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Illegal Dreamers


It was spring quarter of 2014 at La Sierra University. On a Tuesday night, I sat at my desk and read through the copied pages of author Joan Didion’s 1966 essay, “Some Dreamers of a Golden Dream.”  It had been assigned as the week’s reading by my English writing professor.  I examined the complex, bold piece, which helped bring Didion national acclaim, along with inadvertently giving the Seventh-day Adventist church a spot on the national stage. The essay is a murder mystery, centered on a Seventh-day Adventist woman living near Loma Linda, California, who was accused of killing her husband.  Even though Lucille Miller claims her husband died in a car accident, most fingers point to her guilt.  Didion’s California is a land where all dreamers come, looking to fulfill their fantasies and preconceived notions of success. Lucille Miller was one of those wayward dreamers. “The future always looks good in the golden land,” Didion writes in her piece. Along with the theme of migrating dreamers, Santa Ana winds blow throughout the region.  These dry, hot winds create an ominous environment of angst and rage, harboring disillusionment, broken dreams, crime, and murder. 

While reading “Some Dreamers of a Golden Dream” the first time through, I realized the makings of a Didion essay were on my very own campus, unfolding before my eyes.  For the last two weeks, Santa Ana winds had been hurrying through the La Sierra campus, ripping palm leaves from their bases and spitting dust into students’ eyes between classes.  While there was no death or murder mystery at hand, crime and dreams hung in the background as classes proceeded and students read books by John Locke and Immanuel Kant, memorized the physics equations for optical lenses, wrote papers on early-Adventist history, and listened to lectures about the correlation between Old Testament Scriptures and Feminism. 

In 1922, the Southeastern California Conference purchased “300 acres of land, about 50 of which lie on a gentle slope overlooking the fertile Riverside valley.”  My dormitory, Sierra Towers Men’s Dormitory, sits on top of a tall, grassy hill, a part of the 50 acres on a gentle slope.  The building runs seven stories high with an additional basement level — the tallest building in La Sierra University.  To the left of the Sierra Towers, there are dozens of other hills, each one taller than the next, laden with rocks, wild flowers, a few dying bushes, and grass that seems to always settle for a mediocre shade of brown.  To the right are green shrubs, huddling together to form a natural barrier around the structure. 

My roommate and I live in a small room with expressionless walls, a desk, air conditioner vents that spit occasional drops of water into the air, and barren mattresses that sag lazily atop wooden frames.  Room number 619, has been our home for the last year-and-a-half.  From my room, I see pretty much the entire campus: Calkins, one of the women’s dorms, our main lawn, the administration building, the Zapara School of Business, the baseball field, the soccer field, the gym, and immediately bellow us, an 80-step staircase that streaks its way up the hill and toward our dorm entrance. On some nights, I look out and watch the constellation of lights beyond our campus, suburban housing lights, car headlights inching across Magnolia Avenue, billboards, marketing an 80s band visiting the nearest Casino, and the local mall towering over the drowsy amber streetlights.  In the early days of La Sierra University, the residents overlooked a far different Riverside: “The land is now all under cultivation, and the abundant crops testify to its fertility.  It is suitable for growing any crops usually grown in Southern California, and is surrounded by beautiful citrus and walnut groves and alfalfa fields.”  I often wonder about what brought the conference to invest in this land over 90 years ago.  Why did people from all across the nation flock to Riverside, growing from an academy, into a junior college, a college, and in 1990, a university?  Did God guide their pursuits?  Did He call the students and educators into the new establishment through dreams, vague urges, or direct messages through scripture?   What dreams did they have for this former Mexican Land Grant called La Sierra?  Are these dreams now a reality?  Are we living that dream?  Did they ever materialize, or have they dissipated, along with the Santa Ana winds? 

On Sabbath morning, April 26, two freshmen, Igor and Pablo, residents of room 414, were in Redlands, attending church.  Igor and Pablo both have medical aspirations, but as most freshman, they still remain undecided about their degrees.  Igor is an energetic soul who has a face of seemingly perpetual smiles and drives to the beach to surf every moment he can.  Pablo is more reserved and only shows his vitality once well acquainted.  In Redlands, Pablo was playing the drums for church, while Igor hopped along for the ride. 

