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The End Of Murder

(Illustration by Erik Sandberg)

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.

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.

 

Bratton, standing beside Villaraigosa, understood New York’s success. He led the NYPD from 1994 to 1996, teaching a more strategic approach to fighting crime and adding thousands of officers. Homicides in New York fell an unthinkable 76 percent between 1990 and 2005 (excluding the September 11 terrorist attacks). L.A. has cut its murder rate in half since 1992. New York went one better, halving its murder rate and then halving it again.

When he arrived in Los Angeles in 2002, Bratton seemed poised to launch a similar renaissance. Within two years, the Boston-bred police chief delivered a bold pitch to the civic leaders of Los Angeles: Give the LAPD 3,000 more officers, and the city could make an equally dramatic dent in crime. With a force of 12,500, the city could cut its homicide rate in half, Bratton declared.

The presentation ignited an intense debate over public safety, focused primarily on tax hikes and municipal budget cuts. Yet no one thought to ask the follow-up question. Why half? Why not 60 percent or 75 or even 80? That line of thinking leads to the most audacious question of all: Could Los Angeles, with the proper focus, bring an end to murder?

“Don’t I wish,” says Bratton, sounding only slightly dismissive as he sits in his sixth-floor office downtown. Yet the chief also acknowledges that New York’s steadily declining murder rate has forced policymakers to ask, How low can it go? Soon after taking over the LAPD, Bratton prohibited the term “repressible crime,” saying the phrase wrongly suggests that some crimes can’t be stopped. Now, the LAPD operates on the assumption that every crime is preventable. So, does that mean we can contemplate an end to murder?

The concept sounds impossible. Murder has been with us since the story of Cain and Abel and long before that. Even in New York, the homicide rate inched upward in 2006. With victory on the horizon, the nation’s largest city seemed to deliver a cruel lesson: The end of murder is beyond our grasp.

Yet it is also tantalizingly within reach. In Los Angeles, the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old girl in the neighborhood known as Harbor Gateway caused many in this new year to talk openly again about ways of protecting every child, every family from killers. With the LAPD identifying the case as a hate crime, politicians, community leaders — even the head of the FBI — descended on the slain girl’s neighborhood to push for change. The city desires an end to murder. What it gets, however, is a yearning for peace that slowly evaporates in the months after each slaying, as the political class moves on to the next urgent emergency.

On most days, police don’t race out on patrol trying to stop murder. Instead, they seek out lesser offenses — a drug sale, a beating, the robbery of an iPod — and hope that along the way, they may stop a murder too. To end murder here, taxpayers would have to be willing to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to seemingly intractable crime problems, like the scourge of gangs in places such as Wilmington, Venice and Canoga Park. They would have to address the frequent killings between friends and family — cases that cry out for a focus on childhood trauma, schoolyard bullies and mental illness.

To really understand murder, one must be bracingly clinical, sifting through data and studying patterns. Yet one must also accept it as an inherently mysterious, some would say unthinkable, act. The huge victory in New York is for many the biggest mystery of all, a subject of blistering debate between battle-scarred police officers and skeptical criminologists.

Bratton, for his part, says aggressive strategies — going after repeat offenders, installing cameras in high-crime neighborhoods, moving many officers to the biggest problems — have already helped Los Angeles cut crime by double digits and homicides by nearly one-fourth since 2002. Some experts see other influences as well, from the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods to passage of the “Three Strikes” sentencing law.

Yet clearly, adding more cops is a potent factor, maybe the most potent of all. When the LAPD added officers in the mid-1990s, homicides dropped. When the force shrank in the late 1990s, the killing went back up. When more officers were slowly hired after 2001, murders went down again.

New York had an even more dramatic experience. In 1991, the city’s elected officials raised taxes, using the proceeds to add 5,000 officers and boosting spending at the NYPD by a third. Within five years, New York had cut its murder rate in half. The department then expanded the department further, by adding 8,000 officers from the city’s transit and housing authority.

