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A quiet night's menace

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Saturday night, July 21, and it's been slow in South Los Angeles, scary slow. Two Los Angeles police officers stop a pair of young gang members for jaywalking, a good excuse to ask some questions.

When was the last shooting in the neighborhood? Officer Brandon Valdez asks. One of the gang members tells him it was probably "when my boy" was killed about a month ago, there by the church.

Valdez scribbles on a field interview card, which will be used to update the young man's gang profile.

The gang member, a lanky 20-year-old who goes by the name Mally, chews coolly on a toothpick. A large gilded crucifix dangles from his neck as he and a friend slouch, handcuffed, against a rusting gate on a street corner just west of the Nickerson Gardens projects.

Mally says he hasn't seen rival gang members in the area since the killing. No one from the other projects. Nothing like that.

Valdez is 27, a five-year veteran who patrols the heart of gang country. Gang violence is plummeting to historic lows, a trend that is likely to see Los Angeles finish the year with the fewest homicides in 40 years.

One of Valdez's bosses, Sgt. Al Labrada, can remind his younger troops that when he joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1993, the city recorded 1,078 homicides. This year, the total is expected to be fewer than 400.

Part of the reason may be the way the LAPD is working with gang intervention teams and community groups. Freed from having to ride from one blood-splattered scene to another as they once did, gang officers are able to slow down and take the pulse of neighborhoods. That means making more stops, even for minor offenses, and establishing a presence. That is always tough, given that there are about 140 gang cops compared to more than 20,000 gang members in the LAPD's South Bureau.

Even with the success so far, both cops and residents know a quiet night can become deadly in a matter of seconds.

As Valdez stares at the field interview card, Mally clears his throat.

"Can't say it's quiet right now," he says. "Can't say it's quiet, until the day is over with."

Earlier in the day, Valdez and his partner, Cesar Rivera, are driving their black-and-white through the LAPD's 77th Street Division when they hear a radio call: Two gang officers have chased down another gang member with a gun in an alley near 65th Street and Vermont Avenue.

When they arrive, other officers from the South Bureau gang unit are already there, along with a few gang members.

Hunched over the trunk of a police cruiser, a Latino boy writes on a form. An older black teenager sits on the cruiser's back seat, handcuffed. The boy stops writing and looks at Officer Pablo Soto.

"You gonna take me, right?" he says. Soto says no. "Why not?" the boy whines.

The boy is wearing a white T-shirt and baggy, olive-colored cargo pants. He has tattoos on his arms. He's 14 years old. From under the wrinkled cuffs of the pants, bright red Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers poke out.

He is one of the few Latino members of the 6-7 Neighborhood Crips. He says the gun belongs to him, not to the 19-year-old black gang member in the cruiser.

Soto and his partner, Enrique Lopez, were driving on Vermont when they spotted the two gang members. The 19-year-old reached for his waistband, then took off into the alley. The two cops chased him.

The teenager hopped over a fence into a yard and tried to throw the gun over a house. But it clattered back to the ground. Cornered, with Lopez and Soto in close pursuit, the young gang member gave up.

The 14-year-old walked up to Soto and said the officers should let the older teen go and take him instead.

"Aw, man, that's messed up. That's not right. That's my gun," the boy says. He eagerly shows off his gang tattoos. "Can you put, though, in my statements, it got my fingerprints and all that?"

"Go home. Have a good one," Soto says, dismissing the boy. "Before I give you a ticket."

The boy walks away, still complaining.

"So that his big homie doesn't go to jail, he wants to get arrested," Soto says. "And that's respect to this guy, 'cause he's still a little kid. He has to take care of his older homies."

Soto shows Valdez and Rivera the 9-millimeter gun, which sits in the trunk of their squad car. It's a nice-looking gun, the cops agree.

It's after a few traffic stops that, at 7:25 p.m., Valdez and Rivera spot Mally and his friend jaywalking near 114th Street.

The two admit to being members of a Bloods gang, affiliated with the Bounty Hunter Bloods in Nickerson Gardens. Mally's friend is a stocky 19-year-old with glazed eyes and a white muscle shirt. Mally stares at Valdez, or rather at his high-and-tight haircut.

"You were armed services?" he asks the cop. Marines, Valdez says.

"How about you guys? You military?" Valdez asks with a smile. Mally laughs, knowing he's being put on.

