Beleaguered Residents Fed Up With the Madness Plaguing Their Neighborhoods

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The madness began in late April. A car full of Harbor City gang members drove to Wilmington one night and started shooting. They sped back home and were chased by some Wilmington toughs. There were more shots. And one of the Harbor City teen-agers was dead in his own hometown.

That's how it started. And ever since that shooting, they'll tell you, it's been crazy, really, in both communities. Especially around Normont Terrace, a crime-plagued housing project in Harbor City.

A scary place, it has been scarier than usual lately.

"In the last few months, it's gotten worse," said Lola Avalos, who has lived in the projects for 34 years. "There are shootings every night. Every night you hear gunshots."

Avalos is enraged by the violence. She lost a son in 1970 and a son-in-law in 1988 to young killers. And the recent shootings, she said, don't offer her much hope that the killings will stop any time soon.

"Look at all the kids who have been killed already. After someone dies, the gang members get scared for a little while. And then they start it up again," Avalos said. "In the past, I've thought it would stop. But the way I see it now, it won't. They just keep shooting, shooting each other for nothing. Shooting innocent people, too."

Avalos is fed up. So are others who live or work in Harbor City and Wilmington.

"It's worse now than I've seen it in a while, maybe worse than ever," said John Northmore, longtime director of the Harbor City Teen Post. "I don't know when it's going to end."

Since the April 28 killing that sparked the string of shootings, there have been four gang-related deaths in Harbor City and Wilmington. In the past two weeks alone, Los Angeles police say, there have been at least 17 drive-by shootings, most of them within blocks of Normont Terrace, the 400-unit housing project at the southwest corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Vermont Avenue.

The shootings have injured eight people, one critically, and killed a 19-year-old from Lakewood, whose only mistakes were traveling down Pacific Coast Highway near the projects early one morning and driving a Chevy Blazer, a favorite of gang members.

"All I have in my workbook is 'Drive-by,' 'Drive-by,' Drive-by,' " said police Detective Kim Wierman of the Harbor Division.

"I don't want to call it a war," Harbor Division Capt. Joe DeLadurantey said, "but they sure don't mind shooting. And they're causing havoc along PCH."

The largest number of shootings have occurred along Pacific Coast Highway between Normandie Avenue and the Harbor Freeway, the eastern edge of Harbor City.

Some residents say the shootings have all the markings of a gang war that threatens to grow beyond that busy corridor. "It has to stop over there, because otherwise it will start here again in Wilmington. It will just go back and forth," said Eleanor Montano, a longtime Wilmington activist.

The violence, Montano and others angrily add, is also claiming innocents.

"Any police officer would say if they . . . are shooting each other, it's not that bad. Any officer can get that callous," DeLadurantey said. "But this is indiscriminate."

Although most of the shootings have taken place after dark, DeLadurantey said police are troubled that some of the violence has occurred during the day.

The shootings are so frequent that some say they no longer draw attention at Normont Terrace.

"Five years ago, everybody there heard the gunshots. Now they say they don't hear it. You know why? Because they're immune to it," said Elizabeth Taylor, community specialist for the Community Reclamation Project, a gang and drug prevention program based in Lomita.

There are reasons why the shootings have been concentrated along Pacific Coast Highway. The most important might be that it is the quickest route for warring gangs to pass back and forth between turfs historically divided by the Harbor Freeway.

Police and longtime community activists say the gang shootings are driven by a battle for turf and drug trade.

"It's craziness, but it's a methodical craziness," said Dee Wiggington, president of Mothers Against Gangs, a group formed three months ago in Wilmington. "They're not just going after who they know did some shooting. They're going after someone from the other city."

What's more, Wiggington and others blame some of the shootings on gangs from other cities, including Long Beach and Torrance. "Their feeling is that they can cause enough trouble that police will pick up gang members in Wilmington and Harbor City. And then they can move on in," Wiggington said.

Northmore of the Harbor City Teen Post said the periodic sweeps by Los Angeles police often snare teen-agers who are gang members but not the ones responsible for the most serious crimes, such as shootings.

"When the task force comes in, the word gets out and the real bad guys get off the street because they have warrants or conditions of probation that would get them arrested," Northmore said. So all the police "have are the good guys, and they're the ones who get jacked up."

"We have a good relationship with the black-and-whites," Northmore said of the local police, "but then the hotshots come in from L.A. and ruin everything. A task force could be part of the answer, but they deploy it wrong," Northmore said.

Wierman agrees that those responsible for the recent string of shootings probably live throughout the area. "It's true that all the shootings in or near the projects are not being done by the ones who live there," he said. "But conversely, the ones who are in the projects are the ones doing some of the shootings in Wilmington."

Wierman also agrees that police deployment has not been successful in stopping, even slowing, the number of shootings. Then again, he asks, how could it be?

"We can't field all those units 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Wierman said. Gang members "know when we're out on the street and when we're not . . . so we're going to have to sit down and draw up a game plan."

That plan, DeLadurantey said, includes temporary roadblocks at key trouble spots to keep gang members away from each other's turf.

Also, DeLadurantey expects to increase the visibility of law enforcement with more gang-specialist detectives and Harbor Division officers working overtime to beef up patrols of the communities.

Even then, DeLadurantey and LAPD detectives are not making any promises that the gang shootings will end.

"It's really to the point where the Police Department cannot handle it without assistance from the community," Wierman said. "I mean, people who have information or have witnessed something have to come forward, because we've tried saturating the area and it's not working."

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