L.A. Now

Boyle Heights haunted by gunfire, explosive crash and a pregnant woman's cries for help

Juicho Ortiz was enjoying a warm, quiet Sunday on the porch of his Boyle Heights home when he and a friend looked up the hill and spotted a white car barreling toward them.

“It was coming down fast and swerving on the wrong side of the street,” the 59-year-old recalled. The men wanted to bolt, but their legs froze.

“It was going to crash but [we] didn't know which way to run because of the way it was moving,” Ortiz said.

The men watched as the vehicle sank into a dip and then launched itself into the air for several seconds. They braced for impact as the car plowed into a parked van, shattered an avocado tree and then exploded through the porch of a century-old home next door.

“It was very violent, like those crashes you see in the movies,” Ortiz said. “I felt the ground shake.”

As smoke poured from the crumpled sedan, Ortiz said he “heard a woman screaming, 'Help, get me out! Get me out!'”

As bystanders rushed to free her, another passenger crawled from the wreckage. “He was bleeding from the head and arm,” Ortiz said. “He was in shock.”

The woman died at the scene, while the driver died later at a hospital. Only the man in the vehicle’s rear seat survived.

On Monday, investigators said they believe Sunday’s carnage was the end result of an armed gang attack on a group of teenagers who were unfamiliar with the area and didn’t know they had stumbled into danger.

Authorities have yet to publicly identify the victims, but they described the driver as a 19-year-old man from El Monte. In the passenger seat was a 19-year-old woman who was three months pregnant with the driver’s child. In the back seat was the couple’s friend, police said.

The three decided to have lunch at Prospect Park before the man took the mother-to-be to work on the other side of town, LAPD Det. David Alvarez said.

“Being that area is known for a male, Hispanic gang … being a male Hispanic from another area – you can be a target,” Alvarez said. “Even wearing your favorite [article of clothing] and being in the wrong area, that can trigger something.”

The three victims, all Latino, didn’t have any gang ties or police rap sheets, Alvarez said. The survivor told police that he’d noticed a dark SUV cruising the park while they were eating and it made him nervous. The three decided to leave and didn’t see that the SUV was following them, Alvarez said.

At about 11 a.m., the white sedan stopped at a red light at East Cesar Chavez Avenue and Echandia Street. The SUV pulled up alongside it.

Police said it was at that moment that someone stepped outside the SUV and began firing at the driver’s side of the victim’s car. The shooter then got back into the SUV and the vehicle sped west down Cesar Chavez, Alvarez said.

The bullet-riddled sedan accelerated forward, south down Echandia Street, toward where Ortiz and his friend were talking on the porch. It crashed into the home next door, wedged inside the home’s wooden frame. There was smoke coming from the car.

“They didn’t know the area and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Alvarez said of the victims. “When they realized they had to get out of the area they were shot at. There were no words exchanged.”

On Monday morning, neighbor Guillermo Gonzalez surveyed the damage done to his van and the neighboring property. Broken vehicle parts lay scattered on the street and sidewalk.

The impact of the victims' car knocked the home off its foundation and shook Gonzalez’s room next door, he said. Area residents streamed onto the sidewalk and dialed 911, moments after the crash, but there was little anyone could do for the people inside the car, he said.

“We wanted to help but we couldn't,” Gonzalez said. “The car was upside down and there was wood and other debris all around it.”

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