Hostility Holds Police, Families in Deadly Grip

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ahumada and Lozano families are accustomed to receiving tragic news out of the barrio known as Casa Blanca, a square mile of Southern California cityscape where scores are settled privately and outside authority is often viewed with suspicion.

For more than a quarter-century, a blood feud between the rival Casa Blanca clans has left the streets strewn with family victims--at least 11 of them dead, gunned down in ambush attacks on sidewalks, in vehicles and on front porches.

But the most recent violent deaths to touch both families can't be attributed to the feud, and instead has shifted their animosity for now onto a common adversary--the Riverside Police Department.

Johnny Anthony Lozano, 16, was shot by officers 10 times last June after he allegedly pulled a handgun. Last month, George Manuel Ahumada, 32--an ex-con and longtime drug user whose run-ins with Riverside police had given him almost mythic status to some in the Casa Blanca area--died mysteriously after a late-night struggle with officers in a muddy front yard.

Riverside police have said that the officers' actions in both cases were justified. But the always-delicate relations between the neighborhood and the police have plunged to a new low, largely due to lingering questions about the circumstances of Ahumada's death.

Relatives and at least four witnesses interviewed by The Times allege that Ahumada's death followed a brutal police attack on the unarmed man that culminated when an enraged officer put a knee to Ahumada's back, and a nightstick to the front of his neck, and choked him as he lay handcuffed face-down in the mud.

Ahumada passed out and never regained consciousness, according to the witnesses, all longtime friends of the dead man.

"It was straight murder is what it was," said Emmith Johnson, a 39-year-old sometime-roofer who knew Ahumada since his youth. "It was vicious and uncalled for. . . . They beat him to death."

The clash occurred a block and a half from the house where Ahumada--a parolee known to all as Georgie--was reared and where his family ran a grocery for decades.

Police acknowledge that there was a scuffle, but say officers never choked or handcuffed Ahumada. He fell unconscious and probably died of natural causes aggravated by drug use, said Riverside Police Chief Linford L. (Sonny) Richardson, who added that Ahumada "reeked of PCP" that night in Casa Blanca.

Autopsy results that could verify the role of drugs and specify the cause of death are sealed. Richardson said he is confident that laboratory analysis would show evidence of the street drug PCP in Ahumada's system.

However, the chief and the Casa Blanca witnesses agree that Ahumada offered only passive resistance. He refused to budge for police but never struck at them.

"It seemed like it was all rather subdued and controlled," said Richardson, chief of the 305-member department since 1983. "From what I gather, there really wasn't any kind of violence on either side, Georgie or the officers."

The officers acted appropriately and were returned to patrol, Richardson said, although an internal police investigation is continuing and will be submitted to the district attorney's office for review.

Whatever happened to Ahumada, his death less than eight months after police killed the Lozano teen-ager has reopened a festering wound in Casa Blanca, an insular neighborhood of 2,500 residents three miles southwest of downtown that has long had its differences with police.

Activists charge that the Riverside Police Department has long had a vendetta against the mostly Chicano enclave, particularly against the Ahumada clan, stemming in part from a series of violent encounters and community complaints dating to the 1970s.

"The police here take it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner," said Richard Roa, a longtime Casa Blanca resident who is vice chairman-elect of Community Action Group, a neighborhood rights organization that broke off relations with police after the Lozano shooting. "To me, the police are just like another gang."

But the police chief, who served a tumultuous year as sergeant of a special enforcement squad in Casa Blanca 17 years ago, insists that his officers have no vendetta against the Ahumadas or other neighborhood families.

"We're not killing them--they're killing each other," Richardson said. "If we really (sought) revenge, and wanted to carry it to its extreme, the best thing we could do is sit back and do nothing because they'll eventually kill each other."

For the moment, though, the combat between the Ahumada and Lozano families--which stems from a drunken brawl in 1964 that left John Ahumada Sr., Georgie's father, with severe brain damage--has given way to a new cause in the barrio, where turf is strictly delineated between the two clans.

