Esequiel Gonzalez stood across the street from the blackened ruin of his South El Monte tire shop, destroyed by a fire that appears to have been ignited by a Molotov cocktail.
The tears he shed as he spoke to a reporter were not just for his livelihood. In the inferno that engulfed Cheque Tires, Gonzalez also lost his son, Rodrigo, who died along with two other teenagers Saturday morning.
“I don't have a business anymore, but that's nothing compared to my son,” Gonzalez said. “I just wish I had my son back.”
Nineteen-year-old Roberto Fuentes was arrested Sunday and booked Monday on suspicion of murder. Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives do not believe Fuentes acted alone and are searching for more suspects, sources said.
Whether the motive was revenge, anger, jealousy, greed or some other dark emotion is unclear. Hours earlier, another victim, Carlos “Christopher” Jimenez, had celebrated his 18th birthday with a party at the tire shop, friends said.
Birthday balloons and birthday cards were among the growing collection of mementos left by friends, relatives and customers of the shop, which is marked by a bright yellow tire conspicuously rooted on the sidewalk.
The tire shop on Santa Anita Avenue was a community gathering place, and the elder Gonzalez was known for his generosity. He fixed tires free for needy customers and hosted Sunday parties on the property, friends said.
Destiny Aguirre, the third fire victim, has two daughters, ages 9 months and 3. Aguirre, 18, had just gotten her driver’s license and was taking independent studies to get her high school diploma, said her grandmother, Mary Aguirre.
Aguirre lighted a candle and pinned a photo of the young mother and her two girls to the chain-link fence. She said she didn't know what her granddaughter was doing at a party late at night and begged those with information to come forward.
“This wasn't just an accident,” she said. “Please do justice.”
Friends remembered Rodrigo Gonzalez, or “Rigo,” as a jovial young man who worked at his father’s tire shop and loved horses and cracking jokes.
Jimenez wanted to “prove to his family that he could do something” and become the first in his family to graduate from high school, then become a lawyer and help underprivileged youths, a friend said.
But both young men were also attracted to the gang lifestyle. Memorials to them at the shop and on social media were peppered with references to a local gang, the El Monte Flores. Jimenez’s nickname was Munch, and Gonzalez went by B. Spanks.
“He told me he had left the gang. Toward the end he didn't want to be involved in that stuff,” said Gonzalez’s former girlfriend, Rocio Guerrero. “He wanted to be good. But it was too late.”
Gonzalez’s father said he believed his son wasn’t involved with gangs.
Sheriff’s detectives viewed surveillance video to place a gold 2002 Nissan Altima at the scene of the crime, then used the vehicle to track down Fuentes, of Baldwin Park.
Fuentes was at the tire shop at some point before the attack, said Lt. Victor Lewandowski of the sheriff’s homicide bureau. But Lewandowski could not say whether the suspect had attended the birthday party.
One thing is certain: The deaths of the three teenagers were horrific. When firefighters arrived just before dawn, they saw one young man trying to escape the fire from behind heavily locked gates. They tried to rescue him but watched him die before they could get to him, a fire department spokeswoman said.
Gonzalez, an immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, worked at an auto shop next door for five years before saving enough money to buy the tire shop. He was in Mexico dealing with a family emergency when he got the news that the second-youngest of his four sons had died in the fire.
The tire shop was not insured, he added.