Raven was one of the youngest and toughest Hollywood street runaways, her MySpace page filled with horror, beauty and bitterness. Split from her disaster of a mother, the troubled teen from suburban Glendale tried to fashion a normal life with the lone kids she met. So beautiful and so extreme was Raven that it seemed almost inevitable when actress Dyan Cannon stumbled across the 12-year-old brunette four years ago and chose to make her a key figure in a yet-to-be-completed documentary. The last time Cannon taped Raven, the teen prophesied her own death — in a dark, gothic poem that was a trademark of her writings.
And then a year ago, the homeless teen vanished. She was found strangled and wrapped in a green tapestry comforter, a CSI-style clue that Los Angeles Police Department detectives followed to a comforter manufacturer, then to the gritty Olive Motel on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, which buys those very covers for its beds.
In a stroke of dark luck that seemed a fitting tribute to Raven’s desperately short life, Los Angeles detectives quickly discovered the existence of a motel surveillance video, and on that video, police say, are the shocking images of a suspect carrying a body wrapped in a green tapestry comforter.
The trial will soon begin of Raven’s suspected killer, a registered sex offender and convicted drug dealer who had been out on the streets for only four days when Raven’s body was found. Meanwhile, Raven’s MySpace site has become an epic poem and digital history by the street kids who knew her, maybe even idolized her — but who no longer want to be like her.
Raven’s real name was Alyssa Gomez, but “Raven” was an affectionate nickname given to her by an ex-boyfriend, and it seemed to evoke her darkness — her lush, long, near-black hair, her morbid street fashions, her black humor. When she first hit the boulevard, she played things tough, calling herself CODE, or “Cause of Death: Ecstasy,” a name she clung to after watching a friend overdose on the drug.
Her MySpace page, “Ravenous Vagrant,” was a testament to the disturbing world in which she lived, the murkier, less acceptable side of the now dressed-up, redeveloped Hollywood filled with yuppies and monied young partiers.
Like some hellish version of the “parallel universes” theory in physics, Raven and her invisible friends slinked along the same streets as the glittering new BMW crowd that occupies Hollywood each night, slipping past lines of suburbanites, college kids and tourists waiting to gain entry to Les Deux Café and Goa. Many of them mere children, they live in the alleys and back lots, where beatings are commonplace, drugs are plentiful, and prostitution means a meal or a much-needed fix. The photo Raven chose for her cyber page looks like it could have been pinched from the gloomy, occult crime comics by David Quinn and Tim Vigil. The caption for a drawing of a raven-haired woman and man locked in a seductive kiss reads: “I’m the maggot in ever dead.”
Raven listed her age as 101. She looked and acted 30. She was 15. She listed her favorite movie as: “to watch you attempt suicide.” Her favorite TV show was “Childrens [sic] lonely and bitterness.” Her heroes: “my rapeing [sic] fingers.” Her hometown: the “underworld.”
Raven’s last log posting is dated July 11, 2007. As if putting one final flourish on the nihilistic existence she chose, her post appeared more than a month after her June 4 death.
In the months since her murder, Raven’s MySpace page has become a cyber memorial to the lost teen, and to hundreds of children for whom the streets of Hollywood and Los Angeles seem no different from Third World Sao Paulo or Calcutta, gritty urban places that lure children into a game of survival that they may not win.
Two days after her death, Raven’s counselor at a Hollywood drop-in center, named “Ebony,” wrote: “I only wish I had done more for you. I know that you are not suffering anymore. … We will get it right. If not in this lifetime, then in the next one.”
The following day, a pal calling himself “Caneada” scribed: “rest in peace raven i loved you like my little sister and a young women i wish i was there with you when it happen but i wasn’t now i feel like i have to become a better man to let u know that u will always be in my heart.”
More recently, “Paxil” penned: “To My Beautiful Morbid Angel. Forever I will hold you in my heart. I’m sorry I wasn’t out of jail to keep you with me. I’ll never forgive myself.”
