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To Alcatraz, Death Row, and Back

Memories of an East LA Outlaw

By Ernie López and Rafael Pérez-Torres

Publication Year: 2005

When Ernie López was a boy selling newspapers in Depression-era Los Angeles, his father beat him when he failed to bring home the expected eighty to ninety cents a day. When the beatings became unbearable, he took to petty stealing to make up the difference. As his thefts succeeded, Ernie’s sense of necessity got tangled up with ambition and adventure. At thirteen, a joyride in a stolen car led to a sentence in California’s harshest juvenile reformatory. The system’s failure to show any mercy soon propelled López into a cycle of crime and incarceration that resulted in his spending decades in some of America’s most notorious prisons, including four and a half years on death row for a murder López insists he did not commit. To Alcatraz, Death Row, and Back is the personal life story of a man who refused to be broken by either an abusive father or an equally abusive criminal justice system. While López freely admits that “I’ve been no angel,” his insider’s account of daily life in Alcatraz and San Quentin graphically reveals the violence, arbitrary infliction of excessive punishment, and unending monotony that give rise to gang cultures within the prisons and practically insure that parolees will commit far worse crimes when they return to the streets. Rafael Pérez-Torres discusses how Ernie López’s experiences typify the harsher treatment that ethnic and minority suspects often receive in the American criminal justice system, as well as how they reveal the indomitable resilience of Chicanos/as and their culture. As Pérez-Torres concludes, “López’s story presents us with the voice of one who—though subjected to a system meant to destroy his soul—not only endured but survived, and in surviving prevailed.”

Published by: University of Texas Press


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction [Includes Image Plate]

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pp. ix-x

The story you are about to read reflects a world where crime follows punishment and persecution shades into injustice. The life that Ernie L

Part One: Education

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Chapter 1: The Judgment against Me

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pp. 3-15

I suppose my childhood was very much the same as that of any other kid who was born and raised in East LA, particularly during the Depression years before World War II. I was born April 5, 1922, the fourth boy and seventh child. Everyone I came to know in East LA had the same things in common: we were all poor, from large families, and doing everything we could to survive. By the time my two ...

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Chapter 2: My Formal Education

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pp. 16-28

The year was 1935 and I was thirteen years old. Even at that young age, I had heard many bad things about Preston, and I dreaded the idea of having to go. Early in the morning on the scheduled day for the transfer, a police officer in civilian clothes came to my cell and waited for the officers to unlock the door. As he waited, I could see him looking me over, probably to determine if ...

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Chapter 3: The Federal Case

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pp. 29-39

Immediately after being booked, I was taken into a room and interrogated about the Tudisco murder by Detective Harry Freeman and some of the other cops from Homicide. There were Secret Service agents present in the room as well, waiting their turn to ask me about the stolen stamps. ...

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Chapter 4: Escape

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pp. 40-49

I figured I had to do something now before the guard sounded an alarm, so I shot up quickly and told him not to move a muscle. It turned out to be a guard named John Harris. A terrified look came over his face, and he began hollering, so I knocked him off his feet with a flying tackle I had long practiced on the football field. I told Dillon to cover Harris’s mouth while I found something to tie him up with. ...

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Chapter 5: Freeman's Revenge

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pp. 50-67

Newly arrived in town, I found a small apartment that I liked and rented it for a month, until I could get myself situated. Not long after Dillon was caught, I was walking down a sidewalk with a couple of friends when I spotted a cop car slowly cruising down a sloping street in our direction.My instinct told me that I had been spotted, and I told the others to keep walking while I lagged behind. I stepped over to the ...

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Chapter 6: Returned and Resentenced

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pp. 68-77

We went back across the street after breakfast and walked over to municipal court, where we took seats in the spectator section. The district attorney’s office had filed charges against me for numerous burglaries and robberies. I was also accused of hijacking a truck containing $250,000 worth of cigarettes. I had supposedly committed all these crimes since my escape from McNeil. That was the reason the ...

Part Two: Training

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Chapter 7: The Welcome Wagon

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pp. 81-93

Dillon and I were taken back to McNeil to await our transfer to ‘‘the Rock,’’ as it was nearly always called: Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Three days later I was awakened at one in the morning and taken out of the cell house to be handcuffed, shackled, and ferried to the mainland for our journey to San Francisco. ...

