A cross made of white and blue carnations stands next to a sandstone-colored coffin. A young woman cries loudly as Father Greg Boyle speaks from a podium about 30-year-old Saul “Chato” Garcia. Father Greg reads a handful of prison letters he received from Garcia as homeboys quietly listen in the back of the Boyle Heights mortuary. He’d been in and out of prison as a juvenile, having done time for a shooting he swore he didn’t commit. Even Father Greg believed him.
It wasn’t your typical funeral. From a row of police cruisers parked across the street, officers watched as homeboys chatted with each other and gang-intervention specialists. The mourners grew anxious when a shotgun-toting cop walked by. He was there to keep the peace just in case the Cuatro Flats, rivals of TMC, decided to swing by.
“It is a big show of disrespect if you shoot at a gang funeral. They get more bang for their buck,” said LAPD gang supervisor Dwayne Fields. “When I have a shooting of a gang member I expect a retaliation.”
Even before the funeral, the retaliation started swiftly between the two gangs, which originated in the Pico-Aliso housing projects. Seven people have been shot in gang-related violence, with three caught in the crossfire including a homeless man and a woman shopping in a liquor store.
Boyle Heights residents have grown accustomed to gang violence, but, they say, there’s another reason to be outraged at the most recent spree: Garcia’s death and its violent aftermath came just 10 days after LAPD officers were pulled from their overtime patrol of two of their community’s largest and deadliest housing projects, including Pico-Aliso.
“The spike in crime is a great concern to the community,” said Dolores Mission’s assistant pastor, Sean Carroll. “We haven’t seen that type of activity in this area for quite some time. There is fear that it will continue or increase. Fear that the tension will rise. Fear that there will be more violence, but at the same time it renews our commitment to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Carroll and community members thought things had turned around for the better when the LAPD took over full control for policing the housing projects in December 2004 from the Los Angeles Housing Authority. The agency, which is independently funded by the federal Housing and Urban Development program, had officers patrolling its six housing projects for 30 years; during that time, the LAPD would patrol occasionally and answer 911 calls. In 2003, the authority disbanded its force of 78 police officers. The next year, the authority signed a contract with the LAPD for extra patrols, provided on an overtime basis for one year. The detail included a sergeant and six officers, deployed eight hours a day, five days a week, to each of L.A.’s six housing projects. Crime decreased by 50 percent and neighbors who lived in and around the Boyle Heights housing projects applauded the extra staffing. The contract expired last December but was extended monthly until April 1.
Ten days after the patrols stopped, on April 11, Garcia and a male passenger were driving in his Ford Expedition westbound on Atlantic Boulevard in Boyle Heights in the middle of the afternoon when a car carrying two Latino males pulled alongside him and began shooting. Garcia, who was struck once in the head, lost control of the car and plowed into a parked car next to a park where children were playing nearby. The passenger jumped out of the car and was shot in the buttocks as he made his escape to a nearby house. When police arrived they found two types of ammunition, including bullet casings from an assault rifle that could easily penetrate the driver’s-side door. The incident had all the markings of an intended hit. But as with most gang-related shootings, the surviving victim shed no light on who the shooters were or why they shot at him and Garcia. However, police suspect that the shooters are from the Cuatro Flats.
“Chato was a gang member,” said a gang-intervention specialist who didn’t want to be identified. “Maybe the person he was with was recognized or known. Maybe he was at the wrong place at the wrong time or with the wrong person. Or it could have been someone from Chato’s past who came up and evened the score. The reality is gangs kill each other. In some instances, it comes back to haunt you.”
A few months before Garcia’s death, neighbors complained to the police that TMC members were increasing their tagging efforts in the area. In turn, Cuatro Flats was tagging in a park controlled by TMC. At the same time, police said Garcia was jumping new recruits into the gang life in neighboring Pecan Park.
Two days after Garcia’s death, more violence erupted in Boyle Heights. A Latino gang member walked into a liquor store on First and Gless streets and fired at least 10 rounds at the shoppers inside. The intended victims were two members of TMC. One was shot in the abdomen, the other in the buttocks. Caught in the crossfire were three other people, including a woman shopper and a homeless man, who were both shot in the legs.
On April 17, two Cuatro Flats gang members were shot outside another liquor store on the corner of Fourth and Boyle streets at 6 p.m. — the same time that Garcia’s funeral started. According to the police, the two shooters drove up and fired more than 10 rounds from a 9mm revolver at the two teenagers. Both teens were shot in the legs.
“I think that public safety is a primary concern for the community,” said Carroll. “We have worked very hard to lower the crime rate in the area. The children could go out and play, and they didn’t have to worry about being a crime victim. I think what these incidents show us is that police presence is important. It is crucial for public safety in our community.”
After numerous community complaints, the LAPD resumed its overtime patrol last Friday. LAPD officers also wanted to continue its patrol after two police cruisers were shot at twice last month in Ramona Gardens.
“We have been given directions to continue,” said LAPD Assistant Chief George Gascon. “The Housing Authority doesn’t have the funds to pay for it. We know there is a need there. There is a question of funding. There isn’t a question of need. We were assured that there will be funding through other city resources. At this point, we have already extended the LAPD overtime account. We are working with the chief administrative officer to find the funds. It is a matter of moving money from one account to another.”
The city has agreed to pay for the overtime until July 1. After that, community members hope that the City Council will approve Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s budget proposal to allocate $2 million in the next year for overtime patrol of the housing projects.
Meanwhile, Boyle Heights residents brace themselves yet again for more gang violence. “There is always these spikes after each incident,” said Councilman Jose Huizar. “I am additionally concerned now as a council member and as a resident. This is a time when real suppression needs to be done so we can go forward and be on the alert.”