A 22-year-old Army veteran who recently returned from Afghanistan was fatally shot early Sunday during a dispute outside a party at his girlfriend's home in Sylmar, police said.
Francisco "Frankie" Garcia died at the scene of the shooting in the 13200 block of Dronfield Avenue shortly before 2 a.m., said Los Angeles Police Lt. Paul Vernon.
"The ironies are obvious," Vernon said. "To survive as a soldier in an overseas conflict, only to be killed in your old neighborhood upon your return."
Garcia had been celebrating with family and friends at the home of his girlfriend nearby when partygoers decided to move to a new location, police said.
Two cars pulled up to where the group was standing near Astoria Street, when the occupant of one of the cars jumped out, smashed a beer bottle on the ground and yelled at Garcia, police said.
It appears that the dispute did not originate at the party but stemmed from a previous confrontation, Det. Juan Santa said. The suspect walked to the other vehicle, retrieved a handgun from the occupant and began shooting at Garcia, he said.
"There was more than likely a verbal exchange, but it's not clear what the nature of the dispute was," Santa said.
Police are continuing to search for the gunman.
Later Sunday morning, friends gathered at a sidewalk memorial for Garcia, who had returned from Afghanistan about four months ago. Some brought sunflowers and candles, praying and crying as they remembered their friend.
Garcia grew up in Sylmar and was well known in the neighborhood as a caring and outgoing young man, friends said. He was living with his parents in their Sylmar condominium and had begun working as a security guard.
Brian Enriquez, 21, said he, Garcia and a group of friends had started drinking at Garcia's girlfriend's house Saturday night. When she decided to go to sleep, they headed to another gathering at a house near Sylmar High School.
"As soon as we were crossing the street, some guys came up, pulled out a gun, shot at us. We ran," Enriquez said. "The last bullet the guy shot hit Frankie."
Enriquez said he had never seen the assailants before. Enriquez recalled the shooter saying, "Are you ready for this?" before opening fire.
He said he had known Garcia since middle school and saw him every day. The two were so close that Enriquez refers to Garcia as his brother.
"He was a very loving, caring person," Enriquez said. "He would always have a smile on his face. An all-around amazing individual."
Enriquez said he had no idea why anyone would want to hurt Garcia.
"It was always in his nature to help, no matter the circumstance," he said.
Fernando Mora, 25, a friend of Garcia's for six years, said that when Garcia returned from his deployments in the Middle East, he talked about how several fellow soldiers and friends had died there.
"He came back alive," Mora said. "So to die like this, it's not right."
Mora said he last saw Garcia at a homecoming party last week. On Sunday morning, Mora wept as he crouched down to pray for Garcia next to the sidewalk memorial. Mora and his 6-month-old son, Mason, brought flowers and candles.
Mora said Garcia recently told him that he wanted to have children someday.
"He was supposed to meet my boy," Mora said. "He never got to meet him."
Mora described Garcia as a big, strong young man who was down to earth and outgoing. "He was the life of the whole group and would even get the shy people to open up," Mora said.
The shooting rattled residents in the usually peaceful neighborhood near Sylmar High with tree-lined streets and mountain views.
Valentin Alcantar, 36, was asleep in the living room of his apartment when he was awoken by gunfire. He heard a second series of gunshots and then the sound of a car speeding away.
When the police arrived, Alcantar looked out his apartment to see a group of friends administering CPR to Garcia.
"Hurry up, his heart's still beating," he heard one of the young men say. Then an ambulance arrived and they pulled a white sheet over Garcia.
Police also towed a gray car riddled with bullet holes from the scene.
Alcantar, a U.S. Navy veteran, said, "I don't know the guy, but a veteran is a veteran. So it hits home."