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Rash of shootings frightens South L.A.

Rash of shootings frightens South L.A.
Epifanio Bernal and his sister Maria Bernal stand on the front porch of the home where four people were injured in a drive-by shooting. Friends and family had gathered at a vigil for his son who died in a motorbike accident. (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times)

The killings started early Sunday morning, with a 30-year-old man gunned down behind an apartment complex. By Monday night, four more people lay dead in a series of shootings across South Los Angeles.

The violence continued Wednesday. A car-to-car shooting wounded two people, including a teenage girl who was shot in the head. A few hours later, someone opened fire on a group attending a gathering to remember a man recently killed in a car accident. Five people were shot.

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This week's spate of shootings, which left five dead and at least 10 wounded, is unusual even in South L.A., a traditionally high-crime area that has seen homicides and other serious offenses plummet in recent years.

The bloodshed has alarmed Los Angeles police officials, who say they are adding patrol officers to the area in the hopes of preventing tit-for-tat violence.

Even with the most recent crimes, homicides and shootings are still down in South L.A. this year. But some veteran detectives said the last few days have been a sober reminder of an era when the area often saw multiple killings nightly.

Homicide Det. Sal LaBarbera, who has been assigned to South L.A. for nearly 30 years, said he and his colleagues have been working 18- to 20-hour days. Some have slept at the station as LaBarbera worked around the clock on Monday and stayed until Tuesday afternoon.

"It's go home, shower, try to get a nap in and come back," he said. "It's very '90s."

LAPD Deputy Chief Bob Green, who heads the department's South Bureau, said his top concern was preventing retaliation by gangs who are suspected of involvement in at least some of the shootings.

"The first thing we have to do is stop the violence," Green said. "Until they get justice, they want street justice."

One gang intervention worker said emotions were already running high. Skipp Townsend said some gang members are antagonizing each other on social media and spreading rumors that he fears will escalate simmering tensions.

"For it to be so violent so fast, it's shocking and scary," Townsend said. "The young people are excited and they're ready to go to war. We're talking and they're not listening."

Until the Labor Day weekend, South L.A. had been enjoying a continuation of its steady decline in killings and shootings. The LAPD's South Bureau reported 69 shootings during a four-week period in August compared with 98 during a similar four-week period in June.

Back then, a rash of shootings on June 12 and 13 left five dead.

But in those cases, detectives knew the specific gangs involved and whom to target, LaBarbera said. This week's shootings stand out, he said, because each appears to be isolated.

"It's out of the norm," he said.

The most recent shootings began about 2:45 a.m. Sunday when Michael White was fatally shot by two men who approached him behind an apartment complex in the Vermont Square neighborhood.

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On Monday afternoon, two groups of people piled out of two cars at a dinosaur-themed carwash in Vermont-Slauson and began screaming at each other in a dispute over money, police said. A gun was pulled and two men were shot, about 30 feet from the carwash's giant replica of a triceratops, police said. Lamont Jones, 30, and Mario King, 26, died later at a hospital.

Later that evening, James Jay Smith, 20, and a 17-year-old were shot near West Adams Boulevard and South Dalton Avenue. Smith was killed and the teen wounded.

About 90 minutes later, two people were standing in an alley on Ninth Avenue north of Jefferson Boulevard when a person got out of a light-colored SUV and shot two people, police said.

A 30-year-old man was critically injured. Brittney Barnett, 25, died at the scene.

Her father, Eugene Barnett, said he learned about the shooting from his 11-year-old grandson, who told him: "I think my mom is dead."

Wednesday's violence began shortly before 5 p.m., when someone in a light-colored SUV fired multiple times at a gold Mercedes on South Vermont Avenue near West Manchester Avenue. The victims, including a 17-year-old girl, drove a few blocks before calling for help.

It was not clear whether the teenager would survive.

A 24-year-old man in the car was also injured but was in stable condition, police said.

That night, two men drove past a house near East 27th Street and Stanford Avenue. Epifanio Bernal, 38, said loved ones had gathered at his mother's green stucco home to mourn the loss of his 20-year-old son, who died earlier that day from injuries suffered when a car struck his motorized bicycle. About 9:45 p.m., someone fired at the people standing outside. Five people were hit and another was injured by shrapnel, police said.

"I told everyone to drop to the floor," Bernal said. "People were screaming and running; some were crawling their way into the house."

Bernal said he didn't know what prompted the shooting, but was thankful no one died. He said there were mothers at the house with babies in their arms, along with toddlers and elderly people.

"Can you imagine what the heartache would have been like if someone had been killed?" he said.

His neighbors said they were also shocked by the violence, saying the street has been a quiet place for years.

Rosa Beltran, 58, who has lived in the area for more than 25 years, said such shootings are now rare, a stark contrast to decades ago.

"There were a lot of shootings then," Beltran said. "We would sleep on the floor instead of the bed."

On Thursday, bloodstains marked the driveway at Bernal's mother's home. Eight chalk circles marked where bullet casings had fallen.

In the frontyard sat a white-and-red Air Jordan sneaker, marred by a bullet hole covered in blood.

Bernal stood on the front porch, his arms crossed. He stared down the street.

"There's always that fear that they're going to come back," he said.

Times staff writers Ben Welsh and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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