Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Sleepy Lagoon, A Precursor To The Zoot Suit Riots

photo: PBS

Murder Mystery of Sleepy Lagoon

Imagine you were kicking back at a local swimming hole with your significant other. Perhaps you were enjoying the view of the moonlight as it cast over the lagoon. Maybe you are casually strolling along one of the trails hand in hand or even maybe you were cuddled next to your lover in the back seat of your car.

Now, what if suddenly you were caught off guard and surrounded? Literally outnumbered by eight to ten rowdy men who proceeded to beat you and your companion until you were left there bloody and bruised.What would you do? How would you feel?
This happened on a hot August night in 1942 to a man named Henry “Hank” Leyvas, his girlfriend Dora Barrios, his friend Robert Telles and Manuel Delgado, along with their female companions. But this wasn’t the climax of the story my friends. This was just the tip of the iceberg. The events that followed this surprise, brutal attack went down in Los Angeles infamy and literally sparked a flame that ignited the Zoot Suit Riots.

Any Mexican-American from Los Angeles has heard of the story of the Zoot Suit Riots that took place. What a lot of people do not know is what started it. In actuality the beating that left Hank Leyvas and his friends battered and ego’s bruised set off a chain of events that put them in the spotlight for something else that happened on that very property later on that same evening. The precursor you could say was in actuality the Murder of Jose Diaz at the Sleepy Lagoon Reservoir just off of the Williams Ranch, a small ranch just east of Los Angeles in the vicinity of Slauson and Atlantic Boulevards. The Sleepy Lagoon was a local hangout and swimming hole for many Mexican-Americans during that time period.

The victim, his death and the truth became so convoluted over the course of history, therefore leaving many to point the finger at a number of young Mexican-American men who in fact were innocent of the crime of murder. 

The Beginning-

On the evening of Saturday, August 1, 1942 around 11:00 pm a young man by the name of Hank Leyvas and his girlfriend Dora Barrios were enjoying a night of romance parked at a secluded spot along the side of the lagoon. Hank was known well around his neighborhood of “38th St” and respected but also feared by many. As they relaxed in the comfort of their own vehicle enjoying the night sky they were viciously attacked by some guys from a rival neighborhood known as the “Downey Boys.”

After Hank Leyvas and his girlfriend were left beaten and bruised by a unfair fight between the Downey Boys they tried to compose themselves and drove back to their neighborhood of Vernon and Long Beach Boulevard to enlist in the aid of their friends.

After locating several friends to accompany them back to Sleepy Lagoon to teach the “Downey Boys” a lesson they quickly made their trip back to the spot where the fight had started. Now, if you were to stop for just a moment and pause time. Lets go back to the scene of the fight, right back to where the “Downey Boys” left them. Where did the Downey Boys go?

After leaving Hank Leyvas and Dora Barrios the Downey Boys retreated up the hill after hearing the sound of music in a home not too far from where they were. Upon approaching this home, they could see that there was a party taking place at the home of the Delgadillo Family. They were having a birthday party and the sounds of the distant mariachis played peeking their interest.

A witness in the Trial (THE PEOPLE vs Zamora) Eleanor Delgadillo Coronado had testified that eight to ten of the “Downey Boys” crashed their party and even became involved in a fight with the host and his son-in-law because of the fact there was no more beer. The Downey boys then retreated back into the night, after causing a ruckus at the Delgadillo home.

Lorena Encinas a resident of the 38th Street neighborhood and a friend of one of the Delgadillo’s had been invited that night to the birthday party of her friends mother, Amelia Delgadillo and had mentioned it to her brother earlier in the day. Lorena’s younger brother, Louie Encinas along with a few of his friends crashed the party but were kicked out around the same time the Downey Boys left due to causing a fight within the Delgadillo home among other invited guests, including Jose Diaz.

The Downey boys had retreated back into the night around 11pm after being kicked out of the Delagadillo's party.  Hank Leyvas and his friends, Angel Padillo,Ysmael Parra, Joe Ruiz, Robert Telles, Manuel Delgado, John Matuz, Jack Melendez, Delia Parra, Benny Alvarez, Manuel Reyes, Victor Thompson, Henry Ynostroza and Guz Zamora had arrived sometime closer to 1 am, at Sleepy Lagoon to take on the Downey Boys in a fair fight.

