Criminal turned writer/actor Edward Bunker also got to know Morgan at Folsom, though decades earlier, during Morgan’s first Folsom incarceration.
Bunker — who played “Mr. Blue” in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, and inspired the bank-robber character Nate, played by Jon Voight, in Michael Mann’s Heat — called Morgan the “toughest by far” of all the men he met during his 18 years in prison.
In his 2001 memoir, Education of a Felon, Bunker writes: “When I say ‘the toughest,’ I don’t necessarily mean he could beat up anyone in a fight. Joe only had one leg below the knee…. He was still pretty good with his fists, but his true toughness was inside his heart and brain. No matter what happened, Joe took it without a whimper and frequently managed to laugh.”
When the movie American Me was released March of 1992, it elevated La Eme’s national profile, not unlike the way Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather brought the Italian Mafia to the pop-culture forefront in the early seventies.
People who might have thought of La Eme as merely a violent California prison gang, if they were familiar with the Latino brotherhood at all, now saw it as bona fide criminal syndicate with reach and power.
However, members of this secretive organization, including Joe Morgan, were not at all happy with the movie’s fictionalized chronicle of their gang’s birth and ascent.
And this anger had director and star Edward James Olmos, who played Santana, a shot caller inspired by the iconic La Eme cofounder Rodolfo “Cheyenne” Cadena, fearing for his life, talking to the FBI, and seeking a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
“I want to show there’s a cancer in this subculture of gangs,” Olmos told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, addressing his reasons for making American Me. Hoping to demythologize the La Eme world so as to discourage disaffected young Mexican-American men from joining the gang, Olmos created a harsh portrait of gang existence, with scenes of abuse and extreme violence. But what got Morgan and his crew mad were other aspects of the movie. In American Me, the Santana character is raped by another youth in a juvenile facility, and later Santana is shown being impotent with a woman.
Moreover, older and wiser Santana is eventually killed by his gang brothers for having doubts about their bloody enterprise. But in real life, Cadena was murdered by members of the Nuestra Familia gang, La Eme’s bitter enemies. In a gruesome hit that set off rounds of prison payback murder, “Cheyenne” Cadena was shanked multiple times and thrown off a tier at Chino State Prison, only to be shanked again when he landed.
To members of La Eme, Olmos’s movie stained their honor.
And payback followed here, too. At least it sure looked like it did.
Within weeks of the movie’s release, two of its consultants were murdered execution-style. Just 12 days after the premier, a 53-year-old La Eme member who’d spoken to Olmos during his research interviews was gunned down by a pair of gang hit men in the Ramona Gardens projects in Boyle Heights, a La Eme stronghold.
Then in May, 49-year-old gang-intervention counselor Ana Lizaragga, a paid technical adviser with a small part in the movie, was slain by a pair of ski-masked hit men in her Boyle Heights driveway, shot in front of her boyfriend as they packed up their van for a trip. One of the assassins, a La Eme prospect, had just been paroled from Folsom.
In August of the following year, another unpaid consultant to the film was slain in his car. A member of a local La Eme affiliate gang was sent to prison for that hit.