Murder, Marriage, and a Mission

Written by Monica Villavicencio
Aouie and LeonardPhoto by Barbara Ries.

On a late summer afternoon in 1986, 18-year-old Leonard Rubio ’13 took his father’s gun, rode his bicycle to his girlfriend’s high school, and shot her dead. This is not a story of redemption. Leonard Rubio committed a heinous crime, and he went to prison, as he should have. But it is a story of transformation and the tremendous capacity we all have to change. It’s also the unlikely love story of Leonard and his future wife, Aouie ’11, who was in the crowd of shocked students on that tragic day.

The murder unleashed a poisonous mixture of fear, anger, and heartbreak in the close-knit community of Benicia, about 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. Its sense of safety was shattered. Security guards started patrolling the high school, and Aouie’s family started locking their front door for the first time.

“Nobody wanted to talk about it,” Aouie says. “There was a lot of pain that was uncovered by him, by his act of killing her. Adults didn’t know how to deal with it.”

The solution, it seemed, was to cut out the cancer. Banish the bad apple of Benicia. Many wanted him to rot in prison—if not hell. Leonard’s mother, Juanita, even stopped celebrating Mass because parishioners refused to shake her hand.

Leonard’s sentencing date arrived. Guilty. Second-degree murder. Fifteen years to life in prison.

And that could’ve been the end of the story. But through a deeply instilled sense of Catholic duty, Leonard knew he could do more. And be more.

Opposites Attract

Leonard and Aouie couldn’t be more different: a man capable of uncontrollable, violent rage, and a happy-go-lucky freshman who got along with everyone.

But they also had a lot in common. Both had attended Benicia’s only high school, four years apart, and were members of the same Catholic parish. So when the youth minister announced that one of their members was in jail and needed support, it wasn’t surprising that Aouie and Leonard became pen pals.

When Aouie’s father found out that she and Leonard had been exchanging letters, he was furious and forbade it. They didn’t have contact again for 15 years.

Broken People in a Broken System

The U.S. has the largest prison population per capita in the world, more than two million prisoners and another 4.9 million on parole or probation. According to the National Institute of Justice, people who were abused or neglected as children are 30 percent more likely to commit a violent crime.

In San Quentin State Prison, that pattern was clear: victims victimize. During his time as chaplain there, USF’s Matthew Motyka, S.J., assistant professor of French and Italian, saw this cycle of violence, a cycle without end, and a criminal justice system doling out sentences without addressing the underlying conditions that led to the crime.

“They were beaten, battered by their fathers, initiated into drug dealing at a young age,” Fr. Motyka says of the inmates he met.

Leonard understood. He thought of his childhood. He thought of his father, who had a violent streak and once beat him with an extension cord. Leonard was 12. “After he got done whipping me,” Leonard says, “he told me if I ever hit him, I’d better kill him because if I didn’t, he was going to kill me.”

Leonard’s mother Juanita confirms the worst: “We were children from violent families, raising children in a violent family.”

• • •

Leonard's San Quentin Graduation
Leonard graduates with his machinist apprentice certificate
while at San Quentin State Prison.

Leonard watched handcuffed from the back of a police car as the paramedics worked on his girlfriend’s lifeless body. He had been violent toward her in the past and admits he was “a very jealous person.” He spent his days in the county jail grappling with the magnitude of what he had done and how he had gotten there.

He began reading about the dynamics of abusive families, and when he got to prison, he took a domestic violence prevention workshop. “I was trying to get a better understanding of what brought me to the point of being capable of taking another life, because I didn’t ever want to do that again,” he says.

But accepting blame doesn’t come easy to many prisoners. “No one wants to admit their guilt and deal with the garbage that comes with it,” Leonard says. “You’ve got somebody that’s committed a murder and says, ‘Oh, I caught a body. I caught a case.’ That’s how a lot of people refer to it. It’s not, ‘I committed a murder.’”

And this is the heart of the story, both figuratively and literally: restorative justice, which focuses on helping criminals take responsibility for their actions and understand the real and deep impact of their crimes. It also helps victims and communities heal. Restorative justice treats a crime as a violation against an individual and a community, not as an abstract offense against the state. It asks: what harm was created, and how can we repair it—or, if it can’t be repaired, what can we do to prevent it from happening again? Although its emphasis is restorative more than punitive, restorative justice is not soft on crime, nor does it shorten the sentences. One of the best examples of what it looks like is Leonard Rubio.

