Tainted Saint | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Tainted Saint 

Latino youth advocate stands accused

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When Jesus Silva was arrested in August 2011 after his wife said he assaulted her, Walt Hunter, Silva’s friend and mentor, called the one person he trusted to help the undocumented 26 year-old: Sonia Orozco.

Back in 2002, Hunter and Orozco, an ex-gang member turned award-winning gang-prevention counselor, were a team of at-risk youth counselors at the Midvale Boys & Girls Club. They counseled Silva and many other undocumented youths who wanted to leave gang life but had nowhere to turn.

Hunter, now 68, and Orozco met at the Midvale Mining Café to talk about Silva. Orozco told him she could get Silva out of jail. The 50-year-old, then a Jordan School District employee, would work “something out with immigration,” Hunter recalls her saying. There were ways of avoiding Silva ever having to go to trial, she continued, mentioning the names of Midvale and West Jordan cops she worked with on gang-related issues.

All Orozco needed was $595. Where, she wanted to know, would the money come from?

On Sept. 5, Hunter took Orozco to a Midvale trailer park to meet with Silva’s relatives and friends. Orozco told them if they came up with $595, she would suspend his deportation, get him released in a few days, and secure him a visa and custody of his children. Hunter and the others were ecstatic. “Sonia made it sound like everything would be OK,” recalls one witness. “It was like a dream.”

By chance, Silva rang from jail. “Don’t worry, mi chuyito, we’re going to get you out,” Orozco told him triumphantly.

“That, to me, sounded like heaven,” Silva says during a jail interview.

Yet Silva, an award-winning artist and former gang member turned anti-gang advocate who met Orozco when he was 15, knew that she was not all that she seemed. In 2001, he says, she had gone to a company where his brother worked and persuaded 10 undocumented workers to each give her $1,000, with promises to get them citizenship. “She never helped them out,” he says. Even knowing this, Silva loved Orozco. “In my heart I always believed she had our back,” he says.

In such a vulnerable population as undocumented Latinos, prone to predators from within the community and without, Orozco, who worked closely with law enforcement across the valley, was a godsend. It was “the way she talks to you, she made you feel welcome, that she was just a person you could trust,” Silva says.

Several days later, on Sept. 9, Silva’s neighbor, who had given Orozco $100 toward getting Silva out, called Hunter after hearing that Orozco had been arrested. “She stole our money,” she told him.

Orozco had been arrested for theft by extortion, allegedly taking $7,300 from the mother of two teenagers in juvenile detention with promises to get them papers. According to the probable-cause statement, she confessed to using her position as a court liaison between Jordan School District and at-risk students to extort cash to buy meth, though she said in one of two jailhouse interviews with City Weekly that “I haven’t confessed to a fucking thing.”

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Hunter was devastated. He and Orozco had bonded in 2002 over what they saw as the abuses the undocumented Hispanic youths in their charge had suffered at the hands of the Midvale Boys & Girls Club administration. Hunter was later fired in 2005 for sticking up for the youths, according to former club members. “Sonia was so anti-gang and so pro these kids, I loved it,” Hunter says. “She was the only person in that club who felt about them as I did, and knew them for a much longer period of time.” (Read past City Weekly cover stories about the youth and counselors from the club, including Hunter, Orozco and Silva.)

Orozco was well-regarded in the Midvale community—not only by Latinos, but also by outsiders like detectives, judges, social workers and educators, who all relied on her experience and wealth of information and admired her commitment to undocumented Hispanic at-risk youth. Now, while she’s held in Salt Lake County Jail under an unusually high $100,000 bail, more victims are coming forward. With her preliminary hearing set for Nov. 1, dismayed colleagues, friends and former students are struggling to come to terms with the depth of her betrayal.

None more so than Jesus Silva. Hunter could not bring himself to tell him of Orozco’s betrayal. When Silva learned from a neighbor that the little money his family and friends had gathered to defend him had gone into Orozco’s pocket, he couldn’t believe it. “It hurt a lot,” he says. “It was a bigger disappointment than anything else.” He tried to convince himself that Orozco’s promise to free him had stalled because of the charge she was now facing. “I kept telling myself that,” he says. “I care a lot about her.”

