The sound of women wailing came out of the small yellow stucco house in East Los Angeles on Monday morning. A family birthday party had become a family massacre.
On Sunday evening, Maria Navarro's estranged husband, Raymond, 26, had burst into her birthday party uninvited and started shooting.
Now Maria, 27 to the day, was dead. Her aunt Francisca was dead. Elderly aunt Maria was dead. The close friend they called aunt Leticia was dead. Aunt Berta was in the hospital, barely alive.
Maria's three children and their cousins had witnessed murder.
Outside, brothers and grown nephews poured gallons of bleach onto the driveway, trying to scrub away the blood with brooms. Not satisfied, they added detergent until suds flowed down the driveway pure and white.
At last, the stains were gone. But the fabric of a large and close family had been torn. For 25 years, despite the fact that part of the family had lived in Mexicali and part had lived in Los Angeles, they had remained extremely close.
On Monday, relatives arrived at the modest home in the 3600 block of Lanfranco Street from both sides of the border. For several hours, all they knew was that four women were dead and one was barely alive. But, in the confusion, they didn't know who. All they knew was that no matter how it turned out, there could be no sighs of relief.
"Porque? Porque? (Why? Why?)" cried Delia Fajardo when she arrived in Los Angeles from Mexicali Monday morning.
Then, she screamed: "Mi hija! Mi hija! (My daughter! My daughter!)"
Perhaps none lost more than Delia Fajardo. She was the mother of the slain young woman, the niece of the two elderly women who were dead, Maria Garcia, 69, and Francisca Arizpe, 62, and sister to Berta Galvan, 47, who was in critical condition at County-USC Medical Center. Another woman who was so close to them all that they called her tia, or aunt, Leticia M. Dipp, 47, was also dead.
Francisca and Berta were not married, relatives said. Neither, they said, was Dipp, whom the family had adopted as one of their own.
"Berta was like a second mother to Maria," said Fajardo, who spoke briefly to a reporter about her daughter before collapsing in tears. "I had always asked Berta to look after Maria."
And Berta did. Especially after Maria Navarro had separated from her husband in early 1988, following complaints that he had physically abused her. Berta would stop by the house asking if there was anything Maria and the children needed. Often, she gave them money.
They worked together too, along with Leticia Dipp, at the Plaza del Sol shopping center in East Los Angeles. Dipp was manager of the shopping center. Maria, in recent months, worked two jobs to make more money for her three children, Claudia, 7, Denise, 6, and Raymond Jr., 5. Berta wore a security guard's uniform but never carried a gun, co-workers said.
The three women were strong and strong-willed, merchants and employees at the shopping mall said Monday as they tried to absorb the shock of the murders.
"The three women ran the place," said Carmen Cortez, an administrator at the Latino Immigration Service. "We feel lost without them. They would help everyone. They were strong ladies. . . . Those ladies weren't afraid of anything."
Maria was pretty, the kind of young woman whom strong aunts felt they needed to protect, particularly from her jealous husband, friends and relatives said. They described Raymond as jealous and abusive, a man who prided himself on his weightlifting.
High School Sweethearts
He had married his Roosevelt High School sweetheart. A few years ago, friends said, Maria had been a contestant in the Miss Primavera contest in East Los Angeles.
But recently, she had come to fear her husband. Her aunt Berta grew more protective.
"Berta used to come with her because they were afraid of him," said Carlos Hernandez, owner of Sandwich Express at the shopping center. Maria worked from about 4 a.m. to noon at International Tour Service, a shuttle bus line between Los Angeles and Tijuana, as a receptionist. After she got off that job, she would go to work as an assistant to her aunt Leticia.
Hernandez said Berta had told him she came to work at 4 a.m. with her niece because they were afraid of her husband. Once, he said, Raymond Navarro had followed her upstairs at the mall, kicking her.
"I asked her (Maria) once, 'Why don't you leave him?' " he said. He said she answered: " 'Because if I leave him, he would kill me.' That's what she told me about six, seven months ago."