Teresa Soria was taking out the trash Wednesday morning when a little boy wearing blue pajamas ran across the street with tears in his eyes begging for help.
"My mother is laying on the floor," the boy said, trembling. "There is blood all over."
Soria sent him to another neighbor who, after peering into the living room of the home in the 6700 block of Arbutus Street in Huntington Park, gathered up the 8-year-old boy, and his younger brother and sister, and called police. Officers arrived to discover the brutal murder of Bertha Gomez, 31, who was shot while her children slept.
The crime has brought terror to the tidy neighborhood of Spanish-style homes, whose residents had considered themselves somehow immune to a surge in murders in the surrounding community.
In a town that has but four homicide detectives, it has also stretched the resources of a 60-member police force already overwhelmed with an alarming number of mostly gang- and drug-related violent crimes--including 27 drive-by shootings since January.
The number of serious crimes, including murder, rape and auto theft, has risen from 3,406 incidents in 1985 to 4,968 in 1989--an increase of 31.5%, police spokesman Tom Weselis said Thursday.
"We've had nine homicides in five months, compared with 12 all last year," he said. "Our guys are busier than hell, running nonstop from crime to crime to crime."
Similarly, patrol officers have been working 65-hour weeks in an effort to keep up with an increase in calls for assistance in the three-square-mile city of 70,000 people.
"My phones are ringing all the time from people wanting to organize Neighborhood Watch programs, because they don't want to be the next victim," Weselis said.
Police and city officials blame the problem on the fact that the Police Department has not expanded along with the population over the last five years.
In an effort to beef up the force, the city plans to use more than a million dollars in cash seized in local drug busts to hire five new officers. "Five is not enough, but it will help," Weselis said.
The latest murder followed a double homicide on Feb. 27, in which two robbers broke into a Huntington Park condominium and terrorized six members of a family for hours before killing a pregnant woman and her 8-month-old fetus. Two suspects were arrested in late March after two investigators put in a total of 260 hours tracking leads and evaluating evidence, including fingerprints lifted at the crime scene.
In the Gomez case, investigators also "have lots of leads" and believe that the woman may have been killed by members of an "auto insurance fraud ring" that she knew, Detective Steve Hess said. He declined to elaborate on the possible motivation for the slaying.
"We have three suspects in mind, none of whom wore gloves when they ransacked the house," Hess said. "We also have the bullet in the victim's brain, which we can compare with a murder weapon."
In addition, Gomez's 8-year-old son "was very strong, very alert and able to give us a strong, accurate and consistent account of what happened," the detective said.
The boy told investigators that three masked men entered the house about 8 p.m. Tuesday. One of them carried a handgun and another had a knife. One of the men, in Spanish, ordered the children to go to bed. The boy and the two other children, ages 2 and 5, did as they were told, police said.
The oldest child awoke Wednesday morning about 8 a.m. and found his mother's body. About 15 minutes later, he told neighbors that "we've been robbed and my mother has blood in her mouth."
Despite the evidence in the case, many residents have been unable to sleep since word spread along tree-lined Arbutus Street that the shy, introverted woman was found bound and gagged on the floor of her bedroom with a gunshot wound in her head.
"I don't understand why it happened here," neighbor Jaime Maya, 23, said Thursday. "Everybody around here grew up together. We wave to each other on the street. It's been peaceful.
"I never thought I'd buy a gun," Maya added. "But this has opened my eyes."
A few doors down, Marina Acosta, a 40-year-old mother of two teen-agers, said she has been sleeping on the living room couch because she is afraid to stay in her bedroom at night.
"When someone knocks on the door I'm afraid to open it," Acosta said, studying the occupants of every vehicle that passed the home she has lived in for 17 years. "I'm thinking about moving to another block."
"I don't want to live here anymore either, but where can you run?" wondered another neighbor, who asked that her named not be used. "We're going to have to grin and bear it."