• • •

In 2005, Leonard organized San Quentin’s first Interfaith Restorative Justice Roundtable and, later that year, enrolled in the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), a 5-1/2 month (now eight-month) intensive program in which inmates explore key questions that help them understand what led them to commit their crimes. Leonard and the others could see the positive effect it was having.

“There was a lot of guilt, a lot of shame, a lot of hurt, a lot of sadness. Almost every week there would be a lot of tears,” he says. “You’re unloading those burdens that you’ve been carrying with you, for some of those guys two or three decades.”

At the end of the program, inmates participate in victim-offender dialogues. The inmates and surrogate victims (who experienced crimes similar to those committed by the inmates) share their stories.

“It was a mind-blowing experience,” says Fr. Motyka, who attended several dialogues at San Quentin. “You have a woman who was raped at gunpoint, beaten, tell the story of what happened, and then you see the man that did something comparable stand up. There’s a human contact first. You see a human being, and as you talk you discover something about this person. You discover the complexity of it,” he says.

The impact is twofold: it gives a voice to the victim’s suffering, helping them heal, and it transforms the inmate.

“It’s not that they can repair their past,” Leonard says, “but they can repair the damage that they’ve done to themselves so that they become better people, and they don’t continue that kind of damage in the future. And that’s why, for me, it was like, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”

Leonard at Rally
Leonard speaks at an anti-violence rally in San Francisco in 2010.

An Unlikely Romance

In 2005, Aouie was shocked to find a story about Leonard in a Catholic newspaper, and equally shocked that he was still in prison after almost 17 years.

While Leonard was coming to grips with who he was and what he had done, Aouie had remained active in her church, accepted a job at USF’s Information Technology Services Department, and finished her degree at USF.

Then, she made a decision that would close a circle and affect the rest of her life. She decided to visit Leonard.

The first time Aouie visited San Quentin she was nervous. She had never been to a prison before, let alone one of the most notorious prisons in the country. She passed barbed wire and armed guards and walked a quarter mile uphill to the visiting area.

She wasn’t prepared for what she saw when she entered the visiting room. Looking around the room at the rapists and murderers in prison blues, she saw men who looked just like people she’d see on the street and in the grocery store. “And they had family that looked like mine, like my neighbors and my friends’ families,” she says.

Still, the seed for romance is the last thing you would expect. But Aouie was about to meet her future husband face-to-face for the very first time.

“Inside that visiting room, there’s nothing to do other than stare at each other,” says Aouie. “We can eat, but it’s vending machine food. And we can walk around in a circle amongst the tables. There’s really nothing else.”

Except talk. They talked about faith, family, prison life, and the genuine change someone can experience.

A visit every few weeks turned into a visit every week, then on both Saturday and Sunday. The thought of visiting him gave her butterflies.

• • •

People wondered aloud, sometimes aggressively, how Aouie could love someone who had murdered an innocent girl. “I had one colleague tell me, the reason they go to prison is so we can lock them up and throw away the key,” Aouie says.

Aouie started to question her own ideas about crime and justice. She attended the National Conference on Restorative Justice in Kerrville, Texas, and while she was there the state executed a man. “I started looking at how we value people in life. Do I think the Old Testament way of an eye for an eye, or do I think that people change? And for me, my conclusion is that people can change, if people have that desire to learn to be different, to change their choices.”

She saw this in the man she loved. And if people can change, then shouldn’t they be given a second chance, a chance to contribute to their communities?

• • •

Leonard had become eligible for parole in 1996 but was turned down again and again.

“There were times when I asked her if she wanted to leave because of the hurt I saw her go through, coming up to the prison every weekend, dealing with the board saying no,” Leonard says. “There were just lots of hurdles...and I told her, ‘If you need to go, go.’”

But Aouie’s belief in Leonard carried her through three parole denials and a legal battle for his release.

“Every time I thought about that black hole and him not coming home, there was always another voice saying, ‘Stick with it, this is it.’ So I did,” Aouie says.

