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8 Shot in Night of Drive-By Gang Violence in Harbor Area

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles Police Detective Kim Wierman had just begun reading a report on the previous night’s gang mayhem in Wilmington when he got a call about two other drive-by shootings in the harbor area.

Six people, he already knew, had been shot Wednesday night in a brazen drive-by on East L Street, only minutes after an evening Mass at nearby Holy Family Catholic Church.

Now, Wierman was told, a 16-year-old had been shot in Harbor City and another teen-ager was hit by gunfire in San Pedro. All in one night. All in a matter of minutes.

“Maybe,” he told a sergeant, “it’s time to call in the National Guard.”

Wierman was only half-joking.

On a night as violent as any in recent memory in the harbor area, eight people were shot--five of them juveniles, two of them critically--in gang drive-by shootings. And the shootings, as Wierman and community members know, are part of an increase in gang violence that has shattered whatever calm existed in the harbor communities of Wilmington, Harbor City, Harbor Gateway and San Pedro.

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Last year, gang violence in the area soared to an all-time high with more than 720 felony crimes and 21 killings--far above the 591 felonies and 14 murders in 1990. The grim 1991 statistics left the Harbor Division ranking third among the LAPD’s 18 divisions in gang crime. And the latest shootings left residents and gang specialists fearing that a new round of violence may be at hand.

“This is ominous,” Steve Valdivia, executive director of the county’s Community Youth Gang Services Project, said Thursday as he dispatched additional gang counselors to the harbor.

Added Eleanor Montano, a longtime Wilmington activist: “South-Central (Los Angeles) was always supposed to be the worst, right? Well, I know it isn’t. It’s all-out war here.”

The shootings Wednesday night occurred within an hour of each other, according to police who said they had no suspects in custody and no proof the incidents were related.

The first occurred just before 9 p.m. when an unidentified 16-year-old Harbor City youth was hit twice by gunfire from a passing car. The youth, who suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries, was shot at 255th Street and Normandie Avenue.

Within the hour another youth, believed to be 16 or 17, was shot near 3rd and Center streets in San Pedro. The youth was never identified by police because he left a local hospital before their arrival.

The most dramatic of the shootings occurred about 9:20 p.m. in East Wilmington, near a tough, industrial pocket known as Ghost Town, when six reputed gang members from that part of town were hit by gunfire from a slow-moving car.

That shooting, police said, began near the corner of L Street and Sanford Avenue, where three youths were struck by bullets from at least two gunmen in the car. One of the youths, a 16-year-old from Wilmington, was hit in the chest and reported in critical condition at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. His two companions, an unidentified 17-year-old and 18-year-old David Garcia, also were shot but suffered only minor injuries, police said.

After that shooting, police said, the gunmen traveled east on L Street for several blocks before they opened fire again at the intersection of Watson Avenue. There, three more youths were shot. Manuel Muratalla, 20, was struck in the chest and was in guarded condition at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. Raymond Esparza, 19, and an unidentified 16-year-old also were hit. They were treated for minor injuries and released.

Finally, the shooting spree ended six block away, where Joe Alvarez, 18, escaped injury by diving behind his car, which was sprayed by bullets, police said.

While police and gang specialists advanced various theories about the shootings, the one fact they all agreed upon was that the drive-by incidents were further evidence of a fierce and deadly turf battle that has raged for months in the harbor area.

“Some say it was (a) Harbor City (gang), some say it was westside Wilmington and some say Long Beach,” Detective Wierman said. “But things are always going on down here. The gangs are rivals with everybody. So it could be anybody,” he said.

On East L Street Thursday morning, only the remnants of police flares at intersections hinted at the previous night’s violence.

A food distribution project at Holy Family church continued without interruption, as mothers pushed babies in strollers and patiently walked toddlers along the sidewalk.

Few residents of the heavily Latino area cared to discuss the shootings.

“It’s rough here, all right . . . and this kind of thing is common to the city,” said Abraham Cortez, 36, a Carson resident who owns La Mexicana Market in the 1000 block of L Street.

Three doors away from where the final shots were fired, several dozen children played boisterously in the yard of Jardin de los Ninos, a nursery school. An instructor there said the school has never had any problems.

“I hope they never come and bother us,” she said, declining to give her name. “We’ve got good kids and they’ve got good parents and they’re just doing the best they know how.”

Half a mile away at Banning High School, however, students said the shootings were the talk of the campus.

“It was kind of weird, how they got all those guys at once. I’d never heard of anything like that before,” said a 17-year-old boy. “Usually, it’s shoot and miss and hit innocent people and run.”

The violence, authorities agreed, was unusual enough to warrant special attention to the harbor area, particularly in Wilmington, where a carnival opened Thursday and a street fair is planned for Saturday.

“We want to try and put a lid on this very quickly,” said Valdivia, the youth gang project director.


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