To those who look back, none of what happened to Raven really made much sense. For reasons her surviving sister cannot explain, Raven’s mother, an alleged longtime 18th Street gang member turned drug addict, and her alcoholic Mexican-immigrant father, were obsessed with fighting in children’s court to get custody of Raven. Family members say her parents never stayed clean long enough to get back control of Raven and her younger sister. Despite the couple’s constant interference, Raven and her sister and half-siblings grew up in a stable household with their grandfather — a mariachi singer — and grandmother in Boyle Heights and later suburban, racially mixed, low-crime Glendale, a place that still has decent schools and nice neighborhoods. But Raven longed to be with her mother.
To Raven’s oldest sister, Brittany (not her real name, which she asked L.A.Weekly not to use for fear of retribution), their mother was a troubled stranger who kept popping into their lives. “The law was called on her so many times,” Brittany, 31, tells L.A.Weekly. “She just didn’t care for us. The only reason we knew she was alive [was when] the police would pick up [us] girls and call my grandmother.”
Raven was a typical little girl who loved dolls, anything pink and dressing up like a princess. All seemed well, despite the wreckage of her parents’ lives. Her grandfather died, then things changed forever in 2000, when the rock in her life, her grandmother, died.
She was just 8 years old, and at that tender age was about to begin a downward spiral that would never stop. “She went from loving pink and Disney stuff to not caring at all,” says Brittany. “It totally changed her.” Raven became reclusive and angry, and didn’t care much about anything. “She felt that she lost another mother.”
Westside meets Eastside: Dyan Cannon, in search of documentary subjects, visits with young homeless men on Hollywood Boulevard.
Her aunt and uncle took her in, but Raven proved to be a handful and things grew worse. She ended up a ward of the county, spending time in the Hollygrove Home for Children. The system failed her miserably: By 12, she was a chronic runaway, seeking out the streets at a time when most kids are in the seventh-grade. She tossed away her pink princess dresses for black gothic attire.
“We were always looking for her,” says Brittany. “We would find her and turn her in [to child services]. Then she would leave again…. I realized it didn’t matter what I do … I didn’t want her to not talk to me at all. I saw that I was pushing her more and more away.”
The concrete sidewalks became Raven’s bed. Her daily routine included showering at a homeless teens’ drop-in center on Gower Street, the Teen Canteen, where she kept her stuff in a locker; hanging out at other facilities for the homeless and runaways on Hollywood Boulevard, like My Friend’s Place or the Salvation Army’s The Way In; and panhandling on one of her two favorite corners, Hollywood and Cahuenga or Hollywood and Vine.
She pulled in $20 to $30 a night on weekdays, from shocked pedestrians who got a good look at her youthful face. On Friday nights, she could make up to $50.
It probably helped that she was beautiful.
Regularly, Raven and a friend would get stoned together and go to the Metro subway station at Hollywood and Vine and “talk crap to the tourists and ask them for change, and if they didn’t give us money we would say, ‘fuck you,’” chuckles Kat Ybarra, Raven’s best friend for three of her four years on the streets.
In no time at all, young Raven was a prostitute. When Kat first met her, Raven had just escaped from a pimp who was forcing her to work the intersection of Sunset and La Brea. “She didn’t want to go to Sunset,” says Kat. “Every time I saw her, she would be afraid he would be looking for her.”
Raven, girl prostitute, was only a few miles from where she was raised, in her grandmother’s safe suburban apartment, but worlds away. She could not recall the story of her own birth, and was no longer sure of her real age. “I don’t think she really knew when her real birthday was,” says Kat. “Before she died, she said she was 16.”
And, again in no time at all, Raven picked up a debilitating meth habit.
“It was fun at first, when you’re high, because we had kick-ass times,” recalls Kat. “That’s what we thought was fun.”
