Chapter 6: Ring of Truth | Crooked Media
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July 05, 2023
Dreamtown: The Story of Adelanto
Chapter 6: Ring of Truth

In This Episode

Stevevonna Evans is charting a new path for Adelanto and attempting to put an era of corruption in the past. But just a few months into her term, she finds herself caught up in her own scandal and discovers that in Adelanto it’s difficult to govern without making a mess.

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David Weinberg If you like Dream Town, The Story of Adelanto and want access to early add free episodes. Join friends of the pod crooked new subscription community at crooked dot com slash friends.


Betsy Zaiko Hey there. Don’t blame me for being a little fuzzy on the details from that last chapter. Stevevonna  and her friends on the city council had to clean things up after the previous regime let the cannabis industry run roughshod all over town. And it seemed like every time they looked under a rock, they learned about just how crazy things had gotten under the watch of Mayor CR Bug and German Tech Rose, a Russian oligarch. Not to mention a big old budget deficit. But I think Stevevonna might have learned that it’s real hard to run a town like Adelanto without getting a little dirt on you. Whether you mean to or not.


David Weinberg It’s not a good night for the Saints. Adelanto’s high school football team.


Announcer Adelanto comes into the game one and seven overall. They’re going to be.


David Weinberg The Adelanto cheerleaders and marching band are doing their best to stoke some school spirit. But it’s cold and windy and the Saints are struggling.


Announcer To keep out of bounds.


David Weinberg The Saints are playing their rival. Silverado High from the neighboring town of Victorville. Tonight, the rivalry between these two high desert cities is playing out on the football field. And like so often happens when they face off, Adelanto is losing.


Announcer That little bit. Take when out of bounds.


David Weinberg It’s tough being a Saints fan. The team has historically not been very good.


Angel Ochoa They were a good team, I think, before I even got there. It was only like three wins out of the school history.


David Weinberg This is Angel Ochoa. He was the quarterback for the Saints years back in 2018, and he’s right about the team being terrible. Before he joined, they’d never had a winning season, but Angel was optimistic that he and his teammates could turn things around.


Angel Ochoa I’m a competitor and I like challenges, so turning a program around is it’s not a big deal to me. If any challenge comes my way, I’m a concrete.


David Weinberg The Saints also had something else going for them. A new coach. Golly what, dude? And Underwood’s leadership. The team made Adelanto Saints history that year. The Saints had an unprecedented season. They won game after game, even made it into the playoffs and then all the way to the Division championship. In the championship game, the Saints faced off against the Orange Vista Coyotes in a nail biter in the final minutes of the game with the Saints up 20 to 15. They held off the coyote’s final drive as the clock ticked down to zero. And that was it. For the first time in team history. The Adelanto Saints were champions. But in Adelanto, it seems that success is never straightforward. Even the high school football team’s spectacular championship season was dragged into yet another political scandal involving city hall, expensive jewelry and a cannabis entrepreneur. And this scandal created a rift between Stevevonna Evans and her ally, Mayor Gabriel Reyes, a rift that threatened her political future.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes You’ve lied to me and you’ve plotted behind my back to do things. I’m sorry. I can’t trust you.


David Weinberg This latest scandal begs the question, was this new council really putting an end to Adelanto’s long history of corruption, or were they continuing? From crooked media. This is Dream Town. The story of Adelanto. Chapter six. Ring of Truth. Gabriel Reyes is sort of like the prodigal son of Adelanto. After growing up in the city, he had dreams of making it somewhere beyond the city limits. And he made it almost as far as you can get without leaving America.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes January of 2009, I moved to Hawaii.


David Weinberg And then after five years of living in paradise, he came back to Adelanto for a visit.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes When I came back to visit, I was coming up the hill and I’m like, Wow, we Victorville was blowing up. Apple Valley is blowing up his barriers blowing up. And I’m just like. And other land though is still other land. Those you know a little disappointing right to just see so much growth and the city be be stagnant.


