Three people were arrested Thursday on suspicion of murder in the deaths of a 13-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl in a drive-by shooting that Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton called an act of domestic terrorism.
Quinesha Dunford, 15, and Demario Moore, 13, both students at Manual Arts High School, were standing at the mouth of an alley near the intersection of Normandie and Slauson avenues in South Los Angeles when shots were fired from a passing car about 7 p.m. Wednesday, said Los Angeles Police Department Det. Rudy Lemos.
Quinesha stumbled a few feet to a nearby house where she died. Demario died en route to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, police said.
Homicide detectives got a lucky break almost immediately after the shooting from a witness who wrote down the license plate number of the car. Police found the car several hours later, then one suspect, and then two others.
Police arrested Marcel Harling, 18, and two juvenile suspects, ages 16 and 17, a short distance from where the killings occurred.
The killings were related to a long-running brawl between two local gangs, police said. Neither Demario nor Quinesha was involved with gangs, Lemos said, and it is not known why they were targeted. Family members and neighbors described both victims as outgoing and friendly, and well-liked in the neighborhood, where they had both lived since early childhood.
Bratton, Mayor James K. Hahn, L.A. city school Supt. Roy Romer and City Council members Martin Ludlow and Jan Perry later appeared at a news conference at the LAPD’s 77th Division to announce the arrests, and to commend witnesses who assisted police.
“The reality is we are facing two forms of terrorism: that from across the waters and the terrorism here at home,” said Bratton, noting the date, Sept. 11. “There is a certain poignancy to these murders for that reason.”
The shootings came just two days after another drive-by shooting in the West San Fernando Valley left three Taft High School students wounded and hospitalized.
“Fortunately, no one was killed at Taft,” said Lemos.
In contrast to the Woodland Hills neighborhood surrounding Taft High, gang crime is relatively common in the neighborhood where Demario and Quinesha were killed. There have been 17 homicides in the last 15 years within one block of the slayings in the 1300 block of W. 54th Street, according to a Times analysis of LAPD data.
Miranda Raoof, a resident of the neighborhood and assistant principal at Manual Arts High School, arrived at school Thursday to learn what happened from distraught students.
Manual Arts has lost other students to homicide in recent years, including two who died in a police shooting last year, said Principal Edward Robillard. The school has a crisis team of eight counselors who were joined Thursday by four district counselors, as well as local clergy and church workers.
By midday, Robillard said, about 200 students had sought counseling. “There have been a lot of tears here,” he said.
The first officer at the homicide scene, Everardo Amaral, said a large and emotional crowd had gathered there. As his partner sought to revive Quinesha before paramedics came, he walked to where Demario lay, and realized with a stab of grief that he recognized him.
Amaral said he had become acquainted with the boy while patrolling the neighborhood, and knew his family. “A good family,” he said. Demario, a freshman, was described as a genial, friendly boy who liked rap music and socializing with other kids on the block.
Quinesha, a sophomore, was raised by her great aunt Labertha Govan. Her father kept in touch, but lives out of state, the family said, and her mother’s whereabouts are unknown. They described Quinesha as an energetic girl who loved jazz and modern dance and was on the drill team at Manual Arts.
“The shortest girl on the drill team,” said her cousin Ray Govan, 14. “And in the front row.”
Labertha Govan, weeping in a chair outside the family home on Thursday, described how she last saw Quinesha laughing and playing football in the street just before her death. Her niece had walked to a store nearby, as she did each day, for chips and candy, Govan said. She was wearing a T-shirt and capris and had a ponytail.
While she was gone, a friend called and asked Govan if she knew of a shooting nearby.
Govan got in her car, driving slowly, to look for Quinesha, and came across the crime scene where she learned from bystanders that two young people had been shot. She drove home, increasingly anxious because Quinesha had still not arrived home.
Family members spent hours waiting at the police tape, they said, kept away by officers. “She died alone, she died alone,” said Govan.
Commander Jim Tatreau of the LAPD 77th Division recalled arriving at the scene to see Quinesha’s body under a sheet on the porch where she died, and a relative standing quietly alone and crying at the edge of the crime scene.
“I don’t care how many of these you see,” he said, “they affect you.”
Mayor Hahn credited witnesses with breaking the case.
“I am so grateful for the community [members] who have stepped forward and who were not intimidated by gang terror,” he said. “We send a message loud and clear that the community is outraged .... We are not going to tolerate this.”
Cooperation of witnesses, essential to solving most gang killings, is not always easy to come by in South L.A., police said. Quinesha’s family members described the shooting some years ago of a nephew, who was wounded but survived. Witnesses refused to come forward.
Told of the arrests Thursday, Govan said she was grateful that people spoke up this time.
“Thank God for that,” she said. “It wasn’t in vain.”
Police said they moved swiftly to avert revenge for the shootings. Officers at the scene said some distraught and grieving residents were threatening to “take care of it.”
By late afternoon Thursday, police said, a possible retaliation shooting had occurred about a block away in which a man was nicked in the arm by a bullet. Police were searching for suspects driving a Cadillac.
At Demario’s house, loved ones declined to speak about their loss. In the house, a woman behind a screen door heaved with sobs. Her voice carried down the street. “Oh God, no!”