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Girl, 9, injured in L.A. gang shooting

Times Staff Writer

She had lived on the block for a short time, but longtime residents and new homeowners on East Kensington Road in Angelino Heights had already come to see 9-year-old Charupha Wongwisetsiri as a neighborhood ambassador.

The street was sometimes painted with multiple gang names, and there had been a disturbing number of shots fired around an apartment building off a nearby alley. But the presence of “Zsa Zsa,” as some neighbors called her, reassured.

She rode her bicycle on the sidewalk without a care, took long walks with her Chihuahua, and waved to cars as they drove down the long driveway behind her home to the new duplexes that shared the property.

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On Halloween, she delighted in taking pictures with neighbors.

Shortly before 8:30 p.m. Wednesday night, she was standing in the kitchen as her mother rinsed dishes when gang members drove up to a house across the street and exchanged shots with rival gang members, police said. None of the gang members were injured. But one bullet tore through the front wall of her home, passed through the living room and struck Charupha in the head.

Her mother picked her up off the kitchen floor, carried the child to her car and rushed her to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital.

Late Thursday, police said she was in critical condition at Childrens Hospital, where she had been transferred.

At an afternoon news conference, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles police officials called for people with information about the shooting to come forward. The City Council is offering a $50,000 reward.

Police identified 24-year-old Cesar Zamora, who lived across the street, as a “person of interest,” wanted for questioning as a witness and possibly as the intended victim of the shooting, said Det. Fred Faustino.

With a Thai-speaking officer translating, Charupha’s mother, Kamaonphorn Maxwell, said she had brought her daughter to the United States from Bangkok about a year ago to take advantage of the educational opportunities. She said she wondered if that decision was a mistake. “It’s two days before Christmas,” she said, according to the translator, “and I don’t have any future.”

News of the shooting frightened residents of Angelino Heights, a historic district near downtown, where well-off newcomers have restored Victorians and other old homes. Even as some of these houses sell for more than $1 million, a handful of apartments and old homes house gang members.

In the 800 block of East Kensington Road, neighbors said they made multiple calls to police in recent weeks about gunfire around a small apartment building across the street from the 5-year-old home where young Charupha lived. But the gunfire continued.

Assistant Police Chief Jim McDonnell said the department had received recent reports about problems on the block and that gang units had been aggressively targeting individuals responsible.

But he pointedly added that the police needed assistance from the community in providing specific reports on crimes.

On Wednesday, bullet holes were visible in vehicles and on at least three homes on the block, and many were not from Wednesday night’s shooting. A bullet hole above the gas tank of a gray SUV came from a shooting three months earlier, one neighbor said.

At the same time, most residents said they felt the neighborhood was safe enough to let their children play outdoors.

Daniel Lee, who is in the advertising business, said Charupha would play with his 10-month-old son. “She was good with the baby,” he recalled. Terence Patrick, a 29-year-old photographer, said, “She did the kind of things that I wish the neighborhood had more of.”

Jesse Lopez, a biomedical technician, grew up down the street, the son of a painter and an elementary school aide, and still lives on the block in the home where his wife, his Belmont High sweetheart, was reared.

Two decades ago, he saw crack being sold on the block, but in recent years the street had grown so quiet that he could sit on his porch and watch people jogging by at 9:30 at night.

The chief of detectives for Rampart Division, which includes Angelino Heights, said his squad had not investigated a homicide in the area in more than two years.

But more recently, Lopez said, he has seen the return of gang members familiar to him from earlier years. A week ago at 4:30 in the morning, he heard shots and found a bullet hole just above his porch.

“You may have to pay $800,000 to get into it, but this is still ‘the neighborhood,’ ” Lopez said. “There are awesome houses here, but they don’t stop bullets, bro.”

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joe.mathews@latimes.com


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