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Getting Away With Murder in South L.A.'s Killing Zone

Times Staff Writers

One intersection. Seven unsolved homicides.

That’s the tally for the cross streets of San Pedro and 84th dating to the late 1980s. The spot is typical of many in South and Central Los Angeles where extraordinary numbers of people are murdered and the killers are never caught.

Unsolved homicides -- killings for which no suspect is ever arrested -- are stacked up block by block, mile by mile, in this part of Los Angeles.

From San Pedro and 84th streets, they stretch east, west and south -- two on one street, six on another, a massive number of killings which, taken together, create a chilling map of violent lawlessness.

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For years, most of the city’s homicides have been in Watts, Wilmington, South-Central, Hyde Park and other neighborhoods south of the Santa Monica Freeway and along the Harbor Freeway. Detectives there juggle higher workloads and solve crimes at lower rates.

As a result, the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau, which patrols most of this part of the city, has accumulated a backlog of more than 2,400 unsolved homicides over the last 15 years.

Nowhere in the San Fernando Valley or the Westside is there a similar concentration of killings, let alone unsolved ones. South Bureau, for example, has more than three times the number of unsolved homicides as the LAPD’s Valley Bureau, even though it covers only one-fourth the area.

In scores of interviews in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, people describe how fear, and the conviction that serious crimes are not solved, makes them reluctant to confront homicide, unwilling to cooperate with authorities or act as witnesses, and disinclined to place their faith in the police. The murders pound home the fact that unpunished killers are on the loose and perhaps nearby.

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Mia Wofford, whose son, Brian, was the most recent slaying victim to die near the intersection of 84th and San Pedro, recalled as a child hearing grown-ups in the neighborhood talk about violent crime. “ ‘Don’t say nothin’,’ ” she remembered them saying. “You were afraid if you said something, you would get retaliation.... You didn’t run to the police, because you knew nothing was gonna happen.”

Brian, 21, her only son, was an assistant manager at a Food-4-Less market. He was fatally shot on June 3, 2002. His killer has not been caught. LAPD Det. Eric Holyfield said he knows there were witnesses, “but nobody wants to be the one to step up.”

Darrik Cobb was killed near that same intersection. So were James Williams, Victor Nunez, Alfred Vicuna, Derrick Young and Robert Parker -- who died in 1988, 14 years to the day before Brian Wofford was slain. No one has been charged in any of those homicides.

There are about 41 unsolved homicides per square mile in South L.A., compared to just over three per square mile in the San Fernando Valley. The effects of this disparity, though marked, are understated.

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Most of South and Central Los Angeles is made up of working-class black and Latino neighborhoods: stucco cottages, fenced front yards, potted plants on porches. Boulevards are dotted with apartments and the same fast-food chains found in most neighborhoods: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jack in the Box. People play dominoes in the parks, wash their cars in driveways, sit on their porches. Parents push strollers, children walk to school.

But a Times computer analysis of data from the LAPD showing dense concentrations of unsolved homicides in these areas reflects a troubling history that locals understand all too well.

“You speak out around here, you done get killed,” said Promise White, 18, standing south of Florence Avenue and Figueroa Street, within one block of seven unsolved homicides. White saw a recent double killing nearby, but says she did not even consider talking to police.

In South Los Angeles, more than half of all killers are never caught. Police said those who have not been killed themselves or jailed for other crimes usually don’t travel far.

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“These guys stick within their territory,” said Det. Jerry Pirro of the LAPD’s Newton Division. “We used to have a saying: In this division, you will probably find your killer within a quarter-mile of the scene.”

Of the more than 11,000 homicides in Los Angeles since 1988, there are nearly 6,000 in which no arrest was made. About 2,400 of those are in the 58 square miles of the LAPD’s South Bureau, and 2,000 are in the 65 square miles of the Central Bureau. The total for the two bureaus means that nearly three-quarters of all the city’s unsolved homicides are concentrated into one-quarter of the city’s total area.

Los Angeles police have launched new efforts in recent months to combat the killings in South and Central L.A. -- boosting the numbers of officers and increasing arrests. But one of their biggest challenges may be a long history of people getting away with murder and the deeply entrenched community attitudes that result.