“We don’t know much about why crime goes up and why crime goes down, but there’s some pretty good evidence that suggests: more cops, less crime,” says George Tita, assistant professor of criminology at UC Irvine. “L.A. is clearly understaffed, when it comes to the number of police officers.”

 

“We know how to drive crime to zero, and that’s to put an officer on every corner,” Tita explains. “But who wants to live in a community that’s basically martial law? Nobody. And it’s unsustainable. Not only does the community not want it, but we can’t afford it.” He paused. “But more police would definitely help.”

THE DIAGNOSIS

Los Angeles is a city that will break your heart. You can live down the street from families with bright, enthusiastic kids — the kind who skateboard, listen to music and never join gangs — and discover that they never bothered to finish high school. You can walk out of a museum where you paid $22 to see an exhibit, then wrestle with your conscience as a homeless man asks for money. The city fails, and then fails again.

Nothing captures the city at its abject worst, however, like homicide. If you know where a murder occurred, you can spend months associating that place with death. If a killing happens nearby, you start to worry about your loved ones — where they park, where they walk, where they use their ATM card. In 2006, Los Angeles experienced a killing every 18 hours, from a 49-year-old homeless woman stomped to death on Skid Row to a father of three shot in Mar Vista by a man burglarizing his car.

Had the homeless woman not slept on the sidewalk, she might have survived. Had the burglar in Mar Vista been apprehended for a previous crime, three children would still have a father. But then things get trickier. Who, after all, expected a 78-year-old man in Pacoima to murder his landlord?

Los Angeles in many ways turned away from the issue of public safety in 2006, with the civic elite devoting far more energy toward schools and the battle for power between the mayor and Los Angeles Unified School District. Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council never backed Bratton in his bid to beef up the LAPD on a scale that would dramatically reshape the city. The council paid a consultant nearly $600,000 to develop an anti-gang strategy comprised of after-school and gang-prevention programs. And they settled for incremental fixes that will take years to complete and even then achieve only a fraction of Bratton’s original goal.

Bratton still believes that, with 12,500 officers, Los Angeles could cut its homicide rate by more than half, taking the number of murders below 200 per year. “I have no doubt about it,” he declares.

Imagine an L.A. with only 200 murders. South Los Angeles, in particular, would be a different place, capable of attracting jobs and housing to its barren boulevards. The northeast San Fernando Valley would be more peaceful, as would the rougher neighborhoods that ring downtown — Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park, Pico-Union.

The city’s veteran politicians say they don’t ever expect Bratton to reach his hiring goal of 3,000 more officers. Former councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who specialized in cops and budgets, says that goal would require a commitment to growth over 10 to 15 years, impossible in a city dependent on economic swings, where elected officials regularly cycle in and out, and an earthquake can upend every priority.

Then there’s resistance to every budget cut. When former mayor James Hahn tried to merge the tiniest departments — including the Commission on the Status of Women, the Human Relations Commission and the Commission on Children, Youth and Their Families — other council members rebelled. The savings would have been enough to hire just 10 police officers.

“We said we were going to put them all in one nice new department and save some money, and all hell broke loose,” recalls Miscikowski, who left office in 2005.

So Bratton is left to play whack-a-mole, sending a swarm of officers to one sector of the city, only to see a problem crop up elsewhere. In 2003, he moved 150 officers into South Los Angeles, reducing the number of murders by 22 percent in a single year. When attention turned toward Skid Row last year, Bratton moved 50 extra officers there, cutting crime in the LAPD's Central Division by a huge margin. Today, the hot spot is Harbor Gateway, where gang shootings left a neighborhood under siege.

Bratton is quick to point out big differences between New York and Los Angeles: L.A. covers 472 square miles and has a gang problem more lethal than New York’s, even at the height of that city’s crack epidemic. And there are those staffing disparities: New York has one officer for every 228 residents; LAPD has one officer for every 426.

 

“The patient is different. The illnesses are different,” says Bratton. “The problem here in L.A. is, I’m taking a lot longer because I have less medicine to work with.”