In the weeks after Orozco’s arrest, Hunter discovered that more than a dozen undocumented youths he knew had been victims of Orozco. The allegations facing “my friend Sonia” leave Hunter deeply conflicted. He switches between remembering the good times when together they helped the youths they loved, and recognizing that many of them were too scared of Orozco to tell him what she did to them. “I don’t know why I should care about her,” he says. After one alleged victim told him she forgave Orozco and prayed for her every day, Hunter decided to visit his former colleague in jail to learn her side of the story.

“I always felt her passion was equal to mine, and my passion is my life,” he says. “How can someone give their love and trust and do these things?”

TIGHTROPE
Some victims say Orozco was working with others, possibly Immigration & Customs Enforcement employees, who, for a payment, helped undocumented people stay in Utah, something Orozco herself claims. “I work with people in INS,” she says from jail. “I get people out [of deportation problems].” Charges filed by the District Attorney’s Office, however, state Orozco has no position or authority with immigration.

Others say that, rather than a fixer, she was a predator who knew her victims could not complain without fear of arrest. Several victims allege shakedowns that date back years, raising the question of how it was possible that such criminal allegations did not surface before now. “I’ve been around for many years; everybody knows where I’m at,” Orozco says. “Why didn’t they say these things before, why now?”

Part of the answer to that question may lie in the fear of deportation that shrouds Utah’s undocumented community. “If she’s preying on these people, that’s sad,” Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini says. “They’re living on the tightrope as it is.”

In the face of strident anti-immigrant fervor and laws, Hunter says, the fabric of the community of undocumented youth he embraced, and was embraced by, “is unraveling, and with it their desire to stay here. There will be very little remaining of this wonderful, innocent, hopeful group of children who came here as babies and toddlers. It’s not where they were born, but this is their home. They are losing friends and communities to deportation, drugs, suicide and murder.” And, it seems, to one of the only people at-risk Latino youth and undocumented families ran to for help, one of their own, a Latina. “She was always there to help us,” says one undocumented youth, who requested anonymity. “Any immigrant with law issues, the first name that came to anyone’s mind was Sonia, Sonia, Sonia.”

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WHO’S GOT MY BACK?
The child of Puerto Rican migrant workers, Orozco told City Weekly in March 2006, she worked the fields for $3 an hour along with her nine siblings, moving from one farm to another. When she was 7, her family settled in Midvale, and she has lived near there since.

Orozco has never forgotten her gangbanging roots, having been jumped into Los Chiques when she was 14. “I still believe in blue,” she said in 2010, referring to Los Chiques’ colors. “I never wear red.” That association ultimately led to her doing 13 months behind bars in her youth over a possession charge, stemming from her holding drugs for another gang member. The gang members she did the time for didn’t visit her in prison. “They said they had my back, but where were they?”

According to her second husband, Ron Alire, Orozco advocated for farm labor, then went to Holy Cross Ministries in the mid 1990s, performing “outreach to illegals, single mothers.”

After Orozco and Alire divorced in 1997, bankruptcy forms she filed in 2001 and 2002 depict a woman struggling with poverty while living in a West Jordan mobile home. She wrote bad checks to fast-food joints and shoe stores and took out liens on her car. Yet her stepdaughter, Lisette DeJesus, set to be released from Utah state prison next spring after serving seven years for an assault conviction, paints a different picture.

When DeJesus was 17, her father, Jose Benigno DeJesus, who has a lengthy criminal record, moved in with Sonia. The then-pregnant Lisette DeJesus was “running and gunning” with a gang. She says Orozco “pulled me from the south side, took me to Midvale.” For a while, the DeJesuses and Orozco and her son Oscar “were family picture-perfect, something I never had,” Lisette DeJesus says. “She showed me better, she showed me family.”

Orozco, her step-daughter continues, was working with teenage girls, helping young mothers get on their feet, giving them baby diapers and blankets. Jose DeJesus, however, “wrecked our family. He got another girl [friend].” Shortly after the breakup of her family, in 2005, Lisette DeJesus went to prison for aggravated assault.

“Sonia was always trying to help, always trying to be everybody’s savior,” she says. “She helped [undocumented Latinos] get their papers and now everything is blowing up in her face.”

A HARD LOOK AND A SOFT HEART
Hunter, an ex-Broadway and Las Vegas singer, first met Orozco at the Murray Boys & Girls Club in 2001. They both felt the same way about the youth in their care. “In this country, they assume until you are 17 years and 364 days old that you are still a kid,” Orozco said last year. “The next day you are an SOB, a threat, you’re undocumented.”

