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Slaying Still Haunts Cypress Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As much as they try, the folks in Cypress Park can’t seem to live down the 1995 fatal shooting of a 3-year-old girl in a blind alley, a murder that reverberated across the country.

“Cypress Park got a big black eye from it,” financial consultant and lifelong area resident Armando Ramirez, 33, said, remembering that President Clinton, among others, condemned the shooting. Community activist and businessman Art Pulido added: “We still have the stigma on us. It hasn’t left us.”

Stephanie Kuhen was shot and killed on Sept. 17, 1995, after a car carrying her and five other family members and friends went down a dead-end alley in Cypress Park and was hit by a fusillade of bullets fired by gang members. The girl’s mother, who was in the car at the time, said they were looking for a shortcut to their home in nearby Glassell Park when the gunfire erupted about 1:45 a.m.

The unforgiving glare of notoriety shined on Cypress Park, portraying the murder on Isabel Street as the ultimate urban horror, partly because the victim was a white girl with blond hair and the shooters were Latinos.

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Some residents say they don’t even admit where they live when asked about it. “I don’t tell anyone where I live because I just don’t want to deal with it,” plumber Miguel Robles said.

Cypress Park, a community of about 15,000 residents, is a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles, across the L.A. River from Elysian Valley and Dodger Stadium.

Now, nearly four years later, the residents of this largely Latino blue-color enclave are trying to move past the scorn heaped on them and get on with their lives.

But it hasn’t been easy.

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For each success in the fight to improve life in Cypress Park, which was depicted by reporters from as far away as Russia as a gang haven where “assassins” kill innocent children, there are setbacks that remind residents and outsiders alike that change comes slowly.

Police officials trumpet the successes of a pilot program created a year after the shooting to combat the gangs in northeast Los Angeles. Under the Community Law Enforcement and Recovery program, prominent members of the notorious Avenues gang, the four so-called assassins responsible for the girl’s death, were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.

Under the program, Police Sgt. Alfredo Flores returned to Cypress Park, where he grew up, to initiate a safe passage program so schoolkids could walk to and from school without interference from the gangs. In some instances, he issued parking citations to longtime friends and neighbors, who eventually warmed to the increased police presence.

The most recent statistics on CLEAR’s progress were not available, but in 1997 gang crime in northeast Los Angeles, including Cypress Park, was reduced 30% from the year before.

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The program’s successes have prompted city officials in recent years to expand CLEAR to the Mid-Wilshire area and the San Fernando Valley to combat gangs there.

But Cypress Park, which has endured several generations of gang warfare, still suffers. Recently, 17-year-old Alfred Cepeda was shot in front of his home after playing ball in a local park with some friends. The teenager died in his father’s arms. The suspected gang members who killed Cepeda got away.

“This has to stop,” said resident Sal Valenzuela, 30, who was shot in a local park six months before the Kuhen murder. “I want a better community for my family.”

Despite an intensive effort to eradicate graffiti, it still appears on walls. Some residents, who decline to speak publicly for fear of gang retaliation, say the “assassins” moniker--which was photographed on a wall near the alley where Stephanie Kuhen was killed--has reappeared.

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On the plus side, local officials have worked hard to rejuvenate the site of the onetime Lawry’s restaurant on Avenue 26, cooperating with a developer to bring in a Home Depot store. The project is particularly important because it is expected to draw more business to the area and provide critically needed jobs in Cypress Park, where the unemployment rate is close to 30%, some experts say.

But Pulido and others are upset that none of the 60 jobs connected to demolition work at the Home Depot site went to Cypress Park residents as promised by local officials. “We’re not getting the jobs they promised us,” Pulido said.

He blamed the area’s continuing problems on City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who is from Cypress Park. “He’s not getting the job done for us,” Pulido said, “He ought to get out of office.

“Nothing has changed [here]. We’re still a stepchild of the city. They only think of us as gang members who kill kids.”

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Others in Cypress Park said Hernandez’s office has been responsive to recent needs.

Lifelong Cypress Park resident Yolanda Acosta said the councilman and his aides have toured the area with residents to discuss such issues as the need for a new stop sign at Cypress Avenue and Arvia Street.

To his credit, supporters say, Hernandez has been active in bringing new ventures into the area and was instrumental in initiating the anti-gang program.

Hernandez has also been a leading proponent for the development of the Taylor Yard, an old railroad maintenance complex bordering Cypress Park on the south, into a proposed $78-million complex for film production companies. The project could mean as many as 1,000 new jobs.

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In its heyday in the 1950s, as many as 1,000 people, including the councilman’s father-in-law, worked in the rail yard for Union Pacific.

Hernandez conceded that Cypress Park needs more help. “But,” he said, “there is more there now than there was before.”

For some in Cypress Park, talk about crime, new projects and the murder is just a bunch of talk. To them, the area is a comfortable and safe place, regardless of what anyone else says about it.

On a recent evening, Loreto and Esther Guerrero, who were enjoying the evening shade of a large tree in the backyard of their home on Asbury Street, wondered aloud if the Cypress Park depicted as a result of the girl’s death is the same place where they live.

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“I’ve lived here all my life and nothing ever happens to me,” Loreto Guerrero, 72, said. “We’ve lived in this house since 1960.”

His wife, who was a volunteer for many years at the local elementary school, added: “If anyone in the neighborhood needs help, I’ll go help them. That’s the kind of people who live here.”

If there is a problem, it is the lack of a bank or post office, Loreto Guerrero said.

“If you want to do business, you have to go to Lincoln Heights or Highland Park or Glendale,” he said.

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Acosta, a single mother who works for the State Bar, believes that the help that Cypress Park needs is coming.

“You can see the little improvements,” she said, ticking off the empty lot that is the proposed home of a city library, the repaving of nearby streets and a new Federal Express office on San Fernando Road that employs some residents.

There’s even talk of a new charter school for middle school children from Cypress Park to improve their education and their chances of going to college.

“You know,” Acosta said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Neighborhood’s Stained Reputation

Cypress Park, a largely Latino blue-collar community a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles, is trying to rebound from the 1995 murder of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, who was shot and killed after her family car made a wrong turn down a deadend alley there.


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