Officers tell of arriving in the crowded aftermath of a drive-by shooting, only to have witnesses melt away when they start asking questions.

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Detectives ring doorbells and residents hiss at them to leave. Investigators go to hospitals to interview surviving victims, and are met with silence. Sometimes they are rebuffed by grieving family members. Occasionally they are told flatly: Forget it. We will take our own revenge.

Officers say they often interpret the reluctance to cooperate as callousness. In interviews, though, many residents talk about feeling helpless. No use taking risks, they say; nothing will ever change.

“I try to mind my own business, as long as I am not a victim,” said Ricky, 43, who, like many people interviewed for this story, declined to give his full name for fear of retaliation.

He was scratching a lottery ticket and sitting on his front step near West 83rd and Hoover streets, within a block of 11 unsolved killings.

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Ricky said he knows people have been hurt and killed nearby, “but nine times out of 10, you won’t see it on the television set. I seen police tape around. But I’ve been here so long, I’m immune to it. It’s no use going outside and being a witness.”

He looked away, his voice growing quiet. “It’s been going on even before we got here. It will be going on after we’ve gone,” he said. “I don’t know if it is in the Bible or what, but that’s the way it is.”

Such despair colors the testimony of many residents. Willie Bryant, 85, a short distance away, surveyed his neighborhood, near Hoover north of Manchester Avenue, where five have died within a block, their killers never caught.

“I can’t say anything against them,” he said. “Ain’t nothing I can do about it. I’m too old.”

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Isolated in Grief

Murder is a relatively rare crime anywhere, and Los Angeles is no exception. But homicides in the LAPD’s South Bureau precincts average out to about 34 per 100,000 people, according to department statistics. That’s about five times the national average.

To comprehend the frequency of murder in South L.A., consider that the South Bureau homicide rate is about double the national death rate from breast cancer. A South Los Angeles resident then, may be roughly twice as likely to know a local homicide victim as is the average American to know a breast cancer victim.

That means only an isolated few are catastrophically affected.

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Bobby Brougham Hamilton, whose son Roshod, 16, was killed in an unsolved Jefferson Park homicide in 1996, said that is one reason the problem eludes solution.

Parents of murder victims “want to scream about what’s really taking place,” he said. “But the rest can just close their doors, and close their eyes.... They don’t see it.”

Although murder may not be openly discussed, however, awareness of its imminent danger seeps into everyday decisions. People talk, for example, of making concessions to gangs.

Young men who don’t belong to any gang wear the local one’s colors anyway to avoid trouble. Employees of local parks and schools negotiate informal pacts with gangs to be left in peace. Parents impose strict rules on their children in trying to keep them out of harm’s way.

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“You don’t see a whole bunch of kids just playing and interaction, or playing football ... on our little street,” said Keisha Smith, 29, who lives just east of where Brian Wofford was gunned down. She said she keeps her own three children indoors.

Parents of boys, in particular, describe constant worry. “Oh, God,” said Victor Evans, 38, the African American father of a 9-year-old. “Every time I hear of something happening, I’m on the phone, asking, ‘Is my boy all right? Is my boy all right?’ ”

In neighborhoods with the most unsolved homicides, some residents spoke in lowered voices when asked about crime. Others were hostile. People frequently were evasive about the killings that had happened nearby.

“Not me! I don’t be knowing what these young kids are doing,” said retiree LeRoy Reed, 51, near 97th Street and Towne Avenue. He said he doesn’t know of the nine unsolved cases within a block of where he sat.

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“I don’t worry,” he said, when pressed. “I don’t want to see.”

In the LAPD’s Newton Division, 17-year-old Isidro Lopez, walking home near 43rd and Wall streets, said gunshots are so common he barely takes note. His mother worries about her sons but “it doesn’t matter to me,” he said, shrugging.

He said he will get out, go to college, learn computers, and earn enough to move his parents -- immigrants from Michoacan, Mexico -- to a safer neighborhood. Lopez points to a corner across from where he lives.

“They just shot two black guys there,” he said. “I think one died.... It’s just like, that’s normal.”