PUBLIC CRIME, PRIVATE CRIME

Number crunchers at City Hall rely on a simple calculus when talking about expanding the LAPD: For each police officer added, the city must find $100,000 — not just for the year, but for every year the officer is employed. With pay raises and accrued benefits, that $100,000 slowly balloons.

Villaraigosa made significant headway last year, persuading the City Council to approve a plan for hiring 1,000 officers over five years. But the plan is heavily back-loaded, adding only 135 of the 1,000 officers this fiscal year. Much of the hiring won’t happen until 2009 and 2010, well into Villaraigosa’s second term as mayor and, possibly, his first term as governor. If history is any guide, the plan could easily be scuttled by other political realities — an unexpected and costly scandal, an economic recession, a new City Council with new priorities.

Even if Villaraigosa succeeds, the city would need $200 million more per year to reach Bratton’s ultimate goal. Would such a cost even be worth it? Los Angeles County, for example, spends $200 million just to keep L.A. County–USC Medical Center — which treats many gunshot wounds — open for 10 weeks. L.A. Unified could use $200 million to hire more than 3,200 beginning teachers and reduce the number of students per class. Maybe such a move would keep more children from dropping out. But would it keep them from crime?

For now, the LAPD is pursuing a far more incremental plan than the $200 million expansion. The department has added 500 police officers since 2002, reducing major crime by double digits. Much of that success was the result of Bratton’s decision to use the computer program known as Compstat, a crime-mapping and data-collection system that revolutionized policing in New York City a decade ago.

Compstat allowed police to collect — and therefore organize and analyze — crime data based on time of day, type of weapon, type of victim and other factors. Using the data, investigators gleaned larger patterns and identified high-crime hot spots. Bratton held his top managers accountable for surges in crime in a specific neighborhood, on a particular block, even in an individual building.

Yet it’s one thing to use Compstat to focus on a spike in assaults or robberies, quite another to avert a homicide. Murder can be the end result of another crime — a robbery gone wrong, a fight that went too far. But who can be sure which crimes will turn lethal? In 2006, only three of the city’s 478 homicides began as robberies. Thus, of 13,497 robberies last year, only 1 in 4,500 turned into murder.

“It’s a prediction problem — where is the next lightning strike going to come?” says Jack Greene, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. “Clearly, in neighborhoods with high rates of violence, high numbers of repeat offenders, you narrow down that prediction problem. You’re not going to be out looking [for potential murderers] in the high-rent district with single-family homes. But guess what? You can still have a homicide there.”

Greene divides murders into two types: the ones that occur in public, like a gang shooting, and the ones behind closed doors, like a fight in a bar. Up to 60 percent of murders occur in public, according to Greene’s estimates, which explains why Bratton believes he can cut L.A.’s murder rate in half. To reach his goal, Bratton would need to target those public murders — especially killings committed by gangs, which are responsible for more than half the city’s crimes.

The problem is, the remaining 40 percent of murders are hidden from view — the unexpected byproduct of marital squabbles, father-son quarrels and drunken disputes. Those lightning strikes are simply more difficult to predict.

“We have a tendency to think of homicides as a serial-killer phenomenon or a gangbanger phenomenon,” says Greene. “But there are also a lot of domestic, routine homicides that occur between known intimates, often men and women, that are often difficult to prevent. We know, for example, that in the domestic-abuse arena, the use of court restraining orders doesn’t necessarily prevent one spouse from killing another. Short of putting a fence around that person’s house, or putting them under 24-hour surveillance, I’m not sure what the police can do about that.”

BEVERLY ANN KASS, 1967–2006

No one placed a security guard outside the Van Nuys home of Beverly Ann Kass. No one kept watch over her 1970s courtyard apartment on Sherman Way on April 2, 2006. What made the murder of Kass so chilling for her friends and family is that the man accused of killing her was no stranger.

 

A graduate of El Camino High School, Kass had bumped along from job to job, working as a receptionist in one office, doing odd jobs in another. What grounded her was her love for her 10-year-old son, a high-achieving boy who played clarinet and had an intuitive ear with almost any instrument.

