Los Angeles Times - 04.03.2020

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and one might well ask, how
could the school have been
ignorant of that?”
USC had previously pro-
vided Zangrillo copies of the
documents that Kelley or-
dered disclosed on Tuesday,
but with redactions, citing
laws that shield student pri-
vacy and proprietary infor-
Weinberg insisted he
needed to know the names of
certain VIP applicants and
the people who had advo-
cated for their admission to
show “many other students
were admitted in similar or
even nearly identical cir-
cumstances to [Zangrillo’s]
daughter,” he wrote in a
filing quoted in Kelley’s or-
“They don’t get to argue,
well, this might embarrass,
you know, a sponsor or
donor,” Weinberg said at the
November hearing. He also
indicated he wants to inter-
view some of the people ref-
erenced in the documents.
“If I could find witnesses
whose experience matches
Mr. Zangrillo’s experience,”
he said, “I at least could, you
know, attempt to produce
that witness and have them

spite not being an elite ath-
lete, prosecutors allege. Zan-
grillo, in turn, paid $200,
to William “Rick” Singer, the
Newport Beach consultant
who arranged the deal, and
$50,000 to a USC account
overseen by Heinel, accord-
ing to prosecutors.
Heinel, who was fired af-
ter her arrest last March, has
pleaded not guilty to con-
spiring to commit racket-
eering, fraud and bribery.
Singer has pleaded guilty to
four felonies and is cooper-
ating with the government.
Zangrillo’s attorney,
Martin G. Weinberg, ac-
knowledged at a hearing in
November that despite Hei-
nel’s imprimatur, Amber
Zangrillo was not a gifted
In fact, Weinberg said,
her “entire application was
saturated with information
that would demonstrate to
any admissions department
this is not a world-class ath-
But “counterintuitive” as
it may seem, he said, USC’s
athletics department often
“advocates for many stu-
dents through the VIP proc-
ess, knowing that these are

not athletes.” In August,
Weinberg made public docu-
ments and emails he had re-
ceived from the U.S. attor-
ney’s office in Boston, show-
ing USC employees took into

account donations, pledges
of donations and the occu-
pations of applicants’ par-
ents when flagging them as
“VIP” or “special interest.”
Kelley, the judge, said at a

status conference last week
that based on documents
she has seen, it was “a viable
assertion” to say USC ad-
mitted students as athletic
walk-ons in exchange for do-

Prosecutors say that de-
spite the fact Amber Zan-
grillo was ultimately admit-
ted as a VIP, not a recruited
athlete, her father believed
she was being fraudulently
presented to the school as a
gifted rower and her applica-
tion said as much.
They pointed to a phone
call, intercepted on a wire-
tap, in which Singer tells
Robert and Amber Zangrillo
he was putting the girl for-
ward “as though she’s been
sculling and rowing.”
Zangrillo’s $50,000 pay-
ment to Heinel may have
gone to a university account
and not her own pocket,
prosecutors say, but the
money was nevertheless a
bribe that induced her to
support an applicant who
otherwise would not have
been admitted. Zangrillo,
Singer and Heinel con-
spired, their argument goes,
to rob USC of Heinel’s hon-
est employment.
Kelley said at last week’s
status conference “that’s go-
ing to be something for the
jury to decide.”
“It’s not de facto a bribe,”
she continued. “The school
has to be ignorant of that,

USC must release admissions records

THE CONTESTEDdocuments could play a central role in the defense of Robert
Zangrillo, shown in 2019, and other parents charged with defrauding USC.

Craig F. WalkerBoston Globe

[USC,from B1]

No motive has been es-
tablished for the killings.
But that hasn’t stopped ru-
mors from flowing in town.
The grave the men had
been visiting belonged to a
man who met a violent end
just months before, more
than 1,700 miles away in cen-
tral Mexico. Hernandez Cas-
tañeda had been tortured
and killed near the high-
lands of Opopeo, in the state
of Michoacan, while on his
way to visit family for the
On Dec. 18, he was driving
a white Range Rover to his
family’s home in Turicato, a
town dominated by a strong
cartel presence, according
to Mexican news reports.
He never made it. On
Dec. 20, his family reported
him missing, and two days
later, his body was found
with gunshot wounds and
other “signs of violence”
near Opopeo, a pueblo of
fewer than 9,000 people
where locals have formed
self-defense teams against
drug traffickers.
On social media and at
the cemetery, family and
friends insisted he had no
enemies. He was remem-
bered as a kind, giving father
and husband who had inad-
vertently become entangled
in the violence convulsing
parts of Mexico.
On a recent morning, a
crowd of curious cemetery
visitors gathered to take a
peek at the grave of Hernan-
dez Castañeda. Suddenly, a
white Nissan SUV drove into
the cemetery. A man in a
black T-shirt and a woman
dressed all in orange exited
the vehicle with their young
son and walked toward Her-
nandez Castañeda’s grave.
Seeing the family approach,
the small group scattered.
The woman identified
herself as the sister-in-law of
Hernandez Castañeda. Ac-

varrubias Espindola, 50; Jo-
se Maria Aguilar-Espejel, 38;
and Rodrigo Aguilar-Espe-
jel, 28.
The triple killing Feb. 17
in Perris, a town of nearly
78,000 people, caused a rip-
ple of fear after the Riverside
County sheriff invoked the
specter of cartel involve-
Sheriff Chad Bianco was
attempting to quell resi-
dents’ concerns at a news
conference the next day,
saying that they should not
feel in danger and that the
killings were not related to
several others in the county.
On Feb. 2, a man was shot at
an Arco gas station across
from Perris’ Mariscos Playa
de Ixtapa restaurant, and 10
days later, a man was killed
at a nearby park. (A couple
of days after the cemetery
killings, three women were
found dead in pools of blood
inside a home in nearby
“We’re receiving some of
the same information that
you are, that it’s gang-re-
lated, that it’s cartel-re-
lated,” Bianco said. “We’re
looking into all of that.”
The sheriff didn’t answer
questions about how the
men were killed, whether a
weapon was used or how
they were found. Autopsies
were completed on Feb. 24,
but coroner officials referred
questions to homicide inves-
tigators. The investigator on
the case, Alberto Loureiro,
declined to speak to a Times
reporter about the details.
Asked during the news
conference whether the men
were killed “execution-
style,” Bianco said, “You
could get into semantics of
what you would call it, but it
certainly seems that way.”