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Worried They’ll Be Next

Apart from people who have lost loved ones, there is another group most affected by the unsolved homicides around them. These are the statistically most likely victims: young Latinos and the most vulnerable people of all, young black men.

In contrast to many of their neighbors, young men are more willing to talk about local killings, saying they worry they might be next.

“I watch my back every minute that I’m out here,” said John, a 29-year-old African American. He cast a sidelong glance up the street as he did yardwork on a recent afternoon north of Manchester and west of the Harbor Freeway.

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“I almost got it two days ago,” said Clay, 24, an African American with a boyish face, who declined to give his last name. He wore baggy pants and a fade haircut, and was ambling with a tough, swinging walk near Florence Avenue and San Pedro Street.

He gave this account:

Two carloads of men “rolled up on me,” he said. “Where you from?” they asked.

Clay groped for a neutral response: “Long Beach,” he told them.

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The men in the cars seemed relieved, Clay said. They didn’t have to kill him.

He kept walking, sneaked a backward glance. His heart was pounding -- “thump, thump, thump,” Clay said, striking his chest, “like that.”

Many black and Latino young men said in interviews that they see police as unreliable and hostile.

“Inky,” an East Coast Crip gang member standing near Florence and Central avenues, said street justice substitutes for police protection. When they need help, he said, most people pick up the phone and call police. Instead, he said, “We pick up the phone and call our homeboys.”

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A man who identified himself only as Jay, 28, a tire shop worker who spoke near the intersection of Florence and San Pedro streets, yanked up a pant leg to show a bullet scar near his ankle.

He said young black men like himself remain on guard in this neighborhood -- wary of police, forced to fight and inclined to carry guns. “We know no one will protect us,” he said. “We have to protect ourselves.”

The rationale is not unique to Los Angeles.

Wherever systems of law are weak or absent, personal violence tends to fill the void, leading to more homicides, said murder historian Roger Lane of Haverford College in Pennsylvania. This can be true among any race of people, he said.

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Without courts and police to resolve conflicts, Lane said, people fight things out among themselves. Bullies rule in place of legal authorities, revenge substitutes for justice and people seek protection in gangs, he said.

The phenomenon is common to places with high rates of homicide -- Brazilian and South African cities, for example. It also has occurred in U.S. history among ethnic enclaves at odds with authorities -- for example, Irish and Italians in New York in the 19th century, Native Americans, and, especially, African Americans.

Common to such examples, said Etienne Krug, violence-prevention director for the United Nations World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, is the absence of a well-functioning justice system, which, in turn, “is a risk factor for violence.”

In Los Angeles, the concentration of unsolved murders in some neighborhoods suggests a similarly ragged justice system -- “a failure of the state,” said UCLA homicide expert Eric Monkkonen.

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Los Angeles police face tough challenges stopping the cycle, but changes in 2003 were encouraging: The number of homicides dropped significantly in South and Central Los Angeles. The LAPD has boosted manpower there, and though detectives in South Bureau still have 40% higher caseloads than their colleagues in the Valley, the department is employing such new strategies as improving firearms lab work, and serving more search warrants.

Improved clearance rates for homicides in some South L.A. divisions have followed. But street-level police are careful not to talk of permanent change, or to take too much credit.

Historically, it has been difficult for the department to sustain extra resources in any one part of the city because the overall force is stretched so thin. And homicide trends are notoriously erratic.

The volume of unsolved homicides creates a further dilemma. With police resources overtaxed, it is difficult to commit detectives to older cases. Yet each unsolved case gives lawlessness and street justice further momentum, making fresh ones harder to crack.

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A long-term decline in homicides will require money and sustained political will, perhaps over decades, Monkkonen said.

For now, even officers sometimes echo the hopelessness of the neighborhoods. Some say that no matter what they do, nothing will ever change -- neither the distrustful attitudes, nor the churn of unsolved homicides.

“They hate us here,” said one 77th Street Division officer.

One person has hope of change. Mia Wofford, the mother of Brian Wofford, the most recent victim at 84th and San Pedro streets, said that by solving more murders, the LAPD will win the trust of the community.

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Wofford is confident detectives will solve her son’s case someday. “It doesn’t bring him back,” she said. “But it will help me believe.”


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