"Street soldier, huh?" Valdez says, drawing a laugh.

Valdez fought in Iraq in 2004. He remembers Marines delivering supplies to a hospital in Ramadi. As soon as they left, the doctors were killed by insurgents. He returned to the U.S. after being wounded by a roadside bomb while riding in a convoy.

Mally seems to sense that the cop saw some action.

"You didn't come back kind of shook up a little bit?" he asks Valdez.

"I'm fine, man. I'm fine," the cop says.

While Rivera returns to the squad car to check for any outstanding warrants on the pair, Valdez notes that the last shooting Mally mentioned involved the Westside Pirus. The victim was a boy with supposed connections to the Bounty Hunter Bloods.

"That's Blood on Blood right there," Valdez says.

"It don't matter no more," Mally says. "The youngsters done grew up and switched the game around."

They let Mally and his friend go with no jaywalking tickets.

As they drive through Nickerson Gardens' serpentine streets, Valdez and Rivera spot a speeding white Buick LeSabre. They chase it around a few turns before it stops at Success Avenue and 115th Street.

The driver, 21 years old with a pencil-thin mustache, and the passenger, a burly 29-year-old, step from the car and are handcuffed. The bigger man tries to break the ice by talking about a big boxing match that night.

Valdez asks the driver if he's on probation or is named in the gang injunction, which prohibits listed gang members from being around other gang members or in certain neighborhoods. He says he is not. He gives the cops permission to search the car.

"You won't find anything in there to haul us in, man," the larger man says. "I can't even be around nothing like that."

"Me neither," the younger man says, though with a nervous laugh.

The older man says he was in the gang when he was young, but now he's a family man, working as an armed security guard.

"I can't get nothing on my record," he says. "I got three kids. Just had a son, 7-7-07."

But the young driver had lied about not being on the gang injunction list. He shouldn't be here, in Nickerson Gardens, among Bounty Hunters. He can be arrested.

"I'm going to be honest with you," the younger man says. "My lawyer said I don't really need to tell you."

"Your lawyer's going to get you in trouble," Valdez says. "You got to disclose that every time."

The driver complains that he was put on the injunction list when he was only 17. And that though he's not gang-banging anymore -- he's working for a legal services company downtown -- he's still in the gang database. It's not like he can move to another neighborhood. He doesn't have the money, he says.

"Still, don't hold nothing back!" his older friend says. "Tell the truth, man! They ask if you're on parole or probation, tell 'em the truth. You got nothing to worry about. Tell 'em straight!"

The car is clean, Rivera says. The cops let the men go.

"The big guy was being really cooperative with us," Valdez says. "If all of them would be like that, it would be a lot easier for them."

Later that evening, a small group of gang officers drives to a block party near 59th Street and Denver Avenue, where earlier some of the South Bureau gang cops saw suspected gang members reaching for their waistbands and running into apartments.

They round up and arrest a handful of gang members on warrants.

It's a lose-lose situation.

They went in and angered some people. But if they don't go in, and if someone is hurt or killed, they will be blamed for not being there.

A man named Kevin, wearing a black apron, accuses the cops of harassing blacks while letting "the Mexicans" party "all day long." Spewing expletives, he calls the cops "the gang in blue."

"The Crips, the Bloods and the LAPD," a woman adds.

"Ain't no gang-banging going on," Kevin says. "We ain't had no . . . shootings. We ain't had no drive-bys."

A few in the crowd taunt the cops as they leave. As he gets into the cruiser, Rivera mutters: "Nobody ever sees this part, you know?"

It's Saturday night, Aug. 18. Valdez is riding with Officer James Doull (Rivera is in a different car). It's task force night, when FBI agents and other cops team up with the gang unit to target gang crime.

A few guns have been retrieved, and just a few hours earlier, four young Latino gang members of the Harpies were arrested in Southwest Division. Otherwise, it's been mostly quiet.

Valdez is driving the cruiser on Central Avenue at 120th at 10:45 p.m. when the voice of a dispatcher crackles on the radio.

"Southeast units, ambulance shooting, Imperial and Success, Imperial and Success. Two males down on the street. Code 3 incident."

A minute later, they hear another voice, calm and familiar. There is screaming in the background.

"Got two victims down. Got a male, not conscious, not breathing. And got other male . . . not conscious, not breathing. Need a couple of additional units for a 415 crowd."

