Slain man tried to leave his gang past, family says

By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 25, 2008

Marcos Salas, his family said, was trying to leave behind a gangland past.

In his younger years, he had been a member of a gang in Cypress Park and had gone to prison — once for drugs, then for attempted murder in a gang shootout.

But recently, the 36-year-old had retreated from it all to be with his family: his companion, six daughters and two granddaughters. Police said he had even been dropped from the state’s gang member registry.

On Thursday, his past seemingly caught up with him. A car full of youths approached him as he walked about noon in front of Aragon Avenue Elementary School to pick up his daughter. Without a word, they shot him 17 times as he carried his 2-year-old granddaughter. Only a chain-link fence separated the shooting scene from kindergartners at play.

Minutes later, a mile away, a wild shootout between police and the suspected gang members who fired on Salas shut down dozens of blocks in Northeast Los Angeles for hours. Officers killed Daniel Leon, 20, an Avenues gang member armed with an AK-47. Another suspect was wounded.

Salas’ family, who spoke with The Times for the first time Sunday, said Marcos has been the forgotten victim in the mayhem.

“He was doing what any dad would do,” said his older brother, Art Salas. “My brother was there to pick up his daughter from school. He wasn’t hanging with the homeboys. He was a caring dad, brother, son and an artist.”

Salas’ granddaughter, Alyssa, suffered only a bump on her head from the fall. Witnesses said that was because her grandfather turned his back on the shooters to protect her. Hit, he fell to the ground.

Neighbor Francisca Garcia was leaving her house with her son when they heard the shots. They drove to the intersection and found Salas on the sidewalk.

“He had many holes in his body,” Garcia said. She bunched a scarf against them to stop the bleeding. “He said, ‘Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby?’ ” Garcia said. “A man from the school had her.”

The toddler’s shirt was covered with her grandfather’s blood, Garcia said.

Salas died at the hospital. Doctors told the family that he had been struck by 17 bullets and that his heart failed three times in surgery before he died.

Although he was unemployed, Salas occasionally worked as a tattoo artist, his family said. His companion’s welfare checks supported them. And he walked the streets of Cypress Park, where he grew up, without fear even as violence flared in recent weeks with his former gang’s rival, the Avenues.

Salas was one of eight brothers born to farmworker parents in Douglas, Ariz. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was a boy. As a teenager, he joined the neighborhood gang and dropped out of high school. A drug charge landed him in prison as a young adult, his brother said.

Later, Marcos Salas learned to draw. In 1997, he helped paint a 100-yard-long mural representing neighborhood life that remains today on two walls near Cypress Park.

Not long after he painted the mural, he went back to prison for attempted murder in a shootout with Avenues gang members while he was on parole. The family spoke openly about his troubled past and his desire to move on.

They said he was released a few years ago. Now that he was older, gang life was less attractive to him. With veterano status, he felt he could step away from the gang, his brother said.

“It gets to a point where you’re sick and tired of everything,” said Art Salas, also a member of the gang in Cypress Park for many years. “Then you have kids and that changes you too.”

Art Salas said he moved out of state to escape his gang life.

“I used to tell him, ‘Move out of the neighborhood. It’s bad there,’ ” Art Salas said.

But Marcos Salas never did.

Art Salas said he didn’t believe the shootout his brother had with the Avenues years ago, which led to his imprisonment, had anything to do with his death.

Rather, he believes his brother was a victim of profiling common to gang members. Marcos Salas looked like he could have been a gang member and so they shot him, not caring whether he was still active, his brother said.

Police have not commented on the motives behind Salas’ killing.

His death comes two weeks after the killing of 14-year-old Jose Juarez Jr., a.k.a “Speedy,” a few blocks from where Salas died.

The killings have set the neighborhood buzzing with rumors that the Mexican Mafia prison gang has placed a “greenlight” — a death warrant — on the Cypress Park gang, perhaps for not collecting taxes from local drug dealers.

In the last 15 years, greenlight orders emanating from mafia members in state and federal maximum security prisons have caused crime waves in numerous Southern California Latino neighborhoods.

The Avenues, which claims turf in northern and western Highland Park, has deep ties with the Mexican Mafia

“That’s what’s behind this — the greenlight,” said one woman in her 60s, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisal, standing Friday at a memorial for Salas of flowers and candles outside the school.

“I have friends who are gang members,” said a young man, who also asked not to be identified, at the memorial. “That’s what they say.”

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