David Weinberg Reyes has had worked in multi-level marketing and he had his own credit repair business. And he figured if he could be successful in those ventures, how much harder could it be to rebuild his hometown?


Mayor Gabriel Reyes It was one of those, you know, if we can create an addictive culture, a contagious culture like and, you know, in our business, politics shouldn’t be that different. But that was my mindset, right? Obviously, it’s very different, but I came in with that mindset and that was, I guess, catalyst to maybe consider about even getting involved in politics.


David Weinberg When I asked Mayor Reyes about the Adelanto Saints championship season, he felt it was yet another sign that his hometown was destined for an era of prosperity.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes That was a great a great, great time. Right? Culture is very, very important. And I felt that we started off with a big shift from the last administration. So when we came in with the new administration, a new fresh council, you know, me coming in as mayor, then the high school winning the championship, it was just like a winning culture. And they just felt it felt amazing.


David Weinberg Reyes had been waiting his whole life to see this kind of shift happen in Adelanto, the city his parents brought him to when he was young Reyes. His parents immigrated to America from Mexico and initially settled in Los Angeles.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes I was born in East L.A. and my parents wanted a quote unquote, better life for me, right? So they bought a home here another month, though, and June of 92. You know, people say that you’re a product of your environment, right? I grew up in other land, though. I grew up on the north side of the Lantau off of Crippen and Astor.


David Weinberg Growing up, Reyes and his friends would play football on the street, and one day when he was eight years old, his dad came up to him and asked him a question.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes My dad said, You know me. If there’s anything that you would want, like in other Lundell, what would it be? I was like, Oh, a wrestler. I’m tired of, you know, when we play sideline pop, what was getting all scabbed up and beat up and, you know, almost getting hit by the cars or breaking someone’s window because of the football. It’s just like, I wish we just had somewhere safe where we could go and just play and be kids. You know, and he’s just like, perfect. You’re going to speak at city Council next week. I’m like Citi. What?


David Weinberg Eventually, the day came an eight year old raise and his little shirt and tie made his way into the council chambers, holding his handwritten speech.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes I remember being nervous because my dad brought everyone from the church. He went and got the neighborhood, like he got all of his friends. He got people from work. We probably had like 150 people in that chambers. And I was scared.


David Weinberg He nervously approached the council and began to speak.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes My name is Gabriel Reyes. I’m eight years old. Thank you for your time. Dear Mayor and members of the Council and members of the audience. And the response was obviously positive. Right. So then standing ovation.


David Weinberg Young Gabriel had spoken up not just for himself, but for all the kids in Adelanto. And then. Absolutely nothing changed.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes Nothing ever happened. Little have a rec center so we don’t have somewhere where kids can go and play.


David Weinberg 23 years later, the tables had turned. It was now Raisi’s job to sit on the dais and listen to the citizens. And he came into office as a close ally of Stevevonna Evans, along with another newly elected council member, Jerry Hernandez. Steve Barnett sometimes called them the squad. And when they took office, the council appointed Steve Honore as mayor pro tem, basically vice mayor. That was the same year the Adelanto Saints won the division championship. The mayor was a big supporter of the football team. He was friends with Coach Gali Wadud and often attended games.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes Coach is a great man. He’s a great coach. Actually, we just talked yesterday.


David Weinberg After the Saints won the championship. Coach Wadud and Reyes talked about ways to celebrate the kids. And one subject that came up was the championship rings. Each player was entitled to a ring. And according to Reyes, the superintendent of the school district offered to cover the cost of the championship rings for the students.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes And there is commitments that were made by the superintendent at the time that he was going to buy the rings. Rings were ordered. Rings were ready to go. And when it came to pay, the school district backed out.


David Weinberg So the students set out to raise the money themselves.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes The saw my Facebook kids like Pokemon Go fund me like kids who just won a championship should not be having to raise the money for their championship rings.


