It is the way of things nowadays that certain merchants in certain parts of town have guns, much as they have cash registers and stockrooms.
And when Jose and Julia Castillo and their six children took over a Compton mini-market about a year ago, they bought a gun, too. It was a .357 magnum, a substantial weapon, but there never was and there never will be a gun big enough to scare away all of Julia Castillo’s fears.
Her son Jose Jr.--Alfie--lay unconscious in a hospital bed Wednesday, a 14-year-old schoolboy critically wounded, with much of one lung gone, shredded by a bullet from a robber’s gun rampaging through his chest.
His father had shot back, with the .357, killing two of the three men trying to hold up the store.
All the things his mother had feared for so long seemed to explode at once Tuesday afternoon, just after Alfie got home from school. School was dangerous, with all those gangs. And the store could be dangerous too, with all those robbers out there carrying all those guns.
Julia Castillo had wanted to go elsewhere, to pick up and move. But, “What can you do?” she asked Wednesday, wearily pacing a corridor of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, where “General Hospital” unfolded with irrelevant absurdity on a TV monitor.
It was a question that answered itself: when you can’t afford to move to a safer place, she said, and when places that can hold a big family are hard enough to find, you stay where you are.
So it was that in Compton on Tuesday afternoon, three men came into the Castillos’ store, Chicho’s Mini Market.
There is still no single version of what happened--exactly when the men pulled out their two guns, one of them a semiautomatic MAC 10; when the other Castillos heard a commotion and “everybody ran out” of the apartment in back to the store; when one of the gunmen made a move for the Castillos’ 6-year-old son; precisely when Alfie was shot as police say he may have struggled with the man menacing his little brother--and when his father, firing “several” rounds, then killed two of the three with an accuracy of aim that even the police remarked on.
A day later, Chicho’s Mini Market was still shuttered and locked. The children were elsewhere, and Julia Castillo had been with her eldest boy all night, through his first operation. He seemed, she said, to have tubes and needles “everywhere.”
“We are praying,” she said, “for a miracle.”
Compton police are tallying two dead. One of them, Gerald Girard Bennett, 18, of Compton, had “some juvenile activity” in his past, police said.
The other, 26-year-old Gerald Anthony Bennett of Compton, who was not related to the younger Bennett, had served a couple of stretches in state prison for kidnaping and robbery, parole violation and a narcotics charge, according to a Compton police official. He was released two days before the end of 1988.
The third man, who was reportedly last seen running down Wilmington Avenue with a gun in his hand, is still at large. Investigators have a couple of leads, but have not said who they think he is. When he is arrested, police said, he will be charged with, among other things, two counts of homicide--for the deaths of his companions--as the law mandates.
“What is really ironic about it,” said Lt. Percy Perrodin, “is the fact that we have to count the two (would-be robbers) as homicide victims.”
The elder Castillo, who fired the shots at the men who wounded his son, does not face arrest, said police. The matter will be routinely submitted to the district attorney’s office but “We feel he was justified,” said Perrodin, “to protect his family and himself.”