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Family Is Stunned by Drive-By Shooting That Wounds 3-Year-Old

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three-year-old Christopher Zaldepena didn’t even cry when the shots rang out around him on the porch of his Echo Park home Sunday evening. When his mother scooped him up and ran inside to call 911, Christopher seemed scared but unscathed.

But he wasn’t.

On Monday, the boy was in critical condition as doctors searched for a way to remove a bullet from the side of his head.

Maria Gonzalez thought at first that she and her son had miraculously escaped unharmed after a gunman emerged from a white car and fired a series of shots toward the front patio.

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As the bullets whizzed around her, Gonzalez hit the floor, wrapping her son in her arms. When the shots stopped and the car screeched away, Gonzalez raised her head, and saw her son’s cousin, 20-year-old Rogelio Ponce, lying on the patio, bloody and riddled with four bullets.

Gonzalez ran inside. She noticed blood on her shirt and then on the boy’s head. Her son looked up at her and said gently, “My head hurts.”

A bullet was lodged in his temple.

Doctors are still uncertain if the boy will survive.

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“It’s just too early to tell at this point,” said Mark Krieger, a surgeon at County-USC Medical Center who operated on the boy. “It’s a devastating injury any time someone gets shot in the head, and this is no exception.”

Ponce, a former gang member who police suspect was the target of the shooting, was in guarded condition and expected to survive.

Police say they are looking for a suspect they described as a Latino male, 18 to 20 years old and about 5 foot 6.

As for Gonzalez, she sat on a bed in her home at 145 N. Douglas St. Monday afternoon, crying softly and trying to maintain her faith.

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“I knew this street was a dangerous street, but we’ve lived here so long,” Gonzalez said through an interpreter. “I don’t even let my kids go out without me or someone else, and still this happens.”

Gonzalez was leaving to pick up her younger brother at the lake in Echo Park. Christopher was going with her. At 9 p.m., it seemed safe enough to Gonzalez to make the short walk to the car.

"[Christopher] was still talking when he was shot,” Gonzalez said in disbelief. “He was acting like normal.”

On the patio of the three-story white bungalow where Christopher and Ponce were shot the night before, friends, neighbors and family sat sullenly as they shared rumors surrounding the shooting.

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A news van arrived with a police picture of the suspect.

“I know him,” said Yesenia Gonzalez, Ponce’s cousin. “I guess he had a grudge against Roger.”

“All of us grow up together, you know,” she said. “It’s just at some point, something goes wrong.”

This stretch of Douglas Street, just east of the Hollywood Freeway, has had a reputation as gang territory. Nonetheless, residents were surprised at the extent of the violence.

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Although police said Ponce is a former gang member, family members affirm that he hadn’t had anything to do with gangs for years.

“He’s probably stopped doing gangs when he was 11,” Yesenia Gonzalez said.

Maria Ponce, Rogelio’s mother, agreed. “People grow out of that,” she said through an interpreter.


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