In 2002, Orozco joined Hunter when she moved to the Midvale club to be a gang-prevention officer. One early summer afternoon, after Midvale Middle School let out, 41 Hispanic kids came over to the club. Staff interpreted it as an imminent gang invasion. Orozco dismissed their concerns. They were just coming to sign up, she said.

“I thought then, ‘Wow, she knows what she’s talking about,’ ” recalls Hunter. “I need to listen to her.” Orozco, he came to learn, understood the streets. “She had a hard look and a soft heart, a tender spot for these kids.” When all the Latino kids from a Midvale high school class went missing one day, it was Orozco who found them at a house, mostly drunk, and read them the riot act before local police issued them citations.

But days after the mostly gang-affiliated kids signed up, Hunter alleges the club’s director banished the teens to a nearby park for the summer and refused them access to the club’s restrooms or fountains. It was record-breaking heat that summer, Hunter says, and most of the 41 kids who had signed up left in disgust. Bob Dunn, Boys & Girls Club of South Valley executive director, says he has no knowledge of any such mistreatment of Midvale club members that summer. But one former club member recalls the stinging “loss of self-esteem” provoked by that decision as if it were yesterday. The undocumented woman, now 24, says being banned from her club was “humiliating.”

Orozco and Hunter took the teens who stayed on field trips. For many, it was the first time they’d left Midvale. They went to a recreational center to exercise, to The Gateway and Park City, played soccer and dodgeball in the park. If it hadn’t been for that summer, Hunter says, he and Orozco would not have connected so deeply as they did over the unjust way they say the club treated undocumented gang-affiliated Hispanic kids.

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WHAT PRICE A MOTHER’S LOVE?
In June 2004, Orozco moved to Jordan School District, tracking the progress in court and academically of at-risk students in West Jordan middle and high schools and helping them transition out of gangs. A year later, Hunter says, he was fired by the Midvale Boys & Girls Club and has been unable to find work since. While Hunter floundered, Orozco fared better; in 2008, she was named as one of Jordan School District’s 10 employees of the year and also received an award from the annual Utah Gang Conference.

Hunter and Orozco talked on the phone occasionally about the kids they had mentored. In emotional conversations, Orozco updated him on kids he knew, those she had seen, how they were doing.

But her ongoing contact with the former club members, he learned later, may have been motivated by predatory instincts as much as caring ones. Two sisters Hunter talked with—both young, undocumented mothers who requested pseudonyms—allege multiple occasions when Orozco used the knowledge she gained from relationships forged at the Midvale club to extort cash from them.

“Jessica” lives in California with her husband and two small children. She was brought to Utah from Mexico when she was 3. As a 13-year-old member of the Midvale Boys & Girls Club, fleeing her mother’s depression and heavy drinking, Orozco was always there for her. That’s why “it’s just crazy for me to believe she could have done what she did to me. She seemed like an angel falling from God.” When Jessica was pregnant, her boyfriend went to jail, and again Orozco provided emotional support.

Shortly after the baby was born, in 2008, Jessica worked 10-hour shifts at a Redwood Road burger joint. One night, “some lady, who spoke perfect English,” called one of Jessica’s relatives. By then, Jessica’s mother was in jail awaiting deportation. The woman said she was from “immigration,” that they had Jessica’s mother, they knew where Jessica and her relatives lived, and they were going to pick them up. A terrified Jessica called the one person she knew would help. Normally, Orozco took days to return a phone call, but that call she answered within several rings.

“What happened, mi hija?” Orozco asked. Jessica told her of the call. Orozco said she had a friend in immigration and would consult him. She hung up, then called back. Her friend wanted $1,500 to help the three of them. While Jessica’s relatives refused to pay, Jessica worried what would happen to her baby if immigration picked her up. She took $300 out of her paycheck and got a $200 loan from her manager. After she gave Orozco the money, she didn’t hear from her again—or from the woman who’d called claiming to be from immigration. At first, Jessica says she didn’t want to “open my eyes, but I basically realized she had screwed me over. What could I do? If I went to the cops, I’d feel like I was giving myself up. I had trusted someone with my life. She knew all the struggles I went through. And she did this to me.”

Jessica has a younger sister, “Veronica,” who also met Orozco at the Midvale club. “She was always asking us how we felt, how we were. She was like a sister at the start. I loved her like a mom. I still love her.” Orozco encouraged her dreams of becoming a singer. “You can do it, babe,” Orozco would tell her.