The Confrontation

When they arrived, they saw that no one was there. But they did hear music coming from the hill just beyond the lagoon. The very same place the Downey Boys had retreated to earlier in the evening. Remembering that the Downey boys had headed in that direction, Hank Leyvas led the way up to the Delgadillo home to confront the assailants from their vicious attack. Once they arrived Hank confronted the men in the household demanding to know where the Downey Boys went. The Delgadillo family along with several invited guests attempted to ward off Hank Leyvas and his group by trying to force them off the property.
Somewhere along the line heated words were exchanged and a “free for all” fight ensued. Everyone became involved. People from both sides started fighting, including females in the household. There were two people who were stabbed, Jose Manfredi and Cruz Reyes who were among the invited guests at the Delgadillo home.

The testimony of Robert Telles showed that as soon as they had approached the Delgadillo home there was already screaming and shouting and the next thing he knew he was engaged in a fight with another man. According to Eleanor Delgadillo Coronado’s testimony, the boys came around 1:45 am Sunday morning, August 2, 1942 and that the fight ensued. She also said that during the fight Hank Leyvas went after Jose Manfredi. Eleanor claimed she grabbed a bottle and was going to hit him over the head but then a girl came up from behind and grabbed her yelling “ You cannot hit my old man!”

When questioned by the Grand Jury who the woman was that grabbed her. Eleanor admitted it was “ The Encinas girl, I think, Lorena Encinas”. Then later during trial Eleanor changed her story stating that Ysmael Parra and his wife were the ones attacking her and Jose Manfredi.

**Now remember, Lorena Encinas had been an invited guest to that party. Keep this information in mind as you continue this story.**

Eventually after the fight was over, later that Sunday morning someone had discovered the Jose Diaz off the side of the property, down the road by the power poles badly hurt. Soon after being found Jose Diaz died. Witnesses had stated that Jose Diaz left the party Saturday night accompanied by two other guests who were not produced as witnesses, several minutes before the Hank Leyvas and his friends “ the defendants” arrived.

The Autopsy surgeon testified that the “The brain was found to be contuse and there was a profuse subdural hemorrhage. The base of the skull was fractured, the fracture line running along the lesser wing of the sphenoid bone on the left side.”
The surgeon also testified that the blood alcohol level of the deceased showed to be 0.12 per cent, and testified that although the margin of intoxication was generally accepted as 0.15 per cent that the alcohol content recedes after one stops drinking. And there was no way for him to say whether or not Jose Diaz was intoxicated a few hours before his death.

Although the Autopsy Surgeon testified the cause of death he also mentioned that it was possible that the decedent could have fallen and hit a protruding rock, possibly been hit by a car or some sort of instrument other than a fist could have been used to cause this type of fatal injury.  Despite the lack of evidence the Sheriff Department had or witnesses that could not place Henry Leyvas or his friends as being the ones who attacked Mr. Diaz, Henry along with 24 other Mexican American men were arrested and charged for the murder of Jose Diaz.

Round Up

Local newspaper tabloids made by the Los Angeles Times and the Herald-Express spawned a public outcry for justice to be served against the Zoot Suiters for being the same type of people who were involved in the incident at Sleepy Lagoon. Within a few days the Los Angeles Police Department rounded up over 600 people and arrested them, labeling it as “preventative action.” The newspapers also show that it was not only Mexican-Americans being detained, but even Russian young men who were standing outside of their front yard were being targeted by the police as well. 

While 600 or more were being held, Hank Leyvas along with 24 other people were in jail facing murder charges.The boys were railroaded throughout their trial. Daily being demeaned and treated like animals. They were not allowed to change their clothes for several weeks, as well as being prevented from speaking to their own counsel.  Judge Charles Frickes himself continuously discriminated against the men in the case as well. There were so many incidences where the Court allowed their basic civil rights to be ignored.