On a late February morning in 2010, after more than four years of prison visits, she received a phone call from Leonard. She was driving to work. He asked her to pull over so that he could tell her the news: he was finally coming home. He had been in prison for 23 years, from the age of 18 to 41.

Aouie and Leonard at workshop
Aouie and Leonard facilitate a restorative justice workshop at USF’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.
Photo by Barbara Ries.

A Marriage and a Mission

On Feb. 27, 2010, Aouie was waiting at the top of the driveway when she saw a white Crown Victoria slowly approach. “I just see Leonard’s face in the window, and he’s just beaming. I start yelling, ‘He’s here!’”

Family and friends rushed out of the house to greet him, and Aouie stood back to let them have their moment. And then Leonard turned to her. “It was nice to be able to just wrap my arms around her and be able to give her a kiss and not have to worry about one of the COs [corrections officers] saying ‘two seconds, two seconds,’ limiting the time we could kiss. For me it was very peaceful.”

A few months later, Leonard and Aouie got married. Almost three years later, when asked about their relationship, they lock eyes and smile. Aouie replies, “Most people function off of making sure they keep their skeletons in the closet in the closet. Our relationship, he’s known about all of my skeletons…and everyone knows his big skeleton. It was a relief to know that there was nothing to hide.”

Their strength as a couple fuels their mission to promote restorative justice. Aouie mentors boys at a youth detention facility in Alameda County. Leonard, who has not held a gun since that fateful day, completed his bachelor’s degree at USF in May. He chairs the Insight Prison Project, the group that administers the VOEG program at San Quentin, and speaks about domestic violence prevention at churches, community centers, and USF.

The pair also brought their mission to campus. Last fall, Aouie and Leonard led a restorative justice seminar for USF faculty, staff, and students. One night a week for six weeks, the couple facilitated discussions that asked participants to question their ideas about crime and punishment and to think about how they might apply restorative justice in their daily lives. The seminar was so successful that Aouie and Leonard received a Jesuit Foundation grant to hold a second in the summer. “If I can touch one heart at a time to deepen their understanding of restorative practices, if I can change someone’s perspective, then they can begin to build others up,” Aouie says. “I’m hoping that will inspire others to do the same.”

Want to get involved?

Here are some Bay Area organizations that Aouie and Leonard recommend:

Insight Prison Project
(415) 459-9800
IPP runs the Victim Offender Education Group as well as other rehabilitative programs at San Quentin and other California prisons.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth
(510) 931-7569
RJOY provides education and technical assistance to schools implementing restorative justice alternatives to punitive school discipline, and to the juvenile justice system.

Healing Circle for the Soul Support Group—Paradise Baptist Church
2595 San Jose Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94112
Facilitator: George Jurand, (415) 516-1635
The Healing Circle provides support and education to survivors of homicide victims. Meetings take place every second and fourth Thursday of the month.

Resolve to Stop the Violence Project
Run by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, RSVP offers restorative programs for domestic violence victims, offenders, and communities.

Shawn Doubiago, an adjunct professor of comparative literature who participated in the seminar later asked Leonard to speak to some USF students. “A lot of them can’t get over the fact that he’s a murderer. I think one person said, ‘Why is he out?’” Doubiago says. “Our culture is so retributive. It’s like we label criminals, and they can’t ever change in our eyes. If we can introduce these concepts at an early age, just think about how it can affect people in their lives.”

Their work has earned them accolades here at USF. In May, Aouie won one of the university’s highest honors—the Fr. William J. Dunne Award, given annually to a staff member who demonstrates leadership in living USF’s mission in their work on campus and in the community. Leonard won the Archbishop Oscar Romero Award for his restorative justice work. It is awarded each year to a graduating senior who embodies the university’s motto of “Change the World From Here.”

Restorative justice infuses Aouie and Leonard’s life together, as does their appreciation of the day-to-day moments that once seemed impossible. They live in Richmond, remain active in the church they both grew up in, and spend a lot of time with their families. Aouie’s father has become one of Leonard’s biggest supporters. Leonard enjoys rides on his Harley, and Aouie is an amateur photographer. But for the self-professed movie junkies, their simplest and most precious joy is just talking to each other, as it was that very first day at San Quentin. 

For an overview of restorative justice, Aouie and Leonard suggest “The Little Book of Restorative Justice,” by Howard Zehr (Good Books, 2002).


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