At the Canoga Park Bowl, everyone knew James Shamp.
His job was to clean, but he did so much more. Bowlers described him as a comedian and their loyal cheerleader. He greeted regulars with a big handshake followed by a succession of jokes that would continue through their games.
"He was the black Chevy Chase," said Robert Battle, a member of the Equally Offensive bowling team. .
Three days before Christmas, Shamp was taking out some trash to the dumpsters behind the bowling alley when a car pulled up. According to police, a group of Latino gang members approached and shot Shamp, 48, in the chest. Friends heard the shots and ran outside, where they found Shamp lying face down. He died at a hospital.
Los Angeles police detectives and prosecutors allege the gang members targeted Shamp because he was African American. The three suspects were each charged last week with one count of murder and conspiracy to commit a crime because of race.
But nearly a month after the slaying, the bowling alley remains in mourning.
On Tuesday evening, when the neon lights came on outside the bowling alley, Mary Mannon bent down to light votive candles in Shamp's memory. Others later stopped at the site and said a few words.
"He was my bowling friend," said Russ Gothrick, 54, glancing at the memorial site. "It's such a shame, for his life and their lives. There was no reason for him to be killed or for those guys to be out shooting."
Last week, Gothrick, with permission from Shamp's family members, changed the name of his bowling team to "Shamp's Champs."
Shamp, a Louisiana native, served in the U.S. Army for four years and worked in aerospace before coming to the bowling alley about seven years ago.
There, he quickly became the heart of the place. He referred to most female bowlers as "mamas." Mannon said Shamp would greet her with a familiar refrain: "Mary had a little lamb."
When bowler Anthony Buckley's son was killed in a shooting, Shamp helped him cope with the loss. Bowler Rich Hodgkins recalls leaving his Pittsburgh Steelers towel behind after a game. Shamp not only kept it for him, but washed it and returned it to him the next day.
He helped the bowling alley's comedian performer, Jay Cramer, who uses a wheelchair, set up a ramp each night before he performed.
"I wouldn't have to ask him," Cramer said. "That's just the kind of guy he was."
Authorities have not disclosed a detailed motive for why the suspects -- Richard Bordelon, 21, Martin Sotelo, 23, and a 15-year-old juvenile -- targeted Shamp. LAPD sources, however, speaking on condition that they not be named because the case is ongoing, said the case was part of a larger series of incidents in which Latino gang members in the West Valley have threatened blacks and sprayed racist graffiti.
"Most shootings we have can be related to narcotics and gang-related," said Det. David Peteque.
"But this was a family man -- he was a father of two, a good husband. He was at work doing his job, and he was basically gunned down."
Police said the suspects are members of the Canoga Park Alabama gang, which has clashed with black gangs in the West Valley.
Shamp's slaying is one of several cases in recent years in which law enforcement officials have accused Latino gangs of killing blacks because of their race. Authorities have brought charges against gang members in Northeast L.A., and the Harbor Gateway and Florence-Firestone areas for attacking blacks, allegedly to drive them out of specific neighborhoods.
At the bowling alley, many say the place feels empty without Shamp. The bowlers play, but they say the cheers aren't as loud. Now, two security guards patrol inside and outside the building.
"Something is missing," Buckley said. "It's not warm anymore."
"I just want to hear him say 'mama' one last time," Mannon added. "I want to hear him say 'Mary had a little lamb.' "
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.