could have been extended outside his unit’s chain of command. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t a valid offer in this case,” he said.
The judge seemed relieved.
“It’s a good thing,” said Arnold, “because there is no way I can look myself in the mirror and live with an offer, a bargain for seven years in this case.”
Although such a deal no longer appears to be involved, a member of Gascón’s senior management who describes a lawyer for Rojo’s family as a “treasure deal” raises questions about the new government’s willingness to bypass prosecutors to get in Individuals to intervene in cases – particularly the case of a defendant represented by one of Gascón’s campaign allies. Blacknell was only Dominguez’s attorney on October 10, according to court records.
The episode underscores the tension in a public prosecutor’s office, which has changed unprecedented since Gascón was sworn in three weeks ago. His decision to forego punishment amendments and gang allegations was based on the progressive grassroots that drove him into office, but angered some ordinary prosecutors whose views of their role in the criminal justice system are fundamentally at odds with those of their new boss.
Max Szabo, a spokesperson for Gascón’s transition team, said, “In this case there is no offer and no agreement has been reached.” Trujillo, Blacknell and Blackburn have not returned any messages requiring comment.
The prospect of a seven-year offer contrasts with a probation officer’s recommendation, made in a 2019 court report, that Dominguez deserves “nothing less than a long-term state prison bond.” The probation officer described Dominguez as a “serious threat to innocent citizens” who have shown “absolutely no consideration for human life,” the report said.
In defense of Dominguez, Blackburn argued in court that he had no previous convictions and was only 19 years old at the time of Rojo’s death.
Dominguez confessed, according to a preliminary hearing, to driving the car used in the shooting. Although Dominguez was not accused of firing the shots that killed Rojo, he was charged with the murder and attempted murders of his five friends. Legal doctrine states that people who play an active role in murder can be guilty of murder even if they do not pull the trigger or inflict the fatal wound themselves. This concept has been criticized by proponents of criminal justice reform.
Samuel Dordulian, a private attorney representing Rojo’s family, had asked the judge to take the case out of the prosecution and hand it over to the California attorney general. Dordulian, a former assistant district attorney, argued why district attorneys should be reinstated, saying Trujillo had made a “backdoor offer” to Blacknell whose proximity to Gascón’s administration was a “clear conflict of interest”.
“She has direct access to George Gascon,” he said. “She has direct contact with Mario Trujillo.”
Arnold declined his request for rejection.
The parties had returned to Arnold’s courtroom on Monday, two weeks after Dominguez’s attorney first announced the seven-year offer – only this time, neither Blackburn nor Blacknell, the attorneys who previously represented Dominguez, were in court. Another assistant public defender, Jimmy Chu, told the judge he had been asked to enter. Neither Blackburn nor Blacknell would represent Dominguez, who did not currently have a trial attorney, Chu told the court.
Arnold expressed disappointment that Trujillo, Blackburn, and Blacknell hadn’t shown up.
“I hoped [Trujillo] would be here today, ”he said. “I would really like to know what he’s based this offer on.”
Herring, the assistant prosecutor assigned to the Dominguez prosecution, told the judge that Trujillo had not contacted him about the case or asked for the police reports backing the charges.
Dominguez was arrested two years after Rojo’s death. After his arrest, Dominguez admitted driving the car used in the shooting and admitted to being one of the 54 tiny locos on 18th Street in South LA. Refugio Garza, a Los Angeles police detective, testified during a preliminary hearing last year.
Dominguez’s affiliation with 18th Street, one of the city’s largest gangs, dates back to his time in high school, Garza said. Black gang members had beaten Dominguez until gang members entered 18th Street. “As a favor,” he told the detective.
The night Rojo was killed, an 18th Street gang member named Dominguez said, “It was time to repay a favor,” Garza said.
Dominguez told the detective that he agreed to drive some gang members down 18th Street to get revenge on an employee who was shot in the leg the day before. They accused a rival gang, Playboys. At the time, Garza and another detective testified, playboys were breaking into the 18th Street area in the South LA neighborhood where Rojo’s family lived. Alleys and walls were covered with the dueling, crossed-out graffiti of the gangs.
Dominguez drove into Playboys territory with a member of 18th Street nicknamed “Psycho” who was carrying a gun. They discovered a group gathered in front of a house; The way the men were dressed – one person wore a hat – they thought they might be part of a gang, Garza testified.
Rojo’s friends testified that, like every Friday night after work, they gathered in front of his parents’ house to share a beer cooler.
Dominguez told the detective that he rounded the block and stopped in front of the group. “Psycho,” he said, sticking his head out of the car and shouting, “Where are you from?”
Rojo and his friends weren’t gang members. “We were just calm, stunned,” said one.
“Psycho” asked the question again and then opened fire, Dominguez said, according to Garza. Rojo was shot in the back and collapsed. One of his friends was shot in the leg. The others took cover behind cars or ran.
After the shooting, Dominguez told the detective, four gang members jumped him onto 18th Street. According to Garza, he now has an “18” tattoo that extends from his shoulders to his lower back. He said Dominguez said to him, “I have my barrio on my back.”