The case against two gang members who allegedly fired the shots that killed a 9-year-old Angelino Heights girl was stymied because a key witness changed his story and the police have been unable to recover the weapons involved, according to district attorney’s documents.
The revelations come amid anger in the neighborhood and beyond over the decision by prosecutors and police to release Cesar Zamora and Steven Castanon without charging them after they were arrested in the shooting death of Charupha Wongwisetsiri.
Charupha died six days after a stray bullet went through a window and hit her in the head Dec. 20 as she stood with her mother washing dishes in the kitchen.
The district attorney’s report says that even if evidence could show that Zamora or Castanon fired the fatal shot, they would raise a claim of self-defense because witnesses saw another man pull a gun on them.
Documents in the case show that both the LAPD and prosecutors had few hard facts to go on. An evaluation report prepared by the prosecutors in the case and dated Dec. 27 says that determining exactly what happened that night was difficult because the key witness at first told police in an unrecorded interview that he saw Zamora fire a gun. But in two subsequent interviews, he “claimed he never said he saw Cesar Zamora shoot.”
Additionally, prosecutors said investigators have yet to recover the guns used, making it difficult to charge the men even with lesser crimes such as weapons violations.
“This is a tragic case. We couldn’t file anything yet, but it is not a closed case,” said district attorney’s spokeswoman Jane Robison.
“But nobody put the guns in their hands,” she said. “They didn’t admit to the guns in their hands. If additional witnesses come forward, we will take a look at the new evidence and reconsider the case.”
Police Lt. Paul Vernon said detectives would like to seek charges against the man who tried to shoot Zamora and Castanon, arguing that he is liable for the child’s murder.
Police Chief William J. Bratton agreed with prosecutors that the case was a difficult one.
“Quite frankly it is an uphill case for us,” he said.
“It is somewhat frustrating that we often have enough information to make an initial arrest but a lack of witnesses impedes the ability to make a case. We will keep at it.
“It is important because of the nature of the case. A loss of life in a home is so hard to wrap your hands around,” he said.
Vernon said Zamora and Castanon can expect to be under law enforcement’s watchful eye. “They can rest assured that they are high on the radar of the local gang officers,” he said.