LAPD seeks public’s help in apprehending gunmen who killed baby

Officials post a $75,000 reward for information in the shooting near MacArthur Park in L.A.
By Ari Bloomekatz
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 18, 2007

Los Angeles police detectives on Monday searched for three gunmen who opened fire in a bustling shopping district near MacArthur Park over the weekend, critically wounding an outdoor vendor and kil#i*gg a 23-day-old baby being pushed in a stroller by his mother.

The slaying has left residents shaken in the Westlake district, about two miles west of downtown, a dense collection of apartments housing mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants. The area has long struggled with gang violence, and police are investigating whether the suspects are gang members.

The infant, Luis Angel Garcia, was hit by a stray bullet about 9:30 p.m. Saturday, as his mother and hundreds of other shoppers strolled amid the stores and outdoor vendors near the corner of 6th Street and Burlington Avenue, police said.

The gunmen appeared to be targeting vendor Francisco Clemente, 37, who was hit in the chest by several bullets. He was taken to a hospital, where he remains in critical condition. Police said they didn’t have a motive for the kil#i*gg, but some residents in the area said they feared it was retaliation after the vendor didn’t pay “rent” to a gang.

City officials held a news conference Monday seeking the public’s help and describing the shooting as “heinous,” “terrible,” and “horrific.” Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the area, announced a $75,000 reward for information leading to arrests of those involved, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he promised the infant’s mother that “detectives were working around the clock” to solve the case.

“The cold-blooded murder of a tiny infant is just something this city cannot tolerate,” Villaraigosa said. He said he met with the infant’s mother and “held her hand. She was in terrible pain,” he said.

Police believe 50 to 100 people witnessed the shooting and might have vital information. The area around 6th and Burlington is heavily trafficked by pedestrians and brims with small markets and mostly Latino vendors.

Christina Cruz, owner of Descuentos Chris, a small general store across the street from where the man and infant were shot, said the area always has lots of families, and during the weekend it bustles with activity.

But she said trouble was often right around the corner.

“It’s a famous neighborhood, but for bad reasons,” Cruz said. Authorities have cracked down on crime in the area over the last few years and have had some successes. Crime is “down five years running, including in the neighborhood in which this occurred,” Villaraigosa said during the news conference. But Saturday night’s shooting renewed fears among residents that violence is just a misstep away.

“It’s dangerous for the children,” said Lorenna Martinez, 25, who was washing her clothes at a nearby coin laundry with her 2-year-old son. “We are sometimes scared late at night.”

At least 70% of those living in the Westlake district are Latino, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Nearly 38% of families there are living in poverty, more than three times the national average.

Meanwhile, the area is full of contradictions that speak volumes to the intensely diverse and varied interests of those living and working nearby.

A few steps from a liquor store on 6th Street is a Coto’s Mother-Baby Food Center. A few steps from a tortilla shop and a bakery is a half-demolished building. A woman who said she had been working at a general store for years said she is constantly dealing with drunks. And next to a shining portrait of the Virgin de Guadalupe in a mural on the side of a doughnut store is a portrait of a man carrying an automatic weapon.

Authorities said they were unsure if the shooting was gang-related, but acknowledged that gang activity in the area is strong. Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz said the Los Angeles Police Department had heard rumors about gang extortion in the area, specifically targeting vendors, but could not confirm whether Saturday’s shooting was related.

A vendor in the area who asked not to be identified said toughs and thugs sometimes pick on street vendors, charge them fees to sell their wares or rob them. If a vendor doesn’t pay up, there could be trouble, the man said.

In the mid-1990s, neighborhoods around MacArthur Park were flooded with crime as gangs ruled over black market businesses and divided up territories. Once home to the city’s densest murder cluster, the area had 138 homicides in 1992. There was a time when tamale vendors were roughed up for “taxes.” But the LAPD made cleaning up MacArthur Park and surrounding areas a top priority. At the same time, the gentrification sweeping downtown, Hollywood and Koreatown has brought some loft and condo projects to Westlake.

LAPD and residents celebrated last year when homicide rates around MacArthur Park dropped to meet the city-wide average.

Some Westlake district residents said the area, while sometimes dangerous, is not as violent as its reputation indicates. Guadalupe Huerta, 42, said she has been living nearby for 12 years and is not worried about violence.

It is a problem perpetrated by a small minority that is not part of typical residents’ lifestyles, she said.

“Everyone here walks in the street,” Huerta said. “It’s all families.”

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