CALIFORNIA

Wave of violence shakes Boyle Heights church community

Assumption Catholic Church in Boyle Heights has long been a place of peace and salvation in its tight-knit community. But the hit-and-run death of a beloved nun and other random violence has left parishioners on edge and questioning how best to safeguard their sanctuary.

The modest brick structure is recognizable to many as the church that sits across the street from one of L.A.'s landmark eateries, Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe.

The church is a home away from home for many longtime residents and a focal point for many community activities and programs.

But over the last year, a wave of crime and tragedy has left many church members feeling like victims of a streak of epic misfortune.

"Everything is hitting us at 100%," church secretary Michelle Pacheco said. "There's just been so many losses. The community is suffering."

This month, 80-year-old volunteer Martin Acosta was attacked as he walked across the church parking lot carrying a canvas bag containing $4,100 in cash, checks and change — the week's church donations.

Acosta struggled with the male assailant as other parishioners screamed for help. He was dragged several feet and struck on the head before the man with the bag got into a waiting car and fled. Neither the man who grabbed the bag nor the driver have been arrested.

"They tore the skin of his hands," Acosta's wife, Rosario, said. "They hit his head."

The robbery was just the latest blow for the small neighborhood church tucked among homes and apartments between Blanchard Street and Evergreen Avenue.

Last month, sister Raquel Diaz, a pillar of the church for more than 30 years, was run down at Winter Street and Evergreen Avenue. The driver struck Diaz late in the afternoon and drove away without stopping to help.

This week, the city installed two stop signs at the intersection and restriped the road in response to Diaz's death.

The crime streak started last year when the church's warehouse was burglarized twice. Later, several people were seen loitering overnight on church grounds, prompting concern among parishioners.

Determined to put a stop to the break-ins, occasional vandalism and trespassing, church deacons installed cameras in the fall. What they saw was devastating, Father Luis Guzman said.

In one instance over the Thanksgiving weekend, video footage showed a mother, father and their children jiggling car doors and burglarizing unlocked vehicles.

"It gives us sadness," Guzman said. "The people are concerned. They don't feel safe."

Now, Guzman said, parishioners are faced with a painful choice of whether to keep the church gates closed at all hours.

Closing the gates would also close off access to the community. As of now, Guzman said the gates would remain open during the day but would close at night.

Guzman and church officials are working with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on a plan to build a perimeter fence and increase other security measures. The church is hoping the community will also be vigilant.

For Guzman, Diaz's death "has been this thorn because we don't know who did it." Last week's robbery adds further frustration to what appears to be an unending cycle of violence, he said.

"We are not concerned about the money," Guzman said. "We are concerned about the people."

Josefina Gonzalez, 50, said the neighborhood crime won't stop her from visiting the church. She and other church members believe the crime is being committed by people from other communities.

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The church and its programs, she said, helped her son overcome a seven-year drug addiction. "There is a good program here to help people who feel marginalized," Gonzalez said, adding that she has faith that things will change for the better.

"God wants the people in this community to respect and protect this church," she said.

Rosario Acosta, who has been helping at the church for 40 years, said there was a "ball of violence in this community."

But the robbery has not shaken her husband's commitment, and they both vowed to continue to volunteer, said the 65-year-old Boyle Heights resident.

After all, she said, "this is our church."

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Twitter:@VeronicaRochaLA

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 23, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Wave of violence shakes church" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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