"We have to unite against the police, our common enemy," said Mary Ahumada Mendoza, 53, a born-again evangelist known as Mama to many in the barrio. Before Georgie's death, she had lost two older sons, Johnny and Danny, to feud-related ambushes and her eldest child, Christina, to a drunk-driving accident.

"I should have taken my babies out of Casa Blanca a long time ago," she said. (Her brother, Dario Mendoza, was shot and killed by Riverside police in 1947.) "Georgie always said the police were trying to get him."

Dorothy Aguilar, 34, Johnny's sister, said: "There's too much fear of the cops here now. You just can't trust 'em."

Around Casa Blanca, a patch of tree-lined streets and stucco homes founded by Mexican citrus packers more than half a century ago, Ahumada is mostly remembered not for his criminal record, but as a bold and loyal scrapper, willing to take on anyone for his family and his barrio.

"I'm surprised he survived as long as he did," said one acquaintance who is not an admirer. Ahumada died six months after his last stint in prison, that time for drug and gun violations and resisting arrest.

"Georgie always looked after us, tried to keep us out of trouble," said Desirie Robles, a 14-year-old barrio resident. She and other neighborhood girls have taken to wearing black sweat shirts emblazoned on the back with a likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, and the words:"In Loving Memory of Georgie Ahumada . . . Por Que? (Why?)"

Three days before Ahumada collapsed, Robles said, she was standing with him on Fern Avenue in Casa Blanca when a police cruiser stopped alongside. An officer taunted Ahumada, she said, telling the man, "Georgie, you're next!" and "We're gonna get you next!"

Ahumada's reaction? "He just laughed at them," Robles said.

Police deny any targeting of Ahumada by officers, but given Casa Blanca's history of clashes with the department, many residents are not convinced.

In 1975, Richardson was a sergeant during one of Casa Blanca's signature events: the so-called "cornfield incident," a nationally publicized melee in which neighborhood residents, acting in what they called self-defense, opened fire on police who had surrounded a barrio cornfield seeking suspects.

Authorities later charged two neighborhood men--Danny Ahumada, Georgie's now-dead older brother, and Larry Romero, a longtime friend of the family--with firing on the officers. Both were cleared of the charges.

The same year, a scuffle broke out between police and participants at a bachelor party, prompting police to use tear gas and arrest 51 people. A federal jury found police guilty of violating the civil rights of eight Latino party-goers. Richardson, one of the defendants in the civil suit, was cleared of rights offenses but was found "negligent of supervision," he acknowledged.

Almost 17 years later, Richardson and other police officials concede that relations between the department and residents remain volatile in Casa Blanca.

"There are elements in that community that are absolutely adversarial to law and order," said Lt. Richard Albee. "It's not unusual for them to make any confrontation with the police sound like it's all the police's fault."

In the case of Ahumada, his extensive criminal record--dating to a juvenile conviction for possessing a sawed-off shotgun--is replete with incidents in which he alleged being beaten or unfairly targeted by officers. In court records, Ahumada is depicted as a violent high school dropout who turned to crime and drugs.

Between 1982 and 1986, while on parole for gun and stolen property convictions, Ahumada was incarcerated five times for violating parole, which generally forbade him to enter Casa Blanca.

Then, in January, 1987, Ahumada allegedly brandished a rifle at a Riverside police officer. Four months later, after stating that police officers broke his arm during a beating--police denied the charges--an officer quoted Ahumada as threatening that "there was going to be a lot of shooting in Casa Blanca and . . . police officers would be killed."

In a subsequent probation report, an interviewer wrote: "The defendant advised he believes he needs to get out of Riverside, as some of the officers do not like him and even when he is in his grandmother's front yard he gets arrested."

In July, 1987, Ahumada was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to a variety of charges, including transporting methamphetamine, possessing a loaded firearm and resisting arrest. He was released on parole last August, and soon was back on the streets of Casa Blanca, where his many relatives and friends greeted his return.

Riverside police took notice. Ahumada's recent girlfriend, Julie Tripp, 21, three months pregnant with the dead man's child, says an officer paid a call on her Riverside apartment last fall and asked: "Why are you going out with the biggest criminal in Riverside?"

