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Melee Erupts in East L.A. After Deputy Kills Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tension was high at a public housing project in East Los Angeles on Saturday after the fatal shooting of a gang member by a sheriff’s deputy and an ensuing melee by about 300 residents throwing rocks and bottles.

Tenants of the Ramona Gardens housing project were confined at gunpoint to the complex of brick buildings early Saturday morning by about 75 sheriff’s deputies and Los Angeles police officers called to quell the four-hour disturbance.

Officers, crouched behind vehicles with shotguns, formed a ring around the perimeter of the 500-unit complex and blocked all traffic in and out. Residents who attempted to leave were ordered to return to their apartments. One man who videotaped part of the confrontation was chased by deputies and forced to turn over the tape.

“There is great anger on both sides,” said Father Juan Santillan, one of several church and neighborhood leaders trying to calm the community after the disturbance. “I am sure right now any sheriff that comes in here becomes a target.”

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Community leaders, fearful that gang members might retaliate against police, were attempting to arrange a meeting with Sheriff Sherman Block and other county officials to discuss residents’ outrage and to obtain assurances that the shooting death would be investigated.

“We are trying to keep tensions down in the neighborhood,” said Al Belmontez, regional director of the Mexican-American Political Assn. “It is terrible right now in Los Angeles with this police brutality issue. But the truth is in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights there has always been police brutality.”

The incident began at about 1:35 a.m. when two sheriff’s deputies chased a car they said was speeding, into the Ramona Gardens complex. According to authorities, the deputies’ vehicle was struck by a beer bottle as it passed a group partying near the intersection of Evergreen and Lancaster avenues.

When the deputies left the vehicle to investigate the bottle throwing, authorities said Arturo Jimenez, 19, assaulted one deputy with a beer bottle. Jimenez, they said, then grabbed the deputy’s flashlight and struck him on the head, knocking the deputy unconscious.

At that point, according to the official account, the second deputy ordered Jimenez to drop the flashlight. When he ignored the order and continued to swing the metal flashlight, authorities said, the second deputy shot Jimenez three times in the chest.

“I am sure the reason he shot the suspect was fear for his partner’s life,” said Deputy Bill Linnemeyer, a department spokesman.

Both authorities and family members identified Jimenez as a gang member. Witnesses said Jimenez, known as Smokey in the neighborhood, argued with the deputies but never struck anyone. They alleged that the shooting was unprovoked and the injured deputy was hurt after the shooting when residents threw bottles and rocks.

“Everybody was yelling to the cop: ‘He doesn’t have a gun! He doesn’t have a gun! Don’t shoot!’ ” said Angelica Gutierrez, 18, one of about 50 people who were attending a nearby birthday party at the time of the shooting. “But he shot him anyway.”

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Christina Vargas, 18, who said she was Jimenez’s girlfriend, claimed that the sheriff’s deputies gave Jimenez no warning before opening fire. She said Jimenez was complaining to the deputies about bothering one of his friends, who they believed had thrown the bottle at their car.

“The cop took out the gun and he pointed it at everybody, and he started shooting,” said Vargas, sobbing as she covered her face. “He just shot him.”

Jimenez was pronounced dead at the scene by Los Angeles city paramedics, according to the Sheriff’s Department, but witnesses complained that the injured man lay for more than half an hour on the grass in the 1500 block of Evergreen before he received medical attention. Several residents said the rock and bottle throwing intensified because residents grew angry over the lack of medical attention.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Larry Lincoln said the ambulance responded immediately. He said the deputies radioed for the ambulance at the same time that they reported the shooting and asked for backup from other units.

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“I have never known an incident where they have had to wait a half an hour for an ambulance,” Lincoln said.

Elva Jimenez, the shooting victim’s mother, said sheriff’s deputies would not allow her to see her son and refused to tell her where he had been taken in the ambulance. She and her son Javier spent two hours driving from hospital to hospital in East Los Angeles looking for Jimenez, she said, only to find out that he had been pronounced dead at the scene and transported to the coroner’s office.

“Why did they have to shoot him? Why could they not have used the baton?” asked Elva Jimenez, as she sat in the center of her living room decorated with photographs of her six children. “All people take care of their children. . . . But now you must protect them from the police.”

The Sheriff’s Department declined to identify the deputy who shot Jimenez except to say that he is 28 and a five-year veteran. The other deputy was treated for a concussion, cuts and a broken finger at Monterey Park Hospital and released.

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Sheriff’s deputies arrested six people--all residents of Ramona Gardens--at the scene, including the man who made the videotape. They are:

* Olga Perez, 29, booked on suspicion of threatening a police officer, assault with a deadly weapon and inciting a riot.

* Leovardo Alvarez, 26, booked on suspicion of interfering with a police officer.

* Ismael Aponte, 18; Patrick Ortiz, 26; Salvador Salas, 31, and Guillermo Salas, 26, all booked on suspicion of battery on a peace officer.

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Authorities said Salvador Salas, who videotaped the melee, was arrested after punching a sheriff’s deputy who wanted the videotape. In an effort to keep the videotape from being confiscated, Salvador Salas apparently threw the tape to his brother, Guillermo. Authorities said Guillermo Salas was arrested when he also punched a sheriff’s deputy.

Miguel Salas, 23, a third brother, said deputies started the fight with his brothers.

“They chased them and tackled them,” Miguel Salas said. “They had done nothing wrong.”

Lincoln, the sheriff’s spokesman, said deputies were justified in confiscating the videotape because it is regarded as evidence in a crime. He said deputies will make a copy of the tape and return the original to Salas.

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Scores of residents walked the streets and gathered on front porches throughout the complex of blue and pink buildings Saturday, comparing stories of run-ins with the police and complaining that sheriff’s deputies often come to the housing project looking for trouble.

Ramona Gardens lies within the city of Los Angeles, which is patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department, but it borders unincorporated county territory in East Los Angeles, which is patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department. Several residents said sheriff’s deputies routinely enter the area, even though it lies outside their jurisdiction.

Sheriff’s deputies said they often enter the city--including Ramona Gardens--when they pursue suspects. “When suspects run inside Ramona Gardens, our deputies have an obligation to go in there and try to catch them,” said Lincoln.

Santillan, the neighborhood priest, said some residents resent the sheriff’s deputies because the area is already patrolled by Los Angeles and housing authority police.

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“The way it is now, the projects here have three law enforcement agencies,” Santillan said. “It is too many police.”

Times staff writer Stephen Braun contributed to this story.


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