Sadly, at the end of the trial in January 1943, three of the men including Henry Leyvas were found guilty of first-degree murder (sentenced to life in prison), nine men found guilty of second-degree murder (sentenced to “five-to-life”, and five were found guilty of assault (released for time served while the other men were acquitted.  For the ones who were found guilty, then became a time of despair for these young men. But in a time of great tragedy the community of East Los Angeles came together and rallied against the unfair decision of the court. Soon they created the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee.

Hollywood Gets Involved

During that time many celebrities such as Orson Welles, Anthony Quin and Rita Hayworth all pitched in on the effort to free the innocent men convicted of this crime. Alice McGrath, a volunteer and civil activist played a key role in the reversal of the boys conviction in the Appeals verdict of 1944.

Eventually, the boys would be freed but their names were never cleared of the terrible charges, nor was there ever an arrest for the real murderer of the crime. It wasn’t until 1991 that the real story of what went on that night at the Williams Ranch had come to light. I guess after all the years of concealing the truth, in a last attempt to redeem herself before dying, Lorena Encinas confessed that she did in fact know what really happened.

Remember that she and another friend were invited to the party at the Delgadillo home that night. But her brother Louie Encina’s also crashed the party with his buddies. They were thrown out around the same time that the Downey boys had got thrown out due to starting a fight with none other than the victim, Jose Diaz.

Louie admitted to Lorena that he did fight with Jose and he was the one who killed him. He was her baby brother, and she wasn’t going to allow him to go to prison, so she lied. She even went to prison for a year, leaving her young baby to be cared for by relatives while she did her time for just being “affiliated” with the convicted boys from 38th St. She could have all along told the truth and been home with her daughter, but as they say “blood is thicker than water.”

You see after Lorena and Louie's father had died, Lorena saw the effect it had on her brother. He went in and out of reform school growing up and Lorena knew this last secret had to be kept to keep him from going into prison for life. She always looked after her little brother throughout his whole life, even when other family members had already given up on him.

After her release, Lorena went on to take care of her family by becoming a riveter during WWII, which by coincidence she worked the very same type of job as my grandmother. I wonder to this day if they may have passed each other at work, or if by chance my grandmother could have even known her. Talk about 6 degrees of separation.

So, whatever happened to Louie?  Louis Jesus Encinas lived a life of crime, constantly in and out of prison. In 1958 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and in 1960 his wife Josephine filed for divorce from him.  He met a tragic ending at the age of 46, when he botched a robbery of a Bank in Los Angeles in May of 1972. Knowing he was surrounded and was going to end up getting caught he put a pistol to his head and took his own life. At first the police assumed he had been shot by one of the officers, however the coroner determined that he had suffered from a self inflicted gunshot wound.

The sad part of this story is the real victims, Hank Leyvas and his friends, and Jose Diaz the murder victim. No one wants to remember them, and that they all were unjustly swept under the rug as trash. No one wants to apologize for the wrongful convictions and life altering repercussions they placed on these people. I for one still think an apology is necessary, to make a point.

(Copyright) 2011/2009 J'aime Rubio
All Copyright Rights Reserved.
Some sources include: The court of appeals case, PEOPLE v. ZAMORA (1944), is excerpted. [*680], PBS, various. 


  1. orale homegirl..another firme post. I remember reading this back in EL SERENO jr high. You ever see the movie ZOOT SUIT??? it's about sleepy lagoon. It's an old movie. way to get down on that poem tambien.

  2. Soloe-thanks for commenting! No I haven't seen that movie but I will be sure to check it out (Netflix)! Thanks about the poem too. I have been writing poems about life in the barrio since I was a teen. I even wrote an entire book about it "Dreaming Casually II: Barrio Expressions"- Thanks again!

  3. i loved what you wrote its very pretty ill have to show it to my family they will love what you wrote. porque ese día siempre estará en nuestros corazones!