One day, Orozco asked her if she knew people who needed their records cleaned so they could get papers. If Veronica, her boyfriend and his six-person family each gave Orozco $150, a friend of hers would remove any impediments in their paperwork to them getting visas. Veronica says she hated herself as doubt set in after the family had paid Orozco and not heard anything back from her. “Why would she do that, she wouldn’t do that to me?” she’d ask herself.

At the news of Orozco’s arrest, Jessica was furious, but Veronica took another route. “I love her still,” she told a stunned Hunter. “I’m nobody to hate nobody. That’s not going to make me feel better, only worse.”

Veronica’s forgiveness made Hunter want to emulate her, but when he thought of Jessica, alone, with a newborn baby, victimized by a woman she thought of as her own mother, “that made me pissed, that made me hate Sonia.”

EVERYBODY'S FAKE
Three days after Orozco collected the money she said she needed to free Jesus Silva, she was arrested for theft by extortion, a second-degree felony, after allegedly admitting on tape to using her position with Jordan School District to convince the mother of two undocumented minors in juvenile detention that “she could prevent her children from being deported.” The woman gave Orozco $2,000 for each child to stop deportation, then an additional $1,000 to file paperwork, $1,500 for an evaluation and $800 so Orozco would get the minors U visas. U visas provide witnesses of crimes with legalization in exchange for testimony.

According to the probable-cause statement, Orozco admitted to using part of her alleged victims’ money to buy meth. Orozco says she tried meth several times and stopped in March. Ex-husband Alire is surprised to learn that she took methamphetamines. “That’s very ugly and dark,” he says. “To me, it breaks my heart. Sonia was always a rock, my strength.”

Orozco adamantly denies guilt and claims West Jordan-based District Attorney investigator Detective Travis Peterson had his mind made up about her prior to interviewing her about the case and that he also failed to read her her rights. Orozco says the only mistake she made was trying to help a friend of her sister’s. Peterson declined to comment.

After she was arrested, her Midvale home was ransacked. “I’ve lost everything,” Orozco says, in tears. “I’m in here and I can’t fight back.” There’s “not such a thing as people having your back. Everybody’s fake.”

“RIGHT THE WRONG”
In mid-September, in a West Valley trailer park, Hunter attended a birthday party thrown by adults he had mentored at Midvale for three Hispanic children. After the cake had been cut and the presents were given out, Hunter showed Orozco’s mug shot to one of his former students.

In shock, the woman held the photo out at arm’s length. It was quickly passed around from one disbelieving partier to another, “everybody gravitating towards it,” Hunter says. “They all had some dealings with her, knew her, knew of her. It killed the party.”

While some had no idea of the allegations facing her, others weren’t surprised, even admitting privately to Hunter she had done similar things to them. The look of fear on their faces when he asked for details sent him stumbling out into the night in despair.

On Sept. 27, 2011, Hunter, relatives and friends of Jesus Silva gathered outside the West Jordan 3rd District Court Judge Mark Kouris’ courtroom prior to Silva’s preliminary hearing on a single aggravated-assault charge and three counts of domestic violence in the presence of child.

Because Silva’s wife did not show up to testify, Kouris dismissed the case against Silva, who was later transported to an immigration holding tank in Utah County. Thanks to Orozco, Silva says he has no money to hire an attorney and fight his deportation. “I can almost say she destroyed me in the end,” he says.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Hall says that his office has offered U visas to eligible victims in an effort to persuade other Orozco victims to come forward. Through the U visa, “we try to right the wrong,” he says. Such is the suspicion and fear in the undocumented community, however, that even the possibility of legalization doesn’t seem worth the risk of exposing themselves to the authorities.

Nevertheless, some new victims have emerged. Detective Peterson filed two new counts of theft by extortion, one a felony, against Orozco on Oct. 14. One involved Orozco offering help to a couple with immigration and child-custody issues. Orozco claimed to work with immigration and that she could secure them documents to become legal. Between March 2006 and August 2011, the alleged victims paid her $2,490 for immigration papers, and a further $3,000 relating to the child-custody issue. Neither of the two people involved received any documents or information from Orozco about their grandchild. “They only heard from Orozco when she would request more money to complete their applications,” according to the probable-cause statement.

