The Ballad of Rocky Rontal
How do we forgive the unforgivable?
The first time I met Rocky Rontal, I asked him to describe his childhood. I watched him stiffen, like someone preparing for the sharp poke of a needle. He rubbed a palm over his close-cropped black hair. It was a long moment before he spoke. “I didn’t have one,” he said finally.
It was late autumn in the Bay Area, and he’d come in from Stockton to meet me. The gloomy skies had cleared, and outside everything was slick and shiny and glowing in the bright sunshine. Rocky, by contrast, was all darkness. He’s in his early 50s, wiry, compact, and reserved. He wore all black, as if in mourning — baggy black slacks, a black guayabera over a black undershirt. Now he clenched his jaw and balled his fists until the tendons pressed against the skin of his forearms. He took a deep breath, and his chest expanded; across it, in elegant cursive, a tattoo read Querida Mamá. Dear Mother.
He went on: “I’m defining childhood as a time when a child is able to act like a child.”
What he had instead were struggle, fear, and violence. It’s the world he was steeped in, the language he learned. He was willing, even eager, to tell his story, no matter how painful. “It’s a small price for me to pay in comparison to what I’m accountable for,” he said. He set down one condition: “You don’t glorify none of this. You don’t butter nothing up.”
Rocky was raised in Stockton, California, on the far south side. “Further you go, the worser it gets. And we lived at the very end.”
His childhood home, a ramshackle single-story house, where he stayed with his five brothers and his little sister, Renee, was still standing, and we parked on the street, watching a young woman in flip-flops carefully wash the car that sat in the vacant lot beside the driveway. Rocky held back tears. He remembered this house, he said, as the place where it all began. His little sister had her own room. “And all the boys were bunched up like sardines in bunk beds, the way it’s supposed to be.”
This was the house where his parents’ marriage ended. Rocky’s father, Ronly Rontal, was a small-time hustler who drove a truck and often gathered with his friends to drink whiskey and play guitar on weekends. When he drank, he’d get violent. Rocky wasn’t the oldest or the strongest, but he was the bravest, and so the task of standing up to their father fell to him. It happened most often on the first and the 15th, when the welfare check came. Rocky’s father would take his cut first, for whiskey, and everyone in the household knew that come nightfall, there’d be violence. In preparation, Rocky’s brothers would dress him in layer after layer of old sweaters, and when his old man came home, Rocky would be ready, wearing this suit of armor, so stiff he could barely bend his arms. Inevitably, Rocky’s father would start in on his mother, and Rocky would step between them and get beaten with a nightstick, like the kind police use.
Life has a way of punishing brave boys like Rocky. Life has a way of making brave boys like him punish themselves.
One night, when Rocky was 10 years old, it got even worse. He beat Rocky viciously and then locked him in the closet. Rocky’s mother, Maria, spent the night sleeping with her back to the door to protect her son from further harm. In the morning, she snuck the keys out of her husband’s pocket and opened up the closet door. Rocky was caked in blood. She kicked Rocky’s father out after that, an act of bravery for a young woman with little education and few prospects, suddenly alone, with six children to feed.
Within a few years, Rocky’s older brothers, Richard and Speedy, were in juvenile, California Youth Authority. A white guy got stabbed at a party, and Richard was convicted. Then it was Speedy’s turn: He pummeled a tecato, a heroin addict, who ratted on one of his homies. And then he was gone, too.
Now Rocky was the man of the house.
When Rocky was 13, a social worker came by the house to check in on his family. There was no food in the pantry, so Rocky and his younger brothers and his sister were sent to a shelter called Mary Graham House. The humiliation of that moment would sting, even decades later. His family had run out of food on his watch. Rocky told himself that it would never happen again. He escaped that same night and made his way home. His mother convinced him to go back. “Don’t you wanna be with your brothers?” she asked him. Rocky spent three months at the shelter, just across the street from a methadone clinic. He recognized the junkies when they went by. He knew them from the south side.
When he came home, he started stealing. The first time Rocky was busted, it was for breaking into a fruit stand. Before long, he’d moved on to bigger things: burglarizing houses, taking anything that could be sold, but paying special attention to the food. He’d fill his father’s old duffel bag with cereal, with bread. He was obsessed with the pantry. Obsessed with keeping it full. A week before the food ran out, he was already in motion.