Raven fell in love with a street kid named Jimmy, who, it turned out, was being captured on videotape for a documentary about Los Angeles teens being made by actress Dyan Cannon. Cannon, after 9/11, had been spurred by a conviction that it was possible for people of different ethnicities and religious faiths to get along. She wanted to chronicle kids from many walks of life over a period of years. In 2002, she canvassed high schools and the streets, auditioning kids, and found just the right mix.
Looking relaxed during a recent interview at the casually chic Fairfax District restaurant BLD, co-owned by a friend of hers, Cannon tells the Weekly that after scouring L.A., she ended up with eight “stars” — troubled and normal kids alike.
A couple of them were homeless, like Jimmy. Cannon, a longtime resident of Malibu, now perhaps best known as a high-profile Lakers fan often caught on camera sitting near the players during games, was always accompanied by a cameraman as she tracked the kids’ Dickensian lives for more than five years. The two would find kids huddled in cars to keep out of the rain, or, in the winter, snuggled close to chimneys atop Hollywood buildings to keep warm.
Raven showed up one day when Cannon was following Jimmy. “She tried to come off as a smart-ass — a know-it-all,” Cannon smiles, but “she wouldn’t talk a lot.” One day, Raven said something that “stopped me in my tracks…. I would have my Chihuahuas with me. I would have them on the street with me. And she looked at my dog one night and said, ‘I wish I was one of your dogs.’ Because she saw the way I was petting Trudy. That was one of the first things she ever said to me.”
Cannon began to document Raven’s life. Raven told Cannon about her mother, and her spiral into drugs and prostitution. Jimmy was carrying a torch for her. They had broken up, but Raven found she just couldn’t drag herself away from the life. Yet she also had the dreams of a more typical suburban kid. She wanted to save up enough money to enroll at Santa Monica College to study creative writing.
“She wanted to hook up with her mama,” says Cannon, shaking her head sadly. “She had chances to get off the street many times, but she wanted to be ‘with’ her mom” on the unforgiving streets.
Shortly before she died, Raven’s tough street friends hardly recognized her. She had streaked her long brown hair purple, and had shaved half of it off into a bizarre, asymmetrical Mohawk. She was “cutting” on her arms — using razorblades to abuse herself. She was living on and off with her latest boyfriend, Curly, a 25-year-old man 10 years her senior, in an apartment in Hollywood.
But things were going sour between them. Friends said she wanted to leave him but didn’t know how. The friends all knew that she had started hooking again to feed her meth habit.
“The drugs really got to her in the end,” says Kat, flatly and without emotion. Kat had embraced religion, and had gotten off the streets.
A year after Kat left the streets, she ran into her friend Raven again: “It was pretty gnarly,” she says. “I saw her a week before she died. She gave me a bracelet and a rave-music CD at the Hollywood & Highland Center. I gave myself to God and saw things in a different way…. I was trying to talk to her about being sober.”
Then, three days before her death, Raven agreed to meet Cannon again for an interview. The actress had taped her earlier, and had been trying to get in touch with the teen for six months but wasn’t all that worried about her elusiveness — until she saw her. The interview lasted four hours.
“I begged her to let me take her to a rehab,” Cannon says. “She was afraid she would have to be there for a year, or they would put her in jail. She was afraid. I said, ‘So that’s a year. You’re 16. It doesn’t matter. That year will go quickly.’”
Raven didn’t listen to the tall, slim, blonde 71-year-old actress from Malibu.
The day of Raven’s demise began with a visit to her boyfriend, Curly, followed by a rendezvous with her homeless teenage pal Joel Avelar Eliseo (who, crying at the preliminary hearing for Raven’s alleged murderer, Gilton Pitre, later tearfully refused to talk to the Weekly). The two hung out at My Friend’s Place and The Way In.
After both of those drop-in centers for teens had closed for the evening, the kids sauntered over to their usual hangout — a parking lot and bus shelter at the 7-Days Market in a run-down mini-mall on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Street. Behind the market is an alleyway where they, and many other kids, buy their drugs.
