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For City, One More Killing; For Family, Deepening Pain : Crime: 14-year-old Willie Nava of Watts joins his sister on the grim list of teens slain on L.A. streets.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The murder of 14-year-old Willie Nava barely registered a blip.

An innocent victim of gang warfare, he died alone on a Watts street corner, a single gunshot to his head.

The July 30 killing drew almost no news coverage and no cries of outrage from city officials or community activists, even though Willie was an intelligent, outgoing boy whose only apparent transgression was growing up in the wrong neighborhood.

Two other Los Angeles teen-agers, ages 15 and 16, were killed in gang-related drive-bys within three hours of Willie’s death that Saturday night. The reaction was the same: a shrug in a city that has grown numb. These days, a victim’s youth no longer seems sufficient to stir sympathy or interest.

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“The sad fact is that . . . their deaths fail to get attention because they are not anything novel,” said Kevin Reed, western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It just does not register in people’s psyche.”

Especially poignant are the deaths of children barely halfway through their teens. Every year in Los Angeles County, about 130 youths between 13 and 16 are killed--more than 450 since 1991. Most of them become nameless, faceless statistics. But behind each slaying is a human tale.

This is Willie Nava’s.

The turning point in Willie’s life occurred last year when his 16-year-old sister, Lupe, was killed in a drive-by shooting, just a block from where he would die. Of his 10 brothers and sisters, Willie was closest to Lupe.

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Police say she was hanging out on a street corner with friends, some of them gang members, when a carload of youths from a rival neighborhood drove by on the night of Feb. 27, 1993. As Lupe spoke on a pay phone, several shots were fired. She was hit once in the chest.

Willie was never the same. Normally outgoing and talkative, he would lock himself in his room for days, leaving only to use the bathroom. Off and on, for periods of up to two days straight, he would refuse to eat.

“He changed a lot. He wasn’t interested in anything,” said his 28-year-old sister, Maria Chavez, the mother of two children. “He had a lot of anger inside.”

Willie, the son of factory workers, had earned A’s and Bs while attending San Miguel Catholic School in Watts. But now he lost interest in studying. He refused to go to nearby Jordan High School, where he had transferred in the ninth grade, saying he was afraid of being beaten up by gang members. Never very athletic, the stocky boy with thick brown hair spent most of his time at home, baby-sitting his niece and two nephews and baking cakes and cinnamon rolls.

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“He didn’t want to be around the cholos . He wanted to stay away from that,” said Sister Maria Luz Hernandez, one of Willie’s Catholic school teachers.

Eventually, as the pain subsided, Willie began to hang out with his friends and take part in one of his favorite hobbies: drawing. The week he died, he sketched and painted the landmark Watts Towers as part of a mural at his old school.

About 10:15 p.m. on July 30, Willie left his house to attend a party near his East 108th Street home. The occasion was a friend’s quinceanera , or 15th birthday celebration.

His mother, Guadalupe, had a strange feeling. “ Mi hijo (my son), don’t go. Something’s going to happen,” she recalled saying.

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But she decided that her son deserved to enjoy the evening. It was a good sign that he was finally beginning to have fun again.

Willie was unusually quiet that day. His radio, which normally blared out oldies and banda music, was silent. He didn’t eat.

Shortly before Willie left the house, his mother recalled, he handed her his two favorite dress shirts. “I’m not going to wear them anymore,” he told her.

They were the last words he said to her.

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About an hour later she heard the shots. “They’re going to hit somebody,” she told herself.

When the first patrol car arrived at East 107th and Juniper streets, a block from the Nava home, Willie was face up on a grass strip next to the sidewalk. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

A friend ran to Willie’s house. Willie might have been shot, the friend told the family.

The first family member at the scene was Willie’s 25-year-old brother, who identified the body. The mother arrived to find yellow crime tape, flashing red lights and investigators hunched over the scene with flashlights. An ambulance crew had taken her son’s body away.

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Latino gangs from Willie’s neighborhood and a nearby barrio were waging a war that had heated up several weeks before. He was apparently killed because gang members from the rival neighborhood wanted to shoot someone from Willie’s neighborhood, whether he was a gang member or not.

“He became a target,” Sgt. Larry Kallestad said. “Whoever did it, wanted to finish him.”

It remains unclear whether Willie was killed walking to the party or after he arrived. Police have not determined whether the attacker walked by or fired from a passing car. Witnesses have not come forward and others have refused to talk.

“Our biggest problem is that we aren’t even hearing rumors,” Detective Dan Myers said. “There is a kind of mystery silence.”

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Since 1991, 464 youths between 13 and 16 have been killed in Los Angeles County, according to the coroner’s office. Reflecting a gradual decrease in the county’s overall murder rate, those homicides dropped from 146 in 1991, the first year the department began computerizing the figures, to 143 in 1992 and 126 in 1993. During the first six months of 1994, 49 such homicides were reported countywide. About 80% of the victims were Latinos or African Americans.

Nationally, although overall serious crime reported to police dropped 3% last year, the killing of teen-agers has increased 55% since 1988.

There were 2,500 juvenile homicides reported in the United States in 1992, the last year for which FBI figures are available.

Experts attribute the rise in such killings to a mix of factors: the availability of high-powered firearms, a breakdown of social values and a growing tendency among many youths to settle disputes with violence--more often than not, against other teens.

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“A 14-year-old is much more willing these days to pull the trigger over a leather jacket or nothing at all,” said James Fox, a noted Northeastern University criminologist whose computer databank includes every homicide reported nationwide since 1976. “These are kids who face death every day. They don’t think about the consequences of their actions.”

Often, the front lines of the violence are neighborhoods such as Willie’s, where poverty, broken homes and high school-dropout rates are commonplace.

“People just don’t know where to begin,” said Watts activist Ava Chavez. “They feel like there is no hope.”

Guadalupe Nava never imagined that she would bury one of her children, much less two. The 50-year-old mother fought back tears as she sat in the beige wood-frame home that she and her husband, Rosalio, have owned for 18 years.

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“I can’t even explain how I feel,” she said.

About 100 friends and family members attended the Aug. 5 funeral at San Miguel Catholic Church in La Colonia, the neighborhood where Willie grew up and where Latinos first moved to Watts at the turn of the century.

Young children wore T-shirts with a drawing of a headstone and the words “In Loving Memory of My Friend Willie.” The priest spoke of love and redemption, and of too many youths who have lost their lives.

Even neighborhood gang members, hardened by their ruthless lifestyle, were shocked by Willie’s slaying. “He wasn’t from anywhere,” said one homeboy as he stood outside the church, meaning that Willie was not part of any gang. “He was a good kid.”

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When the service was over, Willie’s pale blue casket was loaded onto a waiting hearse for the short ride to Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. He was buried next to his sister.

“They were so close,” said Chavez, the family’s oldest child. “They’re going to be together again.”


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