Richardson said: "I can't say the Police Department really viewed Georgie as a model citizen. It seems that when he does get out, and goes to Casa Blanca, there are problems."

According to police, Ahumada's final confrontation with authority began at 10:42 p.m. Feb. 10 in a front yard of a house near Lincoln and Beloit avenues. According to friends, Ahumada had spent much of the afternoon and evening hanging out in the neighborhood and drinking beer. Police say he had also been smoking PCP.

Residents of the house, including Johnson and his brother, Edward Leroy Johnson, both longtime friends of Ahumada, said he had permission to be there. Richardson contends that Ahumada was trespassing.

In any case, witnesses said two police officers drove by in a patrol car, then quickly made a U-turn and parked in front of the yard, facing the wrong way on Lincoln Avenue. Police said Ahumada appeared to be under the influence of drugs.

Witnesses provided the following account of what occurred next:

One officer, described as a Latino, hopped a short chain-link fence and approached the men standing there: Ahumada, Emmith Johnson and Carlos Silva, another longtime friend of the Ahumada family.

"(The officer) started cursing and asking Georgie, 'What the ---- are you doing here?" Johnson said. Ahumada grabbed hold of the porch and refused officers' request to take him into custody, protesting that "I just came to visit my homeboy," Johnson said.

The second officer, described as large and Anglo-appearing, entered the property through the gate. Within moments, the witnesses said, the Latino officer put Ahumada in a headlock. As Ahumada resisted, the other officer delivered a shot to the ribs with his baton. When Ahumada still refused to move, the Anglo-appearing officer climbed a short staircase to the porch and began pounding on Ahumada's right arm with the baton, witnesses said.

Eventually, the officers managed to wrestle Ahumada to the ground and handcuff him, the witnesses said. The pair continued to kick and beat Ahumada with batons, according to witnesses.

Finally, the Anglo-appearing officer placed his knee on Ahumada's back and his baton around his neck and yanked, four witnesses--the two Johnson brothers, Silva and Larry Walker, a visiting friend--said in separate interviews with The Times.

By the time a backup patrol car arrived, about 10 minutes later, Ahumada was unconscious, the witnesses said. Paramedics took the unconscious Ahumada to Parkview Community Medical Center, where he was declared dead at 12:34 a.m. on Feb. 11.

"I think it's the cops who should be in jail for murder," said Silva, 34, who has been held in Riverside County Jail on charges of resisting arrest and other allegations. "They beat him like there was no tomorrow."

The witnesses also charged that officers hosed down the scene, removing considerable blood, and washed out Ahumada's blood-stained fatigue jacket in a nearby puddle.

"That's an outright lie," said Lt. Ed Albee, the department's spokesman. The few details police have released differ sharply from what witnesses said.

"We have no evidence that anything out there was done inappropriately," said Albee, who declined to provide the names of the officers involved or make them available for interviews.

Richardson denied that officers put the baton around Ahumada's neck, which would have been a clear violation of department policy. But he acknowledged that police did attempt to apply an approved neck hold, known as a "carotid sleeper," which is designed to immobilize uncooperative suspects.

In conflict with the witnesses, Richardson said the officers never managed to handcuff Ahumada. Moreover, he said Ahumada was still struggling when the second police car arrived, much sooner than 10 minutes after the incident began.

According to Richardson, preliminary autopsy results revealed only a few bruises to Ahumada's upper arm, the result of baton strikes. Richardson said there was no deep bruising to the neck. The cause of death will not be determined until the autopsy and toxicology tests are final, the chief said.

"It seemed like it was all rather subdued and controlled," Richardson said. "From what I gather, there really wasn't any kind of violence on either side, Georgie or the officers."

But Miguel Garcia, a Los Angeles attorney retained by the Ahumada family, contends that the body had about 40 bruises from the ankles to the forehead. There was deep bruising in the neck, said Garcia, who was present during the autopsy.

Whatever the final ruling, Ahumada's troubled days in Riverside are over. They buried him last month, his homeboys from Casa Blanca putting his blue-steel coffin in its final resting place, a cemetery not far from the barrio, where his life began and ended.

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