While Igor and Pablo were still in Redlands, a next-door neighbor and friend, Bruce, was walking along the hallway of the dorm’s fourth floor, returning early from church.  Bruce’s friends describe him as an unselfish guy, someone who puts others before him, even if it breaks his heart.  Upon coming to his room, 413, he saw two students, strangers to the floor.  One of the two was gently knocking his knuckles on the 414 door.  The two exchanged glances with Bruce and said the obligatory “what’s up?” accompanied by a quick head nod.  Bruce was suspicious but kept walking, heading to use the bathroom. Upon returning to his room, he saw the 414 door swing to a close.  Bruce knew that Igor and Pablo were still in Redlands.  It had to be the two strangers.  While the two were moving about room 414, Bruce played the scenarios in his head.  He couldn’t just barge in.  These two guys were larger than him and they probably punched harder, too.  He could call the police, but would they arrive on time?  Notifying the front desk seemed like the quickest solution.  Bruce sprinted down the stairs and talked to the resident assistant on duty.  Together, Bruce and the RA worked to identify the two students through a series of questions, descriptions and speculation, utilizing the school’s online database.  Afterward, the RA went up to 414 to analyze the alleged crime scene.  The two strangers, now identified as Bill and Moses, were already gone.  The intruders left behind two empty spots on the desks of Igor and Pablo.  After a quick phone call to the 414 residents, it was confirmed.  Igor and Pablo’s laptops had been stolen. 

That afternoon, a pair of police cars parked in front of Sierra Towers. While the majority of the campus was busy eating Sabbath lunch in the cafeteria the usual bizarre weekend combination of omelets, pizza, and sweet potatoes — the victims were busy filing an official report to the police department. 

Riverside Police Department Initial Report:

Classification: “459 PC Residential Burglary.” Location of Occurrence: “4500 Riverwalk Parkway Riverside, CA 92504.”  Date and time of Occurrence: “4-26-14 0945.”  Day: “7.”  Date and time Reported:  “4-26-14 / 1521.”  Type of Premises: “College Dorm Room.”  Motive: “Personal gain.”                

The incident sparked a campus-wide investigation. The fourth floor heist was the event of focus. There had been talk of further robberies on the seventh floor on the same day, but there were no witnesses and these victims were far less vocal.  The dormitory deans for Sierra Towers, Dean Esau, the relatable older-brother type of administrator, and Dean Grayson, the dorm’s father figure, facilitated questioning; campus security kept tabs on anything suspicious; and the Riverside Police Department assigned Detective Charlie Olivas to the case.  The makeshift taskforce had three primary suspects: Bill, Moses, and a third name that had been floating around campus for months, Darryl Langley.  

The college student is the ultimate dreamer. And sometimes, dreams come at a great cost.  Tuition rises by the year.  Compound this with housing expenses, meals at the cafeteria, extra parking tickets by campus security, and gas money to drive home.  About 60% of American college students borrow loans to finish school.  Currently, over $900 billion dollars are owed to the government in the form of student loans. To get through college, students and their families are willing to sacrifice vacation time to Hawaii, holidays and family reunions around a barbeque grill, and many other leisures.  It’s really a give-all-to-the-American-Dream kind of attitude that can either turn out to be recklessly naïve, or moderately worthwhile. These are the 60%. 

Many of these sixty percenters converge at La Sierra University. There is Kirk, a double major with Film and Television and Nursing.  The Nursing part is mostly his parent’s doing.  Kirk wants to write and direct a full length, action sci-fi film.  Perhaps this is to make up for his lost goal of becoming an astronaut.  If the sci-fi film doesn’t work out, a romantic comedy will have to suffice.  Andrea, a former high school basketball star, was looking to play professionally in Korea. After a disappointing technicality that disallowed her from playing her senior year in high school, she shifted her focus to becoming a dentist and starting her own practice.  Then there is Jane, a self-proclaimed Marxist.  She longs for a global revolution to end the oppression of capitalism.  Eli, a Criminal Justice Major wants to eventually work for an intelligence agency.  But on the side, Eli has aspirations to travel the world and work his way toward a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a form of martial arts that blends Japanese and Brazilian styles.  At that point, Eli would essentially be a walking lethal weapon.  He is also starting to give up on his dream of finding a spouse in college.  Several weeks from graduation, it just seems irrational.  Then, there is Darryl Langley. 