By then Rocky had his first gun, a .38, and soon he started boosting cars for a local chop shop. Every week he’d get a list of three or four vehicles, a specific make and model, year and color. It was demanding work, but he was good at it, and though he still went to school now and then, by that point his life was headed in a different direction. He wasn’t just supporting his own family anymore, but two others — families just like his. Families with nothing.
At 15, Rocky was picked up for fighting and sent to a reformatory called Boys Republic. There, a kid ratted on Rocky and some friends for sneaking in beer. Rocky cracked his ribs and was sent to Youth Authority, like his brothers before him. It was the late 1970s. Rocky saw friends from the neighborhood, tough, unsmiling boys, and he met others from all over California. This was the first time he realized what he was. Or rather, this was the first time he realized how the world saw him, the label they had for young men like him.
Rocky was sitting in a group meeting when the counselor called him a gang member.
At first he was offended. “I hung around with people of the same cloth, the same experience, the same sufferings. These were my friends, like family. I didn’t look at us as gang members. But in the technical definition, that’s what we were.”
Rocky spent more than a year in Y.A.
When he got out, he started doing robberies, holding up liquor stores and convenience stores around Stockton. He’d carry a gun and wave it in the faces of frightened cashiers. He wouldn’t just take the bills, he’d take the change, too. And when he came home, at the end of a long night of robberies, Rocky would empty his pockets and slip these coins under the pillows of his little brothers and his sister. He hoped it would make them smile when they woke up. They’d know it was Rocky who left the coins, even if they wouldn’t know where the money had come from.
This is the story of two terrible crimes. Here’s the first.
Rocky was in his early teens when a crew of Sureños came up from Los Angeles. They were called Vicky’s Town, or VST, and it wasn’t long before they began tagging in the neighborhood and recruiting local muscle. They tried to recruit Rocky, in fact, jumping him one evening around the corner from his own home. Three local kids, including a handsome, green-eyed boy about Rocky’s age known as Chuy. Rocky fought his way out.
VST brought something with them, a way of life, a certain strain of street violence that Stockton hadn’t seen. Before their arrival, Rocky remembers Stockton as dysfunctional, but not violent in the way it would become. Not yet broken. There was even a certain kind of freedom. You could go anywhere, to any neighborhood, any park. You could party with any crew, on any side of town. If there were cliques, there were no real boundaries, or those borders hadn’t hardened yet.
VST changed all that. Rocky and his crew felt they had to protect themselves from these outsiders. They knew about gangs in L.A., and they didn’t want that in Stockton. This is the irony, of course; Rocky’s crew thought of themselves as defenders against an unwelcome, violent way of life. In fact, they were midwifing the birth of a new kind of bloodshed themselves. VST was warned, but months went by and then years, and they continued to tag and recruit. The perverse code of gang life means there can be only one consequence for that sort of disrespect. This is how wars begin.
It all seems so predictable now, but at the time, the wave of killings that came as a result of this feud was shocking. “My barrio was indoctrinated like many others: You kill one of mine, I’m gonna kill ten of yours.” One night, there was a fight in Stribley Park, and Chuy ended up at Rocky’s mother’s house, looking to make more trouble. Rocky wasn’t home, but his mother told him what had happened, and he could tell she immediately regretted it. It was 2 in the morning when Rocky drove to Chuy’s house with a couple of homies. Rocky and Chuy exchanged a few words, and then Rocky shot him at close range with a sawed-off pump shotgun. His mother and his little sister were in the house. Chuy was 16 years old.
Three weeks passed between the night of Chuy’s murder and Rocky’s arrest. He knew the end would come eventually, knew he’d need money for a trial, so Rocky went on a crime spree — robberies back to back, sometimes two or three in one day. By the time he was caught, he’d done a couple dozen. He was arrested with a gun and a pocket full of bullets. Because he was still three months shy of his 18th birthday, Rocky was sent first to juvenile, then to the county jail, where he was kept in solitary. On his birthday, Rocky was released into the general population. It was a homecoming of sorts. “Everybody I grew up with was right there in jail with me. Prison — that’s our university. We had to go through it. It was predestined.”