David Weinberg And Mayor Reyes wanted to help the students raise the money. He says he was able to get someone to write a check for the full cost of the rings. It came from a place where a lot of the money in Adelanto was coming from the weed industry. In this case, the Benefactor was a cannabis event promoter who went by the name Dr. K. This agreement was made about a month after the mayor and the new council members were sworn into office. It happened during a meeting at the Adelanto Stadium. The meeting was about a festival that Dr. K was putting on at the stadium called Kush. Doc Reyes says that city manager Jesse Flores wanted him to meet with Dr. K and talk about contributions he could make to the city.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes You know, closed lives don’t get fed, right? So we’re having a meeting and Hey, Dr. K by chance. Can you bless our community? when I got out of high school kids just won the championship. Long story short, superintendent backed out and brings me to get paid for. Didn’t tell her how much it was. He just said, Consider it done.


David Weinberg Reyes says that Dr. Kay agreed to donate the money for the rings, but it wasn’t as simple as that. A few months later, Stevevonna met with the manager of the Adelanto Stadium. Because the stadium is owned by the city. He issued regular reports on the stadium’s finances. But the manager noticed a discrepancy.


Stevevonna Evans And he says, you know, this is what Dr. Kay said. And I said, okay, well, what’s the problem?


David Weinberg The problem had to do with Kush stuck. The Weed festival put on by Dr. Kay, Dr. Kay owed, the stadium and therefore the city. $15,000 for hosting kush stock. But instead of paying this bill, he told the stadium manager that his debt to the stadium had been forgiven in exchange for paying for the championship rings. But this hadn’t been reflected in the initial report, and the stadium manager was wondering if he should fix this. Stevevonna didn’t see anything wrong with the arrangement, and she says she told him yes, he should change the report so that the credit was properly accounted for. We asked the city for a copy of the report, but they said it doesn’t exist.


Stevevonna Evans And I said, You need to just report it the way it happened. There was a credit given. Just put there was a credit. Just be honest with the people. So we move forward.


David Weinberg So that’s what happened. But when the report came out, Stevevonna says the mayor was upset.


Stevevonna Evans The mayor was very livid. You know, told me I’m trying to send him to jail and I’m throwing him under the bus. And why did I tell city management to change the report and blah, blah, blah? And I’m like, Bro, like, we have to report what happened.


David Weinberg To Stevevonna, this response from the mayor was really strange, and she felt blindsided after the report came out. And Mayor Reyes accused her of being the one who promised Dr. Kay the credit. Reyes says that when he left the initial meeting with Dr. Kay, Stevevonna stayed behind and spoke with Dr. Kay alone.


Stevevonna Evans He claims that he left before me. That’s not accurate.


David Weinberg According to Stevevonna, everyone left the meeting at the same time, and that was the end of the discussion between her and Dr. Kay. Now I just want to pause here and explain something. Accepting a donation like the one Dr. Kay made for the rings is technically legal. It’s also totally legal for the city to issue a credit to Dr. Kay. The problem is that an exchange like this has to go through the proper channels and neither Stevevonna nor the mayor had the authority to do this on their own. The mayor claimed he had a text message from Dr. Kay proving that Stevevonna was the one who promised him the credit. And when we spoke, he pulled out his phone and showed it to me.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes So this is a message from Dr. Kay where he says, Hey, Mayor Reyes, Dr. Kay here. I would love to go over the rings for the football team. Can we get an invoice from the company making the rings so that we can file it for W9? I’d gladly pay by CC. or cashier’s check. And then he says, In return, I believe Councilwoman Evans mentioned we can’t pay back the investment through the rental fee at the stadium.


David Weinberg Do you think it’s possible that maybe he just said that even without Stevevonna  saying it, to try to make it happen? Just to hope that you would agree to it. Like when you say mom said I could go to my friend’s house and have a sleepover, even though your mom never said that. You think that could have happened?


Mayor Gabriel Reyes That that that could have happened.


