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Double Murder on Grape Street

ILLUSTRATION BY FRED NOLAND

After it happened, it didn't make much of a media splash. A few lines on the Los Angeles Times website, a 13-second spot on local TV news. Nothing on the blogs.

It was just a couple of teenagers shot to death on Grape Street on a Saturday night. No big deal. A 19-year-old mother with a baby safe at home, and her friend, a mentally delayed 17-year-old boy. After all, this is Watts.

But the shootings on Grape Street and 107th Street shattered many lives.

"He was going to graduate tomorrow," a shell-shocked Marcie Solis, mother of the boy, told L.A. Weekly several days ago. She spoke in a low tone, whimpering at times. "He was such a good boy. If he saw a senior citizen at the store ..." Her voice trailed off. She walked away.

On June 18, her son, Emmanuel Berry, was standing on the half-concrete, half-brick driveway that doubles as the front yard of the family's small, beige home on Grape Street. With him was his friend, Angelica Escalante. Both were standing close to his dad's white Chevy Tahoe.

Escalante was closer to the iron gate between the house and the sidewalk. Around 8:30 p.m., the Los Angeles Police Department says, a car drove down Grape and somebody inside opened fire with a powerful assault weapon. Authorities say Escalante, called "Hazel" for her eye color, was struck several times. One of the bullets may have passed through her and into Berry, authorities say.

Police say the two friends weren't in gangs. Quite the contrary. Berry was better known as "Dexter" because he wore glasses and loved the Cartoon Network series Dexter's Laboratory.  

His mother and sister say they heard shots from inside the house. They ran out to a horrible scene.

"I saw him and Hazel on the ground right here all bloody," says his sister Breanna, 16. "I told him, 'Wake up, Emmanuel. Wake up, Dexter. It's going to be all right.' He was still breathing, but he didn't say anything."

The mother, standing one recent day near the Chevy Tahoe punctured with two large bullet holes, pointed to the ground. "They were laying right here. I think he knew I was here with him."

Police and street sources suspect the shooters are from the nearby Fudge Town Mafia Crips, a black gang whose stronghold is around 105th Street and Lou Dillon Avenue, a few hundred yards from the site of the double murder.

This was not the first time death has struck here this year. On March 26, in front of the same house, 16-year-old Jose Cardona was gunned down. Police suspect the Fudge Town Mafia Crips in that case also. The case is unsolved.

The Grape Street area has long been a hangout of Watts Varrio Grape, aka Southside Grape — a mostly, but not entirely, Mexican-American gang. Some people in Watts, upon learning of the double killing of two innocents, feared the worst: A racially motivated killing.

Most Los Angeles gang killings are either Latino on Latino or black on black. Had this double homicide crossed that tense border?

Several days ago, things became heated at a Monday morning Watts Gang Task Force meeting attended by black and Latino community leaders as well as the LAPD and L.A. Sheriff's Department. People were shouting over each other.

But, though the victims were Latino and, police say, the shooters black, Detective Sal LaBarbera, homicide supervisor of the South Bureau, strongly dispelled the notion of a racial motive.

"This was not a racially motivated attack," LaBarbera insists. "This was not about blacks against Hispanics. It definitely was not. This was about territory or dope. And sadly, those two kids got in the way."

Lead investigator Julie Scruggs says police are actively working the case, "and we don't want to release certain information to the public now."

As of June 25, LAPD's Southeast Division, which covers Watts, has had 27 homicides this year — up from 2010, when there were 21 by the same date, and up markedly from  2009, when there were 18.

For context, LAPD's West Los Angeles Division, with roughly 100,000 more residents, hasn't had a single homicide in 2011.

In Watts, street-hardened residents say methamphetamine and crack are sold at the curb. And indeed, on the power lines, hanging by their tied-together laces, are a pair of sneakers, a street symbol that announces drugs are sold.

Still, the 2011 killings in Southeast Division don't begin to rival the carnage of the late 1980s and early '90s, when by late June the annual body count routinely passed 50.  

After the shooting, a memorial to the fallen was created next to a small red rose bush: a picture of Escalante, pretty with her long hair and big hazel eyes; a photo of Berry; and a small cartoon figure with glasses. Five bouquets were arranged near 27 memorial candles — known on the streets as "murder candles."

What stood out was the graduation cap, the one Berry was supposed to wear with his high school classmates several days ago. Next to it was a pair of size 10 black Antipolo dress shoes. His sister Breanna explains, "My brother had borrowed them from a friend to wear to his graduation."

Near the memorial, a young man with a guitar leaned against a recycling trash bin and sang a mournful Spanish tune.

When a stranger picked up the photo of Escalante to see her better, then put it down, the man carefully readjusted it to its exact original position. He was Escalante's boyfriend, who lives in the Watts area. He did not want to talk.

Escalante had an 11-month-old baby, and her parents have pleaded for help from the public to find her killer. Escalante's heartbroken mother, who gave her name only as Rosa, says, "I don't know why they do something like this."

Speaking through a window at the Grape Street house, Emma, a young cousin of Berry's, says Escalante "was so nice to me. She bought me ice cream last week. Chocolate chip."

Family members at the house described the slain young mother as "shy and timid" when she first started coming to Watts to visit her boyfriend, the young man with the guitar.

Escalante had become friends with Berry, who was born prematurely and had developmental problems, according to his mother. He was easy to like, she says, "such a kind boy. He loved football. He wanted to be a mechanic."

Andrea Espindola, whose daughter Audrey was in the same special-education class as Berry, described him thus: "You know how kids sometimes pick on special-education students? Whenever someone picked on Audrey, he would always protect her and try to push the kids away." Audrey, listening to her mother talk about Berry, was unable to speak for several seconds. Finally she said, "He was like an adopted brother to me."  

Berry's brother, Alex Trujillo, 22, came outside, stared at the memorial briefly and said simply, "He was a good brother."

A cousin of Berry's, Anna Rico, 15, said that in recent days, thinking back over all the times he made her and others laugh when they didn't feel like it, made her understand that "we didn't realize what we had."

It was a quiet, cloudless summer day on Grape Street as family and friends talked about the two slain young people. For a while in the early afternoon, no cars passed. The clearest sound, nearly half a block away, was Hazel's boyfriend singing.

Note: Berry's family has created a fund to pay for his burial. It is the Emmanuel "Dexter" Berry Trust Fund, #299 967 1817, at Chase bank.


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