By early 2006, Kass had found some measure of happiness. The 38-year-old divorcée had a boyfriend, Jonathon Arthur Hendler, an employee of a drug-rehab program she attended. She saw in Hendler a possible father figure for her son and was even planning an October wedding. “She was a proud, single mom raising a kid. She was very loving,” says her older brother Dennis Kass. “She was one of the nicest people you’d ever meet, and for her to meet a violent end is just so sad, so wrong.”

Things changed utterly the day Kass got into an ugly fight with her fiancé. She wanted to break up, according to one of Hendler’s longtime friends. Hendler, still using drugs, flew into a rage. By the time Kass’ body was found behind a desk in her home, he was a fugitive.

As he hid from police, Hendler tearfully called one person after another to explain what happened. He telephoned one friend over and over, bluntly stating that he had strangled his girlfriend and didn’t know what to do. Distraught, he called a rabbi at the rehabilitation center where he worked. He even wrote a text message to his fiancée’s mother. Not wearing her reading glasses, and not knowing what the message said, she handed the phone to her son.

“It was just basically an apology,” Dennis Kass recalls. “We were standing with the police, and I handed it to them.”

Only after police arrested Hendler did the grieving family learn the truth: Hendler’s journal spelled out a history of violence. He had been convicted of three robberies and one first-degree burglary.

Dennis Kass, who had eaten dinner with the couple a week earlier, had no idea. “You look back and you go, boy, do you screen your adult sister’s dates by running a criminal-index search?” he asks. “It’s not something you think of doing. My sister didn’t learn anything of this until the end. He’d hidden it from everyone.”

Kass’ case was not unique. In the Valley, one of every nine murders in 2006 involved domestic violence. Two months after Kass perished, police arrested a 32-year-old day laborer in Canoga Park for allegedly slashing the throat of his ex-girlfriend. Two months after that, police identified a Sherman Oaks man as the killer of his girlfriend.

Yet if Kass’ family couldn’t see warning signs, who could? The rehab center? Hendler’s friends? More than a few experts insist that counselors need to step in and address violent behavior long before adulthood. “A lot of the work is being done in high school, but that’s a bit too late,” says Billie Weiss, a communications director at the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at UCLA. “The attitudes have already been formed.”

Weiss praises the work of the Colorado-based Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, which studied 600 anti-violence programs and identified 11 that met a scientific standard for effectiveness. Some were comparatively new, such as Norway’s Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which assigned counselors to work with child bullies. Others were more tried-and-true, such as the century-old Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, which recruits mentors for children from single-parent homes.

Weiss was one of the researchers who spent part of 2006 trying to determine why L.A.’s gang prevention programs, which are supposed to keep children from engaging in violent behavior, were having so little success. Within six months, the researchers concluded that few of the L.A. programs had a coherent way to measure success or a clear mission — whether that meant “having no youth enter a gang, reducing violent acts, having set reductions in gang participation or ending the gang altogether.”

With the $200 million needed to fulfill Bratton’s LAPD expansion, the Big Brothers program could reach 200,000 students per year — nearly a third of the children attending L.A. Unified. Whatever the solution, earlier is better: “Violence is a learned behavior,” Weiss says.

Kass, an attorney with a 15th-floor office downtown, doesn’t know what could have stopped Hendler. Perhaps, he says, a longer prison sentence or more watchful co-workers or friends. While some criminologists voice doubts that police can prevent domestic-violence killings, the man who reviews the data for the LAPD disagrees.

“People say it’s not repressible, that you can’t put a cop in every living room,” says Detective Jeff Godown. “But you can put out education. You can put out programs that would get a husband into counseling. If nothing is preventable, then why do we continue to do this?”

 

CRUNCHING THE

NUMBERS

With wire-rimmed spectacles and silver, slicked-back hair, Detective Godown is the LAPD’s numbers guru, a 26-year veteran who skipped college, joined the force and ascended through the ranks. He relies on information typed in by data-entry worker bees, who assign a handful of four-digit codes to each crime. Did a murder happen on the sidewalk? Compstat has a four-digit code for that. Did it involve a knife? Compstat has a number for that too.

