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Who Could Have Saved Baby Suzie?

Photos by Ted SoquiSuzie Lopez's small white coffin is set up in the middle of the living room surrounded by enormous sprays of daisies, mums and white roses, plus a smattering of pastel-colored stuffed animals which certain mourners have brought in lieu of flowers. A large white sheet has been draped next to the casket at the room’s corner, where Suzie’s mother, Lorena Lopez, has taped dozens of snapshots taken during various stages of the 19-month-old girl’s existence, each photo achingly full of life: Here’s Suzie as a fat, happy cherub floating in an enormous turquoise inner tube in somebody’s pool; here’s Suzie being lifted by adult hands to pat a pony at Griffith Park; here’s Suzie with her face smeared with barbecue sauce, a half-gnawed chicken drumstick clutched in one chubby baby fist.Although Lorena’s own trauma-ravaged face has appeared on nightly newscasts for nearly a week running, at last Friday’s wake she looks somehow stronger, her jeans and white shirt pressed, her hair pulled back neatly into a single soft braid. “The doctor’s been giving me medication,” she says. “But I didn’t take it this morning. And I saw Suzie.” By that Lopez means her mortuary visit the previous day, where the 37-year-old mother had the unthinkable task of bringing appropriate articles of clothing for her little girl’s burial. “See, when I saw Suzie, I knew she wasn’t there anymore,” says Lopez. “And that helped me.”By the start of the wake, Watts, the community where Lopez lives, seems to have calmed too, as several hundred African-American mourners as well as Latinos come by to pay respects, many staying to help collect money for the family, whether they knew Lopez and her dead daughter or not. Yet, for the first few nights after Sunday, July 10, the day baby Suzie was killed in a gun battle between her father, Raul Peña, 35, and members of the LAPD, community members and activists gathered only for angry demonstrations at the shooting site. During that same time, the rhetoric coming from the Lopez/Peña families and the LAPD both grew ever more volatile — family members claiming that Raul Peña was shot while trying to surrender by overzealous police, the LAPD volleying back that Peña was a “cold-blooded killer” who used his baby as a “human shield.” By the weekend, the shooting incident billed by Los Angeles media as Antonio Villaraigosa’s first real test as mayor had blown into a national story carried by newspapers from The New York Times to the London Guardian. Local activist Najee Ali was booked for an interview by Bill O’Reilly. And the Reverend Al Sharpton flew into town to attend Suzie’s church funeral on Saturday morning, the following morning calling a press conference at which he and Villaraigosa repeated the plea the mayor had made every day that week for balance and patience pending the outcome of the LAPD’s various investigations. Those final reports will take months to complete, but this much is now known about events that ended in the death of baby Suzie Lopez: On Saturday, July 9, the day before the shooting, a festering family argument between the toddler’s parents, Raul Peña and Lorena Lopez, finally blew into the open. By that evening, Peña’s emotions had escalated to the degree that for most of the night he held Lopez and her 16-year-old daughter, Ilsy Depaz, at gunpoint at Lopez’s home at 104th Street and Avalon Boulevard. On Sunday, however, Peña’s anger had ratcheted back down, and he went to work at Raul’s Auto Sales, the used-car dealership he operated a few doors down the street at 10420 South Avalon.With her tormenter temporarily removed, Lorena Lopez drove to the Southeast Division police station, less than a mile away on 108th Street, intending to report Peña’s gun-waving and to get a restraining order against him. At the station, Lopez was kept waiting so long she finally gave up and went back home. Within an hour, however, a couple of apologetic officers rolled to her house and completed the report around 2 p.m. An hour later, Peña returned to the house and wanted to bring Suzie to work. Knowing he doted on the toddler, and likely not wishing to inflame him, Lopez let him take the child. Then, either just before or just after Peña got the baby, 16-year-old Ilsy also went to the dealership, where she proceeded to confront her stepfather.Although the coroner has yet to say for certain, according to anecdotal evidence Peña had slugged back substantial quantities of tequila combined with multiple lines of cocaine. So when an argument broke out between the man and the teenager, it accelerated quickly until Ilsy dialed 911 at 3:47 p.m., telling a police operator that Peña had threatened her. Yet her tone was oddly calm, so although officers were dispatched, it was on a non-emergency basis. Still, the operator dialed the number back and this time heard a scuffle, then a rapid hang-up. “That’s when the call was elevated to a Code 3,” says Assistant Chief George Gascon, “meaning lights and sirens.”When the two officers arrived, Ilsy met them at the front gate, explaining Peña had locked her in; indeed, although it was in the midst of business hours, the high, blue-painted metal fence surrounding the car lot was securely padlocked. Seeing police, Peña