The Short, Violent Life of Baby Susie
|Photos by Ted Soqui|
The day after 19-month-old Susie Peña died during a shootout between her father, Raul Peña, and LAPD officers, family members and friends arrive at the site of the carnage, partly to grieve, but also to attempt to figure out how events could have gone so hideously wrong.
Some in the family think they personally could have changed things. "The police should have let me talk to Raul, but they refused," says Peñas brother Elias Peña, as he fingers the elaborate sprays of bullet holes that pock the walls at Rauls Auto Sales, the South Los Angeles used-car dealership where the shooting took place. Others talk angrily about how the press doesnt get it, how the officers should have waited longer before storming a building with a baby inside, and how if the same scenario had unfolded in, say, Encino or Westwood, surely there would have been a different strategy and a different end to the story.
"The police act like my father was Osama bin Laden," says Raul Peñas 15-year-old stepson, Ronald Depaz. "But my dad was a good man. He loved that baby. Police say he used her as a shield, but he didnt. I was here before the police made me leave, and I could hear Raul shouting, This is my baby! This is my baby! And the cops opened fire like it was nothing. Did you see how many bullet holes there were in there?" Ronald gestures toward the small interior office, now porous as a sieve. "One of those bullets hit my sister." At that, the boys veneer of composure breaks, and, pulling his black T-shirt up over his face, he begins to cry hard.
That same Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa extends his condolences to the Peña family yet points to Peñas lethal recklessness. "We dont know exactly what happened," Villaraigosa says to reporters. "But we do know this: There was a man with a firearm shooting at the public, shooting at officers. And, as a layman, I saw officers doing everything they could. I saw three different officers crying afterward."
By Tuesday afternoon, LAPD Chief Bill Bratton has listened to Peñas familys version of events for 48 hours and decides hes had enough. At a 4 p.m. press conference, he states unequivocally that officers used every possible means to get baby Susie out alive, and that Peña dealt the play all by himself. "This father is not a father of the year, as the family is now attempting to portray him," says Bratton, his expression grim and furious. "I refuse to allow this department to be maligned [by people who are] now trying to portray an individual who held his own daughter out as a human shield as somehow a hero. This guy is not a hero. He is a cold-blooded killer."
The fatal sequence of events that has L.A.s police chief lining up on one side, the little girls family, their attorney and a string of community activists on another side, with the mayor somewhere in the center striving to calm the waters, began on Sunday just after 3 p.m., when Raul Peña left his used-car dealership, located at 10420 S. Avalon Blvd., and went to the home of the babys mother, Lorena Lopez, a half-block away. There, according to Lopez and her sister, he picked up the couples plum-cheeked toddler, Susie, and brought the girl back to work with him. "When my dad was under stress, hed be with the baby to relax," says stepson Ronald. "Right now his business was going bad, and there were some debts. So thats why he took the baby to work with him Sunday."
Nonsense, say police, contending that a combustible situation had been building in the family all weekend, that at 2 p.m. the day of the shooting, Lorena Lopez made a "domestic-terror report" to the police about Peña. And that after the shooting, Peñas 16-year-old stepdaughter told police that he was jacked up on alcohol and cocaine that day, and had threatened to kill her, and baby Susie, and the girls mother, Lopez.
Whatever took place earlier, it appears that on Sunday, the stepdaughter, whose name is Ilsy Depaz, followed her stepfather back to the dealership, where Peña and the teenager got into an argument that escalated. Ilsy made a 911 call and told the operator Peña was threatening her physically. After the call came in to the Southeast Division of the LAPD at 3:47 p.m., two officers responded and learned that Peña had a gun and had fired shots before they got there. Family members and some witnesses disagree, saying that, when police arrived, Peña walked out of his office holding baby Susie with one hand and, with the other, pulled up his shirt to show he was unarmed. "I didnt do nothing. Why are you here?" Peña is said to have shouted to the cops in Spanish. "This is a family dispute." It was moments later that neighbors heard the first "pop-pop" of gunfire.
When Lopez, the mother, heard the shots, she ran down the alley to the back of the dealership. By that time, the two officers had called for and received backup, and one of the new group informed Lopez she had to go home. "Theres a baby in there," Lopez says she told the cops. "Dont shoot! Dont shoot, theres a baby!"
Back at her house, Lopez reached Peña on the phone at around 4:45 p.m. "Do you have a gun?" she asked him. Peña said no, but Lopez persisted. "Well, if you have it," she said in Spanish, "just put it on the floor. And give me the baby. Im coming for the baby." Peña told her that the baby was fine and, according to Lopez, put Susie on the phone. Lopez heard the baby chirp, "Hi, Mommy," for the last time in her life. After that, Peña repeated, "Just tell the police to go away." But by then, events were moving with the force and speed of a freight train.
