Rita Castillo was 17 years old when she gave birth to her son Angel Leon Castillo on April 15, 2003. One month later, Castillo, a Santa Barbara native, graduated from Santa Barbara High School and then attended Santa Barbara Business College. Today, she works as a pastry chef. “We kind of grew up together,” Rita said of Angel in a recent interview. As a child, Angel was calm, sweet, and shy. “He had the best smile,” she said. “Everyone would say, ‘Yeah, I remember his smile.’ ”
Just after sunset on January 3 — one day before he was scheduled to resume classes at Santa Barbara High School — Angel Castillo’s smile was extinguished with a bullet through the back, fired by an unknown assailant by the corner of Liberty and Canada streets on Santa Barbara’s lower Eastside.
Angel Castillo was 17 years old.
Another boy, Omar Montiel-Hernandez, was also killed. Two other teens were shot and wounded in the same incident, which the police investigators characterized as gang related.
“I need to set the record straight,” said Rita Castillo. “Angel wasn’t perfect. He got into trouble. Everybody does. But he was never in a gang. You can ask anyone who knew Angel; he was never in any gang.”
This matters, Rita Castillo said, because it’s the truth. It matters more because she doesn’t want the general public — and especially the police — shrugging off her son’s slaying as “just another gang shooting.”
Angel was excited about his life. After struggling with learning challenges over the years, he was pulling straight A’s at school and had just been hired at an auto body shop run by his great-uncle, just a block from the family home on Haley Street. To celebrate the new job, Angel’s father, Sergio Castillo, had bought his son a new pair of brown work boots, which Angel put under his bed to keep them perfect until he began work.
As a young kid, Rita Castillo said, Angel was so shy he’d look down when grown-ups called his name. As a student, he did well in math but struggled with reading and writing. He could learn things that he could visualize or imagine but needed help with words. As he moved up the educational ladder — from Cleveland Elementary to Santa Barbara Junior High School to Santa Barbara High School — school got harder for Angel Castillo. At times, he grew discouraged. Why work so hard, he wondered, if the results did not reflect it? But recently things seemed to fall into place.
All his life, Angel loved animals, and they loved him back. He had a pet rabbit named Chunky for whom he built a house. As he got older, he started a garden, planting vegetables, corn, and tomatoes. “We’d go to ACE Hardware and buy seeds,” Rita recalled.
It turned out Angel had an intuitive flair in the kitchen. His father liked to fish and catch crabs, and when he brought home his catch, Angel would conjure up his own special sauces. “I don’t like seafood — not at all,” Rita confessed. “But he’d make us try it. My husband thought he should go to culinary school.”
About two years ago, Rita said, Angel started hanging out with new friends. He started to like drinking. And he felt the pull of gang life. One of Rita’s brothers was a gang member. Angel knew people involved with gangs, and they knew him. He was interested. He and his parents argued about it, and then one day, “I don’t know what happened, but Angel said, ‘No, I don’t want to be part of it,’ ” his mother said. “He saw for himself what it was all about.”
It’s true that Angel and a few friends once rushed into a liquor store on Milpas Street, hoping to steal a few six-packs, she said, but for his efforts, he was caught, handcuffed, and placed on unsupervised probation for six months. That was stupid, his mother admitted, but it was the sort of dumb trouble lots of teenagers get into, not just gang members.
What Angel Castillo was doing at Liberty and Canada streets on the night of January 3, Rita Castillo said she doesn’t know. But she does know this: Her son was shot in the back while trying to flee. Because of COVID, she and Sergio were not allowed in the hospital. They learned their son died when one of the two teens who’d been wounded in the shooting texted his mother, who was waiting with them outside Cottage Hospital. “Angel didn’t make it.”
At first, Rita refused to believe it. Later a police detective confirmed the worst. Grief and disbelief, anger and suspicion have pummeled her in the months following her son’s killing. Why haven’t the cops arrested her son’s killers yet? There were two witnesses, after all. What about all the ubiquitous security cameras? she wondered. Not one image?
It was frustrating when detectives working the case didn’t return her calls in a timely fashion early on. Was her son’s death considered “just another gang shooting?” she asked. “I didn’t want to think so, but now I’m wondering.”
When Sheriff’s Office investigators claimed to have cracked a double-homicide case in Noleta that left two teenagers dead just one week after her son and Omar were killed, she watched Sheriff Bill Brown holding a press conference announcing that the alleged killers had been captured.
Rita Castillo was hardly the first to notice that the victims in the case were white. News stories about the Goleta shooting tended to highlight the victims’ educational goals and ambitions. That they’d been involved in “a drug deal gone bad” seemed to Castillo as if it were stuck in as an afterthought at the end of the articles. But most of the articles about Angel’s death highlighted the gang-related aspects of the violence. “My son had his whole life ahead of him, too,” she said.
But Castillo acknowledged she’s been in a fog since her son’s murder. She can’t remember everything that’s happened and who she’s spoken to. City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez stopped by her house, offering to be of assistance. Mayor Cathy Murillo participated in a healing ceremony on the sidewalk where the shootings took place to pacify the spirits of the slain teens.
Santa Barbara police detective Lieutenant Josh Morton stressed that the department is fully pursuing the murder investigation. All murders, he stressed, are taken seriously, but he can’t speak about specific details of ongoing investigations. Some murders are just harder to solve than others. Sheriffs’ investigators, for example, had the benefit of incriminating cell phone communications linking the Goleta victims with one of the accused killers.
The lack of evident progress on Angel’s shooting, nevertheless, has elicited anger from many Eastside residents. “I hear the frustration out there,” said Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, who represents that district. She has stressed the importance of good communications with the victims’ families, even when there’s little information that can be shared.
Eventually the police investigators met with the families of the two murdered teens and explained why they were limited in what they could say. They asked for more patience so they could amass the evidence needed to secure an actual conviction.
Castillo said the meeting helped. “We were able to ask questions and express what we were really feeling,” she said. “I felt better afterward, but I’ll feel better after there’s an arrest.”
The shooting has deeply concerned the City Council and staff about a possible chain reaction of gang retaliation and escalation. It’s a reality Rita Castillo readily acknowledges. “I know the gangs are just waiting for the cops to pull back so they can get revenge.” More killing, she said, will just beget more killing.
“Angel was an innocent in this, and he got killed. Look, nobody wants these guys more than I do, but killing them isn’t going to bring Angel or Omar back. It will just mean more innocents get killed. I want them arrested, tried, and convicted. That’s what I want.”
In the meantime, Rita Castillo said she has a hard time stumbling through her grief. She’s back to work. She and Sergio have a 2-year-old son to care for, but it’s hard for her to muster the energy to cook these days without Angel and his voracious appetite.
And the other day, her husband came home with five crabs. For a moment Sergio was all excited about showing his catch to Angel, who would create one of his amazing sauces. Then he caught himself. Angel’s not here anymore. “What’s the use of fishing?” he asked.
Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.