Darryl Langley was a recent transfer from Pacific Union College.  He had a fit body with sturdy hands and veiny arms.  Darryl’s face is solemn with a chiseled jaw and defined cheekbones; his hair a deep black with natural waves, pointing backward.  Like all students who came to La Sierra, he drove past the grassy hills and wild flowers, tall palms and sleepy suburbs, greeted by the statewide drought and resolve of the smoggy layer that covered us all. 

On his first week here during fall quarter, Darryl and I were sitting in the sixth floor lobby of the Sierra Towers dorm.  The two of us had known each other from high school; he had graduated a year before me.  As we both slouched on the black lobby couches, he plucked his acoustic guitar, as he unloaded his story and why he had transferred from PUC.

He was disgruntled by a relationship problem with his girlfriend at PUC, an issue that ended up with a school-wide negative stigma as being “that guy,” the one who pitted himself against his ex-girlfriend and all of her friends.  “I pretty much dated the wrong girl, and everyone took her side,” Darryl recalled of the event. “I don’t think what I did was wrong.” Specifics were never given, but it can be assumed it was a sappy and vicious mess of tears, snot, and a lot of yelling; it was a mess that Darryl wanted no part in cleaning up.  

This would be the last full conversation between Darryl and me for about six months.  The two of us continued our exchange a few weeks after the damage at La Sierra University was all said and done, and the flying debris had, more or less, settled.  

At La Sierra University, Darryl carried with him hope in the institution.  Along with the convenience of staying within the Adventist school system, it seemed to be the most enticing choice. Southern California sunshine burned year-round.  The beach, the mountains and Los Angeles are all within a one-hour drive.  The La Sierra website also highlighted a new major that caught Darryl’s eye: Musical Technology.  Maybe it was the picture displaying fancy studio equipment that got Darryl to believe.  Perhaps it was the promise that  “musicians are given the tools they need to be on the cutting edge of technology.”  There is also a chance that Darryl saw the prospect of joining “the highest percent” of musicians and sound engineers, earning “more than $90,770.  

For the first few weeks, Darryl kept to himself, getting a feel for the school and its environment.  The dry heat and steamy afternoons were a far shot from PUC’s crisp mountain air.   Darryl once told me that he feels most people cannot relate to him.  He often looks down on anyone that hasn’t proved him or herself to him.  “It’s not the best way at looking at life,” Darryl admitted.   

What made Darryl Langley into a complete person was his music.  With an electric guitar in his hands and a deep-toned amplifier by his side, Darryl was alive.  Like one of his musical heroes, John Mayer, Darryl would speak through his guitar.  During “open mics” on campus, I would see this musical conversation.  Along with the crowd, I would fix my ears to the performance, hanging on every note.  Each movement of the finger, the raw expression of zeal on his face, and the loud wail of emotions and smooth chord progressions spoke a new line, or sang a new verse.  Darryl gave sound to the silent things: tears, sullen glances, and eyes of regret.  Darryl wanted to work his way to New York, New York.  The dream was vivid: jazz clubs and hipster lounges, playing his guitar to adoring lovers of the art, living gig to gig, but always under the towering monuments of the guitarist greats that walked through the city before him: Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, and Bill Frisell.  Darryl’s eyes were set for high things — maybe a bit too high.

On Darryl’s first day of class in a musical theory course, he realized he was well ahead of everyone. Darryl felt a great sense of pride and self-righteousness. “It comes from being in a very talented and successful family,” said Darryl.

In Darryl’s music technology class, it was much the same.  He went in expecting to be pushed and challenged.  Darryl thought back to the La Sierra website and its promise of learning to control sound boards, properly produce music, use software for proper microphone placement and experience being an audio engineer.  Instead, Darryl said he was confronted with teachers who made students watch videos — no textbooks, no hands-on work with the equipment.  “I felt so much frustration with this big idea that I’m going to learn what I’m told on the website, and I realized it’s all a façade.”