David Weinberg I reached out to Dr. Kay, but he did not respond to my interview request. So what was the significance of this dispute over the credit and the budget report? Was it illegal or was it merely unethical? With someone trying to cover their tracks. It does appear that both the mayor and Stevevonna made some mistakes in the way they handled the situation, which makes sense given just how green they were at the time.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes We were a month in this council when when we had the conversation with the promoter, 25, not even 20 days technically in office. Right. As new elected council members. She made a commitment that ultimately she couldn’t have made she now the authority to do and. Got caught up in it and chose to, you know, focus on herself.


David Weinberg And Stevevonna says the same thing about Reyes, that he simply made a mistake, but that the cover up was the bigger issue.


Stevevonna Evans I can support you in that you made a mistake. That happens. You were two months in. I cannot support lying to the community. I can’t do it.


David Weinberg Another thing that everyone agrees on is that this incident was a turning point in the relationship between Stevevonna and the mayor.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes 100%. That’s exactly where it turned.


David Weinberg A rift started to form between them. And that rift might have benefited some people like Jesse Flores, the city manager, who was arguably the most powerful person at City Hall, someone who was hired by the previous administration.


Rachel Carranza We were buddies. Me and him had all these great dreams we were going to do, and we always had these big ideas of things we wanted to do. And I had a real good rapport with Jesse.


David Weinberg This is Rachel Carranza. She was an employee at City Hall for 18 years, and she wasn’t the only one who liked Flores. Mayor Kerr was also a staunch supporter of Flores. He and the previous council promoted him to the position of economic development director. And then Rachel noticed a change in Flores’ behavior.


Rachel Carranza Jesse started pulling away from like, staff and from me, too. And him and Kerr got real close once Kerr got elected.


David Weinberg Then Mayor Kerr had Rachel’s boss, the much loved city manager, fired. And the city council appointed Jesse Flores as the new city manager.


Rachel Carranza I think that’s the point where I started seeing things shifting to another direction.


David Weinberg Rachel says that under Flores is leadership morale inside City Hall started to sour.


Rachel Carranza It was like a family there. It’s like everything went to hell. You know, I mean, everything went bad that he pretty much he did a voluntary layoff for all the employees who wanted to take it. A lot of you know, I was the only one that took it. But a lot of people after I left got fired. So I’m kind of glad I took it because I didn’t I could see what was coming.


David Weinberg Flores had been in office during the last four years of the legal weed frenzy and the corruption scandals that would end in charges and jail time for multiple members of the city council. But throughout this turbulent period, Flores managed to remain in power. He was never charged with anything. But lots of people in Adelanto were convinced that he was guilty of something. And because of his close alliance with McArthur, whose home had been raided by the FBI and with Germaine Wright, who had been convicted of bribery, many people thought that when Stevevonna, Hernandez, and Mayor Reyes came to power promising to rid the city of corruption, their first move would be to fire Jessie Flores. But surprisingly, they didn’t.


Stevevonna Evans I told Jesse when I first got elected in 2018, I said, I’m not going to base my relationship on you based on what people say about you. That’s not how I operate. I’m going to give you you have 1% of my trust and it’s up to you to keep that.


David Weinberg Even knowing how he was connected to everything that went down with Kerr and all that. That didn’t


Stevevonna Evans No.


David Weinberg You weren’t concerned about that?


Stevevonna Evans I mean, of course you have a little bit of. I’m definitely watching you. Right? I’m watching. I’m not stupid, but I’m watching. But I’m also not going to base things because what you learn, now four years in, what sometimes that perception is so far from the truth.


David Weinberg But Stevevonna’s faith in Flores was short lived. She says that soon after she was elected, she started to see ways that Flores, simply put, was not good at his job, and she brought her concerns to Mayor Reyes.


Stevevonna Evans Yo bro, I think we need to let him go. I think this is what’s happening. We’re meeting for dinner or whatever, and we’re having these conversations privately.


David Weinberg Stevevonna says the mayor was in agreement with her about firing Flores, but before they had a chance to act on it, the chaos with the rings unfolded. And Stevevonna believes that Flores used the ring scandal as a wedge to divide her and Reyes. I reached out to Jesse Flores, but he did not respond to my request for an interview. Regardless of all this. Stevevonna moved forward. That’s after the break.