It's their boss, Labrada. The cruiser shoots north on Central Avenue, heading for Nickerson Gardens.

Labrada had entered the projects from Imperial Highway into Success Avenue. Turning left on 115th Street, he sees a boy on a moped. To the right, girls gab on cellphones,. Young men hang out in a carport. Driving west, Labrada hears the distinctive pop-pop-pop of gunfire. It's hard to tell how far away.

He's leaving Nickerson Gardens, driving north on Compton Avenue, when he hears the voice of the dispatcher. Two down, Imperial and Success. Where he had just been. So that's where the gunshots came from, Labrada mutters.

He turns the cruiser hard and in moments goes back into Nickerson Gardens through Success Avenue. At the intersection, he sees the shadow of a growing crowd and the silhouette of two males on the asphalt. He steps out of the car and jogs toward them. Screams punctuate the night.

A man in an orange jersey kneels before the body of what looks like a black youth, cheek pressed against asphalt. Like the youth stopped in the alley a few weeks ago, he wears red Chuck Taylor sneakers. Labrada asks the man to step back. Blood streams from the boy's head. Labrada calls for paramedics and for cops.

"Anybody see a car?" Labrada yells. No one answers. The crowd is growing, more than 50. Just one cop. Women scream, and a few reach for the bodies before being pulled back by others or pulling back on their own, seemingly in horror.

"Back please, back please, back please," Labrada says.

A collective moan comes from the crowd. A woman's voice pierces the sound.

"They need to come . . . now! Where the paramedics at?" she screams. "That's what everybody is saying! Where the . . . paramedics at?"

"The paramedics are coming," Labrada says.

On the eastern end of the intersection, a middle-aged woman in a business suit presses her hand to her cheek, distraught. Whoever did this could not have been from here, she mutters.

"This is a shame," she says. "We got to get out of this place. This is terrible."

Moments later, Valdez and Doull arrive to provide backup. Other officers show up, and many in the crowd surge forward, threatening to overwhelm Labrada, who stands over the victims.

"You don't do . . . for us!" a heavyset woman in shorts yells at the cops. "You don't protect us!"

"Skirmish line that way! Skirmish line!" Labrada shouts, raising his hands toward the west.

Doull rushes to meet a young woman running, arms outstretched, toward the victims. The cop grabs her and pulls her away, just as another woman reaches her to restrain her.

A man challenges Valdez to hit him. Bottles are thrown as the officers, batons out, push the crowd west on 115th Street. Some in the swelling crowd try to pull others back. The paramedics arrive and begin to load the shooting victims into ambulances. A helicopter buzzes overhead, its lights trained on the scene.

As Doull sets up on the skirmish line, a sergeant asks him to ride in the ambulance with one of the victims.

Doull jumps into the ambulance, scrunching himself into a corner with three paramedics. On the gurney lies a boy. Doull can see a small exit wound on the boy's left nipple. There isn't a lot of blood. Doull knows this probably means the boy is bleeding internally. The paramedics try to revive him.

The boy, Donta Daniel Bolden, 15, was not a gang member. That night, he visited a sister in the projects. He ran into an old family friend, Ryant Alexander, a 36-year-old member of the gang that rules Nickerson Gardens.

Alexander was shot that night along with Donta. He lived. Donta did not.

The boy's father, Clinton Bolden, recalled how Donta would follow him to work, cutting grass and doing landscaping. The boy liked to be well-dressed and fashionable.

"He was always looking for more work," his father said at the family home, just a block from Nickerson Gardens. "He said more work, more money."

When Donta ran into Alexander that night, he encountered a man marked for death. The suspected gunman was a member of the Bounty Hunters, the same gang Alexander claimed. A beef while both were in prison turned murderous. Donta was killed because he happened to be with Alexander.

A suspect was arrested, but only one witness from Nickerson Gardens came forward. Investigators know there were more, but without their help, they had to release the suspect.

At his funeral, his sister Kimberly called Donta's death a chance for "us to wake up and do something for our lives."

About a week after the shooting, Valdez and Rivera patrolled the neighborhood.

At the corner of 115th and Success Avenue, stuffed animals, candles and flowers marked the spot where Donta had died. As the cops rode out of Nickerson Gardens, a small boy kicked a red soccer ball against a wall.

Another quiet night patrolling South L.A.

hector.becerra@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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