The eldest sister of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams was fatally shot early Sunday on a Compton street, not far from the cracked concrete tennis courts where her sisters began their ascent to the upper echelons of the sport.
Yetunde Price, 31, of Corona was shot shortly after midnight in the 1100 block of East Greenleaf Boulevard, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Price and a male companion, whom sheriff’s officials declined to identify, were driving in a white SUV when they became involved in an altercation that led to gunfire, authorities said. Price, who was shot in the upper torso, was pronounced dead a short time later at a local hospital.
Serena and Venus, along with their mother, Oracene Price, were traveling to Los Angeles on Sunday, said Serena’s publicist, Raymone Bain.
“We are extremely shocked, saddened and devastated by the shooting death of our beloved Yetunde,” the family said in a prepared statement. “She was our nucleus and our rock. She was personal assistant, confidant and advisor to her sisters, and her death leaves a void that can never be filled.”
Scott Butler, a sheriff’s spokesman, said there is a possibility that the shooting was “gang-related,” but he declined to elaborate.
Sheriff’s Deputy Gabino Gasataya, who has patrolled the neighborhood for the last two years, said the shooting occurred at or near a suspected “drug house” that attracts groups of men between 18 and 25 years old.
“Every time I pass by there, there’s a bunch of guys out front.... They just hang out there,” Gasataya said. The deputy said, however, that he has never made a drug-related arrest at the house and was unaware whether other deputies had.
Sunday morning, sheriff’s deputies surrounded a house where they thought as many as two suspects were holed up.
But the house was empty when the sheriff’s Special Enforcement Bureau raided it sometime before 11 a.m.
Butler said deputies recovered “some evidence” at the scene, but would not provide details.
Sheriff’s detectives questioned the man Price was with when she was shot. Butler said the man was not considered a suspect.
According to friends and relatives, Price was a single mother of three children, ages 5, 9 and 11. Along with periodically working as a personal assistant for her tennis champion sisters, Price worked part-time as a nurse and was part owner of a beauty salon in Lakewood with a high school friend.
Gladys Avila, whose daughter co-owns Headed Your Way salon with Price, said Price was extremely giving and dedicated to her children.
“What’s going to happen to the kids? That’s all I can think of,” said Avila.
Avila said she sometimes baby-sat for the children, who were always well behaved -- a tribute, she said, to their upbringing by Price.
“I just can’t believe it,” Avila said, fighting back tears. “Maybe there is some mistake.”
On Sunday afternoon at Price’s new two-story home in a tidy neighborhood in Corona, a woman who identified herself as Price’s mother-in-law said the children had not yet learned of their mother’s fate. The children laughed and ran around outside the house as the woman spoke.
“The detectives aren’t saying much,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed with disbelief. I am in shock. She didn’t drink, take drugs or even smoke cigarettes. She was a good kid.”
A woman who lives across the street said Price was at her house Saturday night to watch the televised boxing match between Shane Mosley and Oscar De La Hoya. The fight started around 9 p.m. She said Price left shortly after the first round, and “that was the last time I saw her.” The neighbor, who declined to give her name, added that she did not know where Price was going.
Price was shot about 1 1/2 miles from the Compton tennis courts where Serena and Venus played as children. Their rise to success was fueled by their father Richard Williams’ ambitions and their mother’s quiet behind-the-scenes support.
Richard Williams has told the story of how he was watching TV in 1978 and saw tennis player Virginia Ruzici win a substantial sum of money for winning a major tournament. He realized then that tennis winnings could be a vehicle to pull his family out of their modest circumstances.
Williams announced to his wife that he wanted more children, although Oracene already had three daughters of her own, including Yetunde Price. Venus was born two years later, and Serena arrived in 1981. Williams became the architect of their career paths.
The girls began training at tennis courts at Atlantic Avenue and Compton Boulevard. Richard Williams called the site “The East Compton Hills Country Club,” and later told reporters that gang members helped watch over the girls during the long sessions, becoming protectors.
After Venus and Serena began dominating the Southern California junior tennis scene, their father pulled them out of competition in 1991 and moved the family from Compton to Florida.
The sisters rose to prominence and eventually took turns dominating the sport.
Venus won four Grand Slams in 2000 and 2001, and a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. The Williamses met in the U.S. Open final in 2001, with Venus winning.
It was the first time in 117 years that sisters had played in a Grand Slam final.
Although Yetunde Price did not excel in tennis the way that her younger half-sisters did, she remained a part of Venus and Serena Williams’ world.
The Price and Williams sisters, along with their mother, all appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” last fall and talked about how they were a close-knit family.
In a recent People magazine interview, Price said that it was exciting to be around the glamorous lives of Venus and Serena, but that they rarely talked about such things in private.
In recent years, she said, her sisters had become well-adjusted young women.
“Maybe three or four years ago I’d remind them to stay grounded, but not now,” Price was quoted as saying in People. “They’ve both got pretty good heads on their shoulders.”
Times staff writers Erika Hayasaki, Louis Sahagun, Kristina Sauerwein and Jill Leovy contributed to this report.