At the trial, Chuy’s mother took the stand and described her son as a baseball player, a respectful young man. She’d taught him right. And she wasn’t wrong about her son: Rocky recalled the time that Chuy had helped one of his own brothers — an enemy — get home after he’d been stabbed at a party. But in the courtroom, Rocky was angry, too: As far as he was concerned, Chuy was a gangbanger. “If I wasn’t the one who ended up shooting him, there would’ve been several others in line.”
Rocky didn’t want his mother to come to the trial, so he told his brothers not to let her near the courthouse, not under any circumstances. But she came anyway, and on the day she did, the coroner was testifying about Chuy’s wounds. Rocky would remember this for a long time. The coroner was on the stand, giving a detailed medical account of what happened. Rocky’s mother hid her face with both hands. On the other side of the courtroom, Chuy’s mother was doing the same. It was the first time Rocky realized the magnitude of what he’d done.
“I felt my first healthy sense of shame. Had there been intervention at that time, maybe I could’ve gotten saved.”
Rocky was sentenced to 27 years to life.
Rocky had been inside about a year and a half when his little sister, Renee, and a friend of hers disappeared. Her friend’s name was Nancy Rubia, and they were both 13 years old. Renee was daring, uncontrollable. Both girls were already running away from home, staying out late, drinking. They were last seen on the night of January 24, 1982, getting into a Pontiac Firebird with two men. Renee and Nancy were found a few days later in an irrigation ditch off Bacon Island Road in the Delta.
This is the second terrible crime.
When he heard the news, Rocky wondered if his sister was paying for what he’d done. He had enemies, of course, and he wondered if the violence he’d spread in the world was coming back to him. He sent out messages, lists of people he wanted executed. He didn’t know who was responsible, but what he lacked in information, he made up for with the scale and scope of his anger. He wanted everyone dead. He wanted to see bodies stacked up high, a monument to the pain he was feeling. Rocky wanted to murder the world.
And then, 18 months after the girls were killed, one of the two men was arrested. His name was Antonio Espinosa. For Rocky, the trial — like everything that happened on the outside — was a kind of rumor. Espinosa was found guilty and sentenced to death. He entered the California prison system, just as Rocky had a few years earlier.
One day, not long after, Rocky saw Espinosa across the yard in San Quentin, separated by two fences. Rocky believes the wardens put Espinosa there on purpose, to torment him. There’s a logic to this: By then, Rocky was a member of Nuestra Familia, one of California’s most fearsome prison gangs. He was well known to the authorities.
Rocky managed to get Espinosa a message. One day, Rocky told him, after the system kills you, I’ll get out. And I’m going to kill your family. Rocky meant it. And Espinosa knew Rocky meant it, and his fear was the only satisfaction Rocky could have.
The other alleged perpetrator got away. His name was Alfredo Reyes. He vanished somewhere in Mexico. Meanwhile, Rocky was in prison, his hatred something sharp in his chest, something darker and more toxic than rage. Rocky’s family didn’t call or visit — because he wouldn’t let them. “I didn’t want them to be affected by it, so I didn’t accept packages; I didn’t ask them for no money.” This prison sentence was his to survive on his own. “I allowed my family to become a stranger to me. In my mind, I’m doing them a favor.”
In San Quentin in the ’80s, a Christian missionary used to visit the inmates. The missionary knew who Rocky was, knew his reputation within Nuestra Familia, within the prison, and he knew Espinosa, too, because he’d visited him on death row. The missionary knew what Espinosa had done to Rocky’s sister.
Rocky had never been particularly religious, unless being forced to go to Mass as a kid and stealing from the collection basket counts, but Espinosa’s presence across the yard was so troubling that he felt compelled to ask for advice. The missionary told Rocky he’d come back the following week with an answer.
He did, just like he’d promised.
The answer was forgiveness.
“And the moment he said that, I told him, if you ever come back to my cell, I’m gonna have you killed. And he tried to interrupt, and I wouldn’t allow him. I told him to leave. He left and never came back.”
The missionary’s advice, which had seemed so farcical at first, began to make sense a decade later. And more sense a decade after that. Rocky was in his 40s when he began to think about the true meanings of simple words. Words like compassion. Understanding. Consideration. And the word that the missionary had spoken to him so many years before: forgiveness. Rocky decided to try.
