A birthday party for two young boys in Santa Paula ended in a quarrel with a neighbor and a blaze of gunfire that left their uncle dead, police said Monday.
The fatal shooting of Gary Ramirez, 25, of Ventura was the second in two months in Santa Paula touched off by arguments between families quarreling over their children, officials said.
Ramirez was shot and killed Saturday after he attempted to intervene in a fight between his brother-in-law, Pedro Castillo, a resident of an apartment complex in the 100 block of Santa Anna Street, and a neighbor who lived two doors away.
Santa Paula police investigators are still searching for the gunman responsible for shooting Ramirez and wounding his cousin, Robert Ortiz, 23, of Ventura, said Santa Paula Police Cmdr. Bob Gonzalez.
The identity of the gunman is not known, he said. Although Castillo and his family had lived next to the man for about six months, they did not know his name.
The gunman fled after the attack, scaling a fence and escaping before police arrived. Bullets recovered at the scene indicate that the weapon used in the attack was a 9mm semiautomatic pistol, police said.
Witnesses said the shooting occurred after Castillo tried to stop a teen-ager visiting another apartment from taunting one of Castillo's sons.
Castillo's wife, Rita, 33, said she and the unidentified neighbor suspected of shooting Ramirez and Ortiz had a heated argument several months ago after her daughter and the neighbor's daughter squabbled while playing.
But she said she was unprepared for the violence Saturday as half a dozen adult relatives, including Ramirez and Ortiz, visited the Castillos' apartment to celebrate the birthdays of her 6-year-old son and 11-year-old nephew.
About 11 p.m., the Castillos' elder son complained that a youth visiting the gunman's home had insulted him. A fistfight broke out between Pedro Castillo and the neighbor, who told a friend to "go get the gun," she said.
Ramirez, the brother of Rita Castillo, tried to stop the argument as she ran inside her apartment to call the police, she said. "I was dialing the number when my brother came through the door, and he says, 'I've been shot,' " Castillo said.
Ramirez collapsed bleeding in the dining room and never regained consciousness, she said. He died that night at Santa Paula Memorial Hospital of a gunshot wound in his stomach.
Rita Castillo said her brother had tried to avoid an argument because there were nine children present at the party.
"He was telling the man, 'Why don't you go back inside,' " Castillo said. "Gary always tried to ignore situations and to talk things out."
Only hours earlier, Ramirez had given her son $5 as a birthday present, then made jokes that made everybody laugh, she added.
"I feel like I'm going to wake up, and it's all a bad dream," she said, as tears welled up in her eyes. "I'm going to wake up, and Gary's going to be fine."
Ortiz, a cousin of Rita Castillo, disputed police reports that there was only one gun used in the shooting. He said he saw three men wielding weapons.
"They shot into the air, and everyone started scattering," Ortiz said in a telephone interview from his hospital room at Ventura County Medical Center. "Next thing you know, I got hit."
Ramirez's death was Ventura County's 10th homicide this year, and Santa Paula's second fatal shooting, a Ventura County deputy coroner said.
An argument between two fathers over their children also led to the May 28 shooting of Samuel Ruiz, 40, in the 100 block of Sheppard Road.
Ruiz and his next-door neighbor Delfino Lopez, 43, argued over their sons' involvement in an alleged gang fight. Authorities last month determined that Lopez shot in self-defense.
Despite the similarity between the two shootings, police on Monday discounted Santa Paula's reputation as a town where neighborhood disputes run deep.
"You're going to have your neighborhood squabbles and disputes from time to time," Gonzalez said. "I think we're all human beings who want to look out for their siblings.
"It just so happens that Santa Paula has had two recent ones" that ended in death, he said.
Nonetheless, the shooting Saturday upset one resident of the Santa Anna Street apartment complex so much that he vowed to move his wife and three children out of the building as soon as possible.
"We've had two shootings in the last year," said the man, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from his neighbors. "I'm getting out of here first chance I get."