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4 Die, 2 Hurt in Arson at L.A. Housing Project : Watts: Incident is marked by racial tension. Victims are Latino; a black who may have tried to help is shot.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a tragedy tinged with racial animosity and suspicion, four members of a Latino family died Saturday and two were seriously injured after arsonists set fire to a crowded townhouse at the Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts.

A black man who may have been attempting to rescue the fire victims was shot and critically injured while the fire raged, possibly by a member of the Latino family who mistook the man for an arsonist, police said.

Members of the Latino family who gathered outside the burned-out townhouse said they suspected that the fire was set as revenge for their frequent complaints to authorities about “black drug dealers” congregating outside their home.

In all, 18 people were in the 1,200-square-foot townhouse when the fire erupted about 6 a.m., police said. Most escaped injury, but firefighters found two adults and three children huddled in a corner of an upstairs bedroom, where they apparently had fled to escape flames that flashed up from the ground floor.

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Four of the five were dead. But a 2-year-old girl who was shielded by her 78-year-old great-grandmother was alive when firefighters broke through the flames. The woman perished, and the child, Veronica Lopez, was in grave condition Saturday afternoon at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

The great-grandmother, Margarita Hernandez, apparently sat on the floor, placed the child between her legs and bent over her to protect her from the advancing flames, said Battalion Chief Terry Manning. The child had stopped breathing and firefighters performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on her until paramedics arrived, Manning said.

Also killed were Veronica’s mother, Martha Zuniga, 22, her sister Claudia, 4, and her brother Juan Carlos, 5.

Juan Zuniga, 65, Hernandez’s son, suffered burns, cuts and smoke inhalation and was in serious condition at the medical center, as was 34-year-old Gregory Moore, the shooting victim, who lived in a nearby apartment. Police were investigating whether Zuniga shot Moore, said Lt. Sergio Diaz.

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Survivors told investigators they saw three black men fleeing just after the fire broke out. One neighbor said she was awakened by the sound of laughter and feet pounding past her window. Then she heard a woman screaming in Spanish.

The family, originally from Mexico City, had moved into Jordan Downs, a largely black project, just three months ago and had complained repeatedly about drug dealers outside their door, said Roel Mazariegos, 29, whose wife’s parents lived in the apartment along with other family members. His wife and her brothers nodded in agreement as he spoke.

The fire, Mazariegos said, was an act of retaliation by the drug dealers. He said his father-in-law, Juan Zuniga, had gotten into a fight with the drug dealers two months ago. Family members frequently were forced to enter and leave the apartment by the back door because drug dealers congregated outside the front door, he said.

Mazariegos said he could not explain why 18 people were in the apartment, but speculated that some may have been weekend visitors.

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Most of the survivors were taken away by investigators for questioning Saturday morning. Relatives who lived in other parts of the city cried silently outside the townhouse as police and fire investigators looked over the scene and gathered evidence.

Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigators and the Police Department’s criminal conspiracy section were investigating the matter.

Fire Chief Donald Manning, who went to the scene early Saturday, said firefighters arrived at the townhouse within a few minutes of a 911 call and found the structure completely aflame, with fire shooting out of the windows.

It took 14 minutes to get the blaze under control, Manning said. Most of the occupants were fully clothed, he said, an indication that they were awake when the fire started. “People were up and alert. They saw the fire occur,” he said. Those who died were “trapped” in the upstairs bedroom, where temperatures exceeded 1,200 degrees, he said.

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The front door to the apartment apparently was doused with gasoline or some other “accelerant,” Manning said. “The fire came straight up the stairway. It was so hot that there were virtually no doors left on the rooms, they were all burned off.”

Manning said that recent Fire Department budget cuts made it necessary to partially close a fire station that normally would have responded to the fire at Jordan Downs. He said it was not possible to say whether the arrival of the full unit would have saved any lives, but added that the department will investigate the matter.

“The balance of life in there was quite close,” Manning said.

In any case, the unit would not have been the first to arrive at the scene, Manning said. “Its assignment would have been to make a move into the second floor,” he said.

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Frank Henderson, regional manager for the city’s Housing Authority, which operates Jordan Downs, said Saturday that the Zuniga family had moved into the townhouse in June. The maximum occupancy allowed for the unit is six, he said, two per bedroom.

Henderson said he had no information on whether the family had ever reported drug-dealing or other problems to Housing Authority police.

Police stopped short of saying that Moore, the man who was shot, was a suspect. They said they had no one in custody Saturday in the incident.

“He may have been a Good Samaritan trying to help people inside the house,” said Diaz, the police lieutenant. “Or he may have been an arsonist.”

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No decision had been made on whether to press criminal charges against Zuniga in the shooting of Moore, Diaz said.

Moore’s sister, Mary Moore, said Saturday she was outraged by police suggestions that her brother may have been an arsonist. “My brother is innocent,” she said. “He did not come to hurt these people, but to help them.”

She said her brother heard the commotion created by the fire and was approaching the burning building when he was shot. He staggered back to their apartment, she said, and fell to the ground.

She quoted her brother as saying, “The Mexican man shot me. . . . I don’t know why the man shot me. I was just trying to help.” Gregory Moore is a photographer, artist and chef who was always trying to help people, his sister said.

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It was unclear on Saturday whether Moore was shot in the back. Mary Moore said she believed her brother was shot in the chest, but Manning said he was shot in the back.

Residents of Jordan Downs said Saturday that they knew of no trouble with the Zuniga family and added that they seemed to be hard-working and friendly people.

Some acknowledged, however, that drug dealers are a common element of life in the project--an element capable of brutal retaliation.

“People don’t want to get involved because you get burned out if you run your mouth around here,” said a Jordan Downs block captain who was afraid to give her name. “We never had no trouble out of them,” she added, referring to the Zuniga family.

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A 41-year-old Jordan Downs resident who lives about 20 yards from the Zuniga townhouse said the Zuniga family was pleasant and was not resented by black residents of the project.

She said she was awakened early Saturday by the sound of footsteps outside her open window and heard men laughing as they ran. Within seconds, she said, she heard a “boom” and then what sounded like two gunshots and a woman screaming in Spanish.

Outside she saw an older man, apparently Zuniga, frantically dragging a garden hose up a ladder to reach a second-story bedroom window in the burning townhouse, she said. He wrenched open a window, but she and others shouted at him to get down because of flames bursting out the window, Bennett said. The man, covered with blood, then retreated down the ladder and waited for firefighters to arrive.

Times staff writers Ashley Dunn, Nieson Himmel and Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this story.

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