It is undisputed that there were three episodes of shooting, the second occurring shortly after 5 p.m. By this time, snipers were on rooftops, SWAT officers at the perimeters, and the police had set up a command center at 103rd Street and Avalon, from which they phoned Peña and urged him to surrender. During this same period, Lorena Lopezs younger brother Joshua Lopez, 23, also tried unsuccessfully to get the cops to let him talk to Peña over the PA system. "Actually, I wanted to talk to him face-to-face," says Joshua. "I know I could have made him understand. And I know he never would have done harm to his daughter."
Asked why they refused such requests, the police say they felt any civilian interference was too great a risk. "That sort of thing works well on TV," says Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, who was also at the scene. "But its different in real life. We dont know who has a good relationship and who doesnt. If you bring in the wrong person, then all of a sudden the bottom falls out, and what do you have then?"
Instead, the police continued to importune Peña to give up his weapons and let the teenage girl and the baby out. Finally, at around 5:15, under cover of police gunfire, stepdaughter Ilsy dashed from the dealership building to the southwest corner of the lot, where she lay down on the ground, and was dragged out by officers through a gap in the gate while clutching a rope. Then, police say, Peña came out and began shooting again this time at the teenager and again the cops shot back.
After that, according to LAPD spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vernon, things grew liquid and perilous. "You always go for the three Cs: containment, control and communication." But police had no practical way of containing Peña, says Vernon. "We felt he was putting the entire neighborhood at risk with his shooting. Otherwise we would have had more time for negotiation."
The family says Peña never shot at neighbors, only at the police, and then only after he was boxed in and desperate. Lopez says she talked to Peña once more, at which time his mood had deteriorated. "Give me my baby. It will be okay," Lopez cried miserably to the father. Peña didnt buy it. "Theyre never going to let me out of this," he said.
A tactical alert was called at 5:40 p.m. The number of officers had swelled to 80 or 100, maybe more. Police say they last talked to Peña on the phone at 5:30 p.m. but still used the PA system to urge him to surrender his weapons. In response, a witness reports hearing Peña shout over and over, as in a B movie, "Im not going to jail! Youre not going to take me alive!"
Finally, a few minutes after 6 p.m., it all went bad. Police say that they saw Peña at the back of the property and that shots were exchanged, but then he disappeared inside the building. "Truthfully, we arent yet entirely sure what went on," says Deputy Chief Paysinger. "Youd think wed know it all by now, but we dont. We will unravel all the facts, but it takes a while."
It is known that shortly before 6:30 p.m. a group of SWAT officers stormed into the dealership from the back alley, believing that Peña might be wounded and that immediate action was their last, best chance of getting baby Susie out alive. It didnt work. Instead of capturing or killing Peña, a close-quarters firefight ensued, with 60 or so rounds fired in and around the confines of the small side office where Peña wrote out the buyers contracts for his customers. "There were so many shots," says a neighbor, who watched much of the tragedy unfold from her balcony. "It felt like hundreds of shots, but its hard to tell. You just hear all that noise, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa! And you think, Oh, my God, where is the baby? How can the baby survive all those bullets?" When the pops and booms stopped, one SWAT officer was wounded in the shoulder, and Peña was lying motionless behind his desk. His baby daughter was next to the door, her blood and brain matter spattering some fallen paperwork.
Lorena Lopez heard the news from a female crisis counselor who came to the house early Sunday evening. "Baby Susie is dead," said the woman. Lopez stumbled backward into her living room, her arms outstretched as if warding off evil. "No!!!" she screamed. "No-o-ooooooo!!!" Both 15-year-old Ronald and Joshua, her 23-year-old, tried to comfort Lopez, but she would not let anybody touch her now.
The unassailable truth of how Susie died physically and strategically will eventually be learned through investigative reports that will spill out in stages in the days and weeks to come. Chief Bratton acknowledges on Tuesday that its "likely" an LAPD bullet killed the baby. On Wednesday, he all but confirms it. Bratton has also dialed back his anger, announcing that the department would do "outreach to the various communities involved." Yet, he states that the car lots security cameras show that Peña had Susie in his arms all the time, even when he was shooting. Then when a reporter makes a sniping remark about officers attitudes, Assistant Chief George Gascon, standing next to Bratton, snaps back with uncharacteristic emotion, "Were devastated by the outcome," he says. "Im a parent. The officers on the entry team were there to save lives. They share that mothers anguish."
Sixteen-year-old Ilsy has been hospitalized for stress, and the extended family continues to grieve and gather. It seems Peña had three children by another relationship and, on Monday, the two little girls, ages 4 and 5, and a son, 9, all mill like a trio of lost ducklings around the shooting scene, the 4-year-old clutching a stuffed pink poodle as she announces to no one in particular, "My daddys dead."
Lorena Lopez still cant bear to go to the dealership but, instead, sways unsteadily in the back yard of her house, waiting to meet with heavy-hitter lawyer Luis Carrillo, who has agreed to represent the familys interests. Yet before the lawyer can arrive, Lopez glances down at her blue cotton top, where a wet spot has suddenly bloomed at the center of one breast. Lorena gazes at the spot, stricken. "My milk," she whispers. Then the words become a keening. "My milk!" With that, Lorena Lopez falls against her sister, sobbing.
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