A life lost to graffiti

Times Staff Writers

Maria Hicks lived in her quiet Pico Rivera neighborhood her whole life -- two houses down from her mother, and across the street from her daughter and three grandchildren.

She believed in keeping up the neighborhood, and few things bothered her more than newly scrawled graffiti.

On Friday night, police said, Hicks, 57, was driving home from visiting her sister in Whittier when she noticed a teenager spraying graffiti on a cinder-block wall two blocks from her house near San Gabriel River Parkway and Woodford Street.


Hicks honked her horn and flashed her lights at the teenager. As he walked away, she followed him in her car. Suddenly, another car pulled up behind her and someone fired several rounds through Hicks’ rear windshield. She was struck in the back of the head and died Monday at a local hospital.

“You think about it, and my mom died over a can of spray paint,” said Hicks’ daughter, Melinda Wall, 34. “She was not one to hold her tongue. She felt strongly about keeping your community nice.”

Sheriff’s detectives arrested three people Wednesday in connection with Hicks’ slaying, which has touched a nerve in Pico Rivera and beyond. Residents took part in a community candlelight vigil Wednesday night, and her death has sparked discussions in communities around Southern California dealing with a rise in graffiti and other gang-related vandalism.

“There is nowhere I can go -- be it the bank, grocery store or restaurants -- where our residents are not completely outraged,” Pico Rivera Mayor Ron Beilke said. “In my mind, she’s a hero. She was fed up with it; she was fed up with seeing graffiti on a daily basis.”

Police and community officials said graffiti removal crews are struggling to keep up with the vandals. In the city of Los Angeles, cleanup crews removed 27 million square feet of graffiti last year, up from 21 million square feet in 2005. In other areas of Los Angeles County, 13 million square feet of walls and other surfaces were cleaned, 4 million more than in the previous year.

Freeway graffiti has surged in the last few months, prompting Los Angeles prosecutors, the California Department of Transportation and the California Highway Patrol to join forces for a special enforcement operation in which officers work undercover at popular tagging spots.

In many ways, Hicks’ neighborhood in Pico Rivera, a suburb of 63,000 about 14 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is a microcosm of the battle.

Joe Alaniz, 47, who lives two houses away from Hicks’ home, said graffiti has long been a problem in the neighborhood. He said he had his own run-in with taggers after he moved in about six years ago. Taggers were spray-painting his back fence, and when Alaniz tried to stop one of them, the tagger threw a spray-paint can at him.

“Everybody’s tired of” the graffiti, Alaniz said. “I always thought of this: ‘Would they do this to their house?’ ”

Hicks was a big force in her neighborhood and helped foster a community in which neighbors watered one another’s lawns and took out one another’s trash.

Friends and family said she was incensed when she saw graffiti.

“I don’t feel my mom did anything wrong,” Wall said. “She should have a right to voice an opinion. . . . There’s nothing wrong with seeing somebody do something wrong and wanting to do something about it.”

Sheriff’s officials, however, urged residents to report tagging to police but not to do anything to provoke the vandals.

Detectives believe the suspects in Hicks’ slaying had gang ties. Cesar Lopez, 19, of Pico Rivera was being held without bail on murder charges. Jennifer Tafoya, 19, of Pico Rivera and a 16-year-old boy whose identity was withheld because he is a juvenile were arrested on probation violations. Sheriff’s detectives said they were also looking for two men in their late teens and were trying to find the car used in the shooting, described as a blue Lincoln Continental.

Authorities say they are seeing more violence associated with tagging because more taggers are associated with gangs. When tagging exploded in the late 1980s and early 1990s, much of it was the work of tagging crews, Sheriff’s Lt. Bob Rifkin said. Many of these crews were not directly linked to gangs and tended to be less violent.

But in recent years, Rifkin said, the world of graffiti has become more tied to gangs and increasingly violent.

“They are bringing guns to parties. They’re not just fighting with other well-established gangs; they are fighting with the new tagging gangs,” he said.

Deputy Chief Michel Moore, the LAPD’s top commander in the San Fernando Valley, said he could recall two violent incidents tied to tagging crews, including the shooting of a 12-year-old boy in North Hills and a fight in North Hollywood between rival vandal crews.

Some Pico Rivera neighbors worry that they could have easily been in Hicks’ position.

“It could have been my wife,” said Richard Morales, 60, who owns the wall that the teenagers were tagging. “My wife has gone out to confront taggers in the past, and it’s always been a concern of mine that something would happen, and now something has happened.”

Morales said the slaying of Hicks, who also has a son and five other grandchildren, has the neighborhood angry at her assailants and added: “It just tears at my heart -- somebody trying to do the right thing -- and it’s just frustrating.”

On Wednesday, neighbors, friends and family members dropped by the homes to console the family and share memories. A makeshift memorial was set up at the wall with dozens of votive candles, bouquets of flowers, photos of Hicks and notes with messages such as: “You will be missed.”

“I stayed up all night and kept waiting to see if my daughter’s car was there,” said Elena Quintero, 77, Hicks’ mother. “And she never came home,” she said, breaking into tears. “My son always said, ‘You don’t mess around with Maria.’ ”