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The End Of Murder 

If New York can slash homicide by 76 percent, can Los Angeles contemplate a vanishing point?

Wednesday, Jan 24 2007
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CHRIS CASTELLANOS, 1988–2006

The No. 18 bus ambles down Whittier Boulevard every 10 minutes on weekday mornings, letting its mostly low-income riders on and off as it rolls past cinder-block medical clinics, stuccoed beauty parlors and fenced auto yards. That was the routine on January 3, 2006, as MTA bus driver Phillip Gonzales took his passengers east out of downtown Los Angeles, over the majestic Sixth Street bridge, and uphill into working-class Boyle Heights.

Gonzales, a veteran with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, had seen his share of bad behavior. So on that bright, sunny morning, he thought he knew what to expect as he approached Whittier and Boyle, where two young men were confronting a teenage boy. For a moment, he thought the pushing and shoving might even be entertaining. “There is nothing like a good old-fashioned fight,” Gonzales recalled saying, when he appeared in court months later.

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From behind the wheel, Gonzales saw the boy put his hands up, as if he wanted to avoid trouble. The boy approached the bus, apparently looking to climb aboard. Then, at the last minute, 17-year-old Chris Castellanos broke into a run.

As Castellanos darted across the street, one pursuer opened fire, striking him twice in the back. The boy hit the ground. The gunman kept firing, sending six more bullets into Castellanos, a junior at Cantwell Sacred Heart of Mary, a prep school in Montebello. As the gunman ran down Boyle Avenue, the bus driver — in a state of shock — continued driving until a passenger broke the silence and urged him to call the police.

The slaying of Chris Castellanos was the first truly horrific murder of 2006, the type of killing that sends a chill through any parent waiting for a child to come home from the market or the movies or the mall. It happened at 10 a.m. on a busy boulevard. Witnesses were plentiful — one in a parking lot, another in a car. Castellanos had one dollar and two quarters and, prosecutors say, died because he didn’t give them up.

The man arrested a few hours later was all too willing to talk about that fact, according to testimony by police months later. Sitting in a hospital with injuries sustained while fleeing police, 22-year-old Aymar Josua Torres told police he planned to rob someone and knew that if his victim got crazy, he’d have to kill him.

“He leaned over and, in what I would describe as a bragging tone, kind of, said, ‘You know, I think I shot that guy like 10 times,’ ” testified officer Brent McGuyre. “ ‘You know, most homies would just shoot once or twice, then run. But I shot 10 times.’ ”

The death of Castellanos, who had written about going to college and possibly becoming a doctor, earned no mention in the Los Angeles Times. NBC Channel 4 aired the standard helicopter shot of the crime scene and news of Torres’ arrest. But then, there would always be another homicide in Los Angeles — 477 more in 2006, to be exact. And quietly, the effects of the January 3 killing metastasized, spreading poison far beyond the corner of Whittier and Boyle.

The murder devastated Castellanos’ parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins. Word spread through Boyle Heights, astounding even those accustomed to gang violence. The news reached the boy’s friends, who filled his MySpace page with tributes. Eight months later, on his birthday, the page received 23 birthday greetings, most acknowledging that Castellanos never lived to turn 18.

Castellanos tried to project a thugged-out image on his Web site, wearing dark glasses and going by the nickname “$$lokz$$.” Yet he sounded vulnerable too. Asked to describe his greatest fear, he had written: “Losing my family.” Quizzed on how he wanted to die, the boy wrote: “In my sleep.”

THE QUESTION

Forty-eight hours after Chris Castellanos fell to the pavement, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton held a celebration of sorts, commemorating L.A.’s progress in reducing crime. As the mayor and the chief unveiled end-of-the-year crime statistics for 2005, they proudly declared that Los Angeles had become the nation’s second-safest big city, surpassing San Diego and falling just behind New York. Villaraigosa bragged that Angelenos were safer than at any point since 1956, a much sleepier era by nearly every measure.

The boast was a bit of a stretch. Although overall crime was indeed down, Angelenos at the end of 2005 were nearly twice as likely to experience a violent crime as in the era of Leave It to Beaver. Furthermore, the murder rate in Los Angeles remained twice the level found in New York — a metropolis enjoying a 15-year decline in homicides. New York had 539 murders in 2005, just 49 more than Los Angeles. New York also had twice the population.

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