One afternoon during class, Darryl kept eyeing an old computer in the back of the room.  Dust had caked its surface.  It was intended for classroom usage, but it seemed like no one wanted it nor acknowledged its presence.  Darryl felt like he needed to get back at the program that he would call, “a lie” and “a joke.”  The timing had to be perfect.  After class, once everyone had cleared the room, Darryl held the computer to his chest and left the room, moving it across campus, unseen, into his dorm room.  He walked with haste atop fallen palm branches, against the dry wind, avoiding eye contact with anyone; the thrill and anger carried him forward like a 45mm bullet through a hot barrel.  This would be the first of many.    

Darryl recently told me, “There are no rules in life, but only the rules you make for yourself.  There are groups that stand under this banner of a unified right that set these rules, but really there are none.” He spoke with this anti-establishment, anarchist allure — one that many college students identify with, jaded with the system, whether political, religious, or academic.  Aside from the obvious illegal activity, the ideologies expressed were captivating.  Darryl fed off of these sentiments, as if his thefts were a sign of symbolic protest. Throughout the next few months, Darryl stole various equipment items from the Music Department. “I wanted to steal from an institution that I felt was stealing from me,” Darryl said.

It was the end of winter quarter and Darryl’s focus would eventually deviate from his original manifesto.  This time, it was an individual.  Now it wasn’t only anger against the Music Department that fueled him but also the sensation of feeling alive — the rush of breaking the law.  

On March 6 of the same year, Andre Young, a music technology classmate of Darryl’s and another budding musician with dreams of his own, set his backpack down by the chapel chairs before sitting down to play the piano for a mid-week worship service.  After the service, Darryl was walking along the aisles of the chapel, joining the masses of students who came for worship credit.  He noticed the backpack, no owner, no one watching, just a walking horde, eager to return to studies.  

After a few months of stealing, Darryl was immersed in this splurge of free money. He was a veteran with hot hands.  He felt the buzz of invincibility, adrenaline pulsing through the veins.  Darryl picked up the backpack and rejoined the exiting crowd.  Inside Andre’s backpack was a laptop, an external hard drive, sunglasses, and some homework papers.  Together, it was worth $1,600.  Darryl opened the laptop and recognized the profile name, “Andre Young.”  He realized who it was, and even considered returning the items.  But decided that it was too late.  What would people think of him? As deep as he was in his nefarious activities, the notions of image, reputation, and social status still mattered to him.  This would be the last thing he would steal, Darryl vowed to himself.  

For the next two months, Darryl used Andre’s laptop as his personal computer, while its owner did what any individual would do to look for the stolen items.  From Craigslist to every lost and found hub on campus, from candid interviews to Facebook profiles, Andre squeezed every possible resource for answers.  Andre would deliberately strike up conversations with random people each day.  He would study every face, analyze movements, searching for something, anything suspicious — an awkward glance, a paranoid stare, or perhaps a hasty remark.  On multiple occasions, Darryl avoided contact with Andre and Andre took notice.  This was enough for Andre to place Darryl atop his shortlist of suspects.   One of Darryl’s Facebook posts (one that I had commented on, unknowing, trying to lend a hand) also made Andre suspicious.  “Anyone have a charger for a MacBook Pro?  It died on me.”  The date of the post: March 6, 2014.  Andre considered approaching Darryl himself, but he had no way to concretely prove Darryl had the laptop.  “We would talk about music and other common interests that we shared and I thought we were friends,” said Andre.  “I felt so violated that someone would take advantage of me like that.”  Andre opted to give his findings to Dean Esau and Dean Grayson.  

Outside of class, Darryl broke his social solitude.  He involved himself with a crowd that he would now call, “the wrong people.”  Among these individuals were Bill and Moses.  Moses came to La Sierra to play basketball — also a transfer from PUC.  Bill was a freshman Accounting Major.  He had what seemed like a different baseball cap or beanie for every day of the week and carried with him an infectious smile.  Over time, Bill and Moses were encouraged to join in the thefts.  This is where they established what Dean Esau and Dean Grayson have called “a system.”  After Darryl stopped getting his hands dirty by stealing, Bill and Moses took over the labor.  According to some witnesses, the two would survey a floor for a few days and pick their prey wisely.  When the time was right, they would strike.  Upon stealing the items, they would then be given to Darryl, who would unlock iPhones, change profiles, and wipe computers clean.  From there, the items went up for sale on Craigslist.  Bill and Moses never told Darryl whom they were stealing from.  On the outside, however, it looked like Darryl was the mastermind, conniving and scheming for the next theft.  In exchange for never reporting the duo, Darryl agreed to split the earnings of the sales.  “I figured, while I’m here, I might as well make some money, to put toward what I want to do in life,” Darryl said.  “Most of these kids can replace these items within weeks, and here I am with no parental support, trying to pay tuition.”