Joel Eliseo, looking horribly uncomfortable at the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building last April during the preliminary hearing, sported a pierced nose and a large wooden spool of red thread wedged into a hole in his severely stretched ear lobe. He explained to the judge that he and Raven were approached near the 7-Days Market by a short, heavyset black guy who asked Raven if she wanted to “hang out.”
Joel told the judge that Raven replied, “Wait here, I will be back,” and that the teens left the man behind, heading to a party at the apartment of a friend of Joel’s, on Selma Avenue.
Joel and Raven walked several blocks, stopping at a liquor store to buy cigarettes. But when they got to the Unocal 76 gas station on Hollywood Boulevard near Tommy’s Burgers, the same man appeared again, now leaning nonchalantly against a Unocal gas pump.
According to Joel, the man pressed Raven, again asking if she wanted to hang out. “The second time, she said it in a more frustrated tone, like, ‘Yeah, I will be back,’” Joel told the judge. The duo arrived at the party after 10 p.m., but Raven stayed for only about 15 minutes, then left because, Joel said, she found it too crowded and “she didn’t like the environment.”
Joel never saw Raven again.
Around dawn on June 4, 2007, Julio Cesar Carbajal Cunca, leaving his job as a night-shift cleaner at El Cid restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, spotted what he assumed was a homeless person passed out in the alley. He was horrified to discover a dead woman instead, the upper half of her black-clothed body wrapped in a green comforter.
It took tragically little time for police to identify Raven as a well-known runaway and failed ward of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Raven was wearing her trademark goth clothing: black T-shirt and jeans, yellow socks inside out, black shoes. Her fingernails were painted with metallic-black polish. Her arms were marked with multiple new and old self-mutilation scars.
And on her left arm, scrawled in reddish-orange felt marker, was her boyfriend Curly’s real full name, along with a curt message that put Northeast Division detectives on full alert: “Mathew Edward Kent Hates Me.”
Despite that glaring clue apparently pointing to Curly, detectives were worried that the case could be a toughie. Body dumps are typically the most difficult to unravel: The original scene of the killing is unknown to police, meaning that key evidence, including the weapon, hairs or fibers, is often never found, and witnesses are sometimes long gone.
At first, detectives thought that Cunca, the restaurant’s cleaning man, had grabbed the green comforter from inside El Cid and placed it over Raven’s body. But that didn’t sound right: Why would a restaurant have a comforter?
The cheesy green tapestry bed covering just “screamed motel,” one of the investigating detectives, Lou Rivera, told the Weekly. Rivera called Cunca and learned that the cleaning man had found Raven already shrouded in the blanket — crucial information that was enough to send no fewer than eight detectives bolting out of Northeast Division to scour the seedy motels in Silver Lake, Highland Park and Echo Park.
But there were no reports of a missing comforter — or of foul play. The detectives turned to the comforter itself for clues. Following the ID number and other information on the blanket’s manufacturer tag, they tracked down its Pacoima maker, and on June 5, 2007, asked one of the factory’s employees to determine whether the company had sold any of the bedspreads to hotels in the Echo Park, Silver Lake, Hollywood or Highland Park areas.
A few days later, company officials contacted the LAPD to tell them that they had indeed sold three green tapestry-patterned comforters to the Olive Motel on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake in December 2006.
It was great police work, and an unbelievable stroke of luck for cops who were determined to find the killer. The Olive Motel on Sunset is about a mile east of where Raven’s body was found. The detectives immediately contacted the motel’s owners and asked them to hang on to any security-video footage from the previous two days.
The footage was extremely difficult to download, and for three weeks, police waited for the owner to figure out how to review tape from the crucial days of June 3 and 4 last year.
