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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Cold hands, warm heart, lousy at smuggling…

It was 1986 and Sasha was barely a year old. Phyllis found a wonderful housekeeper, Julie H. Julie was from El Salvador, and if you remember your history, they were involved in a brutal civil war with their neighbor Nicaragua. Both men and women would disappear, the men into the army, the women -- only God knew where…

Julie asked us for help is rescuing 3 of her children and her sister. Naturally we agreed. That help took the form of paying a Coyote $5000 to smuggle her family from El Salvador through Mexico and across the border to Los Angeles, a grueling journey performed on foot. Her daughters were 7 and 13, her son was 16. We agreed to pay the Coyote $2500 up front, the rest on delivery.

When her family was safe in a house in Los Angeles – with about 50 other illegals, Phyllis sent Julie into Los Angeles by bus with the remainder of the money. This was my wife’s first attempt at smuggling, and she took a few things for granted – like she gave Julie a check made out to CASH for the smugglers.

We got a phone call from a frantic Julie on Saturday night while Phyllis was at a baby shower. Either we come up with the other $2500 in cash within 24 hours or they were going to kill Julie’s family, and Julie also, who they had taken hostage.

Back in the day, you couldn’t get more than $300 per day from an ATM, so even with a trip before and after midnight, we only had a little less than half the money in cash. Phyllis was working for a real estate developer at the time, so she went to one of his country clubs and begged them to cash a check for us, which they did.

The meet was scheduled to take place at noon at a Pioneer Chicken stand in Watts. There were two more problems to deal with. I couldn’t go alone because I didn’t speak Spanish, only Phyllis did. We couldn’t find anyone to watch Sasha, so she had to come along also, in her baby seat. At the time the only gun I had was a .357 magnum revolver. I stuck it in my waistband and taped a large knife to my ankle. I stuffed $2500 in twenty dollar bills inside my shirt. We headed for Watts, map in hand.

Sunday morning in east L.A. was right out of a Steven King novel. As we proceeded further into Watts, the billboards changed from White, to Black, to Brown. It was early in the morning and drug addicts and hookers were staggering around the streets. A large Cadillac made lazy ‘S’ curves in front of us on the boulevard, refusing to let us pass.

We got to the Pioneer Chicken stand, the only white faces for miles. Phyllis asked me what to do if anyone questioned why we were there. I told her to tell them we were hungry and stopped for lunch. A phone call later I see Julie and her family, surrounded by two barrel-chested Mexicans with identical Zapata mustaches cross the street and walk toward us. I checked the .357 and patted for the knife.

I was driving a Dodge Caravan. We put two in the back seat and the rest laid down in the luggage compartment while the Mexicans, who were very close on both sides of me, counted the money. It was at the moment that I realized neither the gun nor the knife was going to do me any good. They turned and walked away. We drove to the Greyhound bus station downtown and put all but the two daughters on the next bus to Palm Springs. We drove home without incident.

I told Phyllis that was the first and last time we would be smuggling anyone into the country. She agreed.

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