The roots of the tidy house on Devlin Avenue stretch into the roots of the metropolis itself.
Roughly a century ago, five sisters from the central highlands of Mexico walked across the border, and a few soon settled in a rural stretch of Los Angeles County striped with strawberry fields and dirt roads.
Over the years, they built what amounted to an immigrants’ empire — three houses on one block of what would become the city of Hawaiian Gardens, home to as many as 25 relatives at a time. Life was rich; they were not. There were birthday fiestas where the singing lasted into the wee hours, and a legendary holiday tamale party that had grown so big they started with 75 pounds of masa.
Before dawn Thursday, the family’s life was shattered, supplanted by a scene of terror — a gunman with an AK-47 who tried to set fire to one of the houses. Relatives dove out of windows to escape and huddled together on the roof, cradling an infant whose mother was killed.
Two people died immediately: Serena Tarin, 23, the infant’s mother; and her brother Alfredo Tarin Jr., 19, a student at Cerritos College who liked to play video games and had a crush on Reese Witherspoon. On Thursday afternoon, after doctors performed two surgeries in an attempt to save his life, their father, Alfredo Tarin Sr., a 53-year-old construction worker, died.
Dozens of relatives gathered in a small chapel at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center to await news of his fate. When word came that he had died, one of his sisters, Adelina, began pounding a wooden pew, shouting: “Porque? Porque me lo llevastes?” “Why? Why did you take him from me?”
Alfredo Sr.'s wife, Lucianna “Luci” Tarin, was in stable condition after being shot twice.
Authorities identified the gunman as Joseph Mercado, 26, Serena’s ex-boyfriend and, apparently, the father of her 9-month-old son, Jacob. Mercado was arrested on suspicion of murder and was expected to survive after being shot by a sheriff’s deputy — a shot that ended the rampage and, authorities said, probably saved the lives of family members who were still inside the house or on the roof.
According to authorities and relatives, Mercado had been engaged in a bitter battle with Luci Tarin, whom he accused of trying to block him from raising his son. But relatives of the victims, who filled all 10 pews in the hospital chapel Thursday, struggled to comprehend what had happened.
“Nobody knows what made him do this,” said Kitty Rivera, 46, Serena’s aunt. Hector Guizar, a cousin, said that perhaps Mercado “didn’t have a heart.”
Over the years, the complexion of Hawaiian Gardens has changed markedly; the fields long ago gave way to strip malls and gang graffiti, to a symphony of barking dogs and police helicopters. One of the family’s three homes was torn down, and some relatives drifted away to Arizona or San Bernardino.
Alfredo Tarin Sr. and Luci, whose grandmother was one of the original five sisters from Mexico, didn’t budge.
Their peach-colored home, framed by twin palm trees, was the only two-story house on the block. Luci had been raised there, and Alfredo had added the second story himself — with the help of a relative who lived across the street and worked as an electrician. They raised three children there, Alfredo dreaming of buying a small fishing boat after he retired. The family, said Elizabeth Macias, 33, a cousin, “was like ' The Brady Bunch’ ” TV show.
People often asked them why they didn’t leave the town northeast of Long Beach. Their answer was always the same and always circular: Because this is where we live.
Serena was their middle child. She was quiet and reserved, but “giggly” too, one relative said. She was considering a career in construction, like her father. She and Mercado, a Montebello resident, started dating about two years ago. Trouble followed quickly.
She lost her job after she got pregnant, according to court documents; she had been driving a delivery truck for a uniform and restaurant-supply firm, and was no longer able to drive because of her medication. She and Mercado broke up months after the baby was born. She told relatives that he had grown angry and jealous, even threatening to harm her if she became involved with another man.
At various times, Mercado had been accused of disturbing the peace, possessing a graffiti tool, stealing a car and being under the influence of narcotics, but most of the charges were either dismissed or prosecutors declined to bring the cases to court, records show. Still, neighbors in Montebello said he appeared to be a good father; they said Serena sometimes dropped off the baby at his apartment for a few days at a time.
Mercado and Luci Tarin soon developed a deep animosity toward one another. The source of their tension is unclear, though relatives said that Mercado and Serena were once engaged to be married — and that Serena’s mother did not approve.
Mercado, according to court papers, suspected that Luci “threatens to take my son from me.” He asked a judge to force Luci to not impede his visitation. The court declined to issue a temporary restraining order. Luci and Serena tried to have Mercado served with restraining orders. Those attempts also failed in court, relatives said.
In recent weeks, Serena started dating someone new — and Mercado, relatives said, was incensed. According to law enforcement officials, at 4 a.m. Thursday he arrived at the Tarins’ house with a semiautomatic rifle and a gallon of gasoline.
Officials said he shot his way through a side door to the house and first encountered Alfredo Sr., who may have gotten out of bed when he heard the commotion. Alfredo was shot in the stomach. Near the kitchen, the gunman encountered Luci; she appears to have raised her right arm to shield herself and was shot in the shoulder and the right hand.
The gunman headed upstairs. Near the door to Serena’s bedroom, it appears he was confronted by Alfredo Jr., who was shot and killed instantly. Mercado, officials said, went into Serena’s bedroom and shot her in the head.
Two sheriff’s deputies happened to be on patrol nearby when the first 911 call came in — a burglary, dispatchers said in the confusion, followed quickly by a report that shots had been fired. By then, most neighbors were awake; several said they were lying on the floor or hiding, convinced that the gunman was going house to house.
Deputies confronted Mercado outside. By that point he had already retrieved the gasoline, officials said, and had tried to set the house on fire. At the front gate of the house, deputies ordered Mercado to drop his weapon. When the gunman turned with the weapon in his hands, one of the deputies fired at him twice, Sheriff’s Lt. Don Slawson said. One bullet grazed Mercado’s head.
“He did what he had to do to prevent potential loss of life,” Undersheriff Larry L. Waldie said. “It was very clear what [Mercado] wanted to do.”
Guizar, one of the cousins, said that dozens of relatives gathered three weeks ago for a typically festive family birthday party for one of his granddaughters.
Guizar described the shooting as an end — not just of three lives, but of the family’s voyage.
“We came to this country to fight for a better life and to form our families,” he said. “I think we accomplished that.” As for what happens now, he said: “That’s in God’s hands.”
Times staff writers Anna Gorman, Richard Winton and Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.