It Wasn’t the Exit They Expected
Should she risk meeting me on the street where her uncle was killed?
Not with the killer on the loose, Tony Cobos’ niece decided. She didn’t want to drive there alone and get spotted by one of the gangbangers. Most of her uncle’s immediate family, the ones who witnessed the killing, have gone into hiding in fear for their lives.
So we met a couple of blocks away. Cobos’ niece got into my car, and we drove over together.
In the golden light of morning, Cass Place, in the Walnut Park neighborhood near South Gate, looked tidy and safe. But looks, we know, can be deceiving.
“Right here is where Uncle Tony’s body was,” the niece told me, pointing to the street in front of a simple brown stucco house. “I don’t know if you can still see the bloodstain.”
Uncle Tony was Tony Cobos, a native of the Galapagos Islands. He came to the United States in 1960, fell in love with a girl named Vilma and started a family. Cobos worked as a chef and eventually opened a City of Industry restaurant called Nena’s. Things were good until trouble started creeping in around the edges of the neighborhood.
Even before a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was killed on this very street in 1992, in a shootout with murder suspects, Cobos packed up the family, rented out the Cass Place house and moved to West Covina. But a couple of setbacks landed them back on Cass three years ago.
Cobos’ 21-year-old grandson, who works for UPS, found himself constantly harassed by thugs in the new neighborhood.
“Honestly, I don’t know why,” said the grandson. “If I was walking my little brother to the store, they’d be asking me where I’m from. I don’t gangbang, and I don’t associate with gang members or anything like that.
“So I would just, like, laugh at them. ‘Are you serious? Like, look at me. Does it look like I’m a gangbanger?’ They’d get mad when I talked to them like that.”
Tony Cobos wanted out again, his family said. He wanted to sell or rent the house, just as he had before, and move everyone to a safer place. The second week of October was set as the date for a house-hunting trip, but Cobos never got the chance.
On Oct. 5, his grandson was walking down the street with his mother when one of the routine verbal jousts with neighborhood thugs led to a fistfight. Two days later, the violence escalated.
“My 9-year-old son was screaming,” said Tony Cobos’ daughter, who ran to the door of her house to see her 21-year-old in a brawl.
“I saw four men in white shirts beating my son, and I didn’t know it, but my father was in that pile of men.”
Despite his age, Tony Cobos had jumped into the fray the minute he saw the thugs go after his grandson.
“I ran to the kitchen and pulled out two knives. I don’t have guns,” Cobos’ daughter said.
When she got back outside, her son was struggling with the driver of a white Cadillac Escalade, and her father was running around to the front of the car. Her father was knocked to the ground by the car, she said. Rather than back up, the driver gunned the SUV, driving over the 73-year-old man.
“I heard the tires spinning out on his body and his bones crunching,” Cobos’ daughter said. “It sounded like if you crushed a bag of potato chips.”
Jorge Alverto Vasquez, the suspected driver of the Escalade, is wanted in connection with the death, and anyone with information on his whereabouts is asked to call (323) 890-5583 or (323) 890-5634.
The house Tony Cobos lived in sits vacant now. His family left Southern California after the killing and is too grief-stricken, and too afraid, to return. Cobos’ wife -- whose hand he always held in public, as though they were on a never-ending honeymoon -- was so devastated by his death that she was briefly hospitalized.
The family is angry at the police, saying officers didn’t respond quickly enough to calls about criminal activity on the block, including alleged gang-related drug dealing. They believe the killing could have been prevented if police had taken their reports of harassment more seriously.
All of that aside, Cass Place is like a thousand other neighborhoods in Los Angeles where people are afraid to blow the whistle on crime for fear of ending up like Tony Cobos.
“We don’t associate with anyone,” said an elderly woman getting into a car just down the street from where Cobos took his last breath.
“I don’t want to stay here anymore,” another woman said through a security gate on her front porch.
“We miss Tony.”
I reached another neighbor by phone. Like the others, she withheld her name.
“I fear for my life,” she said. “You don’t know what it’s like to not be able to sleep at night because you hear gunshots or you hear drug dealing. You hear screams and don’t know where they’re coming from, or you hear cars racing through the streets.”
Police can’t fix these problems alone, Father Gregory Boyle -- L.A.'s godfather of gang reform -- reminded me. Look at the schools, the job market, the culture.
Tony Cobos’ daughter points also to kids who look for trouble and parents who look the other way.
“My father told us if we worked hard, we could excel in anything. He came here as a young man because this was the land of dreams, and he worked for what he had. We’re working, taxpaying people, and we were imprisoned in our own neighborhood.”