Law enforcement pointed out that all three victims had displeased La Eme for reasons other than cooperating with the movie, and so were careful about calling the executions “payback.” Lizaragga, for example, who’d lost her own husband and two nephews in gang shootings, was suspected of being a snitch. But the timing of those first two hits, especially, is hard to ignore. A Chino prison official told the Los Angeles Times that the killings were meant as a message for Olmos. He also received veiled threats from gangmembers.
“When they made American Me,” says Richard Valdemar, “they actually approached Joe Morgan and supposedly got unofficial permission to make the movie as long as he hired Mexican Mafia advisors. And Olmos did in fact do that. But that meant he put himself under the rules of the Mexican Mafia.”
A month after the movie opened, Morgan filed a lawsuit seeking $500K in punitive damages from Olmos, Universal Studios, and others connected to the film. Morgan contended that filmmakers didn’t have permission to use his story and likeness in creating the J.D. character, an Anglo gangmember from East L.A., fluent in Spanish, with a shaved head and prosthetic leg. The case was eventually dismissed. But ever since the ordeal faced by Olmos (who made the cover of Time in 1988 for his Stand and Deliver stardom), Hollywood has been understandably leery about new Mexican Mafia projects.
Joe Morgan died of liver cancer in November 1993, in a hospital ward at Corcoran State Prison, where he’d been transferred from Pelican Bay State Prison, having spent his final months and years confined in an 8-by-10 cell 22-and-a-half hours every day.
He was 64, and left behind a wife, Jody, and two children.
In his 2012 memoir Mexican Mafia: The Gang of Gangs, Ramon Mendoza describes Morgan as the “coldest, most calculating, and brutal son of a bitch you could ever encounter.” But he was also, Mendoza adds, the “funniest, most compassionate, and witty person one could ever hope to know.”
This complicated, one-of-a-kind prison gangster, who went hard and was instrumental in turning the Mexican Mafia into a dominant American gang, carries a legendary charge in the annals of organized crime. Part of Morgan’s legacy is still very much alive — La Eme continues to control the great majority of Latino gangs in Southern California, and has affiliate tentacles all over the country. A vast network of Sureños — Mexican Mafia foot soldiers — remain ready to do the bidding of their prison shot callers.
As for the movie Morgan helped inspire, retired gang investigator Richard Valdemar remembers something else that happened during the tense weeks after its release.
Concerned about the murders of Olmos’s East L.A. gang consultants, William Forsythe, who played J.D., called up Valdemar and said, “Hey, am I in trouble?”
Valdemar replied, “No, they love you. They think you’ve played him to perfection, so you’re not in trouble.” Valdemar himself thinks Forsythe did an excellent job.
“In fact,” Valdemar says, “the scene where he’s walking into court with the leather jacket on, if I didn’t know that was the actor, I would have thought that was Joe Morgan.”