Lori Esteen was a hard-working, up-and-coming rapper with a smooth voice and a sweet way about her. She and her boyfriend Thomas Blincoe worked night and day on her second record, the one they knew would push her duo, Sweet NLo', into the big time.
By Friday, the dreams were shattered, and so was Esteen's neighborhood, a street of impeccably tended homes and gardens a couple of miles west of USC.
Esteen, Blincoe and their friend Diana Smith Davis were found shot to death in Esteen's modest home in Jefferson Park.
They were shot in the head, their hands bound behind their backs, police said Friday.
Esteen, 26, had been raised in this house. But after her brother was murdered in an unsolved drive-by shooting five years ago, her parents left for Las Vegas, unable to live with the memories, a neighbor said. Esteen chose to stay.
The stunned parents, Gerald and Debra Esteen, returned to the home on Friday.
"Are they trying to kill all my children?" her mother cried at one point.
Police, still struggling to piece together events, said they had no suspects and few leads. They said the manner of the murders resembled a classic drug-related slaying.
But family, friends and neighbors, sobbing as they visited the scene, insisted that the victims had been honest, quiet and goal-oriented young adults who had never been in trouble.
"She would never touch drugs, not Lori," said Alex Garcia, a student who lives two doors down and across the street from Esteen's house.
They had no enemies and the house was not a rowdy musicians' hangout, friends said.
"She was so sweet you couldn't believe it," said Lisa Johnson, who had known Esteen since junior high school and saw her two or three times a week. "She always had a kind word, always looked on the bright side of everything. I just don't know who would do this."
The bodies were discovered when a friend of Esteen, who had tried unsuccessfully to reach her Thursday afternoon, drove to the house about 10:30 p.m. that night. Peering through a bedroom window, he discovered the bodies.
Police said no doors or windows in the three-bedroom home had been forcibly opened.
The house, in the 2200 block of West 29th Place, apparently had been ransacked, but it was not clear yet whether any items had been stolen, police said.
Neighbors described Blincoe, 23, as a devoted musician, a clean-cut young man.
"I would go so far as to call him square," said Garcia, talking from his manicured front lawn. "When everyone was wearing baggy jeans and huge gang-banger clothes, here comes Tommy wearing a T-shirt and shorts. He was just such a straight guy."
Davis, 33, lived a few blocks from Esteen and had been promoted recently to assistant manager at a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, her neighbors said.
She was a single mother of two girls, ages 10 and 13. On Friday afternoon, the girls were in shock, asking repeatedly for their mother and wandering aimlessly around their grandmother's house, Davis' neighbor said.
Friends called Esteen "Lo." She and another female singer, working as a duo for more than two years, were signed by Third Stone Records, a label founded by actor Michael Douglas. Their first album was released in 1993.
The Los Angeles Sentinel, a black-oriented newspaper, gave it a thumbs-up.
"[They] have a sincere sound and a cute flavor," wrote Hannibal Tabu, who covered youth issues for the paper. "I hope to hear more from Sweet NLo'. . . ."
There were indications the slayings could have occurred before dawn Thursday.
Jerome Walker, a neighbor who lives half a block from Esteen, said he awoke around 7 a.m. Thursday and heard three loud bangs in the quiet stillness of the morning.
At the scene late Thursday night, onlookers said police told them the condition of the bodies indicated the shootings had not occurred within the last several hours, Walker said.
Another neighbor said Esteen's cherry-red BMW station wagon was parked in her driveway all day Thursday. That struck him as odd, he said, because she was rarely home during the day.
Friday, neighbors all along 29th Place emerged from their renovated California bungalow-style homes to linger on large front porches and shake their heads with horror as police removed dozens of bags of evidence from the house.
In the neighborhood, children ride bikes in the street, and when they misbehave word gets back to their parents.
Everyone knows everyone else, residents said. Adults often stroll in the evenings, and the annual block party is the big event.
Esteen's friends huddled on the curb Friday afternoon, staring at the shuttered windows of her home.
"I am just going to miss her so much," Johnson said. "This is so, so hard."
Times staff writers Edward J. Boyer and Chuck Philips contributed to this story.