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Gang Suspects Shoot at Autos From Rooftop : Violence: Bullets fired from Hollywood apartment wound two motorists, one critically. Police are hampered because fearful tenants are unwilling to help.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Automatic gunfire erupted at one of Hollywood’s toughest street corners just before dawn Saturday as suspected gang members atop a slum apartment fired at cars driving down Western Avenue just south of Hollywood Boulevard. Two passersby were injured, one critically.

Los Angeles police said the unidentified assailants were aiming at the cars. But they left open the possibility that the victims were caught in a gun battle between rival gangs firing across the four-lane thoroughfare.

Police found 13 shell casings outside a run-down apartment building in the 1600 block of North Western Avenue. Residents, accustomed to gunfire, say that the incident was unusual and that they had heard dozens of shots before police arrived.

“There were bullets going everywhere,” said Glen Atkins, 43, as he scrounged through trash cans for recyclables. “I just kept trying to walk down Western, get away from it, just try to survive like usual.”

The investigation was being hampered, police said, by a lack of cooperation from terrified tenants living in the overcrowded buildings where gangs reportedly hang out.

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“We know where the gangs are,” said one resident, nodding his head upstairs to a fourth-floor corridor that had the air of a littered no man’s land. “But the police come, and the journalists come. They ask us questions. Then they go away. But we stay.”

“Yeah, I know what happened,” one young tenant told a reporter later. “But I’m not gonna say. I’m not in a gang, but I’m with ‘em. I play by the rules.”

Los Angeles Police Officer Tim Tornsey, who with his partner was first on the scene, said he and other officers went from floor to floor (of the two buildings) after it was over seeking witnesses.

“But people weren’t very cooperative,” he said. “People from the fourth floor would say the shots were coming from the third floor. People from the third floor would say they were coming from the second. . . . They didn’t want to get involved.”

According to police, calls about the shooting began flooding emergency phone lines at 4:58 a.m. Tornsey and his partner, Dan Pesqueira, were two blocks away.

“We heard the shots, then we saw this Jeep take off,” Tornsey said. “We thought it might have been involved in the shooting, so we took off after it.”

But to his surprise, the Jeep stopped just around the corner from the shooting. A man ran out, saying that his friend had been shot in the shoulder by gunmen firing from the large pink apartment complex around the corner, Tornsey said.

While officers were calling paramedics and backup, Tornsey said, they heard another long burst of gunfire, followed by a loud crash. As it turned out, one of the bullets had been fired through the roof of a passing van and struck the driver in the head. The van struck a building and the driver was in critical condition.

When the shooting stopped, Tornsey looked around the corner. He knew this block well; an old Mexican-American gang was known to inhabit the decrepit-looking brick building on the west side of Western Avenue while a more violent gang of war-hardened Salvadorans was trying to take over the large pink building across the street.

He saw faces of tenants--including at least one child--peering cautiously out of windows. Traffic continued flowing along Western despite the danger. A couple of vagrants were out on the sidewalk. At Hollywood and Western, site of Hollywood Billiards (“L.A.'s oldest, Open til God Knows When”), people were congregating.

But Tornsey could not see any gunmen.

“We had to formulate a plan to rescue the injured driver (in the van), who was stuck out in the middle of Western, before we knew for sure where the gunfire was coming from,” Tornsey said. “When I look back on it, three officers were exposed to the point it was almost scary.”

They pulled the van’s driver, Jeffrey Wood, 21, to safety. He was transported to a hospital, where he was listed in critical condition. Meanwhile, the first vehicle hit by gunfire had vanished, along with its driver and wounded passenger, who was not believed to be seriously hurt.

“We’d certainly appreciate it if (those) witnesses would come and talk to us,” said Lt. Brad Merritt, commanding operations officer of the West Bureau of LAPD’s CRASH unit, which will be investigating the shooting.

In the aftermath of the shooting Saturday morning, officers found shell casings from a rifle and a semiautomatic pistol on the sidewalk in front of the brick building. No shells were found outside the pink building across the street, leading police to suspect that the reports of shooting from the pink complex were erroneous.

However, police said they got so little cooperation from tenants that they cannot be sure.

The neighborhood took the shooting in stride.

An Armenian carpenter continued to work on his cabinets behind a security screened door; children played in the lobbies of both buildings.

In a $258-a-month studio apartment just below where police believe gunmen were shooting, Eusebia Rios, 62, said the first time she heard gunshots was 12 years ago, when she took the apartment.

“All they told me when I came to America from my land, Zacatecas (Mexico), was that Los Angeles was very beautiful and the streets were of gold,” she said. “Now I know that here your life ends every night. Every morning, you navigate a new one.”


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