FRESNO -- On that April evening, the mood in the house on East Redlands Avenue was festive.
Alisa Quillen had a pot of pozole simmering on the stove. Her twin daughters and other family members were in the garage, where Travis Gorman was inking a tattoo on his friend Enrique Gonzalez.
When Gorman finished, Gonzalez's 7-year-old son and namesake began pestering his father. "I want a tattoo like you, Dad," he said, Quillen remembered. Gonzalez said no, but the boy persisted.
Finally, the father relented and Gorman tattooed the outline of a dog's paw print, about the size of a quarter, on the boy's hip.
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By then, Quillen was back in the kitchen. "Grandma, look what I've got," the boy said when he found her there.
"I was thinking, wow, that's not good," Quillen recalled. "But I said, 'Oh, that's cute.' He was so proud of it."
A few weeks later, the boy's mother spotted the tattoo and called the police.
What happened next would turn a father's questionable judgment into a major criminal case -- and force a community to ask if it was possible to go too far in efforts to battle the street gangs that threatened it. When it was over, the father and the tattoo artist were on their way to prison, and the boy's tattoo was being removed.
The paw print was the sign of the Bulldogs, a Latino gang that for more than two decades has taunted police and terrorized Fresno.
The Bulldogs, an independent street gang with more than 11,000 members, take their name from the mascot of California State University, Fresno. The bumper stickers hailing Fresno as home of the Bulldogs carry an ambiguity: Gangsters wear red Fresno State jerseys and decorate themselves with bulldog tattoos.
When Gonzalez's ex-wife, Tequisha Oloizia, called police in the spring of 2009, it touched a nerve in a Police Department that has seen ever-younger children initiated into the gang.
Oloizia's allegation that the boy, a first-grader, had been held down and forcibly inked with the Bulldogs' emblem shocked the community. But many were equally stunned by the charge that Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan decided to bring: aggravated mayhem, which carries a life sentence.
Gonzalez, 27, and Gorman, 22, were Bulldogs, and each had prior convictions for burglary.
Early on, Gonzalez's attorney acknowledged that his client was guilty of something more serious than simply putting a tattoo on an underage boy, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. But the prosecution wasn't willing to plea bargain.
Then last fall, a judge tossed out the aggravated mayhem charges. But the reprieve was short-lived. Prosecutors refiled the same charges, and another judge ruled in their favor.
The trial opened in late May. The jurors had to decide: Did Gonzalez and Gorman hold the child down to apply the tattoo, branding him as a gang member? The prosecution's star witness was the boy, then 8. He testified the tattoo "was my dad's idea" and that he had later tried to hide it from his mother. He said it hurt, too. "I didn't want it and I cried," he said, and he turned down his pants to show the tattoo to the jury.
Defense attorneys argued that the boy loved tattoos and had grown up in an environment where nearly everyone, including his mother and father, had them.
The key defense witness was Alisa Quillen, a small woman with long, graying hair and the names of her children and granddaughter tattooed on her back and arms. One of Quillen's twin daughters was married to Gorman, and the other was dating Gonzalez, whose son called Quillen "Grandma." The adults and several of their children were hanging out together that night at the home of Gorman's father.
The boy pestered his father for a tattoo, Quillen testified, "and of course he got his way, like he always does." Quillen said she didn't approve of the tattoo. "If it had been my house, I would have raised a big stink," she said.
Gonzalez and Gorman told the jury that what they did was wrong. It was a "dumb decision ... an irresponsible decision as a parent," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said that, growing up, all his friends were Bulldogs, and he had joined the gang to fit in. Gorman said he had joined while in prison, for protection.
Gonzalez said his son had begged him for a dog-paw tattoo similar to one he had on his shoulder. "I was proud that my son wanted to be like me," he said. "He thinks I'm Superman."
William Lacy, the prosecutor, argued that the defendants' actions fit the legal definition of aggravated mayhem -- a disfigurement that reflected extreme indifference to the physical well-being of the child.
After two days of deliberations, the jury acquitted both men of aggravated mayhem and deadlocked on lesser charges. The jury foreman said the panel concluded that the child wasn't held down against his will.
A few days later, the defendants accepted a deal, pleading to a felony charge of corporal injury to a child.
Gonzalez was sentenced to six years in prison, Gorman to five.