Customers mourn slain Lynwood merchant

Customers mourn slain Lynwood merchant
Rudy Simmons of Palmdale makes the sign of the cross after lighting a candle at a memorial for Esperanza Serrano at Century Check Cashing in Lynwood. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
She could have quit the business 20 years ago when her husband passed away, closed down the storefront when her children offered to care for her. Or Esperanza Serrano could have quietly slipped into retirement when she turned 62.

But at 66 years old, she loved running her check-cashing business. From behind her glass window along the 3000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Lynwood, she greeted a loyal clientele that she built over three decades.

Buenos dias, Doña Esperanza! customers called out, and she cashed their checks, sometimes for free. She lent them money and, now and then, helped them find work.

As customers pulled up in front of Century Check Cashing on Thursday morning they were shocked and saddened to find her window shut, her office closed.

Inside, homicide detectives combed for clues in the shooting death Wednesday of Serrano, a grandmother of eight.

Many customers already knew of her death and struggled Thursday to understand how someone could hurt her. Others were shocked when they saw pink roses and candles spread across the floor in Serrano's memory.

Sheriff's investigators believe Serrano was shot during a robbery just after she opened her shop Wednesday morning. But Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials, citing the continuing investigation, did not release further details.

"We've been working very hard all day to investigate the circumstances of the case," said Sgt. Edward Godfrey.

Serrano had been robbed three times in the last year, but she was not intimidated, said her daughter Elizabeth Tejada, 41. The next morning, she said, her mother would take her place behind the window once more.

"It's hard for us to understand," said Tejada. "He could have pushed her, slapped her, duct-taped her to a chair, and she wouldn't have moved. Why did he have to kill her? Why? Why?"

The native of the Mexican state of Jalisco inspired others with her work ethic and strength, relatives said. She was a bargain hunter who loved trolling the aisles of the 99 Cents Only Store for knickknacks. On weekends, she treated any one of her eight grandchildren, all boys, to her favorite buffet.

"When her husband died, she didn't give up," said Serrano's uncle Elias Romero, 75, who lives a block from the check-cashing business. "She kept fighting and working hard for her children."

Although her three daughters and son regularly urged her to stop working so she could enjoy time with her sisters in Guadalajara, Serrano continued to nurture the business she and her husband bought in 1980. The tiny brown stucco building next to a towing yard is hardly noticeable along the commercial stretch dotted with liquor stores.

But Serrano took pride in her shop. She picked up litter, watered the grass and swept the concrete.

When nearby residents strolled by, she paused between episodes of her favorite Spanish-language television shows to chat with them and pet their dogs. She told her children she would not be scared away by threats.

"She would say, 'What do you want me to do? What will Don Pancho do without me?' " Tejada said.

A day after the yellow crime-scene tape came down, Miguel Valencia, 37, stood outside Serrano's business and wiped tears from his cheeks.

For 15 years, the tiny woman with friendly eyes cashed his checks. She made each simple transaction personal with her warm attitude, Valencia said.

Once, when he told her he would not see her as often anymore because he had lost his job, she encouraged him and helped him find work, he said.

"Just yesterday I saw her crossing the street and smiled," he said.