The New Year began in Los Angeles with the same type of violence that plagued neighborhoods the year before: unknown killers firing on the streets for unknown reasons, leaving bodies as they sped away.
The first victim of 2003 was a 21-year-old man struck by bullets from a passing car as he stood on a street corner in East Los Angeles early in the evening on New Year's Day.
Hours later, a 21-year-old pregnant woman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Watts. Her 7-month-old fetus did not survive.
The deaths, being investigated as the year's first three homicides by city police, began anew the count of victims. At least five more people countywide have been killed since New Year's Day, three of them in south L.A. County Thursday afternoon.
Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department reported 660 homicides, a 10% increase over the previous year. Other big cities, such as New York and Chicago, saw declines in killings.
LAPD spokesman Jack Richter said the death of Charles Steven Cova, 21, might be the first homicide on the calendar, "but it's part of an ongoing cycle of violence that we are dealing with."
Cova was standing at Altura Street and Eastlake Avenue at 6:25 p.m. Wednesday when a small, white compact car pulled up beside him, police said. A male passenger in the front seat fired a handgun several times, striking the victim in the head. Cova was pronounced dead at 6:53 p.m. at County-USC Medical Center, coroner's officials said.
Homicide investigators in the Hollenbeck Division believe the killing was gang-related. However, Richter said, police don't know who shot him or why.
The second and third homicides of the year took place hours later in Watts.
Police said Pearlina Laporte, 21, was outside her boyfriend's home in the 1700 block of East 113th St. about 9:30 p.m. when she was killed. Laporte and the boyfriend were working on her car when another car approached.
Police said someone in the assailant's vehicle asked the couple: "Where's the weed?" before the driver fired several times.
The mother of Laporte's boyfriend was inside her home with her granddaughters when she heard gunfire.
"The next thing I knew, people were knocking on the door," saying her son had been shot, she said. "I came outside and he was on the ground. I had no idea his girlfriend was behind the car."
Laporte was pronounced dead at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center about 10 p.m. Wednesday. Her unborn child also died at the hospital, police said. Police would not say whether the shooting was gang-related.
Police asked that the name of the male victim, who was hospitalized in stable condition, be withheld for his protection. His mother said her son is not a troublemaker and is not involved with gangs.
"We're still stunned about it," she said. "To think you can't even sit in your own frontyard.... They were just sitting outside on the car."
The two victims had been dating for a few years, the mother said, and were expecting their first child together. They had planned to move in together this weekend.
The assailant was driving what was described as either a gray or blue Nissan Altima or a Chevrolet Corsica.
At the start of last year, the rate of homicides threatened to bring Los Angeles back to the record numbers of killings in the early 1990s, with a high of 1,092 in 1992. But the rate slowed over the summer, before it rose again in November.
In December, after new Police Chief William J. Bratton ordered officers added to neighborhoods hard hit by street shootings, the homicides totaled about 40, one of the lowest totals of any month last year.
Police said they believe they can continue to reduce homicides by continuing to focus on problem areas and appealing for community help.
"It's been a bad year for homicides but a particularly bad year for certain parts of the city," Robbery-Homicide Capt. Jim Tatreau said. He noted that 45% of the city's killings took place in the Southeast, Southwest, 77th and Newton divisions.
Tatreau said more needs to be done in that section of the city "because they have dealt with more danger."
Times staff writers Megan Garvey, Jessica Garrison, Jill Leovy and Kenneth Reich contributed to this report.