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
ON A TYPICAL DAY, Norberto Castro pushed his snow-cone cart the six blocks from Melrose Avenue to Beverly Boulevard, a familiar face to the throngs of children in this dense Hollywood neighborhood. On a hot day, the 43-year-old Mexican immigrant could pull in upward of $300.
It was a job he was suited for. A salesman back in Mexico’s Guerrero state, he moved to Los Angeles in 2002 and fit in nicely with the bustle of the city’s illegal-immigrant neighborhoods, first working as a busboy and then packing groceries at a fruit market on Western Avenue.
His dream was to become his own boss, something nearly impossible to attain in Mexico’s stratified and often corrupt economy, even in his touristy hometown of Acapulco. By early 2005, the industrious Castro had saved enough to buy a snow-cone cart, and soon built a customer base near the studio apartment he shared with two friends and his newly arrived 20-year-old son, Auberto.
One of his friends, Adriana Torres, the sole woman to share the small and utilitarian Hollywood apartment, said Castro was happy: “He liked working for himself.” He liked to cook Mexican food for his roommates, play basketball, lift weights and cut loose clubbing with friends. The snow-cone business was brisk enough that he bought a green Nissan for $600, and his $200-a-month rent became a small dent in his healthy wallet.
He was a middle-aged man, yet life was turning a promising corner: He told Torres he had fallen in love with a girl he’d met. Torres never had a chance to meet the object of his affection, Maria Gomez, a 21-year-old unemployed Mexican immigrant.
“He was happy every day,” said Torres. “He liked to talk.”
It was so unlike Castro when he went missing on the evening of July 13, 2005, after a night out with his friends. The hard-working Castro never strayed from his snow-cone cart for long, so on July 16 Torres filed a missing-persons report with LAPD’s Hollywood Division and went to a local hospital to see if he’d been hurt.
She’d last seen Castro around midnight the night he disappeared. “I looked every day and wondered what happened,” said Torres. “Norberto didn’t like the night.”
Two weeks later, she learned he had died. And not until recently did she realize that although her friend got out of Mexico, he apparently did not escape an eerie aspect of its culture he neither believed in nor practiced: witchcraft and fortunetelling, rife with hexes and even death rituals, practiced in many of L.A.’s poor Latino neighborhoods.
THE MORNING OF JULY 13 started off with no hint of trouble. Castro got up at 9 a.m., did his laundry nearby, and made his rounds with the snow-cone cart, finishing up at Lemon Tree Park, a favorite after-school spot for local kids four blocks from Melrose and Normandie avenues.
He had an after-hours date with Maria Gomez and two of her girlfriends at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, and, police said, around midnight the girls swung by to pick him up in Gomez’s 1987 Volkswagen Jetta. They bought bottles of Mickey’s Ale and chips and cigarettes, and got to Cabrillo Beach about 30 minutes later to drink and watch waves crashing along the mile-long stretch.
But something went terribly wrong. Much later that night, police said, miles away in Silver Lake, loud voices awakened a homeowner at 4:30 a.m. on Allesandro Street alongside the busy 2 freeway that runs north to Glendale. Peering out, she spotted two figures standing above “something” — perhaps an animal, perhaps not — that lay on the pavement, moving slightly. To her horror, she later told police, the two figures ran to a nearby house, returned with large rocks, and violently crashed them onto “whatever object it was on the ground.”
Los Angeles Police Department officers found a barely-alive man lacking ID, lying next to a red Jetta with his head badly beaten. Nearby, two large rocks were covered with blood and hair. At Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center, hospital staff detected an “odor of gasoline” from his body and fought to save him. But he died, anonymously and alone, identified by the coroner only as John Doe No. 115, two days after the attack.
At first, Northeast Division detectives had a hard time identifying Castro. He had never been arrested, so fingerprints were no help. They traced the nearby Jetta to a guy who bought and sold cars impounded at police lots. One of the car’s former owners vaguely recalled selling the car a few months earlier to a Latina.
However, police were dealt one trump card. On the front driver’s seat, they found a YMCA membership card, and pursued that lead.
On July 28, Northeast Division detectives, unaware that a missing-persons report had been filed, held a press conference asking for the public’s help in identifying John Doe. They provided a composite sketch of him — and circulated a photo of his mangled big toe, an old injury in which the toe had been badly severed and sewn back together.
That night, Castro’s male roommate in Hollywood, Pedro Gutierrez, was watching Spanish-language news on KRCA Channel 62 when, to his horror, he recognized the toe as it flashed on a newscast. Gutierrez knew Castro had severed it with a machete years earlier, working the fields in Mexico.