The fight began over a large silver cross and turned deadly after an act of brotherly devotion.
Agustin Contreras, 17, described by teachers and police as a good student who was not involved in gangs, was shot to death at Venice High School as he tried to protect his younger brother Alejo from gang members bent on stealing the cross from around the 16-year-old’s neck.
It was the first fatal shooting on a Los Angeles Unified School District campus in more than a decade, and fueled worries about gangs and racial tensions in Venice. Police and community leaders called for calm and organized tolerance meetings in hopes of heading off retaliatory attacks.
Detectives were searching for the black Venice gang member who they believe pulled the gun on Agustin, one of four brothers. It was only natural, family members said, that Agustin intervened when gang members accosted Alejo as he left his final class Monday about 3 p.m.
“They came out of nowhere and said something like ‘I like your chain, homie,’ ” Alejo said in an interview Tuesday, describing the incident that led to his brother’s slaying Monday afternoon.
Alejo said the assailant grabbed for the chain, and that he and another brother, 14-year-old Andres, fought back. One of the attackers yelled out the name of a local black gang.
Agustin saw the fight and came to their aid, police said. Students who witnessed the fight said the attackers were apparently provoked by Latino gang members who tried to turn the altercation into a racial dispute.
Others joined the fight, which moved from inside the school to the faculty parking lot. There, one of the attackers drew a gun and shot Agustin once in the chest.
“He just hit the floor and I saw him turning pale,” Andres said.
Venice has a history of violence between black and Latino gangs, largely centered in the tough Oakwood neighborhood. In the early 1990s, racially tinged gang violence claimed dozens of lives.
Although Venice has seen a reduction in gang homicides in recent years, some community activists fear Agustin’s slaying could cause an escalation in tensions as Latino gangs seek payback.
“There are all-black gangs, there are Latino gangs that have black gang members,” said Oscar de la Torre, founder of the Pico Youth and Family Center, a facility for at-risk youths on the Westside. “Still, that doesn’t keep them from retaliating. It’s gang-related, it’s race-related. There’s a lot of layers to it. It’s not just one thing.”
Dozens of residents came out Tuesday evening for a town hall meeting in Venice called by Councilman Bill Rosendahl.
“I want to see peace,” said Tilitha Taylor, 48, one of the first to arrive for the forum at the Oakwood Community Center. “Now is the time to listen to what youths have to say, hear what’s heavy that they are carrying in their heart and then try to help and guide them.”
Rosendahl, who represents Venice, said his main goal is to have people get along and calm any frayed nerves.
“A young, 17-year-old man was gunned down and everyone is upset,” Rosendahl said. “We all need to learn how to live together and we need to defuse the situation.”
It was the annual senior ditch day Tuesday at Venice High School, but some on campus believe many students stayed away for fear of more violence.
“A lot of kids have said they are afraid of retaliation, and that’s something that could happen to them even though they are not involved,” said a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Contreras family -- Agustin’s parents and four brothers -- live in a modest apartment in Mar Vista, a neighborhood just east of Venice. Agustin’s older brother, Jesus, 18, graduated from the high school last year.
Family members said Agustin had always acted as protector to his younger brothers.
“He did it all the time,” Jesus Contreras said. “That’s how we were brought up.”
On Tuesday, a stream of family members came to visit the apartment as Agustin’s grimfaced father, Alex, sat with relatives on lawn chairs in front of their unit.
They said two of Agustin’s great loves were baseball and art. The brother showed a visitor a drawing Agustin had done of men on horseback. He also enjoyed drawing portraits of people he knew.
As for baseball, “He was just a batter. He wasn’t really good at catching,” Jesus Contreras said, laughing slightly for a moment.
Alejo and Andres said they believed their brother was a victim of a routine school fight that somehow got out of control. But Jesus believes it underscores the school’s problem with gang violence.
“There’s all sorts of gangs,” he said. “It’s always been like that. There’s no control in that school at all.”
The last fatal on-campus shootings in L.A. occurred in 1993, when three students were killed in separate incidents on three campuses, said Lt. Keith Moore of the Los Angeles Unified School Police Department. Last year, a 15-year-old girl was fatally shot on the sidewalk outside the entrance of Locke High School near Watts.
At Venice High School, a memorial with flowers and candles was set up in the faculty parking lot. Students cried openly and passed around a box of tissues. When the first bell rang, teachers tried to shoo the students into class but about 20 of them drifted back to the memorial.
Principal Jan Davis said their were six to eight extra police officers on the campus Tuesday as a security precaution.
She said the high school has worked hard in recent years to reduce gang problems and violence.
“We do not have some of the racial tensions that some of the other schools do,” she said. “I really hope that this doesn’t cause that to flare up again.”
De la Torre and community activists said they want to prevent a recurrence of the deadly gang violence that gripped the Venice area in the early 1990s, culminating in the 1994 deaths of two Dorsey High School students who were caught in a bloody street war between black and Latino gangs. The teenagers from the Crenshaw district had been in Venice to buy a pager when several gunmen opened fire, he said.
That incident and many others weighed heavily on De la Torre’s mind Tuesday.
“It can affect innocent people who aren’t gang-related at all,” De la Torre said. “The sad part is, there’s been a lot of peace. So we’re all really nervous right now because this could just escalate.”
Jesus Contreras said he spent much of Tuesday thinking about his brother.
“Agustin, we love you and miss you,” he said. “God has taken you from us and we have to deal with it. I hope you like heaven.”