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Efren Carrillo's supporters grapple with mixed emotions after peeking acquittal


Six years ago, Efren Carrillo was a 26-year-old community activist who perceived his time had come.

It was 2008. At the time, Carrillo was part of a prominent group of Sonoma County Latinos who — also sensing history in the making — were trying to awaken local Latino voters and move them toward greater participation in local politics.

The new group was called the Coalition for Latino Civic Engagement, and it included people like Sonoma State professor Francisco Vazquez; Juan Nieto, head of the local chapter of the National Hispanic Real Estate Professionals; and west county real estate agent Herman Hernandez.

Carrillo left the group when he started running for supervisor. Powerful people were in his corner, and his appeal soon broadened beyond the Latino community.

"I remember asking him, 'Are you sure you're ready for this?'" Vazquez recalled this week. "Now, those words have come back to haunt me."

On Monday, a jury acquitted Carrillo of a charge that he attempted to peek into a neighbor's apartment. But his legal victory came at a cost to his reputation.

During the trial, Carrillo took the witness stand to offer his explanation of the events on July 13 that ended with him in handcuffs, clad only in socks and underwear, in the back of a police patrol car.

He attributed his actions to a mix of ego and alcohol, saying he went to his neighbor's apartment at about 3:30 a.m. hoping to share a beer and have sex with the woman, whose name he could not remember at the time of his arrest.

Carrillo's testimony and subsequent acquittal were met with angry calls for his resignation throughout the week. That demand is likely to continue Tuesday when Carrillo faces his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors.

Carrillo's monumental fall from grace has some wondering what he will do next. The supervisor has not appeared at public meetings or returned calls seeking comment since his acquittal.

Few are more conflicted than his supporters, Latino and non-Latino alike, as they grapple with the desire to forgive and the hope that Carrillo will make the best choices for himself and the community.

"He needs to balance his desire for redemption through that office or seek redemption through another office or another way," Vazquez said. "I personally think that we need to have compassion because nobody's perfect."

But Vazquez said he feels "terrible about the woman who had to go through that experience," adding that he has a wife and daughters and can only imagine what Carrillo's neighbor must have endured.

The woman, identified in court only as Jane Doe, testified she awoke to the sound of a window screen ripping in her bedroom. Terrified, she called 911, roused two women who were spending the night in her living room and grabbed a kitchen knife to protect herself.

Carrillo told the jury he was simply trying to knock on her window and accidentally put his hand through the screen.

Though he was found not guilty, the episode is a dark chapter in the young public servant's career.

Carrillo was widely viewed as a rising Democratic political star before two alcohol-fueled arrests in 11 months began to overshadow his success story, one that had appealed to both the community he emerged from and the one he aspired to lead.

He is the son of once-undocumented immigrants from Mexico who legalized their status under former President Ronald Reagan's historic Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

The family's dream home was built using sweat equity, with the help of Habitat for Humanity.

A motivated youngster, Carrillo attended Santa Rosa High School and earned a black belt in taekwondo as a teenager. His proud parents watched him earn a bachelor's degree in environmental economics and policy from UC Berkeley, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.

From there, the charismatic young man experienced a quick rise in local politics. One of his first jobs was as a district liaison for California Assemblyman Joe Nation.

Later, Carrillo became Redwood Credit Union's education and government relations manager and the president of the governing board of the Southwest Community Health Center.

Herman Hernandez, who now heads a Latino leadership group called Los Cien, said Carrillo partly "spearheaded" the recent empowerment of Latinos in Sonoma County.

"He was the link and the awakening of the Latino community to believe in themselves and to encourage them to get involved and move forward," Hernandez said.

"Being somewhat involved over the last 30 years in the Latino community, there really wasn't that spark, that energy, that encouragement that made us move forward as he did. There will be those of us that had the opportunity to work side by side with him that will always remember that."

Hernandez struggled to describe his feelings for Carrillo now.

"As a person that I've been very close to, I support him," Hernandez said. "He made a mistake. Not only did he make a mistake, but he's disappointed many."

"Can he continue to lead? I think ... I'm stuttering here, trying to formulate the proper, correct response," Hernandez said, adding that if Carrillo gets "no support whatsoever at the top level, I think it's going to be difficult."

Even as Carrillo's critics ramp up calls for his resignation, some of his supporters say the young supervisor deserves another chance, though their continuing endorsement is qualified by rejection of the behavior he described in court.

"I don't condone what he did. I don't think anyone can," said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange.

Woods, who spoke as an individual and not on behalf of the builders' group, said he does not support a recall, nor does he think Carrillo should resign.

"Efren is basically a very good man who used very bad judgment," Woods said. "Personally, I'd like to see Efren complete the next several years of his current term and then let the voters decide whether he should continue."

Martin Webb, a former principal of Analy High School and a volunteer in Carrillo's electoral campaigns, also said Carrillo should be given the chance to redeem himself and to "rebuild his esteem in the community."

Some of his critics, however, say he should seek redemption in private.

"I don't want you to think I don't think he can be redeemed. I really do wish him well, but I don't want him to do it in public," Santa Rosa school board member Laura Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, the first Latino to serve a four-year term on the Santa Rosa school board, was elected the same year Carrillo made history as the county's first Latino supervisor. Since Carrillo's arrest last July, Gonzalez has been one of his strongest critics.

Gonzalez questioned whether Carrillo could continue to assume a leadership role after revealing details of his behavior on the witness stand.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane already has called for his resignation, and the Board of Supervisors has reserved a spot during its meeting Tuesday for members to denounce Carrillo's behavior. Supervisors are likely to outline the difficulties and challenges, both past and future, of working with the shamed politician.

His past supporters acknowledged that Carrillo could have a difficult time getting anything done if his colleagues decide they do not want to work with him.

"The people that really care about the district will be looking to see if he can recover from this and be an effective representative on the board," former 5th District Supervisor Mike Reilly said.

Reilly, who held the office for 12 years, said he thinks Carrillo will try to stick it out and make amends while in office. He said Carrillo will need to show that he can still be a leader in his district.

Vazquez said he still supports Carrillo because has "compassion" for the troubled politician, even as he feels empathy for Jane Doe. It's a conundrum many of Carrillo's supporters are struggling with.

"People are constantly making mistakes, and then they learn from their mistakes, and they can then become great contributors to their community," Vazquez said.

"I think that's a question for the constituents in the west county to decide. If they feel that a line has been crossed, they need to organize and have a recall.

"There are people who support him and want to give him a second chance, and there are people who want him out. It's a question of critical mass. If the situation becomes a distraction that keeps him from doing his job, he needs to resign."

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)