cording to her, the man had
lived in the U.S. for 20 years
with his family. But he had a
lover, she said.
The sister-in-law said the
woman apparently had a
powerful lover in Mexico.
When Hernandez Cas-
tañeda made the holiday
trip to his home country, he
was killed, his sister-in-law
said. Like many others inter-
viewed by The Times, she
declined to allow her name
to be used, citing concerns
about her safety.
“There’s no justice in
Mexico,” she said, shaking
her head as she looked down
at her brother-in-law’s head-
By the time the family
visited Hernandez Cas-
tañeda’s grave, it had been
cleaned of any signs that
something horrible had hap-
pened there in recent days.
Under a beaming sun, a
wooden crucifix lay over his
flat headstone, partially hid-
ing an engraving: “Don’t be
saddened by my absence, I
haven’t left your side.... You
can’t hear my voice, but I’m
still with you.”
Earlier that morning, the

sound of crows squawking
and doves cooing was slowly
replaced by chatter and
cumbia music as families
settled in to spend time with
deceased loved ones, laying
folding chairs, blankets and
snacks on the green grass
feet away from Hernandez
Castañeda’s grave.
One woman, who gave
her name only as Victoria,
ventured across the ceme-
tery to visit Hernandez Cas-
tañeda’s headstone. She was
merely curious. But she
turned around before get-
ting too close. Suddenly, she
worried about whether the
wrong person might be
“It’s better to say you
don’t hear anything, be-
cause people could be
watching,” the woman said.
“It’s better to observe from a
A cemetery employee
and his friend — who both
asked to remain nameless —
nervously tiptoed around
the idea that the triple
killing might be cartel-re-
“I don’t want to know a
thing about that,” the em-

ployee said.
Perris is a hot spot for
tourists who visit Lake Per-
ris and enjoy adventures like
skydiving and hot-air bal-
loon rides. The “skydiving
capital of America” rarely
makes news — except when
skydiving tragedies occur.
It’s a family-oriented
town that has appealed to lo-
cals for its calmness and
safety. More than 75% of the
population is Latino.
Olivia Moreno de Gonza-
lez, who identified herself in
a phone interview as the
owner of Mariscos Playa de
Ixtapa, said she had been
busy fending off rumors, in-
cluding that Hernandez
Castañeda was the owner,
rather than an employee.
One of the victims of the
cemetery killings, Covarru-
bias Espindola, was also an
employee, she said.
“Many things people are
saying are lies, and it’s affect-
ing us,” Moreno de Gonzalez
said. “Honestly, we’re the
same as you. We don’t know
At a local swap meet, a
woman selling religious
memorabilia said she re-
membered two men who
showed up looking for can-
dles and a prayer book for
their cousin. They told her
he had been killed in Mexico.
She recognized a crucifix
she sold as one that ended
up on Hernandez Cas-
tañeda’s headstone. But the
woman said she could not
remember who purchased
Back in the cemetery,
Hernandez Castañeda’s
brother knelt in front of the
grave and removed the cru-
cifix and two flowers that
had been lying there. He
wiped the headstone som-
berly. His brother, he said,
was not involved in any car-
tel activity, despite his slay-
ing and the strange one that

befell three men at his plot.
“Everyone who knows us
knows it’s not what people
are thinking,” he said.
The morning of the
killings, the man said, he got
a call from a family friend.
“I see three men sleeping
on your brother’s grave,” she
told Hernandez Cas-
tañeda’s brother.
“I’ll be right there and I’ll
see who they are,” he said.
But before he could, she
called again.
“I think they’re dead,”
she said.
He raced to the grave to
investigate for himself, but
by then the cemetery was
swarmed with sheriff ’s dep-
uties and investigators.
Hernandez Castañeda’s
brother said he had a simple
theory about the tragic
event: The four men were
drinking and got into a fight.
It wasn’t unusual for his
brother’s friends to visit his
grave. He had told them re-
peatedly not to bring bottles
to the cemetery, because
drinking is forbidden on the
He was familiar with the
four men, the brother said.
One of them, Covarrubias
Espindola, was a beloved
chef at Mariscos Playa de Ix-
tapa, who would leave his
kitchen to ask guests
whether they enjoyed his
food and take personal dish
requests from friends.
The other men he knew
only as his brother’s friends.
Nothing about the suspect,
Torres Garcia, struck him as
“I don’t know this crazy
mentality he had,” the
brother of Hernandez Cas-
tañeda said.
He heard that one of the
bodies lay to the right of his
brother’s tombstone; the
other two, to the left.
Other than that, he said,
it’s all a mystery.






A MAN who said he was Uver Hernandez Castañeda’s brother visits his grave at Perris Valley Cemetery last month. He said Hernandez
Castañeda was not involved with cartels. “Everyone who knows us knows it’s not what people are thinking,” he said.

Photographs by Irfan KhanLos Angeles Times

Perris, where one of the men slain last month worked.

[Cemetery,from B1]

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