Trial Opens in Gang Slaying That Shook El Segundo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawyers agree on the basic scenario: After a night of taunts at an El Segundo strip mall escalated into death threats, 17-year-old Jeffrey Dobrovolny stuck a rifle out the window of a car and fired several times at rival youths from Burbank.

Before the evening was over, one of the Burbank youths was shot dead, another was seriously injured and El Segundo's strong sense of community security had been shattered.

What remains in dispute as Dobrovolny's murder trial began to unfold this week is who fired the shots that killed Jeramy Perales, 17, and wounded Jorge Castellano, 21.

In opening statements to the jury Tuesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Al Botello said Dobrovolny, an El Segundo resident, repeatedly fired shots at Perales and Castellano as the pickup truck they were riding in fled from "a posse" of pursuing cars.

"During the chase . . . (Dobrovolny) is leaning out of the vehicle, firing his weapon," Botello said. "At some point he is seen reloading the weapon, which holds 12 rounds. . . . Jeramy is struck in the arm early on, and then he is hit again, directly in the chest with the fatal shot, and he goes down" into the bed of the pickup truck.

While defense attorney Charles Mathews acknowledged that Dobrovolny fired his rifle several times that night, he contended that his client's shots did not strike anyone.

"There was more than one gun being used that night," Mathews told jurors. "The fact of the matter is, the person who actually did shoot (the victims) was someone else."

Botello told jurors that the Feb. 15 shootings took place at the end of a raucous Friday night of drinking and carousing by both groups of youths.

Perales, Castellano and four friends--some of whom were affiliated with a North Hollywood street gang--had spent part of the evening on Dockweiler State Beach near Imperial Highway, Botello said.

The group, traveling in a car and a pickup truck, had consumed at least three cases of beer during the evening and decided to drive up Imperial, looking for a place to eat, he said.

Meanwhile, as many as 25 El Segundo youths were gathering at an all-night sandwich shop on Imperial after several hours of drinking and celebrating following a high school basketball game. Problems began shortly after the Burbank group pulled up at the sandwich shop.

"Words are exchanged," Botello said. "Next thing you know, gang signs are being flashed on both sides."

Both groups began hurling beer bottles or cans at each other, Botello said. At one point, a brief foot chase took place. Outnumbered, four of the Burbank youths--including Perales and Castellano--jumped into the pickup truck and fled, possibly yelling death threats at their rivals, Mathews said. Several carloads of El Segundo youths went looking for the truck.

Although Dobrovolny was not directly involved in the initial confrontation, he did see it and ended up riding in one of several cars that searched for the truck, Mathews said.

"My client will tell you that he was scared," Mathews said. "He's not a shy kid. He wasn't a wimp, to put it simply, but he'd never had a confrontation like that before and he was scared."

Dobrovolny ran home and grabbed a .22-caliber rifle given to him by his grandfather as a birthday present, Mathews said. A friend driving around town looking for the truckload of Burbank youths stopped and let him in the back seat of his car.

The carload of El Segundo youths soon spotted the pickup truck with the four Burbank youths, stopped on Imperial Highway waiting for their friends in the car to find them. As the El Segundo car pulled up, Dobrovolny pointed the rifle out the window and fired several shots, Mathews said.

Mathews told jurors that Dobrovolny fired over his rivals' heads; Botello said Perales was struck in the arm during the volley.

The pickup truck fled down Imperial Highway and turned south on Sepulveda Boulevard, pursued by at least three carloads of El Segundo teen-agers. During the high-speed chase, which went through at least three cities, several more shots were fired, including an accidental shot by Dobrovolny through the roof of the car he was riding in.

But Mathews told jurors that a witness will testify that at least one other El Segundo youth riding in a different car bragged of firing shots that night. The youth allegedly said: "I think I hit one of them."

When the chase concluded at a Manhattan Beach gas station, Perales had been struck in the chest by a bullet and lay dying in the bed of the pickup truck. Castellano, who leapt from the truck and stabbed at one of the pursuing drivers with a box cutter, had been shot in the stomach.

Dobrovolny fled after the shootings, buried his rifle in his back yard and hopped a plane for Hawaii. Several days later, he flew home and turned himself in to police. He is charged with murder and attempted murder in the case.

The shootings--El Segundo's first violent brush with street gangs and only its eighth murder since 1979--shook the town. More than 1,200 worried residents in the town of 15,200 people flocked to community meetings to ask whether the dead youth's friends might come back to town seeking revenge.

Extra security guards were placed around El Segundo schools. Elementary school children were ordered to play in the center of their playgrounds, away from the street. Local athletic events were moved out of town or canceled entirely.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
56°