With five days left in 2006, Godown sat in his Hollywood office reviewing numbers for various areas. Of 88 murders in the San Fernando Valley, 21 hit on a Sunday. Nearly half occurred between 6 p.m. and midnight. Nearly three-fourths of the 88 victims were Latino, as were the vast majority of murder suspects.

The numbers seem like abstractions, except that all the data collected by Compstat helps police decide where to be next. If half the crime occurs between 6 p.m. and midnight, that’s the time to send out the bulk of the officers.

The way to stop a crime, Godown says, is to remove one of three factors from the equation: the victim, the suspect or the location. To remove a location, police can target a park frequented by drug dealers. To remove a potential victim, police can warn vulnerable types, like naive tourists walking in Hollywood at 2 a.m. Police in the Wilshire Division spent part of 2006 trying to remove suspects from the equation, targeting 16- and 17-year-old gang members from the southwest part of the city who traveled to Koreatown to commit robberies. They were exactly the type of nervous, inexperienced criminals who, on a dime, could escalate robbery into murder.

But many other factors — ones that have absolutely nothing to do with police — can also prevent a murder, Godown explains. The suspect could have bad aim, or the victim could turn as a weapon is fired. “The difference between a homicide and an aggravated assault — it can be a matter of inches,” he says. “It could be the competency of a doctor. It could be how fast they got to the hospital. If I get shot, you know where I want to be sent? L.A. County Medical Center. That emergency room pumps out more gunshot victims than anywhere else in the city.”

The LAPD was not especially surprised to see South Los Angeles, with its high concentration of gang members, bear the brunt of last year’s killings. The four LAPD divisions there — Southwest, Southeast, Newton and 77th — absorbed 47 percent of the city’s murders last year. Of 227 killings there, two-thirds of the victims were black; so were 70 percent of the suspects.

The LAPD’s West Bureau, by comparison, experienced just 10 percent of L.A.’s homicides in 2006. The number is particularly jarring because the bureau takes in not just affluent coastal neighborhoods — Pacific Palisades, Venice, Playa del Rey — but communities as far east as crowded Koreatown. In West L.A, the No. 1 public-policy problem was traffic, not murder. In fact, residents within in the LAPD's Southeast Division were 36 times more likely to be murdered than those in the West L.A. Division.

Jan Perry, a 51-year-old former paralegal, represents part of South Los Angeles on the City Council, pursuing neighborhood-based initiatives to improve the health of her constituents, many of whom live in poverty. To give them a safe place to exercise, Perry restored a small wetland in her park-poor district. To give them better food choices, she backed a farmers market at 42nd ?and Central.

What Perry didn’t grasp, however, is how much violent death would dominate her work. Since she took office in 2001, she has consoled murder victims, attended funerals, paid for burials and identified funds for grief counseling. In five years, she persuaded her colleagues to offer financial rewards in 52 criminal cases, including one for the murder of a 4-year-old.

Such grim paperwork makes a bid for fresh produce sound almost quaint. And even Perry was unprepared for the scene that greeted her last June 30. Contacted by police about yet another murder, Perry parked on Central Avenue, once a boulevard for buzzing black jazz clubs. She walked east on 49th Street, toward news cameras, a crowd and three bodies on the ground. “I didn’t know what blood smelled like,” Perry recalls. “Now I know.”

DAVID MARCIAL, 1996–2006

LARRY MARCIAL, 1984–2006

LUIS CERVANTES, 1989–2006

Six months later, police refuse to give almost any details about that afternoon. What is known is that shortly before 4:30 p.m., a large, dark vehicle drove down 49th Street toward the home of 33-year-old Sergio Marcial, a truck driver raised in the neighborhood with no ties to gangs, and two passengers, described only as African-American, jumped out with assault rifles.

