FLAVIO ARAGON WAS 19 WHEN HE BLED TO DEATH one overheated summer afternoon in 1994. Nine years later, Flavio's sister, Maria Lupita Sanchez, 33, still hasn't gotten over it, not by a long shot. The grief is bad enough, Lupita says, but the crazy-making doubts make it worse. "There are still so many unanswered questions. So many pieces of the puzzle that still don't fit."
Flavio, his sister, and their older brother, Robert Aragon, grew up in the Pico-Aliso housing projects of East Los Angeles, a two-mile-square neighborhood that is one of the city's poorest and most violent. For years, the LAPD listed Pico-Aliso as having the most intense level of gang activity in Los Angeles. As a consequence, residents have gotten extremely experienced at burying their young. Father Greg Boyle, the priest who most often officiates at Eastside gang funerals, has, at last count, buried 115 young men and women like Flavio Aragon. Yet, for all the accumulated sorrow, his death still haunts residents with particular intensity.
This is not to say that Flavio was any kind of innocent. "My brother sold drugs," says Lupita. "There's no nice way around that." Neighbors are more specific. Like a lot of projects boys, they say, Flavio's life had jumped the tracks for the usual list of reasons: grinding poverty, dysfunction in the family, a beloved older brother who succumbed to the gang world. Flavio himself was never a violent kid. Rather, he was smart, a former straight-A student with so much damned potential that everybody prayed he'd one day turn things around.
"Yeah, Flavio made his money dealing," says Arnold Machado, a cheerful, moon-faced construction worker whose family lived just behind the wood bungalow that the Aragons used to rent. "But he was someone who meant something to a lot of people. Even now I keep thinking, What the hell happened? Did the police let him die? And if they did, how come nothing happened to those officers? A lot of people in the projects still ask those questions."
Pico-Aliso is policed by the Hollenbeck Division of the LAPD, not Rampart; in other words, not by the division made notorious by officer misdeeds. Yet for the minority communities of Los Angeles, "Rampart" now represents more than a division, or a discreetly bordered scandal. It has become a code word calling up all the old sad, bad stories that residents hold in their collective memory, a catalog of disquieting police encounters that, if unacknowledged, wear away at the fabric of a neighborhood, a police force, a city. The last moments of Flavio Aragon constitute one such story.
THE LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT HAS ALways contended that the truth of Flavio Aragon's death is a simple one. According to police documents, around 4:50 on the afternoon of July 16, 1994, Officers Thomas Wunsch and Edward Veenstra, both from the Metro Division, were cruising north on the 100th block of Clarence Street when they observed what they assumed was a drug deal: Two young men in their 20s standing on the sidewalk handed a third man an undetermined amount of cash. The officers screeched their unmarked car to the curb, got out and searched the three men. They found nothing suspicious no contraband, wads of cash or weapons. ä All the men had identification, and no outstanding warrants. One of the men, Robert Aragon Flavio's brother admitted he was on parole. He was in the projects visiting his mother, he said, and pointed to a nearby bungalow at 156 Clarence. Officers Wunsch and Veenstra asked Robert Aragon for permission to search the residence. Robert refused. The officers decided to go in anyway "in furtherance of the investigation." Wunsch and Veenstra radioed for backup. Metro Division Officers Daniel Skinner and Randy Andrews arrived a few minutes later to watch the three men while the first officers entered the bungalow.
Wunsch and Veenstra found the living and dining rooms unoccupied. They searched for a minute or two, went back outside to tell Skinner and Andrews to handcuff the men, then they re-entered the living room. Suddenly a door opened to the left of the officers. A male, later identified as Flavio Aragon, was "standing in the doorway holding a clear plastic bag in his right hand." The officers noted the bag contained a "white, powdery substance that resembled cocaine." Startled, Flavio ran back into the bedroom and slammed the door shut. As the officers followed, they heard the sound of breaking glass. Thinking their bird was flying the coop, they ran out the front door and around to the side of the house. There they found Flavio lying on a small concrete walkway below the shattered window, bleeding from his right arm and ankle. One shard of glass had penetrated the side of his chest under the right armpit, slicing clean through his right axillary artery.