Meanwhile, detectives homed in on Raven’s 25-year-old live-in boyfriend, Curly, whose real name she had scrawled on her arm in orange marker before her death. They learned that Raven had complained to friends about the couple’s volatile relationship, and had planned to leave him. In addition, Curly had recently been arrested — for having sex with Raven, who was a minor.
The owner of the Olive Motel handed over the surveillance footage on June 28. What the detectives discovered astonished them. On June 3, at approximately 11:22 p.m., one camera captured a short, stocky black guy walking through the motel parking lot with a woman “close in stature and dressed in clothes similar to those found on Gomez,” and carrying a gym bag. At 4:33 the following morning, another camera captured the same man leaving his room at the motel with a gym bag. Eight minutes later, he again left his room — carrying a large object wrapped in a comforter.
A third camera caught him standing behind a tan-colored Cadillac Seville SLS, opening the trunk lid, closing it, jumping into the car and driving off.
Armed with the eerie footage, the detectives collected every motel registration card from that night. They discovered that a registered sex offender named Gilton Pitre had checked into room 5 at 11:15 p.m., giving his full name and driver’s license number.
They also learned that the 220-pound Pitre, who went by the street name “Little Nut,” had done time in 1994 for burglary, and had been convicted in 1996 of raping his roommate, a crime for which he was sentenced to three years in state prison. Then, in 2005, Pitre was arrested and convicted for selling marijuana to an undercover officer in front of the McDonald’s next to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.
Pitre was released from state prison on May 31, 2007, just four days before Raven’s body was found dumped behind El Cid restaurant.
On July 11, the Los Angeles County Coroner revealed that Raven, her body filled with meth, died from strangulation. Because of the evidence in the videotape, Curly, her boyfriend, was quickly dropped from suspicion. A week later, detectives arrested Pitre at his mom’s apartment, near Pico Boulevard and Bronson Avenue. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office filed charges on July 20. Three months later, detectives were notified by the Department of Justice that the DNA found on Raven’s body came from “two individuals.” Using CODIS, the federal DNA database, police confirmed that the samples belonged to Pitre and Curly.
On April 29 this year, the judge at the preliminary hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that the District Attorney’s Office had enough evidence to try Pitre for murder.
Not much has changed on the streets since Raven’s death. The number of teen runaways in Hollywood is still high — the latest data, for early 2007, says that about 330 kids are surviving on Hollywood’s streets at any given time. They flock to its half-glitzy, half-creepy streets and boulevards to escape their parents or the Department of Children and Family Services, to make it big in the film industry — or to get a quick fix.
Raven’s death did inspire positive changes in some: Her buddy Joel Avelar Eliseo has since moved off the streets and is working at Denny’s, according to one of his friends. Jimmy, still grieving over Raven, was taken in by a close friend of Dyan Cannon’s and has “made a complete 360,” says the actress. Kat Ybarra lives two hours north of Hollywood in Buellton — a quiet town famous for its split-pea-soup restaurant — and has a full-time job. She has been drug-free for two years, and is now speaking regularly to her parents.
Cannon is continuing to film her 9/11-inspired documentary. It’s no longer about how everyone gets along.
Cannon, seeming deeply sincere and moved by what she has seen, tears up when she talks about Raven’s life and death, now a central focus of her film. Cannon paid for Raven’s tombstone, next to her grandparents’. “One of the reasons that I started to make this movie was to inspire and show people you don’t have to go to Africa or dark parts of any country to find horror stories, or kids that need help,” she says.
“The kids in our own backyard need help. Now the film has taken on a different perspective because, who knew? But I hope when kids see the movie, or when everybody sees the movie, it helps them to make choices about their life and how the wrong choice can have a ripple effect on so many.”
Raven’s friends escaped the seedy streets of Hollywood. Jimmy, Kat and Joel are a remarkable testament to the fact that society’s most troubled souls can take back their lives. Raven’s life lesson came too late. Her untimely death shines a light on the street urchins still there, scrabbling out desperate lives, invisible to those who drive down the boulevard.