On April 19, a Saturday afternoon, Bill and Moses saw Pablo’s key, which was left plugged into the doorknob.  Pablo was using the bathroom and his key had slipped his mind.  Bill and Moses acted quickly and swiped the key.  After a week of planning, Bill and Moses stole the electronics from room 414, Pablo and Igor filed the report, and the investigation began.  

To Dean Esau and Dean Grayson’s puzzlement, Bill and Moses had already gotten rid of the stolen computers.  The two denied any contact with the items.  Maybe they sold them on their own, but with no known cause, they decided not pass them along to their normal seller and caretaker, Darryl.  Darryl had no knowledge, no motive, and no stake in the April 26 heist. Still, he was a prime suspect.  Some still assumed that he was always the lead in this system and had planned the whole robbery. The deans checked Darryl’s room; the missing computers and tablet were not there.  However, the deans did notice a different laptop — a MacBook Pro.  Given Andre’s recent efforts to find his backpack full of stuff, the deans requested the laptop serial number from Darryl.  Overnight, the deans, security guard, and police department compared the number that Darryl had given with Andre’s.  A perfect match.  

The following day, Dean Esau, along with the chief of security, pulled Darryl out of class.  No arrest, no handcuffs, just a long procession to Sierra Towers.  They proceeded, stepping over the same fallen palm leaves, weathering the same dry winds.  In the company of Dean Esau, Dean Grayson, a police officer, several security officers, and the Dean of Student Life, Darryl was asked to present and return Andre’s laptop.  Although there was no witness to the action, the administrative bunch had assumed it was Andre’s laptop and Darryl had stolen it.  This was now between arrest, handcuffs, bars and his freedom.  “I actually bought it on Craigslist.”  Darryl told them defensively.  Yet who wouldn’t have lied, if possible time in a dingy jail cell loomed ahead?  Darryl had a life to live, a major to finish, a guitar to play, a crowd to entertain, and a dream to fulfill.  He had New York and the thought of all that the big city entailed.  The meeting adjourned and everyone left to their respective offices to sit behind their own desks and computer screens.

At this point, Darryl’s name was “hot” among students and administrators alike.  Rumors scattered wildly.  For any incident in the men’s dorm, even the most minute, Darryl’s name was mentioned.  The logic was simple: We don’t know if Darryl did anything, but we have a lot of evidence and probable cause to assume so.  Darryl decided to keep a low profile, and made sure his name was no longer linked to anything else illegal, or anything that would jeopardize the future.  He had recently spoken to the head of the Music Department about his concerns with the Music Technology major.  The legal route of protest proved more effective, as a more qualified professor was hired, along with a renovation of the recording studio.  Darryl was undergoing a change of perspective.  He actually saw hope, once again, in the program and was eager to remain a student at La Sierra.  But, as many know, internal wishes and hopes don’t always translate into the hard concrete of reality. 

Two days later, the Dean of Student Life wrote Darryl a letter, delivering an administrative council’s decision to order “administrative withdrawal” on the grounds of violating student policy and possessing stolen items.  Darryl could no longer attend La Sierra University.  