  4. Corvette- Thank you so much for stopping by. This story has been close to my heart ever since I can remember first hearing of it. It was so sad how everyone involved was treated. I am glad you enjoyed it. You said your family would love this? Are you related to any of the people mentioned in the article? :-)

  5. yeah there my cousins and love them and you should watch the movie zoot suit its good

  6. Thank you again Corvette for visiting my blog. That is amazing you are related to them, there was many young men charged and prosecuted unfairly in the trial, so you are saying that some of them were related to each other as well? That is interesting. Well I hope you and your family enjoy this story. I wrote it with the utmost respect for ALL of them. :-)

  7. De nada! by the way- which of the guys are you related to? thanks again for stopping by!

  8. @ Corvette- That is neat that you are related to Hank Leyvas. If you have any information about what happened to him later on in his life I would love to mention it in the article. Please send your family my heartfelt love and respect for Hank, his story is what inspired me to write this- due to the brutal attack that he and his lady went through that night at the Sleepy Lagoon.

  9. hank and Dora loved each other very much and ill ask and see but there are still hurt feelings over this and people are still getting killed over it so i cant say a lot.

  10. That is beautiful that they loved eachother so much. Did they marry? It is sad that people are still getting killed over this. I can imagine its either due to Jose Diaz' family? The Downey Boys? or the Encina's family? (you don't have to answer the question, its retorical). Those things happen as sad as it is, this day in age. Its not right how people continue to kill eachother over something that happened so long ago, but feuds like that happen alot. I am so sorry for the pain this incident caused your family even after all these years.

  11. its ok time goes on and in time everything becomes beautiful and yes the did get married and stayed together.

  12. Lorena Encinas was my Aunt. She actually left her baby boy, my cousin Ted with her family when she went away. I would often ask her to tell me about the events, and she even kept the truth from us until the end. I was with her a week before her death and she told me that it would have broken her moms heart if she had known what her brother had done. I do feel very sorry for all the innocent people that were convicted for this senseless crime.

  13. @ Corvette- I think its wonderful that they stayed together after all those years. I hope they had a happy life after all of that madness.

    @ Garysgirl- I am very sorry, I am sure it hurts your family very much still. I hope everyone on here knows I am not writing to point the finger "in a bad way" at anyone. Things happened, its part of history in East L.A. and its the past. I always was intrigued by the story and also was saddened by the way the Mexican-American young men who were so discriminated against by the system. It was a travesty. Thank you for your comment Garygirl, I can sense it is sincere. Have a great day and thank you so much for stopping by to read and comment!

  14. my grandfather is robert telles and my dad is robert jr.

  15. Hello Bubbles- thank you for stopping by. Thank you also for sharing this with me and my readers. Tell me, is your grandfather still alive and has he spoken to you about his terrible ordeal? Best wishes to you, your grandfather and the rest of your familia.

  16. Dreaming Casually, you have written a passionate, respectful and touching story of this tragic episode in Los Angeles history. There were many victims, including Lorena Encinas, who carried a great weight for her role of silence. Many suffered for this, as did she. She was led by her own convictions and devotion to her family.

    I have made several attempts to find the location of the Sleepy Lagoon, which apparently no longer exists. Thank you for explaining that it was close to Slauson and Atlantic, in Maywood. I have also had difficulty finding the 38th Street neighborhood. So much has changed.

    Thank you Corvette and Garysgirl for sharing personal memories. Most of those close to the story have, understandably, kept their silence over the years. The Sleepy Lagoon is a chapter in our history that still touches our lives.

  17. Tabu- You are absolutely correct, all of the people involved in the entire matter were all victims to an extent. However, I feel it was wrong that Hank and his friends were wrongfully accused and convicted by a biased Judge and Jury and discriminatory Police Force who were ready to hang them out to dry without giving them the chance to defend themselves. The whole story was a tragedy for all involved, including Jose Diaz who was the actual murder victim- sadly everyone seems to remember every one else who was involved and fails to mention the person who died, the person whose death was the cause of the horrendous ordeal.

  18. Today, the courts correctly take victim's rights into consideration. Families that have been torn apart by murder cannot move on with their lives until the perpetrator is brought to justice. Even then, there is no rest.

    I do not want to criticize Lorena Encinas for being loyal to her brother, but it is true that the family of Jose Diaz never learned who murdered him. Their suffering was endless. The story of Sleepy Lagoon is the story of tragedy followed by more tragedy.

    Here is the recording that inspired the name of the swimming hole:



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