During the last weekend of 1991, Los Angeles police officers arrived at a wedding reception in Highland Park and tried to figure out who killed one of the guests.
The celebration had been spoiled by the type of confrontation that has become all too common in Northeast Los Angeles, investigators said. Roberto Arcos, 17, a suspected central Los Angeles gang member, had exchanged harsh words with rival gang members at the Saturday night reception and was fatally shot in the head.
Arcos' death was the 47th homicide of 1991 handled by the LAPD's Northeast Division, bringing the toll alarmingly close to the record 51 killings set the previous year. One year earlier, in 1989, Northeast detectives handled 39 slayings, which was then a record.
"I'm absolutely disappointed," said Sgt. Ron Whitt, who supervises Northeast's homicide investigations. "We didn't want it to go this high."
Police blame much of the high homicide rate on gang violence.
During 1991, investigators tied gangs to 19 of the Northeast's deaths, and they suspect gang members were involved in others. Because of the popularity of these groups and the violent tactics their members use, it is unlikely that homicides will decline significantly in the area during 1992, Whitt said.
"I don't see any reason it should lessen up," he said. "The gangs are just too active. If anything, there may be an increase."
The LAPD's Northeast Division patrols a 25.5-square-mile area that includes Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Atwater Village, Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Echo Park and Mt. Washington. According to the department's most recent estimate, from 1986, the area has 169,000 residents. The population is believed to be higher now.
The Northeast was still far behind the LAPD's Rampart Division, which patrols the area northwest of downtown Los Angeles and led the city with 132 homicides by mid-December.
Because that division was so overburdened, Northeast investigators were assigned to three Rampart cases. As a result, Northeast's 1991 total includes three killings that occurred just outside its area, Whitt said.
Whitt said he was pleased, however, that his staff has cleared 28 of the 1991 slayings, meaning a suspected killer had been arrested or at least identified. Because Northeast investigators also continued to work on homicides from previous years, the total number of cases cleared in 1991 was 47--exceeding the LAPD's citywide goal of solving the equivalent of 80% of the homicides, he said.
A key obstacle for Northeast investigators is that frightened witnesses often refuse to identify suspects in gang slayings, Whitt said. Fellow gang members rarely cooperate, telling police they will avenge the killing themselves--further escalating the toll of violence, he said.
In addition to those sparked by gang quarrels, some of the Northeast homicides during 1991 occurred during domestic disputes and robberies. In early December, a landlord-tenant disagreement in Highland Park led to an apparent murder and suicide.
The Northeast's 1991 homicide rate was much higher than that of neighboring Pasadena, which tallied 16 deaths through the year's last weekend, and Glendale, which had eight. The affluent La Crescenta-La Canada Flintridge area, patrolled by Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies, had a single homicide case in 1991, a body that was dumped in the Angeles National Forest, said Sheriff's Lt. Rod Johnson.
Officers in Northeast Los Angeles say they have fewer resources to combat gang violence than police in nearby Pasadena and Glendale.
"The smaller departments have money, and we don't," Whitt said. With a hint of sarcasm, he added, "We're lucky we have cars here."
In Glendale, homicides rose from an usually low three deaths in 1990. During the past 13 years, the city has not had more than eight homicides annually, said Lt. Jack Bilheimer, who oversees the department's research staff.
Glendale's 1991 slayings followed no particular pattern, police said.
Two deaths were attributed to gang rivalry. Two fathers were arrested for killing their young children, one by beating and the other by a gunshot fired while the father was allegedly under the influence of PCP. A homeless man and an auto body shop worker were beaten to death in unrelated incidents. The body of a rug merchant from Hollywood was dumped in Glendale.
Sgt. Russ Pierce, who supervises Glendale homicide investigations, said five of the eight slayings in 1991 were cleared by an arrest or the issuance of a warrant for a missing suspect.
Pierce said he is concerned that escalating gang violence could boost the number of slayings that occur in Glendale. He said several gang confrontations resulted in severe injuries during 1991 and could easily have increased the city's homicide total. In addition, several of the Northeast's slayings occurred just a few blocks south of Glendale.
"Maybe we're just lucky," Pierce said.