 

Marcial had just gotten home from work, stopping to say hello to his two sons, 10-year-old David and 12-year-old Sergio Jr. The father of four went in to take a shower and, as he was getting dressed, heard dozens of shots. He ran to the living room and saw a hooded gunman spraying his front yard with bullets, killing Luis Cervantes, a 17-year-old neighbor. Marcial’s 22-year-old brother, Larry, an aspiring singer and the father of two, was shot and killed as he ran for cover.

As Marcial approached his front door, he saw the gunman turn to 10-year-old David, injured on the sidewalk, and shoot him a final time. Sergio Jr. survived, with major wounds. “I was going crazy,” Marcial says. “I was just screaming for somebody to call the ambulance. Five minutes before, I was out there talking with them. My sons asked me if they could ride their bikes.”

The slaughter occurred on a hot Friday, the first day of the July Fourth weekend. Marcial’s sister — the aunt of David and Sergio — was driving toward the house at the time. “I could sense something was happening. I could see the helicopters. [My family] called me a few blocks before I got home, but I could see the helicopters from far away.”

When Councilwoman Perry got there, Luis, David and Larry were covered with sheets — two in the driveway and one on the sidewalk, now coated in blood. An ice cream truck down the street kept playing the same sickly-sweet, singsong ditty, over and over again.

LAPD officials estimate that each homicide costs the city at least $1 million, including police work, legal-system costs and loss of business activity. That doesn’t begin to capture the toll on 49th Street. On that day, a father lost his little brother and youngest son. The neighbors lost their 17-year-old boy. Two toddlers lost a father. And a family that had lived 25 years in the neighborhood — raising children, shopping at the store, going to the local library — was betrayed by that same neighborhood.

The 3-year-old daughter of Larry Marcial knows her father is dead, yet continues to ask for him. “You can tell she’s not the same little girl anymore,” says Maribel Marcial, her aunt. “She’s missing something, and of course, it’s her father. We try to read books with her, or take her outside and play. It’s something that she has to grow up with, and we have to help her.”

Each day is a struggle for Sergio Marcial too. The family no longer lives on 49th Street, sleeping over at the homes of their grandparents, aunts and uncles. His sister quickly went back to work, to help Marcial keep up mortgage payments on the house. Marcial’s son Sergio Jr., now 13, has trouble walking and sees a therapist to deal with his rage.

“[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.

The December 15 shooting of 14-year-old Cheryl Green in many ways was a mirror image of the triple homicide on 49th Street. Like 10-year-old David Marcial, Green was playing in a driveway in midafternoon when a gunman raced up and opened fire. In both cases, the killing traumatized the neighborhood. But in Harbor Gateway, the victims were black. On 49th Street, they were brown.

Police believe Green and her friends had been targeted by Latino gang members because of their race. Three days before Christmas, the family of the slain eighth-grader — backed by outraged community leaders — stood before news cameras and called for an end to an invisible border that made African-American families terrified of traveling north of 206th Street, in their own neighborhood. A black family living next to the crime scene had a different solution, loading up a moving van and leaving for good.

Green’s death — with its racial component, its subtext of blacks versus Latinos – grabbed Los Angeles and its news media in ways that other killings in 2006 did not. Most murders generated a day or two of news coverage or were ignored altogether. Even the triple homicide on 49th Street was greeted with silence after several days. The murder in Harbor Gateway was different, sparking six weeks of protests, community meetings, promises of help from the federal government.

 

Distraught, Hahn began casting around for a solution. She called for a legal injunction to crack down on the 204th Street gang. Then she asked her pollster to find out how voters would feel about a $50 million tax to fund more youth programs. Yet the city’s own expert on gang programs was, at roughly the same time, suggesting that an effective strategy might cost as much as $1 billion, or five times the cost of the 2,000 additional police officers still sought by Bratton.

Hundreds of people attended Green’s funeral, crowding into a church in Inglewood that looked more like a cinder-block bunker than a house of worship. At least a third of the crowd were children — slender teenage girls wearing fur-collared coats, boys sporting the narrow braids of the latest hip-hop crooner. Some girls burst into tears the minute they entered the church. Others fidgeted awkwardly, breaking into sobs only when they passed the open casket where Green lay surrounded by white roses and lilies.

