Shooting Has El Segundo on Edge : Street violence: The death of a suspected Burbank gang member in a confrontation with El Segundo youths has the small beach city fearful of pay-back violence.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Howard and his partner wryly refer to each other on their walkie-talkies as "Target One" and "Target Two" as they patrol the sidewalk in front of El Segundo High School.

The pair of security guards have been antsy since they took up their new beat Monday, watching for a possible drive-by shooting. The death of a suspected gang member from Burbank in a confrontation with El Segundo youths last weekend and fear of pay-back violence has this small city on edge. An El Segundo teen-ager is in custody.

Just the eighth homicide in El Segundo since 1979, the incident has spurred two public meetings, drawing more than 1,200 of the city's 15,200 residents. The police chief has doubled patrols so that eight cars are on the road 24 hours a day, and the school superintendent has shifted sporting events out of town and hired the guards that now patrol outside the high school.

"El Segundo is a little pocket of tranquility, as if you took a town out of Kansas and dropped it in the middle of Los Angeles," said Police Lt. Mike Lunsford, who has been fielding phone calls from parents concerned about possible attacks.

"People live here because they are free of the hustle and bustle and crime of the big city. These kinds of things have not happened in the community. It has frightened a lot of people."

Outside the high school Thursday, Frank Mote, director of maintenance and operations, watched as a worker used a weed cutter on the dandelion-filled front lawn. "We're a little concerned, but our work has to go on," he said.

Mote has relayed the special instructions of higher-ups in the district to his workers: If you see any strange vehicle, any kid that doesn't seem to belong, anything at all that makes you nervous, dial 911.

The warning system was first used Tuesday, Mote said, when a boy on a bicycle in front of the middle school asked a maintenance man where the middle school was. Remembering the advice, the man called 911. The police investigated, but the boy was not a vengeful gang member.

Mote has worked for the district since 1955 and remembers some telephoned bomb threats that sent students out to the yard and an occasional false alarm, but this, the fear of gang attack, "is the biggest scare we've ever had."

Some residents wonder whether El Segundo is overreacting to the gang threat.

"I think it's a little blown out of proportion," said an El Segundo resident of 10 years who was pushing his 9-month-old son in a stroller along Main Street. "My daughter's on the high school soccer team. . . . Moving a daytime game out of town? Geez. That's a bit much."

But a Burbank detective, Eric Rosoff, said the 17-year-old who was shot dead is associated with a Burbank gang that has about 140 members.

"Retaliation isn't out of the question," Rosoff said, adding that it would be wise for residents to "be on alert."

Besides the fear of retaliation is the shock that a group of local teen-agers may have precipitated the killing, angered by a name-calling session with the out-of-towners about 1 a.m. Saturday on Main Street. The four or five Burbank youths left in their pickup truck, and at least six carloads of El Segundo youths followed, one with a .22-caliber rifle, police said.

During the car chase, the suspect, who has not been identified because he is 17, is accused of fatally shooting Jeramy Perales, 17, and a few blocks later wounding Jorge Castellano, 21, who is in fair condition at Harbor UCLA General Hospital.

The community's response has given ample evidence that the beach city's consciousness is more small town than big city.

* The killing sent elected officials scrambling. An emergency school board meeting was convened Monday, and on Tuesday the City Council discussed whether 24-hour stores, like the 7-Eleven and Subway where the confrontation began, should be shut at night.

* School board Vice President Nancy Wernich has already received 15 pledges for a memorial fund she set up to help the victim's family with the cost of the funeral, which is scheduled for today in Burbank at St. Finbar Church. The cash will be accompanied by an open letter from the community apologizing for what occurred.

* The Bible study group at Foursquare Church of El Segundo ended its Wednesday night session with a prayer about the tragedy. Marge Haley, who prayed with the group, suddenly found herself identifying with less-tranquil parts of Los Angeles and wondering "how people in other communities have to live with this all the time."

* When Police Chief Frank Meehan took the podium at Wednesday's community meeting, he told the crowd of more than 500 that he would not name the teen-agers involved in the incident. But then he added: "Everybody in this room knows who they are anyway."

The suspect turned himself in to police Wednesday morning after fleeing the area for Hawaii. Police said that the teen-ager, held at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, could be charged as an adult because he has been arrested before. Charges against other local youths involved in the chase are possible, police said.

Life for El Segundo's young people has changed drastically since the incident.

Off-campus lunch passes are no longer granted; student identification cards are now required, and children at Center Street School now are told to play in the center of the playground away from the road.

Elsewhere, the Teen Center canceled its floor hockey league in mid-season and has postponed other activities.

At the high school, the girls' soccer team will play its quarter-final-round playoff game today at an undisclosed site outside El Segundo, even though they are the home team. The boys' basketball team will play in Palm Desert tonight because school officials figure that is far enough from both El Segundo and Burbank to be safe.

School buses will not be used for transportation to either game for fear that they could become a "moving target," said Supt. William Manahan, who had considered forfeiting the games.

All the hoopla over retaliation has taken away some of the usual excitement when a team makes the playoffs. "The kids are totally discouraged," basketball Coach Rich Sabosky said earlier this week, as he viewed the prospect of the long drive to the desert. "There have been no signs, no posters, no banners (at school) about the game. We won't have any cheerleaders."

Across the street from the high school Thursday morning, Lola Adamson walked her miniature pinscher, Bambi. She feared for both her and the dog's safety.

"This sleepy little town could turn into a battleground," said Adamson, an animated 66-year-old who has appeared on two episodes of "The Golden Girls."

"Everybody is talking about it," she said. "The people who have been here for years and years are frightened. We have to be prisoners behind our locked doors."

Her voice trailed off and then she began again.

"Here we have this wonderful town. Everybody knows each other. They say hello and stop to pet my dog. Everything is positive, and now all of a sudden we're living like we live in a battle zone."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°