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MURDER SUSPECT'S 'GETAWAY' TORMENTS MEXICAN POLICIES HAMPER EXTRADITION.

Byline: Ryan Oliver Staff Writer

As an INS officer on the U.S.-Mexican border, Ken Caldera spends his days looking for contraband and fugitives. For the past decade, one fugitive has remained at the top of his list.

``Gallegos. Rudy Gallegos,'' Caldera said. ''He murdered my son.''

Authorities think so, too. They have charged the former Blythe Street gang member with first-degree murder in the 1991 shooting death of 16-year-old Kenneth Caldera Jr., a popular Burbank High School student and football player.

Gallegos, who is now on the Valley's 10 Most Wanted list, eluded capture 11 years ago by slipping across the border into Mexico. Now 27, he teaches English and remains a free man even though Los Angeles police know where he lives and works. Mexican law has prevented Gallegos from being extradited to the United States because he was a juvenile at the time of the slaying.

Mexico could extradite Gallegos if the District Attorney's Office charged him as an adult. In order for that to happen, Gallegos would have to come to the U.S. voluntarily for a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

``I went through everything looking for what we could do, but we are bound by the law,'' Deputy District Attorney Ken Barshop said. ``What we have here is a big, circular problem.''

Sandra Harris, special assistant to District Attorney Steve Cooley, said Gallegos is one of many fugitives wanted in the United States and living freely in Mexico. The office is now engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign, trying to convince politicians of the magnitude of the problem.

``Steve Cooley has been extremely active in this area. He's contacted the president, Colin Powell, he's contacted (John) Ashcroft,'' she said. ``We have written letters to all interested individuals in the state Legislature, and we've written to the governor asking there be pressure put on the Mexican government to respect our laws.''

But so far, little pressure has been exerted by politicians on the country that is one of America's largest trading partners.

``There is a loggerhead between the Justice Department and the State Department,'' she said. ``The Justice Department is pushing for this, but the State Department is interested in commerce and diplomacy.''

Los Angeles authorities have traditionally had problems extraditing murder suspects from Mexico. Mexico bans the death penalty and will not extradite a suspect to a country where they could be sentenced to die.

Previous district attorneys refused to eliminate the possibility of the death penalty in exchange for extradition.

When Cooley came to office in 2000, he changed policy and agreed to seek no more than life in prison for suspects in order to get more people extradited.

But last October, the Mexican Supreme Court barred extradition to countries even seeking to impose life in prison.

``At that point our hands were tied,'' Harris said, explaining that California law mandates a person convicted of murder serve up to life in prison.

``The only thing we could do is charge manslaughter, but we refuse to do that,'' she said.

Caldera said he would be willing to compromise and see Gallegos tried for manslaughter in his son's slaying.

``He has to face justice. My primary goal is just to face him eye-to-eye.''

Kevin Caldera, who was 10 when his brother was killed, said the event forever shaped the rest of his life. The fact Gallegos remains free makes the pain that much worse.

He said his brother was liked by girls, had many friends and was a star football player. At the time, his brother was also teaching him to become a man.

``I feel bitter about it. I think this needs to be closed,'' Kevin Caldera said. ``He was never punished, and I don't know if there will ever be enough punishment when I see the pain in my mother's eyes.''

Despite being a lawman working along Mexico's border, Caldera continues to feel powerless. As he inspects those entering into California's Imperial Valley, he hopes for the day he sees his son's accused killer.

``His picture is in my briefcase, and it's going to stay there,'' he said.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Murder suspect Rudy Gallegos eluded capture 11 years ago by crossing the border into Mexico.
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Article Details
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Sep 29, 2002
Words:707
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