came out of the dealership building, holding toddler Suzie with one hand, yanking up his shirt to show he had no weapon with the other. “I didn’t do nothing, why are you here? This is a family dispute,” Peña shouted in Spanish, according to witnesses. It is not known if either of the two officers were Spanish-speaking or not, or what was said in return, but for reasons that likely will never be known, Peña went back inside the dealership building, and got his stolen 9mm Beretta out of his office drawer, upping the ante by 1,000 percent. When he darted out from the building’s doorway, clutching Suzie in his right hand, the gun in his left, he fired several shots at police. The officers fired back.When a help call went over the radio, additional LAPD units began to stream to the location. SWAT was called, too, including a sniper and officers trained in hostage negotiation. With SWAT comes SMART — which, in the world of LAPD acronyms, stands for Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team, and consists of an officer skilled in crisis intervention, plus a mental-health clinician from the Mayor’s Office. As dozens more cops arrived, police cleared the two blocks closest to the dealership and set up a command post at 103rd and Avalon.In the interim, stepdaughter Ilsy crouched for cover behind cars at the southwest corner of the auto lot, while officers found a bolt cutter to snap through the gate’s lock. Once the lock was cut, officers pulled a stomach-down Ilsy through the gate and to safety, as Peña again darted out of the dealership doorway and fired a new series of rounds, and again officers returned fire. Mayor calls for calm – and answers. Although both media and various LAPD spokespersons have insisted that Peña used baby Suzie to physically shield himself, grainy clips taken from the videos that police recovered from the dealership’s nine security cameras suggest otherwise. Instead of positioning the baby at all in front of his own body for protection, Peña holds her in the crook of his arm, as one might hold one’s child if one were, say, carrying groceries, or unlocking a front door. But of course, Peña didn’t have groceries or a door key. He was holding and firing a gun, thus putting his supposedly adored daughter in lethal jeopardy. Similarly, when the police shot back at Peña, justified or not, “in policy” or not, they too were in those moments mortally endangering baby Suzie. Another issue that critics and community activists have raised repeatedly is why no expert marksman was able to take Peña out while sparing the baby. Again the surveillance clips, combined with a walk through the dealership, suggest that such an option may not have reasonably presented itself. When Peña stepped out of the dealership to shoot, it was in a quick darting motion, too fast for a marksman to sight cleanly. But for most of the two-and-a-half-hour standoff, Peña was holed up with his daughter inside his tiny, personal office, with only one grimy slider window providing a view to the room’s interior.?As a result, it’s altogether likely the police spokespersons are right, the cops never had a clear shot.Except once.The single best opportunity to shoot Peña and save the baby occurred around 6:15 p.m. at the back of the car lot. By then, a six-person SWAT entry team had gathered in the alley and were looking for the right moment to possibly enter the building for a rescue. A K-9 officer whose dog was elsewhere was also in the alley, along with a detective out of Southeast Division who’d been there since nearly the beginning.The K-9 guy was standing up in the hatch of a Bearcat — an armored truck used by law enforcement for hostage and barricade situations — and, from his elevated perch, the officer had a good view of the back door. So when Peña emerged from the interior shadows to fire next on officers, the K-9 cop was briefly offered a perfect angle on Peña’s left shoulder, free of the baby, so he fired. Then Peña either darted, lunged or fell backward inside the building, and officers presumed he must have been wounded. Based, in part, on that assumption, the final and most important tactical decision of the entire day was made.Since so many LAPD higher-ups were at the scene, albeit mostly back at the command post — including commanders, several deputy chiefs and at least one assistant chief (The mayor and Chief Bratton came later) — one naturally assumes that a decision of this magnitude would be made by top brass. “But it doesn’t work that way,” says Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, one of those present at the command post. “The big strategic decisions that you have time on are made back at that level — things like shutting down additional blocks, or evacuating people from this or that building.” But the micro strategic choices are made by the officers closest to the action, he says. “These are very specialized guys,” adds Assistant Chief George Gascon, “and their reactions are all based on their training.” According to Commander Sergio Diaz, there are broad departmental guidelines that also loosely govern such choices. “You start with the four T’s. Talk, Time, Tactics and Tear Gas.” But with an “active shooter” like Peña, Diaz says, things may ramp up fast to a category known as “immediate action.”In addition, says Gascon, because