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Fatal Shooting Linked to Family’s Bloody Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a dispute so intense that it transcended geography and generations, yet so old that participants could only dimly recall its origins.

The blood feud began in rural Mexico 50 years ago, pitting brother against brother, and like so many other things, it migrated north, allegedly erupting one night in Sun Valley with several rounds of fatal gunfire.

The quarrel apparently arose between two brothers over land and livestock, according to defense attorney Michael Zimbert, whose client, Reynaldo Acosta Campos, stands accused of murder in Van Nuys Superior Court.

“You have the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Zimbert said.

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Unlike those famous clans that feuded in the Appalachian hill country in the decades following the Civil War, these combatants were from the same family. The feud arose in a similarly rugged, remote environment, the Mexican village of Liguera Larga, population 30--no electricity, no running water, dirt floors. Located in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, it’s so small it doesn’t appear in most atlases.

U.S. authorities haven’t quite pieced together the entire story of the feud, given its age and the often-contradictory statements of the warring sides. It appears the fighting started when some members of the Campos family sided with Leandro and others sided with his brother Reynaldo. Neither brother killed the other, but over time, at least six would die because of their original dispute, authorities said. And for all they know, authorities add, the death toll might even be higher.

Zimbert acknowledged that Reynaldo Acosta Campos, 20, was present the day Gerardo Lizarraga was shot and killed, but he denied that Campos was the gunman. He declined to outline his entire defense strategy, but said part of it will involve explaining to jurors the fear his client felt growing up in an atmosphere of violence.

“I will attempt to present evidence that allows the jury to consider my client’s culture and background,” Zimbert said, adding that he intends to call a forensic psychologist specializing in cultural defenses to testify when the case comes to trial. Campos and his relatives lived “in constant fear” of the blood feud, he said.

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Still, Deputy Dist. Atty. Peter Korn said, history and culture can’t excuse murder. “The evidence will show this crime was a conspiracy, planned and premeditated from the beginning,” said Korn. “And I think that is going to hurt the defense in this case.”

About 10:15 p.m. on July 20, 1996, Gerardo and Maria Lizarraga were sitting on the front porch of their house in the 16700 block of Valerio Street, playing with the family dog on a hot, clear Saturday night. Two men walked up to the edge of their yard. Without warning, one man took out a handgun and opened fire.

As Maria Lizarraga ran for cover, at least six bullets ripped through the wall and door of the one-story house, court documents show. She was unhurt, but one bullet that pierced a wall hit her 9-year-old nephew in the arm. Gerardo Lizarraga, shot in the head, died as paramedics tried to revive him in the driveway.

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At first blush, it appeared like a revenge killing tied to drugs or some other illicit trade. But lying in Valerio Street was a pager. Detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department’s North Hollywood Division quickly traced the number to distant relatives of Lizarraga’s, who lived 2 1/2 hours north in Delano, Calif.

According to court records, the pager belonged to Maria Campos Rodriguez, 36, the half-sister of Reynaldo Acosta Campos. After interviewing the pair and their cousin Zepharino Campos, 21, police arrested them and charged them each with five felony counts, including conspiracy, attempted murder and murder.

Through the interviews, police said, they unraveled the motive for the shooting. During preliminary hearings for Maria Campos Rodriguez and Zepharino Campos, police testified that the three were avenging the killings of two uncles back in Mexico in November 1995. The gun used to kill the uncles was allegedly supplied by the father of the Sun Valley victim, Gerardo Lizarraga, police said.

Last month, Maria Campos Rodriguez and Zepharino Campos pleaded guilty to manslaughter; they are scheduled to be sentenced this month. They admitted that they had driven from Delano in her gray Mercury Marquis station wagon to carry out the killing.

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Reynaldo Acosta Campos has pleaded not guilty and his preliminary hearing may occur this month as well. When the case finally reaches trial, Zimbert said, he will try to put a human face on the tragedy and on the life of his client.

“The family migrated as farm workers to California. But it was the environment he experienced as a teenager, filled with the constant fear of reprisal, that left a lasting impression. The family left Mexico out of fear,” Zimbert said.

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Reynaldo Acosta Campos belonged to the same side of the family as Reynaldo Campos, one of the brothers who started it all, Zimbert said. And in a page out of “Romeo and Juliet,” Zimbert added, the defendant’s common-law wife hails from Leandro’s side of the family.

University of Arizona anthropology professor James B. Greenberg, who studies intrafamily conflict in Latin America, said such family feuds are not unheard of in some rural communities with mountainous terrain and poor communications.

Although he was not familiar with the Campos family saga, Greenberg said: “Every time you have a killing, everyone in a community has to reassess how they are related to the victim. It breeds a culture of fear in which everyone is afraid to act, including the authorities. It’s a dynamic which allows the blood feud to continue.”

As for authorities in California, they are still searching for another member of the alleged plot. Police said a fourth person joined Maria Campos Rodriguez, Zepharino Campos and Reynaldo Acosta Campos in the trip from Delano on the day of the killing. That man, Juan Antonio Martinez, 31, is still at large.


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