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
|Photos by Ted Soqui|
The day after 19-month-old Susie Peña died during a shootout between her father, Raul Peña, and LAPD officers, family members and friends arrive at the site of the carnage, partly to grieve, but also to attempt to figure out how events could have gone so hideously wrong.
Some in the family think they personally could have changed things. "The police should have let me talk to Raul, but they refused," says Peña’s brother Elias Peña, as he fingers the elaborate sprays of bullet holes that pock the walls at Raul’s Auto Sales, the South Los Angeles used-car dealership where the shooting took place. Others talk angrily about how the press doesn’t get it, how the officers should have waited longer before storming a building with a baby inside, and how if the same scenario had unfolded in, say, Encino or Westwood, surely there would have been a different strategy and a different end to the story.
"The police act like my father was Osama bin Laden," says Raul Peña’s 15-year-old stepson, Ronald Depaz. "But my dad was a good man. He loved that baby. Police say he used her as a shield, but he didn’t. I was here before the police made me leave, and I could hear Raul shouting, ‘This is my baby! This is my baby!’ And the cops opened fire like it was nothing. Did you see how many bullet holes there were in there?" Ronald gestures toward the small interior office, now porous as a sieve. "One of those bullets hit my sister." At that, the boy’s veneer of composure breaks, and, pulling his black T-shirt up over his face, he begins to cry hard.
That same Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa extends his condolences to the Peña family yet points to Peña’s lethal recklessness. "We don’t know exactly what happened," Villaraigosa says to reporters. "But we do know this: There was a man with a firearm shooting at the public, shooting at officers. And, as a layman, I saw officers doing everything they could. I saw three different officers crying afterward."
By Tuesday afternoon, LAPD Chief Bill Bratton has listened to Peña’s family’s version of events for 48 hours and decides he’s had enough. At a 4 p.m. press conference, he states unequivocally that officers used every possible means to get baby Susie out alive, and that Peña dealt the play all by himself. "This father is not a father of the year, as the family is now attempting to portray him," says Bratton, his expression grim and furious. "I refuse to allow this department to be maligned [by people who are] now trying to portray an individual who held his own daughter out as a human shield as somehow a hero. This guy is not a hero. He is a cold-blooded killer."
The fatal sequence of events that has L.A.’s police chief lining up on one side, the little girl’s family, their attorney and a string of community activists on another side, with the mayor somewhere in the center striving to calm the waters, began on Sunday just after 3 p.m., when Raul Peña left his used-car dealership, located at 10420 S. Avalon Blvd., and went to the home of the baby’s mother, Lorena Lopez, a half-block away. There, according to Lopez and her sister, he picked up the couple’s plum-cheeked toddler, Susie, and brought the girl back to work with him. "When my dad was under stress, he’d be with the baby to relax," says stepson Ronald. "Right now his business was going bad, and there were some debts. So that’s why he took the baby to work with him Sunday."
Nonsense, say police, contending that a combustible situation had been building in the family all weekend, that at 2 p.m. the day of the shooting, Lorena Lopez made a "domestic-terror report" to the police about Peña. And that after the shooting, Peña’s 16-year-old stepdaughter told police that he was jacked up on alcohol and cocaine that day, and had threatened to kill her, and baby Susie, and the girls’ mother, Lopez.
Whatever took place earlier, it appears that on Sunday, the stepdaughter, whose name is Ilsy Depaz, followed her stepfather back to the dealership, where Peña and the teenager got into an argument that escalated. Ilsy made a 911 call and told the operator Peña was threatening her physically. After the call came in to the Southeast Division of the LAPD at 3:47 p.m., two officers responded and learned that Peña had a gun and had fired shots before they got there. Family members and some witnesses disagree, saying that, when police arrived, Peña walked out of his office holding baby Susie with one hand and, with the other, pulled up his shirt to show he was unarmed. "I didn’t do nothing. Why are you here?" Peña is said to have shouted to the cops in Spanish. "This is a family dispute." It was moments later that neighbors heard the first "pop-pop" of gunfire.