Gang mayhem cripples big area

Thousands stranded, schools locked down as notorious group battles the LAPD after a drive-by killing.

By Richard Winton, Susannah Rosenblatt and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
February 22, 2008

A drive-by attack followed by a wild shootout between gang members and police shut down dozens of blocks of Northeast Los Angeles for nearly six hours Thursday afternoon, stranding thousands of residents, keeping students locked in their classrooms and leaving two people dead.

Veteran L.A. Police Department officials described the bizarre midday shootings — and the widespread disruption they caused — as highly unusual even in an area known for gang activity. It left the neighborhood littered with shell casings and its residents fearful.

Police blamed the incident on the notorious Avenues gang, which has cast a wide shadow over districts north of downtown L.A. for decades and continues to be active despite several high-profile attempts by authorities to shut it down.

The violence began around noon when a 37-year-old man police described as a bystander was shot more than a dozen times by suspected gang members as he held the hand of a 2-year-old girl. He later died. The toddler, apparently picked up by a passerby and carried to safety, was not wounded. As the gunmen drove off, witnesses told police, several pedestrians who apparently knew the victim opened fire on the car.

Minutes later, police attempted to stop suspects driving in a white Nissan sedan about 10 blocks away. Three men jumped out of the car, and at least two of them fired weapons at officers.

A man wielding an AK-47 rifle was killed by police as they returned fire, authorities said.

Another suspect was wounded and later found hiding under a car, where he was still holding a semiautomatic handgun, law enforcement sources said. Police said he is expected to recover.

But it was a massive manhunt for the two remaining suspects that shut down dozens of streets in Cypress Park until police arrested one of the men about 5:30 p.m. The other is believed to have driven out of the area, police said.

As police swept through the neighborhood, parents waited anxiously for word about their schoolchildren and other residents remained either stuck inside their homes or kept back by police barricades.

“My son is trapped over there and I can’t get him,” said Christine Schmidt, 37, who was inside her home near Drew Street and Avenue 32 when she heard the gunshots. Her son was one of the students locked down at Washington Irving Middle School.

“I want my son,” she said.

During the search, SWAT team members took position and patrol deputies went door to door with dogs in a neighborhood Police Chief William J. Bratton called the “heart and soul” of the Avenues street gang, whose roots there date back more than 50 years.

As the search dragged on, Washington Irving Middle School students kept on lockdown were fed lunch, allowed bathroom breaks and kept in touch with parents by cellphone. Also locked down were Fletcher and Aragon elementary schools and Cal Charter.

An automated phone service notified parents of the lockdown status, which was not lifted until about 6:15 p.m.

Hundreds of residents gathered along sidewalks and on freeway bridges, waiting for police to allow them back into the neighborhood.

Juan Soto awoke at home to the sound of helicopters and police cars. His car was in the area blocked by police and he had no way to get to his job.

“My boss is not going to relieve me,” said the 31-year-old.

Near the scene of the shootings Thursday, Bratton described a neighborhood terrorized in recent weeks by gang violence.

“Gangs that have been here for generations have been going at each other,” Bratton said during a news conference, referring to the Avenues and Cypress Park gangs.

Since the beginning of the year, authorities said Avenues gang members are suspected in at least six homicides. Northeast Division, typically far from the most violent in the city, already has eight homicides this year, more than any other, police said. At that rate, the division would far eclipse last year’s total of 18.

Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz said that while the area has gang problems, the level of violence in the last few weeks is “unheard of.”

In the last month, police said, about a third of the 60 aggravated assaults in the area this year have been connected to Avenues gang members.

The Avenues gang has cast a long shadow in these poor, largely Latino sections north of downtown L.A.

They gained national attention in 1995 when a 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen was shot and killed when her family made a wrong turn into a Cypress Park alley.

Two years ago, the gang was again in the news when members were convicted on federal hate crime charges for violently trying to drive black residents from the area, a prosecution authorities hoped would hobble the gang’s activities.

But law enforcement officials on Thursday described an active and dangerous enterprise, still operating from its well-known base of operations on Drew Street.

Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said plainclothes officers in the area had gone to the location Thursday because they believed that possible suspects in the drive-by shooting would soon return.

“There’s been a rash, an uptick, of shootings in the past few weeks,” McDonnell said of the neighborhood, which is just north of the junction of the 5 and 2 freeways and densely packed with apartment buildings, small bungalows and warehouses.

Within minutes of reports of officers being shot at, a massive police presence had descended on the area. Los Angeles SWAT officers were in position by 1 p.m., authorities said. The location is only a few blocks from the LAPD’s Northeast Station on San Fernando Road.

More than four hours after the confrontation began, a body covered by a white sheet was still visible in the street. An AK-47 lay nearby.

Neighbors stood in front yards and looked down from balconies, some snapping photographs.

Neighbors said one home in the area had been a subject of frequent police activity.

On Wednesday night, one neighbor said police officers were at the house.

The 35-year old man, who lives in the apartment building next door and asked not to be identified because of fear of reprisals, said he then heard shots Thursday about noon.

“It’s been happening since last night,” he said. “It’s been getting worse and worse every single day.”

The shootout and police activity unnerved others as well. About a dozen residents were evacuated by police and stood waiting for hours in a nearby carport.

Norma Rodriguez, 45, said she was turned back when she tried to pick up her son from Fletcher Elementary School.

“We can’t go anywhere,” said Rodriguez, who lives in Eagle Rock and works as a private caregiver. “I’m worried. Right now at this point, I know he’s inside the school, but I don’t want him to be scared. There are police cars everywhere.”

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