In 2012, after 32 years inside, more than half spent in isolation, Rocky was released. He felt elated, anxious, and paranoid all at once. “What did I know about civilization other than what I seen on television?” Not much. He’d entered prison as little more than a boy and had never lived on his own. He’d joined one of the most violent prison gangs in California, risen in the ranks, and then left it behind. Now he emerged into a world he found disappointingly familiar. Stockton was the same, only more so. The violence he’d helped loose had become routine; the kids had learned from him, perfected the lessons in his grim example. Some of his homies were dead. His mother was dead. She’d ended up addicted to heroin, working the streets of Stockton. His brother Richard had died, too, in his own backyard, with a needle in his arm.
Still, Rocky was grateful that he hadn’t been released sooner. The anger and violence within him took years to subside. “Prison is a walk in the park compared to this. Out here, you have to feel things.” If he’d come out sooner, there’s no telling what he might have done. Rocky told me his brother Speedy had turned their mother onto heroin, the first step in her downward spiral. One day, Speedy asked Rocky if he was going to kill him. Rocky looked at him, thought about everything his mother had been through, what she’d suffered, and told Speedy the truth: He wasn’t sure.
There were people in town that were still scared of him, those who questioned whether his transformation was real. There was nothing Rocky could do to hide his pedigree — the scars of his past are right there for anyone to see, in his tattoos, his speech, his demeanor. As we drove the streets of Stockton, Rocky pointed out landmarks — the stores he held up, the corner where he was robbed as a boy, the intersection where he was arrested and where his crime spree ended. Everywhere we went, it seemed, he could recall a shooting or a murder that had taken place there.
One day we went to see a friend of his on the south side, an old-timer named Magoo, who’d lost his wife to cancer and his son to a drive-by. This was deep on the edge of town, a mile farther and you’re in the fields. The young woman who answered the door eyed us suspiciously and then told us Magoo wasn’t home.
“We’ll come back in a half hour,” Rocky told her.
She nodded. But when we returned, the house was empty and shuttered, and the cars that had been parked out front had vanished. Including Magoo’s. We spooked them, Rocky told me. “I should’ve introduced myself. She didn’t know who I was.”
But it wasn’t that simple. The ones who did know him were wary, too. And it was understandable: His friends knew best what he was capable of. Rocky sought them out, reassured them. In fact, he went all over town telling those he’d hurt that he didn’t mean them any harm, that they didn’t need to be afraid of him anymore. It was a long list.
The most important name on that list was Elizabeth, Chuy’s mother. The last time he’d seen her was in the courtroom, when he was on trial for the murder of her son. One day, he saw Elizabeth’s niece Sylvia, Chuy’s cousin, and told her he wanted to make peace. Sylvia knew Rocky from high school and arranged a meeting in her apartment. She told me, “I didn’t know if my aunt had a gun or whatnot. If she wanted payback, that was the time. But I just took that chance.”
Elizabeth was in her early 70s by then. She had salt-and-pepper hair and sat in Sylvia’s apartment, her hands resting atop a cane, her head bent down toward the floor. When he saw her, Rocky dropped to his knees. “With all my might, I give her an explanation of why I did what I did. If anybody deserves an honest explanation, it’s the mother.”
He wept and said he was sorry. He said he was young. All he could do was accept responsibility, accountability, and that’s what he did. When he was done, Elizabeth thanked him and asked him to get off his knees. She said that no one in her family had had anything to do with Renee’s death. He told her he knew that.
She told him that she’d seen him in the neighborhood talking to the youngsters. She knew he was trying to make amends. Then she said she forgave him. It took his breath away.
She changed the subject: What else have you been doing, she asked.
Construction, Rocky told her.
So do you know how to fix cabinets?
That’s good, mijo. Do you know how to fix fences?
That’s good, mijo, she said. So now you’re gonna fix my cabinets and my fence.
The past is never the past, never finished nor closed, not when you’re speaking of your dead. Wounds never disappear, never really heal, and everything about Rocky is evidence of that. He walks slowly, deliberately, and he speaks the same way, as if carrying a great weight. Rocky took me to his sister’s gravesite one afternoon in February, a tidy gravestone with a sepia-toned photograph of young Renee behind glass. She’s beautiful, flashing a youthful, mischievous smile. She’ll never grow old. The flowers Rocky had laid the previous week had withered, so he set about washing the gravestone, clearing away the debris.