Adelanto City Council Today is August 14, 2019. We’re going to go to get started with our regular meeting of the Adelanto City Council.


David Weinberg About five months after the ring scandal. The council met for the regular meeting and a motion came up for a vote.


Adelanto City Council Yes, for the future items. I guess the proper procedure now is to bring to a vote and for our next city council meeting, I’d like to make a motion to bring a public employee discipline dismissal, release prison to government code, Section 54957.


David Weinberg If you didn’t know anything about Adelanto politics, this one minute exchange would have seemed like just another boring procedural vote. But this vote was actually a big deal. It was a motion to basically fire Jessie Flores, though you would never know that because his name is not mentioned. He is merely referred to as public employee. As the votes were announced. Ed Camargo voted in favor of removing Flores.


Adelanto City Council Wanna do roll call? Yup. Roll call. Counselor Camargo? Yes.


David Weinberg And then comes the high drama. When it gets to council member Jerry Hernandez, the swing vote and the third member of Stevevonna’s squad, he takes a long pause before announcing his vote.


Adelanto City Council Counselor Hernandez. No. Counselor Jeanette? No. Mayor pro-tem Evans? Yes. Mayor Reyes? No. Motion fails.


David Weinberg Stevevonna and Camargo were the only two in favor of axing Flores. So with a 3-2 vote, it failed and Jessie Flores remained the city manager. So was that long pause nothing? Or was Hernandez second guessing his vote? In any case, Hernandez had chosen a side and it wasn’t Stevevonna’s. And now that Stevevonna had publicly voted to fire Flores, she had drawn her line in the sand against Flores. And then just two weeks later.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes Today is August 28th, 2019. Getting started here at 7:02.


David Weinberg A new motion was put before the council by Mayor Reyes. This one was to remove Stevevonna from her position as mayor pro tem, essentially demoting her back to a regular council member.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes I am making the request, you know, to have Mayor pro tem Evans removed as mayor pro tem and asking if we can vote in our motion that we appoint Jerry Hernandez as mayor pro tem.


David Weinberg Reyes alleged that Stevevonna had lied about giving Dr. Kay the stadium credit.


Stevevonna Evans So before we do that, I would like to make a statement as well.


David Weinberg Stevevonna did not believe that this vote was happening because of the championship ring issue. She believed she was being removed as retaliation for wanting to fire Jessie Flores.


Stevevonna Evans I think it’s a travesty for this council to be replacing me as mayor pro tem just because I have a disagreement and grievance with the city manager. I have fulfilled all my duties as mayor pro tem and I have been a strong advocate for our city. There is simply no legitimate reason for this action. It appears as a naked and purely political power move. That is a dangerous precedent to be setting in our city.


David Weinberg And now she also thought that Reyes had conspired against her. First with Jesse Flores and now with Jerry Hernandez by promising to give him Stevevonna’s pro tem position in exchange for voting to remove Stevevonna and for voting to keep Flores on as city manager.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes So with that being said, you are a representation of myself as well as Mayor Pro tem. I didn’t want to go into major discussions about this, but with your comment, the trust is not there.


David Weinberg Just before the vote to remove Stevevonna, the mayor, seated on the dais, spoke directly to Steve Honor.


Mayor Gabriel Reyes This has nothing to do with your opinion or your or how you feel towards the city manager. You clearly have stated to me and several people if you have been lied to or you don’t trust that we should terminate the city manager. Mayor Pro Tem. You have lied to me and I don’t trust you. So how can I have you as my mayor pro tem? I have no political motive. My motive is the city of Adelanto putting Adelanto firsts. Whether decisions are easy or hard or whatever the case may be. That’s what. That’s the oath that I took. So you made your remarks. City Attorney I motion that we remove Stevevonna Evans as Mayor pro tem, and that we appoint Jerry Hernandez as Mayor pro tem. And I motion that.


