Residents Detail Climate of Fear in Alley : Ambush: Slaying of 3-year-old on Isabel Street doesn't surprise them.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The man passing by Isabel Street Monday afternoon yelled, "I hope you're happy about killing that kid!"

Long before Sunday's tragedy, the residents of Isabel Street knew all too well that something horrible would happen there.

And now it has.

Between the gangs and guns and drug dealing and graffiti and cheap wine and shrill screams in the night, they had long ago taken to wrought-iron fences, guard dogs and forbidding their children to go out after dusk. On particularly bad nights, when the street is crawling with gang members, they put their children to bed in bathrooms. There, the children of Isabel Street would be safer from stray bullets. Or so their mothers and fathers hope.

But there was less hope Monday, the day after 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen was slain and her 2-year-old brother Joseph was wounded after her family accidentally strayed onto Isabel Street early Sunday. As if what they contend with on a daily basis isn't enough, now there is the misdirected rage of people such as the man in the blue Ford.

"Imagine," said Reto Pineda, 55, who has lived in the neighborhood for almost 30 years. "I have a decent family here.

"As if I'm to blame."

After a day of blanketing the neighborhood and following up leads, police said Monday that detectives believe the motive for the 1:45 a.m. incident may have been robbery. They surmised that when the family friend at the wheel of the car Stephanie and Joseph were riding in tried to drive away, the gang members became enraged and opened fire.

At a news conference, officers displayed a shoe worn by Stephanie and a cap worn by David Dalton, a passenger in the vehicle who sat in the back seat. The Chicago Bulls hat he wore had two holes through the top where a bullet passed inches above his head.

Those who have worked closely with area gang members speculated Monday that the faction involved in the shooting may have been expecting an attack from rivals. So, anyone who stumbled across them in the darkened alley was in imminent danger. A murder occurred on the street about a month ago.

Less lethal--but still violent--incidents are a common occurrence on Isabel.

Not long ago, one resident said he took a trash bag to some gang members and asked them to at least clean up their empty beer bottles. In exchange, the resident told the gang members that he would stop calling police on them. While many of the gang members simply moved along, one walked up to him and placed a pistol to his head. After a few chilling seconds, the resident said, he persuaded the gang member to back off by telling him: "I'm not worth going to the death chair over."

Of course, most of them would like to move and build better lives for themselves and their kids. But most of the 15 or so families who live here are working-class folks--tile layers, mechanics and assembly-line workers.

One by one Monday afternoon, many of the residents of the block where Isabel Street dead-ends emerged from their mostly barricaded homes to talk. Usually ignored by police, politicians and the press, they awoke Monday to throngs of reporters.

Most said they feared gang reprisals and refused to give their full names, but they clearly had things they wanted to say.

From a woman who has lived on Isabel Street 19 years: "After living here so long, you know what to do [when gunfire erupts]. You lay low. You don't run outside. You peek out and pray no one will see you."

She said she has seen kids as young as 12 packing guns in their baggy pants. She is lucky if she can average two to three hours of sleep a night because of the gunshots and commotion.

What she'd give, she said, to be able to sit in peace in her back yard, to go for a walk to the store, to take a vacation.

"We need to take back this alley and give it back to the people who live here," she said.

From a 15-year-old girl who has lived at the entrance of the alley for nine years: On weekend nights, "I drop to the floor" and stay there about 15 minutes until the shots cease. "When it's finished, I get back on my bed."

She makes a beeline to school in the morning and to home in the afternoon every day. Nobody in the neighborhood goes out after dark.

On their frustrations with the police:

Two years ago a man high on drugs rammed into one woman's rear wall, disrobed, climbed out of his car and began dancing and yelling like Tarzan. After he bent a bar on a wrought-iron fence, the woman rushed her daughter inside for safety. "If it's not a stabbing or a shooting, we can't get the police to respond."

One man estimated that he's called the police 100 times in the past two years. "The dispatchers say we will try to send someone out when we can."

On the death of the smiling, blond youngster:

"We were in bed when we heard the shots. We threw the kids on the floor."

"That little girl didn't even get a chance to start her life."

"I can't believe a 3-year-old got killed only because this family made a wrong turn. These people are animals in here."

"None of my family better die. If I have to, I'll do whatever. I'll hire a mercenary."

Peter Quezada, who has worked as a gang counselor for 17 years, said he has taken calls from enraged gang members--some veterans of gang wars--condemning the shooting, which has drawn national attention.

"Hopefully the street will yield up the name, and these people will get caught," said Quezada, whose work has focused on the Los Avenidas groups in the northeast area. "When I hear something they did that was so cowardly, I have to speak out. And I'm not alone. Nobody condones this."

Father Gregory Boyle, whose work with gangs has earned him a national reputation, said, "My gut sense on the [gang members] is--and this may be hard to understand--is that they are as horrified as everybody else that it happened."

Despite initial statements by police, Boyle said it isn't clear that gang members could have seen Stephanie and Joseph in the car. "I would suspect that there was more confusion than the report this morning led us to believe," Boyle said.

Mayor Richard Riordan pledged that the city would be stricter about a nighttime curfew for youths. Until now, the citywide curfew has been enforced only sporadically, except in Lincoln Heights, where enforcement was stepped up after police fatally shot a purported gang member this summer.

Amid concerns about how such a slaying could have been prevented, LAPD Detective Jim McCann said that an abundance of gang graffiti is an indication that the neighborhood may be dangerous and should be avoided. Graffiti at the mouth of Isabel Street says, in Spanish, "Avenues/Assassins," which identifies a local gang.

"There's no way people can be forewarned on things like that," McCann said. "There are certain areas that are traditional, where gangs basically control the streets at night."

McCann said the suspects are members of a gang in the Northeast area known for violent activity, including street robberies and homicides.

Police confirmed that another murder occurred on Isabel Street earlier this year. Two months ago, a gang-related homicide happened about two blocks away. Capt. Marlin Warkentin took issue with residents' complaints that officers do not respond to their calls for help.

"I'm not aware of any type of complaints like that," Warkentin said. "I suspect what they could be talking about is they called 911 . . . and police didn't respond right away. Especially on a warm summer night the call load gets really high and calls are held waiting for a unit to get free so they can respond.

"Believe me, we don't ignore calls. The bottom line is we don't have enough police officers in the street and that's why that happens," he said.

Says Warren Christenson, 52, who lives near Isabel Street and works there frequently on construction: The police "say publicly that they care. But privately they say, 'there's nothing we can do. It's bigger than all of us.' "

Times staff writers John Hurst, Jean Merl and Ealena Callender contributed to this report.

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