A few months after his meeting with Elizabeth, Rocky got a call. Alfredo Reyes had been caught. The authorities brought him back from Mexico, to Stockton, to stand trial. All that time, while Rocky had been inside, Reyes had lived a relatively normal life. He had jobs, a house, a wife. He had children, twin daughters, and then a divorce. He’d left Nancy and Renee and Stockton and that sordid crime behind him, as if it had never happened.
Rocky thought he was prepared for this, but he wasn’t. In the courtroom, he learned that his little sister’s throat had been slashed six times. He saw pictures of her facedown in the mud, her left hand on her back. He wasn’t prepared to see Reyes, the paunchy, middle-aged man who’d killed Renee, wasn’t prepared for the ordinariness of him: his slouch, his thinning hair. Reyes told the court that no, he never spent much time thinking of Renee or Nancy. Very rarely did he remember what he’d done. He argued that it had been consensual and described in great detail how he had pulled down Renee’s panties. He said that it was Espinosa who had killed her.
Rocky spent years dreaming of murdering this man and now he was right there. He sat through weeks of Reyes’s trial, watching him. Thinking, repeating to himself, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, consideration, those words he’d learned in prison, those words which suddenly seemed meaningless again. He couldn’t stand it.
And then, everything moved fast, too fast. One day, after court had adjourned, Rocky found himself at his sister’s gravesite again, full of rage again. And then he found himself climbing a wall across the street from the courthouse. Up the ladder, to the roof of an old theater, the same theater he and his brother used to sneak into when they were boys to watch kung fu movies. From there, Rocky could see the garage where the bus pulled in from county jail. He was looking for a clean shot, the feel of the rifle like an old friend. Rocky could imagine the bullet hitting Reyes, the image of him falling so clear in his mind, it was like a movie he’d watched a thousand times.
I Met Rocky a few weeks after he’d stood on the roof of that theater. He was still shaken by how close he’d come, how tempted he’d been. In the end, he couldn’t do it, but he seemed very aware that it might have gone the other way. It was as if he’d peered down from the roof at the gates of the courthouse and seen something from his past, an apparition, a version of himself he’d worked hard to bury.
Reyes was found guilty. At the sentencing, when the judge asked if anyone had anything to say, Rocky stood. He spelled his name for the court, and the judge asked him to speak up.
Rocky began: “My family and the Rubia family, they suffered many years and are still suffering today. That’s your call what you’re going to sentence this man to. I want it to be known, I wish no threat to his family or him. I don’t want his family to live in fear for retaliation. They shouldn’t have to. I stayed up all night thinking about what I’m going to say. And I know that it’s appropriate to forgive, and I have to. Because this ain’t about me, this is about those two little girls. And sometimes forgiveness ain’t got nothing to do with the perpetrator. Sometimes forgiveness has to do with us regaining our lives back and not allowing the perpetrator to continue destroying our lives.”
Reyes was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
Recently, Rocky told me his parole officer had ordered him to report the next day, or face arrest. It wasn’t entirely clear why, but according to Rocky, the central issue was counseling. The court had ordered Rocky to get counseling, and he hadn’t. Rocky told me he’d tried, but there were hundreds of people in line ahead of him. It was all discouraging, and he hadn’t gone back. That’s his version. I wasn’t able to confirm his parole officer’s version.
The call kept dropping, but in spite of the bad connection and the background noise, it was easy to tell that Rocky was upset. Four years after his release, and every day was still a struggle; four years tending to his wounds in private, while pretending to the world he was healed. And here he was: No steady work. He was homeless. In the time we’d known each other, he’d changed phone numbers three times. And the law wasn’t done with him, either.
It wouldn’t be his first violation or the first time he’d been sent back to jail since his release. None of the previous stays had been very long, but this time he was worried. “What’s going to happen?” I asked. “Are you going to turn yourself in tomorrow?”
“No, not tomorrow,” Rocky said. He had something to do — a friend of his needed help moving, and it was urgent. “They’ve killed four vatos on his block alone. He wants out of there. He’s had enough.”
There was something else, too. Rocky’s family had planned a birthday party. He was turning 54 years old. His family wanted him to celebrate before going back to jail.