the SWAT guys thought Peña was wounded, they probably felt they should act before he either hurt his daughter or regrouped. “Look,” he says, “Columbine resulted in a tremendous amount of soul searching on the part of law enforcement all over the country, because officers didn’t go in fast enough. And we knew Peña had made statements — both to us and to the mother — that he and the baby were going to die. It’s hard to tell what he meant by that, but what if officers hadn’t gone in, and he’d killed the baby...? This may be one of those situations where, even in retrospect, even knowing everything we know now, there was no really good choice.”And so it was that four guys of the six-person SWAT team entered the back of the auto-sales building in a single-file “stick” formation. Three officers carried M-4 rifles, an updated version of the classic Army-issue M-16; the fourth carried a Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun, designed for close-quarters combat. Once inside, they found that Peña had retreated to his closet-size office, where, on normal days, auto buyers sat down to sign contracts. Likely deeming tear gas “too risky for a baby,” says Gascon, the first officer in the formation, Daniel Sanchez, 39, tossed a concussion grenade, called a “flashbang,” through the office doorway, hoping to distract an already wounded Peña. But, neither wounded nor distracted, Peña instead fired at Sanchez through the thin sheetrock wall of his office, hitting him in the shoulder. After that, says Gascon, the toothpaste was out of the tube, tactically speaking. “Once they were inside and Peña was firing on them, they went forward in seconds. They had to. If they’d tried to back out, they’d have been sitting ducks.”The three remaining SWAT guys blew through the office door, weapons firing. “But it’s all very organized,” he says. “Everybody has their job.” After the shooting had ended, Peña was dead from multiple shots to his upper body. Baby Suzie Peña was also dead, killed by a single LAPD rifle bullet to her head, two smaller wounds lacerating one of her legs. She was in her father's arms. The SWAT team, says Gascon, was devastated at the outcome. “I’ve seen officers cry plenty of times, but never SWAT, and never like this.” In an emotional speech at Tuesday’s Police Commission meeting, Commissioner Rick Caruso reiterated the same message. “Losing a child — there can be nothing worse . . . But every one of those officers said to me, ‘Commissioner, I would take my life if that child could come back.’” The death of a child is a blow like no other, either for a parent or a community. Perhaps that’s why the signs blooming all last week along Avalon Boulevard were especially hate-filled. “LAPD Baby Killers!” they read. “Honk if you hate cops!” and “Bratton the Assassin must go!” Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that, despite the transparency that’s now the hallmark of Chief Bill Bratton’s LAPD, the department has further to go to earn the trust broken by decades of mistreatment at the hands of certain cops in the city’s poorest neighborhoods — and the Peña/Lopez incident, coming just five months after the death of 13-year-old Devon Brown, didn’t help. Or perhaps, in the case of Suzie Lopez, the issue is something much simpler. Maybe city emotions came undone because, regardless of past angers and mistrust, most people truly believed that the SWAT guys would save the baby. They are, after all, the best in the nation at this sort of thing, aren’t they? So when, after 3,800 successful rescues in the unit’s 38-year history, whether due to bad luck or a bad call or both, a hostage died at SWAT officers’ hands on Sunday, July 10 — and not just any hostage, but a lively, beautiful child whom many, regardless of class or color, imagined could be their own — at some irrational yet fundamental level, that loss felt like a terrible betrayal. In the end, of course, the genuinely unbearable grief belongs to the Lopez family. And, while community attention has focused mostly on Lorena Lopez, the mother, it may be 16-year-old Ilsy Depaz who is ultimately the most harmed and the most fragile. In the days after the shooting, Ilsy remained hospitalized for trauma and stress, not returning home until last Friday afternoon, the day of her baby sister’s wake. A usually open-faced, beautiful young woman, during her first hour in the house Ilsy sits mannequinlike in a chair against the wall opposite the coffin, a slender baby-block bracelet spelling out SUZIE on one wrist, her overall affect so unresponsive it looked eerily like autism. But as the night wears on, scores more family and extended family begin to arrive, and gradually the ice encasing the teenager appears to thaw a little. She is able to chat with cousins, and to stroke the fuzzy puppy that whines from its pen in the back yard hoping for attention. “This is the last dog that Suzie ever played with,” she says. As the summer days pass, and each family member reaches for any frail thread of healing, an ironic serendipity: On July 10, the day that Lorena Lopez’s daughter died, Lopez’s younger sister had a baby. A girl. “Me and my sister were always the only girls in the family,” says Ilsy quietly. “We lost one, now I guess we’ve got another.”


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