Stevevonna Evans We’ll go with that. I don’t think that’s accurate. So I just want for the record to reflect that is not accurate. You guys do however you see fit.


David Weinberg Stevevonna had said all she could in her defense. Now it was time for the vote.


Adelanto City Council Roll call, please. Yes, Your Honor. Councilmember Camargo. Nay. Councilmember Hernandez. Yes. Council. Jeanette? Yes. Mayor Pro Tem Evans No. and Mayor Reyes. Yes. Motion passes. *applause*


David Weinberg Longtime City Council member Ed Camargo was the other person to vote in support of Stevevonna besides herself, her two former allies, Jerry Hernandez and Mayor Reyes, joined Joy Jeanette, making it a 3-2 vote, which meant Hernandez would be replacing Stevevonna as mayor pro tem.


Stevevonna Evans I feel like they did that in exchange for my mayor. Pro tem. Si. Which is fine. I don’t care. But I really think that’s what happened.


David Weinberg The ring scandal was a turning point for politics in Adelanto. A seed of distrust had been planted. The new majority had not even been in power a year before. They’d all turned against each other.


Adelanto City Council It was a huge change, a huge turning point for me. It’s where I finally saw how ugly and nasty things can be. It taught me a lot. One that I can’t be as trusting as people as I was. Now I’m like, What do you want? And it it changed me on a personal level as well. Just how I, how I move through life for sure. Personally, professionally, I didn’t want people calling me like, Hey, I want you to meet so-and-so. For what? Whereas before I was like, sure. I mean, the topic was, No, I need to understand what the what what is the point of this meeting and what and who all was going to be there and what are what are we talking what I need an agenda and we ain’t going off the agenda and I need to approve and who’s saying what and what are they not saying? And it just it made life. A little bit harder. And I think it made me. Not be as naive. And I had to take off those rose colored glasses I didn’t realize I had on, you know.


Adelanto City Council How did it feel to, like, come in as the squad and all that happened almost immediately, right? Like within a month or.


Adelanto City Council It’s that it’s hard. Do you think that you can do all these things? It’s going to be easy to make the change and it’s going to. And and as quick as as you get in is as quick as people start lobbying and and, you know, making I hate the word deals, but, you know, different different things start happening or relationships are forming and and you know that the game of politics are horrible and it makes people do ugly things. But if everybody that thought politics was horrible just threw their hands up, then what happens? We have to get in and we have to be willing to change the game.


David Weinberg When Steven Hernandez and Reyes came to power, there was so much hope in the city that they were finally getting a fresh start and these new council members would lead the city out of its troubled past. But then the seemingly innocuous mistake exposed some darker truths about politics and power. These council members couldn’t even make it a month before they were embroiled in a power struggle. And depending on who you believed, it was, either an issue of someone putting their reputation above their principles or the city manager was a corrupt holdover from the previous administration. Regardless of what was true, it was going to be a rough road ahead for Steve Varner. There was still so much that she wanted to accomplish. But with her political alliance gone, the big question was would she be able to do the work? That’s next time. If you loved this episode of Dream Town, The Story of Adelanto, you can hear the next episode right now. For early ad-free access. Join Friends of the Pod. Crooked’s new subscription community at Crooked dot com slash friends. Adelanto is an original podcast from Crooked Media. It’s hosted, written, and executive produced by me, David Weinberg. Nick White is our Story Editor. Angel Carreras is our associate producer. Sound Design. Mix and Mastering by Brendan Baker of Phenomephon. Our theme song is by Icarus Himself, and our original score is by Eric Phillips. Fact-Checking by Amy Tardif. Additional production help from Ines Mesa, Sydney Rapp, and Kobe Copeland. Thanks to Betsy Zaiko for narrating portions of the show. From Crooked Media, our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Katie Long, and Mary Knauf with special thanks to Allison Falzetta, Laura Smith, Andrew Leland, Richard Parks III, Shocker Molly, and Katya Apekina.