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Chapter 8: Isolation

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pp. 94-103

In isolation, you were locked up all the time and fed in your cell. On Tuesdays we were allowed to go to a small exercise yard for about an hour. This was all the outside activity we saw during the entire week. D block, the isolation block, is made up of three tiers, each holding fifteen cells. The general policy at Alcatraz was that between forty and fifty men were to always be locked up in isolation, about a ...

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Chapter 9: Escape from Alcatraz

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pp. 104-114

As I mentioned, Joe Cretzer was finally released from the hole around April 1946, and soon he brought up the subject of escape. From that point on, the idea took hold with Bernard Coy, Blackie Thompson, Clarence Carnes, Marvin Hubbard, me, and a few others. ...

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Chapter 10: The "Riot" of '46

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pp. 115-124

Not long after the shooting started, Cretzer unlocked the door leading into the dining room. From there he shot a few rifle rounds at a guard named Levinson, who occupied the gun tower overlooking the yard. Levinson dropped to the floor inside the tower and did not attempt to return fire. Later we learned that he never moved a muscle for ...

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Chapter 11: "What about the Plum Juice?" [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 125-140

It became a routine: after the authorities had confined me to isolation for a few weeks, I would retaliate once back in the general population, when the opportunity presented itself. I derived a great deal of pleasure from never being directly linked to the many ‘‘accidental’’ catastrophes that occurred on Alcatraz. To me, that is the true essence ...

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Chapter 12: My Life as a Free Man

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pp. 141-154

As I stated before, I never got a transfer from Alcatraz, because I served as a witness for Clarence Carnes. As a result, James Bennett, director of federal prisons, hated me and took my testimony as a personal affront. But I never went to talk to that bastard about seeking a transfer, as all the other men received, and I waited for my release from ...

Part Three: Survival

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Chapter 13: Haunted by Alcatraz

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pp. 157-168

I was sent back to Alcatraz for thirty months. I rode back on the very same ferry that had taken me away. Then, I had been happy to be leaving the Rock, and now, as you can imagine, my spirits were pretty low. The boat made a regular run from San Francisco to the island several times a day. It would take provisions out to Alcatraz, sometimes ...

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Chapter 14: Judgment Once More

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pp. 169-187

I later learned the details of the events that led the LAPD to me. A robbery had occurred at a store called the MORE Discount House on Sepulveda and Santa Monica Boulevards in West Los Angeles. It seems that a messenger had picked up some money and was driving off the store lot when a man wearing a mask jumped in front of the car, forcing the messenger to slam on the brakes. In the messenger’s confusion, the ...

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Chapter 15: Condemned

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pp. 188-202

They executed many men while I was on death row. I personally know of nineteen people who were executed in the gas chamber during my time on the row. The first man I knew was actually a young kid, about nineteen years old, named Alexander Robillard.Hewas executed just about the time I got to San Quentin, in April 1961.Then Ronny Rittger was executed around June 1961. Next they executed ...

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Chapter 16: My Fight for Life

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pp. 203-211

For the entire four and a half years that I sat on death row, I worked doggedly through my appeals. I labored over my case almost every day, poring over law books and providing information to my attorney. In our opening brief to the Supreme Court of California, we first drew their attention to all the errors that were prejudicial to my case during my trial, and we followed ...

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pp. 213-214

Of course, I’ve been no angel in my life. This is still no reason to have been tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for a crime that I didn’t commit. The death penalty is a politically motivated punishment that has little to do with ensuring justice or preventing crime. I’ve known several men who were executed unjustly by the state. I came ...

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pp. 215-228

The story Ernie L

Works Cited

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pp. 229-230

E-ISBN-13: 9780292797024
E-ISBN-10: 0292797028
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292706606
Print-ISBN-10: 029270660X

Page Count: 246
Illustrations: 8 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • López, Ernie, 1922-.
  • Recidivists -- California -- Biography.
  • Hispanic Americans -- California -- Biography.
  • Death row inmates -- California -- Biography.
  • United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz Island, California -- Biography.
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