A second count, a class A misdemeanor, arose from Orozco’s promises to Jesus Silva to suspend his deportation, recorded during a jail telephone conversation on Sept. 5, 2011.

But Silva’s eligibility for a U visa is in doubt, given what ICE says is his criminal record. An ICE spokesperson cited the “public safety implications” of a 2008 South Salt Lake DUI conviction as to why the feds were holding Silva without bond. A man named Jesus Munoz-Silva, whose listed birth date is the same as Silva’s, was convicted of that DUI. This isn’t the first time the two Jesus Silvas have been confused in the system, Silva says. A retail theft charge made against Jesus Silva at the time he was arrested for assault was dropped, his supporters say, after it was discovered he’d been confused with Jesus Munoz-Silva. ICE is currently investigating Silva’s claim.

Prior to his arrest for assault, Silva is adamant, “I’ve never been in the system. Honestly, I think they just want to deport people.”

For some, like Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini, Silva’s deportation would result in a significant loss. In a recent letter lauding Silva’s accomplishments, she wrote, “he offers a great deal to the youth of America. He is a peer to be emulated.”

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THE MEANING OF TEARS

Hunter still struggles with his feelings about Orozco. “How could she feel so open, honest and forthright, determined to have these kids’ backs, then stab them in the back? God, I really can’t get hold of that.”

One late September morning, Hunter sought answers from Orozco herself. “I think she’s an extortionist,” he said as he walked the long hallway down to her cell block. “The nail in the coffin is she did it in front of me. She used me as an accomplice. I heard her tell Jesus, ‘You won’t have to go to prison.’ ”

When he sat down on the steel stool in front of the Salt Lake County Jail window, he expected to find Orozco stiff-backed, defiant. But instead of defiance, he faced a woman who was “soft and vulnerable,” her typically thick, heavy black locks pulled back, her frame small, shrunken.

Throughout the 40-minute conversation, Hunter pursued the truth about Orozco’s promises to get Silva released. “You guys heard me wrong,” Orozco insisted. The money was for getting Silva out on an immigration bond once he had pleaded not guilty to his felony, she said. “Walter, you know me. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt Jesus.”

“Well, you didn’t explain it that way. Nobody remembers it that way,” Hunter said. “We gave you money and nothing happened.” Why, he wanted to know, did she need the money so soon?

Orozco’s story changed. She gave the money to someone in immigration to suspend Silva’s deportation, a man she had named as “Bill,” but then claimed wasn’t his real name. “He helped me out a lot, I will not give him up.”

“You just lied to me,” Hunter said.

He brought up Veronica and Jessica’s allegations. “How was I going to take money from [Veronica] when she didn’t have any?” Orozco asked. She accused Jessica’s in-laws of stealing from her, one of them fleeing on a bond she was left to pay. “Why is all this stuff coming up?” she asked, shaking her head.

Hunter told her he had informed Detective Peterson of “what my truth was,” regarding the meeting with Silva’s support group. She looked at him.

“You were the closest thing I had in the world to these kids,” he said. Emotion overtook him. The thought that she “could have done anything to these kids. …” His voice slipped away for a moment. “I desperately want to know, and feel I am still looking at the same woman who meant something to me and these kids.”

Her eyes full of tears, she said, “I don’t know.” She put her face in her hands, then looked up. “Everybody is saying I took, I took, I took.”

Hunter told her he didn’t know what her tears meant.

“I love these kids,” she insisted. “They know it. I would never ever hurt them like they’re saying.” She raged against cops she had worked with. “Where are they? They’ve left me like a fucking idiot to rot.” Nobody had come to see her. “There’s no friends when it comes to this,” she said.

The door leading back to her cell slid open behind her.

“The Sonia I always thought I knew, I’ve got to thank you for that,” Hunter said. “What could I do for you?”

She stared at him in silence. “Nothing. Everybody’s got it all wrong.”

“All right, kid,” he said to her, pressing his fist against the window, as he had done to youths they had mentored and loved together, only to see them behind bars. She stood up, leaning on her fists, looking at him, her feet crossed at the ankles, then turned and walked back to her cell. 

Click here to read interviews with two other alleged victims of Sonia Orozco.

“Tainted Saint” is the fourth in a series of City Weekly articles about gang members and at-risk-youth counselors who met at the Midvale Boys & Girls Club between 2001 and 2004.

“Members Only” (March 2006),

“Far From Home” (December 2007)

“Dead End” (November 2010) 

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