When word swept through Bell Gardens that Mayor Daniel Crespo had been shot, some in the area immediately assumed it was politically motivated.
Crespo had been a target of threats in the southeast Los Angeles County city.
An owner of a towing company was jailed several years ago for threatening Crespo over a city contract. Last year, the city canceled a public meeting when a man posted a Facebook photo showing himself with an assault rifle — and another photo of a dead rat on top of a Crespo campaign sign.
On Wednesday, a very different narrative emerged about Crespo’s death: sheriff’s officials say it was his wife who fatally shot him during a confrontation in the master bedroom of their Bell Gardens condominium.
Levette Crespo, 43, was arguing with her husband when their 19-year-old son intervened, sheriff’s officials said. The mayor punched the teen in the face, prompting his wife to grab Crespo’s handgun and shoot him three times in the upper body, said sheriff’s Lt. Steve Jauch, who is overseeing the investigation.
That account of Tuesday’s shooting, investigators said, was based on interviews with the mayor’s wife and son. Jauch said detectives were working to establish whether forensic evidence matched what the pair told them.
Daniel Crespo Jr. and his mother had visible facial injuries that required medical treatment, sheriff’s officials said. Law enforcement sources said that when the mayor’s son was questioned by investigators, he backed up his mother’s claims that she shot Crespo to save the teen.
The pair were released after questioning. Investigators said they would wait for the district attorney’s office to determine whether charges were warranted.
Levette’s attorney, Eber Bayona, said his client acted reasonably and he was confident she would not be charged. “Domestic violence and battered woman’s syndrome is at the center of this case,” he said.
The shooting comes after more than a decade of tumult at city halls across southeast Los Angeles County, which is known for its rough-and-tumble politics. Cities in the working-class industrial region south of downtown L.A. have endured a series of corruption scandals, most notably in Bell, where the city manager and several council members were convicted.
Another reason some mistakenly assumed Crespo was targeted over politics was because of a previous instance of violence in the neighboring city of South Gate. In 1999, the mayor, Henry Gonzalez, was shot in the head after he returned home from a City Council meeting. The attack remains unsolved.
Some local politicians said they were shocked that Crespo’s wife would be involved in his death.
“My first thought was someone shot him because of issues in the city. I thought about the threats,” said Carmen Avalos, the city clerk in South Gate who was friends with Crespo for more than a decade. “Then when I heard there was speculation his wife shot him, I thought, ‘That can’t be.’”
Sheriff’s officials said there were no prior law enforcement calls to the family’s Gage Avenue condo. Neighbors said they hadn’t noticed any sort of problems between the couple.
Gleibys Villegas was at her mother’s condo near the Crespos’ home Tuesday afternoon when she heard several shots. She dropped to the ground with her son.
Soon after, she said, Daniel Crespo Jr. emerged from his family’s condo and asked Villegas to call 911. The teenager was crying.
“He was devastated,” she said.
The Crespos were high school sweethearts who married as teenagers and moved to Bell Gardens in 1987, according to the city’s website. He became involved in community affairs and was appointed to the city’s planning commission in 1999. Two years later, he was elected to the City Council.
Almost immediately, he found himself caught up in a political battle between competing groups in the city. A Bell Gardens citizens group targeted him and two other council members in a voter recall campaign, criticizing them for resisting efforts to oust a city manager facing corruption charges.
Crespo also worked as a county probation officer for more than two decades, most recently working in a unit that prepared recommendations for court.
Avalos said she became friends with Crespo 13 years ago, when he reached out to her at a time when South Gate was roiled by corruption and she and others were the subjects of threats.
Avalos described the mayor as a “happy guy” who loved singing karaoke, and his wife as a “lovely, wonderful woman.” The couple had two children. She said Crespo often stood out as a political loner on the Bell Gardens council, frequently voting in the minority.
Nestor Valencia, mayor of neighboring Bell, described the 45-year-old as a “staunch and diligent advocate” of his constituents in the blue-collar community.
“He fought for what he believed in,” Valencia said. “There was a brash sense to him and maybe he came off as rude and callous, but that won him a lot of points within the community.”
Flags were lowered to half-staff Wednesday at Bell Gardens City Hall.
“We had our political differences, but we were always able to move forward,” said Bell Gardens Councilwoman Jennifer Rodriguez. “I’m mourning for his loss. I’m mourning for the loss that the family has suffered.”
Times staff writers Hector Becerra and Angel Jennings contributed to this report.