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
“[The therapist] told us that he understands that everyone is kind of jumpy, that we, kind of like, get mad at things real fast,” Marcial explains.
The LAPD and other city officials fielded dozens of calls from citizens who wanted to voice their outrage or offer help to the family. Yet none of their information resulted in an arrest. “There are people out there that hold the keys and could come forward,” says LAPD detective Mike Oppelt. “I don’t know that they ever will. That’s the nature of this type of murder.”
Asked whether the triple homicide could have been averted, Oppelt has doubts. Much of the time, Oppelt says, murder is spontaneous: “Somebody got an impulse and acted on it.”
Grief counselors who work with the LAPD say one of the most difficult decisions faced by families of murder victims is what to do with the home. That question was especially difficult on Marcial’s street, where several terrified neighbors temporarily moved their families to other places after the killings. With so many houses empty, vandals began breaking into their homes or stealing things from their yards.
In the first few weeks, Marcial did not want to part with his home, living there to make sure the property was protected. He had experienced so many good times there, raising his children over the course of a decade. But he had also seen his son — a boy who loved to draw, build model cars and make his parents laugh — die in his front yard. “I don’t know for what reason this was done, what was the motive behind it. But I don’t want to stay around.”
Asked where he plans to go, Marcial grows quiet. “I have no idea,” he says.
THE BATTLE FOR COPS
Forty-Ninth Street runs east-west through South Los Angeles, a region that erupted in 1992 after four LAPD officers were acquitted in the beating of a fleeing black motorist. That year, the city experienced 1,092 murders, the highest number in L.A. history. Traumatized, voters elected as their mayor the lawyer and venture capitalist Richard Riordan, a Republican who promised 3,000 new officers and campaigned on the slogan “Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around.”
Riordan took office during a severe recession, with the number of sworn police officers declining by nearly 800 between 1990 and 1993. The mayor promised to push LAPD staffing from 7,635 to 10,000 by shifting city spending priorities and siphoning money from the city’s airport, harbor and Department of Water and Power — three semiautonomous agencies long viewed as cash cows.
With Riordan at the helm, LAPD hiring surged, reaching a high-water mark in 1998 of 9,737 sworn officers — the most in city history. But the initiative soon began to unravel, making the goal of 10,000 officers more elusive than ever. Shipping interests and the federal government blocked Riordan’s diversion of funds from the harbor and airport departments, taking away a source of funds for cops. Even worse, the LAPD was enveloped by a scandal in its Rampart Division, where officers were accused of framing suspects and stealing dope.
Morale within the department sank as the federal government secured oversight of the LAPD. Recruiting plummeted as the police officers union and then-chief Bernard Parks declared war on each other. By the time Riordan left office in 2001, fewer than 9,000 officers were patrolling the city.
Mayor James Hahn fared even worse. Hampered by the economic downturn caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hahn proved largely incapable of swaying the elected 15-member City Council to pursue a major LAPD expansion. First the council blocked a modest cop-hiring plan in 2003. Then voters rejected a more ambitious countywide sales tax supported by Hahn to pay for more officers in 2004. As his political fortunes evaporated, Hahn tried a third and final time, pushing a city-only half-cent sales tax for the ballot. That idea was consumed by the politics of the mayoral campaign, with Hahn’s opponent, then-Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, rallying his colleagues against it.
The debate over the ballot measure on the floor of the council chambers offered a rare glimpse into the ways that murder had affected certain officials. Eastside councilman Ed Reyes, remembering a community volunteer who had been killed, implored his colleagues to put the citywide sales tax on the ballot. Only nine council members favored doing so — one vote shy of the minimum.
The pivotal “no” vote came from Councilman Alex Padilla, a representative of the San Fernando Valley who praised the council for its passion even as it torpedoed the measure. “I’m proud of the council right now,” he beamed. “That was the best discussion and debate that’s occurred on the council floor for a long, long time.”
His speech infuriated Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district takes in gang-scarred neighborhoods like Watts and Wilmington. “You tell family members whose kids are lost to gang violence that we had a great debate in the City Council,” declared Hahn, the sister of the then-mayor. “And aren’t we proud that we had a good debate here!”
CHERYL GREEN, 1992–2006
Councilwoman Hahn spent much of 2006 focused on murder, searching for strategies to address the homicides in and around the five housing projects in her district. At year’s end, a time typically reserved for family, Hahn was preoccupied by a single killing — the death of a girl in Harbor Gateway, the skinny strip of the city that connects Watts with the Los Angeles harbor.