The young women whose bodies were found in a Northeast Los Angeles park last week were friends, says a woman who knew both victims.
Tina Padilla, a youth case manager at Aztecs Rising, a nonprofit just blocks from Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, says 19-year-old Gabriela Calzada and 17-year-old Briana Gallegos, whose bodies were found near a pathway in that park on Oct. 28, were pals.
Reports have said both gunfire and blunt force trauma might have contributed to their deaths. Police so far are not connecting the homicides to the murders of two other Northeast L.A. young women, 22-year-old Bree'Anna Guzman and 17-year-old Michelle Lozano, a few years ago.
Calzada recently completed Aztecs Rising's Gang Reduction Youth Development gang-intervention program, Padilla told us. The city-sponsored program is run in part under the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who apparently signed a certificate of recognition, she said.
The teen's was a success story for the program, Padilla said. She was planning to participate in a firefighter training program that starts in January, she said.
“She completed and graduated the intervention part of it,” Padilla said. “She was still going to go on to be the firefighter.”
The 19-year-old and Gallegos were acquainted enough that the latter's uncle had met Calzada and concluded “she was a good girl,” Padilla said.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “they were friends.”
Calzada went through a rough patch as a teenager and ended up in juvenile hall and then, afterward, with an ankle monitor tracking her whereabouts, Padilla said. She came to Aztecs Rising voluntarily.
Last year Padilla went to court and testified on Calzada's behalf, helping to get the ankle monitor removed in October 2014, she said.
The teen embraced her gang-intervention program, handing out food during a holiday event, participating in community trash cleanups and working for the mayor's Summer Night Lights basketball and intervention events, Padilla said.
“She opened up,” Padilla said. “She blossomed. She was able to serve the community in a positive way.”
As Calzada's case worker, Padilla said she became close to her, sometimes giving the teen and her mother a ride home from the grocery store because they didn't have a car.
After completing the gang-intervention program, the teen started working out in anticipation of the firefighting program, which could have led to state certification, Padilla said.
Calzada would walk around with a 75-pound backpack on in order to prepare for a requirement that she be able to carry someone who weighs at least 75 pounds out of harm's way, Padilla said.
Calzada's parents were from Mexico and she was an only child. She didn't join a gang, but she did run with the wrong crowd sometimes, Padilla indicated.
“It's not her fault where she lived,” Padilla said. “It's not her fault her parents could only afford an apartment on that particular street. She grew up in that neighborhood, around all those people. She didn't have much choice in life. She was a victim of where she lived.”
Interestingly, Padilla says she also knew Gallegos — “since she was about 6 years old” — who attended the the same elementary school as her son, Padilla said.
Gallegos was a cheerleader, and her uncles worked at Franklin High School, Padilla said.
Padilla heard that the younger girl was pregnant but did not have independent knowledge of it, she said.
“Sweet girl,” Padilla said, “outgoing.”
“I don't know how they [Gallegos and Calzada] knew each other,” she said.
When she found out about the teens' deaths, Padilla said, “It really hit me hard.”
“She was on the right path,” she said of the elder one, Calzada. “She came to us to change her life.”
“I always told her if she ever needed anything,” Padilla said, “I was just a phone call away.”
Friends and loved ones of Calzada launched an online “memorial fund.” They're also organizing a car-wash fundraiser Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Glassell Senior Citizen Center, 3750 Verdugo Road.