The coffin was light pink, a color more suited to a teenage girl’s bedroom. In the casket, Cheryl looked like a princess, dressed in a white beaded gown and a sparkly tiara. At one point, her family formed an arc around the coffin, with aunts, uncles, sisters and cousins all saying goodbye and caressing the girl’s long, white ?formal gloves.

Few of those who spoke at the lectern acknowledged the awful circumstances of Green’s death. Instead, they described their joy over her arrival in heaven, her family’s embrace of Jesus. The pastor, a barrel-chested African-American with a velvety voice, brought the crowd back to grim reality, giving a sermon that was as much about himself as it was about the little girl in the pink casket.

With a basso profundo that enthralled the audience, Pastor Jordan Allen wanted the girl’s mother to understand that he knew precisely how she felt. He told how three months earlier, his own 18-year-old grandson had been struck down by gunfire as he chatted on a cell phone.

“I honestly believed,” the preacher said slowly in his Barry White whisper, “that if you love your children, if you love your grandchildren, if you provide for them, if you make sure they have all the food they need to eat, if you make sure that they don’t have any reason to go out in the streets and get crazy with drugs and everything else, that if you did that, they would be all right.

“On October 2, the covers were pulled off of my eyes, because I found out it didn’t matter.” The heavy-set preacher spat out the words “It didn’t matter” — his growl turning into a scream of anguish — that he had good-looking shoes, all the clothes that he needed, that he didn’t have to envy anybody for anything. Because at the end of the day, he decided he wanted to go the store to get a soda.”

Allen told the children in the congregation he knew they were terrified, regardless of all their fine clothes and tough exteriors. “This world is going to hell,” he declared. “This young angel, who even looks like an angel in the casket, is a testament to the fact that you can be a good kid and still be taken out of here. For all of you preachers and all of you politicians, we’ve got some work to do. And I’m not quite sure how. Because how do you stop craziness?”

And there was the question again. How do you put an end to murder?

The day of Green’s funeral, four days were left in 2006. By then, what little progress the city had made in reducing homicides had nearly evaporated. The Los Angeles Times reported on December 26 that homicides dropped 4 percent, the fourth consecutive yearly decline. But by the time the story ran, more murders had been committed, cutting the reduction to just over 3 percent. By December 31, homicides had fallen by only 2.4 percent — 12 fewer murders than in 2005.

On the final day of 2006, two men broke into a home on Harvard Boulevard — the very same street where Cheryl Green was killed, except 20 miles north, in Koreatown, shooting to death 31-year-old Raul Cruz and his daughter, Jessica Siriano. She was 17, the same age as Luis Cervantes, the neighbor boy on 49th Street, and Chris Castellanos, the high school junior killed on Whittier Boulevard in front of a bus.

 

Forty-eight hours later, the mayor and police chief held yet another press conference, standing before a dozen news cameras to talk about the city's steady progress in fighting crime during the prior 12 months. On January 2, 2007, Villaraigosa once again boasted that crime had fallen to levels not seen since the late 1950s, just as he had done one year earlier.

And so the cycle started anew. Villaraigosa introduced a new wrinkle this time, promising that 2007 will be the year L.A. focuses on gangs. This time around, the city would have a comprehensive plan for stopping the killings. This time around, the City Council — the same people who blanched at even the smallest budget cut, who froze at the thought of a publicly voted tax — would debate yet another tax, this one devoted to anti-gang programs. This time around, the LAPD would target the toughest gangs, even as the size of the force expanded by a tiny margin.

In other words, much of the script was the same. The mayor started 2007 by calling gang crime unacceptable. He declared that Los Angeles is the second-safest big city in the nation, second only to New York. And Los Angeles continued living in an era in which the end of murder is tantalizingly within reach, yet utterly beyond its grasp.

In this issue, the Z Files looks at a long-awaited report on how to cut gang killings and violence. See page 28.

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