By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
First he stopped by Moon’s Market, at the corner of Third and Clarence streets, where he bought a cold drink and ran into a friend named William Ayala. William and Roman had been close friends since the fifth grade. William was also one of the original TMCs. Now he worked in the film business and, like Roman, lived away from the projects. He was just there to pack for a weekend camping trip with another former homeboy. He asked Roman to come over and kick it while they loaded supplies. Roman said he’d be there in a minute.
Roman walked the wife of a friend to her apartment on Clarence Street, then waited outside as she went upstairs to check on her son. She was headed back down to talk when three Cuatro Flats homeboys crept through a stucco archway that connected one apartment building to another. The Clarence Street area is generally considered to be TMC territory, while Cuatro Flats claims a sector two blocks north in Pico Gardens. In the beginning, TMC and Cuatro were allies. In several cases, families were split between the two gangs. For example, Joseph Tapia, one of Roman’s younger cousins, is from Cuatro. The problems started in the early ’90s. At first, it was nothing serious, a few fistfights and a bit of rival tagging. Then there was a shooting and a death. By 1993, TMC and Cuatro Flats were mortal enemies.
The ski-masked figures that emerged from the shadows weren’t looking for Roman Gonzalez. They had come to find some active TMC gang members, but none were in view. There was only Roman. According to the rules of the street, the Cuatros should have given him a pass. They certainly knew who he was, and that he’d been out of the game for years. Yet for reasons that are unclear, they decided: Fuck it. Roman would do.
He never saw it coming. William Ayala was across the street packing the truck when he heard the initial gunfire. As he ducked behind the truck for cover, he glimpsed Roman trying to make it to the apartment stairs for safety. The bullets of the first two gunmen went wide. The third was a better shot. "It was the third guy who hit him," says William. The third shooter ran to where Roman had collapsed on the cement and stood over him, firing bullet after bullet at close range.
Meanwhile, the other Cuatros spotted William and blasted in his direction. William heard the bullets go by close to his head, making a ding, ding sound as they bounced off the pavement. Both gunmen started toward him, but all at once there were mothers in the distance, shouting and running up the street. The shooters turned and melted into the shadows.
Roman’s aunt, Rosa Campos, was shepherding fifth-graders home when she heard the noise like popping corn and ran toward the sound. "It’s Roman," one of the other mothers screamed. A group of women, Pam McDuffie among them, had gathered where a man lay at the edge of the sidewalk, his arms and legs splayed. Rosa approached, and the others stepped aside because Roman was her nephew, her favorite of all her sister’s kids. "I just saw him five minutes ago," she said as she dropped to her knees beside him, her voice abstract and woozy. Rosa gathered Roman’s head and shoulders onto her lap and began to shake him slightly in the way you would shake a beloved toddler awake, screaming at him in Spanish, telling him, please, don’t die. She would say later that she could see Roman was dying anyway. Too much of him had leaked onto her clothes, and his eyes were becoming fixed, like stars.
Word of the shooting blew around the projects quickly. Father Boyle got the call at his Jobs for a Future office on First Street. "You better come," said a neighborhood woman. Boyle parked at Dolores Mission, the local Catholic church, and walked the half block to Clarence Street, where he saw the ambulance and the crowd. Several women floated toward him. "It’s Roman," they said.
"After 14 years of gang work," Boyle says, "I’ve learned to read the signs. You notice how much blood there is, how big the police presence is, how fast the yellow tape goes up." In the case of Roman, all the bad signs were present. Still, the priest held out hope. "I thought maybe it was a grazing, or a through-and-through," the latter meaning a bullet that zips into the soft tissue and out again without hitting anything vital.
Boyle followed the ambulance to County General Hospital, where, in the emergency room, Roman was deemed too critical to make it upstairs for surgery. The E.R. docs opened his chest on the spot and tried to massage his heart back to beating. A few minutes later, a physician came out to where Boyle paced in the waiting room and caught his attention. "I probably shouldn’t tell you this," he said, "and you can’t tell anybody until we’ve had a chance to notify the family, but he died. Roman died."