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An Assassination in Silver Lake

An Assassination in Silver Lake

ILLUSTRATION BY JONATHAN BARTLETT

The windy backstreets of Silver Lake are pretty quiet in the predawn hours. At around 5 a.m. last Aug. 7, Juan David Vasquez Loma decided to take one of those residential roads — Effie Street — to drive home two co-workers after a late shift at Garage Pizza on Sunset Boulevard near Fountain Avenue.

But Vasquez Loma, 25, encountered a green Honda, at or near the intersection of Effie and Micheltorena Street, that was stopped and partially blocking the way.

Vasquez Loma, a well-liked busboy at popular Mexican restaurant El Chavo, who often pulled a night shift on his second job doing deliveries for the nearby pizza joint, pulled out to pass the green Honda. As he did so, his passengers, Luis Lopez and Jonathan Mendoza, saw the Honda's male driver and a female passenger. The driver "looked at me and I won't ever forget that look," Lopez later said.

"He had a look like he was annoyed for us passing him," Mendoza testified at a hearing last month.

A few blocks later, as Vasquez Loma drove south on Silver Lake Boulevard, the Honda pulled up alongside his black pickup. The driver made gang signs with his hands, Mendoza told police later. Lopez saw that the driver had a gun, then heard a gunshot. A single bullet struck Vasquez Loma in the temple. He lost control of his pickup, crashing into a parked Mercedes.

The hardworking busboy, who chose a fateful route home, died a week later after his mother allowed him to be taken off life support and donated his organs to others.

In court a few weeks ago, Lopez and Mendoza identified Jose Beltran, the ghostly-pale, wiry man sitting at the defense table in a blue jail jumpsuit, as the driver who shot their friend for no reason other than that Vasquez Loma had passed him on Effie Street. An LAPD gang unit officer said Beltran, 18, is a member of FLC, or "Familias Los Craziest," a tiny tagger crew/gang that claims a chunk of Silver Lake as its turf. The shooting, Officer Garrett Breegle of Rampart Division suggested, was Beltran's bid to earn his "stripes."

But there was something incongruous here. With its ultratrendy cafés and boutiques and funky, modernist architecture, Silver Lake is a haven for the artsy and the successful, many of whom dislike the moniker frequently attributed to them, hipsters.

Homicides are rare — only six in Silver Lake since 2007. Residents are proud of their civic activism.

With Beltran awaiting trial, possibly later this year, for first-degree murder, residents are chilled by the thought that such a brazen shooting could have happened, that one of their neighbors, a middle-class kid, allegedly turned so senselessly violent.

Says one resident, "It's scary as hell."

In 1997, as gentrification spread through Silver Lake, Jose Beltran's mother bought a compact bungalow on a typically quaint, quirky local street for $132,000. Today, similar homes in the neighborhood sell for more than $450,000. Within walking distance are Intelligentsia coffeehouse, Flore Vegan Cuisine, and Casbah Café — described on Yelp! as a hipster magnet.

"The neighborhood has changed a whole lot," a resident says, with young professionals moving in alongside families who have lived there for generations.

Beltran and his two older brothers, though, were a handful, recalls the resident. They ran unsupervised around the neighborhood, and their mother struggled to keep them under control.

"There'd be a lot of yelling out there," the resident says. Beltran seemed "very withdrawn" and "didn't really interact with most of the neighbors."

He attended John Marshall High School in affluent Los Feliz, the alma mater of Leonardo DiCaprio, Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and local City Councilman Tom LaBonge. He does not appear to have graduated.

Silver Lake borders East Hollywood, Echo Park and Atwater Village, which all have a significant gang presence. According to police, Beltran found his way to the violent tagging crew FLC, which has only 15 to 20 members but, Breegle testified, has committed robberies and assaults with a deadly weapon.

"Members of the gang have been congregating on the Rampart side of the border," an LAPD source says, referring to Sunset, which acts as a boundary between two LAPD divisions — Rampart and Northeast. "We believe this to be a gang. Their signs prove it. They have nicknames."

About two years ago, the gang's graffiti tagging started showing up on walls. In a photograph, Beltran can be seen flashing what appears to be the gang's "F" sign. Police say he's known as "White Boy" and "Spook," an apparent homage to his spectral complexion.

Several days after the murder, on Aug. 19, Beltran was driving his green Honda about a block away from his home when Breegle and a partner pulled him over for a vehicle code violation. The officers found a loaded 9 mm semiautomatic weapon and arrested him for possession. Beltran told Breegle he'd bought the gun for protection from the La Mirada Locos gang in East Hollywood. "He claimed he had been shot at on two separate occasions," Breegle later testified.

On Aug. 29, prosecutors charged Beltran with the cold-blooded shooting of Juan David Vasquez Loma.

Police had matched Beltran to a composite of Vasquez Loma's shooter, and his Honda matched the descriptions given by Lopez and Mendoza. And in a key eyewitness account, Diana Villeda, 18, whose sister dated Beltran, told Detective Jose Carrillo that she was the girl in the car when Beltran shot Vasquez Loma — the gun fired so close to her that her ears rang from its report.

At the preliminary hearing in January, Jonathan Mendoza teared up as he recalled the shooting of his friend, a Mexican immigrant whose devastated mother traveled from Mexico to permit her son's removal from life support.

Officer Breegle theorized that Beltran may have gunned down Vasquez Loma to send a message "out to the community that 'we may be small in number, but we are violent within the community.' "

But at the hearing, eyewitness Villeda dramatically changed her story. Nervously eyeing alleged killer Beltran across the room, she testified that on the night of the murder she was in a blue Toyota Corolla, not a green Honda, and that the driver she saw shoot Vasquez Loma was FLC member Roger May, not Beltran.

She told the court she'd wrongly accused Beltran because May's family had threatened her in order to keep her quiet.

The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Amy Ashvanian, was incredulous. She asked: "Why would you frame a crime on a gang member, Ms. Villeda, if you were so in fear for your life?"

"Because the cousin of Roger May is a bigger 'head' in this situation," Villeda replied, frowning. "He could order my whole family to get killed."

Beltran's mother, who sat, sobbing, in the gallery, insists her son is innocent and that he told her, "Mami, I am not the killer." She focuses on the fact that a 9 mm gun found days later in his car was not the murder weapon. The murder weapon, a .32-caliber, has not been recovered.

Villeda's about-face in court may not convince everyone.

Detective Carrillo testified that Diana Villeda's sister admitted to him that Beltran told the sister to name May as the shooter. "She said that they were to put it on him," Carrillo said. Moreover, in a jailhouse conversation between Villeda's sister and Beltran, recorded by police, Beltran informed the sister that the murder weapon was a .32-caliber gun.

The caliber size had not been made public when Beltran said that, Carrillo testified.

Whatever happens to Beltran, who faces 50 years to life in prison if convicted, Silver Lake residents must cope with the sober reality that gang violence of the most extreme kind has tainted their community. "I can't figure it out," says one.

No residents contacted for this article were willing to be identified. All of them cited fear of gang retaliation in Silver Lake.