Deeper into the quarter, Bill and Moses were arrested by the Riverside Police Department.  Without warning, a SWAT team, clothed with helmets, black Kevlar vests, and combat boots with thick soles, walked calmly, with a search warrant and assault rifles at hand, through the Sierra Towers lobby.  The military gear seemed a bit much for such a routine arrest.  The SWAT team made their way to room 711, where Bill and Moses lived.  Bill was in his room, but Moses had to be located by Dean Esau and the campus security.   Handcuffed and shocked, the two proceeded to a local Riverside jail for the night.  The arrest seemed out of character.  Questionings were routine, Detective Olivas was a regular among the victims and witnesses, but this felt offbeat.  The detective ignored my calls and messages.  Perhaps new evidence had come to light.  It couldn’t be from Igor, Pablo, or Bruce.  The three repeated the same story, the true story, the only story at least a dozen times, they said.  Perhaps somebody gave extra information, a friend of theirs, a neighbor, Darryl?  According to public record, an eyewitness had finally stepped forward.  Unlike the witnesses that were full of speculation, mentioning the maybes, the what ifs, the most likelys, this individual had concrete recollection.  The witness was a dorm resident.  For a reason that has been covertly labeled as “a valid reason to be afraid,” the witness had decided the stay uninvolved with the whole incident.  How he overcame his fear is unknown.  Whatever the reason, the witness told of seeing Bill and Moses in the act of stealing items from a seventh floor room, the aspect of the April 26 heist that many had forgotten.  This snaked its way from the deans to security, and ultimately to Detective Olivas who requested the warrant for the arrest. In the process, it was revealed by a police officer that this was not the first run-in with the law for Bill and Moses.

In his own defense, Bill delivered a bitter rant, as if shaking his fist in protest. “They kept us because the school told them to and they got a warrant for our arrest because of some [student] lying to the school about us being on the 4th floor near the room. But me and [Moses], we were never on the 4th floor and there is no proof of us ever being there. We were treated wrong and disrespectful and I am fighting for my rights as we speak, and that is all that they had, nothing more. They treated us like we actually had it in our hands or we were seen doing the action or got caught actually being somewhere we weren’t; but that was never the occasion, so there for them, had no rights at all!”  There were blatant discrepancies between his words, the testimony of the eyewitness, and the public records.  While all accounts are always tainted by bias, Bill’s seemed to have no basis in reality, as if swayed by the compelling force of self-gratification, of selfish desire, of needing to raise clenched fists and fight, to swing at something or someone, anything or anyone that stood in the way.  But the room was dark and the people to cuff were running out.

Soon after the arrest, Bill and Moses were expelled from the school. “You have to remove the cancer to save the body,” said Dean Esau.  “Discipline is about restoration. But sometimes, you have to love them outside, toward the door to door.”  The computers and tablet of Igor and Pablo would never be returned.

About an hour’s drive from the brown hills of La Sierra University, away from a dormitory full of rumors, ill thoughts and paranoid glances, voices whispering Darryl’s name, cemented as the thief — the guy who was good at guitar but threw it all away, the guy who took Andre’s laptop, the traitor who allegedly planned the April 26 heist of 414 — Darryl is now in art school in Hollywood, working to finish his degree in music.  Darryl’s new school is tucked between the many fixtures of Sunset Boulevard, the place where billboards, palm trees and apartment complexes see eye-to-eye and old stucco structures contrast with tall glass business centers.  Darryl is convinced that this time, things will be different. “I realized my downfall of why I experienced negativity in past places; I had expectations of things being great. But now, I have daily goals and no preconceived notions.”  As Darryl reflects on his time at La Sierra University, he admits, his voice dipping into a lower volume, “At the time, I felt no remorse, my justification was solid. You can’t really explain what you were thinking or doing; I convinced myself that I wasn’t wrong.”

Darryl lives in the basement level of a Los Angeles suburban house.  His first night there, he was greeted by thick layers of dust, mold, and cobwebs.  Darryl has no computer, his residence doesn’t have a Wi-Fi connection; he is busy living simply, reinventing himself.  When he isn’t in class, or with his cousin, a San Diego-based pianist, compiling material for future gigs or a musical album, Darryl can be found in his LA basement, picking the strings of his guitar, practicing, planning, preparing, reaching for something he can call his own.  “The goal is to create music for healing.  Everyone needs healing in some way, and everyone acts out in various ways. With my music, I can stop someone from making the same mistakes that I made.”

Jonah Valdez was raised in San Diego and is proud of all things San Diego — including Anchorman. He has found a new home in La Sierra University, where he is working toward majors in history and English with a writing emphasis. Jonah edits the campus newspaper, the Criterion, and occasionally blogs at

Author’s Note: Names have been changed wherever necessary to protect the privacy of certain individuals.  All events are true, based on police records and the accounts of real students at La Sierra University.

Image: Sierra Towers dorm from a Google Maps satellite image.

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