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Murders Up Despite Fewer Gang Killings : Crime: Increase to 183 deaths was slight, at 2.7%. It helped that gangs ‘just couldn’t shoot straight,’ a police commander says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The number of murders rose slightly last year in the San Gabriel Valley, but gang-related slayings were down, contrary to the record-breaking upward climb in gang murders--to 800--countywide.

According to preliminary statistics provided by law enforcement agencies, there were 183 murders in the valley last year, compared with 178 in 1991, a 2.7% increase.

But gang-related slayings decreased by 8.3%, from 65 in 1991 to 60 last year. Fourteen cities reported no gang-related murders for either year.

“They just couldn’t shoot straight,” West Covina Police Cmdr. John Distelrath said of gang members in his city, which saw its murder total drop to four last year from 15 in 1991.

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West Covina also saw a drop in gang-related deaths, from six in 1991 to one last year. But luck, not police work or changed behavior, was the reason, Distelrath said.

“We had 20 gang shootings last year and the year before,” he said. “One guy this year got shot six times in the chest and lived. Another guy was shot four times and lived. It was just one of those phenomenons.”

Although some South-Central Los Angeles gang members moved into West Covina in the wake of rioting after the Rodney King beating verdicts, gang incidents last year remained at about 1991 levels, the commander said.

Distelrath’s observations were echoed by other valley law enforcement officials, who called the regionwide decrease in gang-related murders a statistical variation.

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While police in Compton and some Los Angeles neighborhoods credited a black gang truce earlier last year with reducing gang-related murders there, authorities said the truce had little observable effect in the San Gabriel Valley, with its mix of Latino, black and Asian gangs.

“One year it’s up, one year it’s down,” Pasadena Police Lt. Wayne Hiltz said of the murder tallies. “There’s really no statistical significance you can draw based on fluctuations from year to year.”

Pasadena gang members committed 119 reported crimes last year, a decrease compared with 145 in 1991. But despite that downturn, gang-related killings still increased in the city from 5 to 7, Hiltz said.

Pasadena’s murder total last year rose to 18, compared with 15 in 1991.

Overall, the number of murders increased in 14 of 29 San Gabriel Valley cities and in the unincorporated area served by the Sheriff’s Department. The increases were small, usually by one or two deaths in each city.

Gang-related murders increased in only seven cities and the unincorporated area, again, usually by only one or two deaths.

Pomona, the valley’s most populous city, was the lone exception to the generally favorable regional statistics. Murders there zoomed from 25 in 1991 to 36 last year, a 30.5% increase.

“We had a very exceptional year, obviously, compared to the year before,” Pomona Police Chief Lloyd Wood said of the total. “But we’re in the 30s more often than the 20s.”

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Pomona’s increase in murders reflected cutbacks in the number of officers working gangs and street narcotics, Wood said. At its peak, the department assigned 14 officers to work those jobs. But, with budget constraints last year, many officers in those specialties were shifted to regular patrol duty to fill 10 to 15 ongoing vacancies on the 174-officer staff. Once police focused less on drug dealers, murders went up, Wood said.

“So many of these murders are related to narcotics activity,” Wood said. “When you have a police presence in the field--not letting the narcotics dealers wheel and deal--it definitely is a deterrence (to murders).”

Pomona’s gang-related murders increased by two, but police said it was an increase in line with the total upswing in murders. Further, police pointed out that some gang members actually left the city last year.

“The number of gang members used to be around 1,800, but now it’s in the 1,500 range,” said Capt. Chuck Heilman. “Five families moved out and they took their gang-member children with them, and we applied pressure on street (drug) sales, so some gang members left.”

Still, Pomona’s image suffered last year from one high-profile, gang-related shooting that sparked community outrage and prompted a $15-million claim against the city and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.

On Aug. 17, 14-year-old Eduardo Samaniego, a clean-cut Little Leaguer, was gunned down in an alley the week he was to testify in a gang-related murder trial.

A churchgoing youth who lived in a gang-infested neighborhood in Pomona, Eduardo had witnessed the drive-by shooting death of 15-year-old Luis Lopez on Nov. 10, 1991. Eduardo had been tossing a football around with 15 other children outside his home, but he was one of only three youths who agreed to testify during the preliminary hearing for suspects Joey Salazar, 19, and Arthur Melendrez, 22.

Police reportedly assured the Samaniego family that gang members would not retaliate, because Eduardo was not a gang member himself. But on a summer morning, Eduardo was summoned from his house by another youth on a ruse, taken to an alley a few blocks away and shot.

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Patrick Contreras, 17, is awaiting trial in the Samaniego slaying, as are Salazar and Melendrez in the Lopez murder.

Other cities that logged murder increases in 1992 included El Monte, whose tally rose to 17 murders last year compared with 13 in 1991, and La Puente, which saw 13 murders last year compared with 10 in 1991.

Tiny Bradbury, population 883, which had recorded only two previous murders in its 35-year history, logged a third last year with the death of Dr. Agnes Larson Kulcsar.

The body of the 44-year-old psychiatrist was found Aug. 15, strangled, slashed and stuffed into a trash can in her back yard. Kulcsar’s husband and former patient, Miles Larson, 45, awaits trial in her murder.

The number of murders decreased in seven cities, with West Covina reporting the most spectacular decrease.

Other cities with hefty declines were Monterey Park, whose tally was two last year compared with seven in 1991; Monrovia, whose murders went down to one last year compared with six in 1991; and San Dimas, whose tally of four in 1991 was reduced to zero last year.

But again, police cited luck as the reason for the reductions.

“We had a number of shootings, but people didn’t get killed,” Monrovia Police Lt. Patrick Hardy said. The city also logged only one murder in 1989.

Cities recording no murders for both years were Claremont, La Verne, San Marino and Sierra Madre.

San Gabriel Valley Homicides

TOTAL GANG-RELATED HOMICIDES HOMICIDES 1991 1992 1991 1992 Alhambra 8 9 1 3 Arcadia 1 2 0 0 Azusa 2 2 2 0 Baldwin Park 11 11 5 7 Bradbury 0 1 0 0 City of Industry 2 3 2 1 Claremont 0 0 0 0 Covina 1 2 0 0 Diamond Bar 3 1 1 0 Duarte 2 4 2 2 El Monte 13 17 2 3 Glendora 0 1 0 0 Irwindale 1 2 0 0 La Puente 10 13 7 8 La Verne 0 0 0 0 Monrovia 6 1 2 0 Monterey Park 7 2 0 0 Pasadena 15 18 5 7 Pomona 25 36 10 12 Rosemead 7 8 1 2 San Dimas 4 0 0 0 San Gabriel 1 1 1 0 San Marino 0 0 0 0 Sierra Madre 0 0 0 0 South El Monte 3 5 1 1 South Pasadena 1 0 0 0 Temple City 1 1 0 0 Walnut 2 1 0 0 West Covina 15 4 6 1 Unincorporated 37 38 17 13 Valley total 178 183 65 60

Source: FBI, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and San Gabriel Valley

police departments.


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