In the concrete courtyard that had hosted family barbecues and children’s birthday parties with piñatas and cake, the mother of Juan Jose Barajas laid out red roses in front of a shrine to her son.
As they have every evening since Saturday, friends and neighbors gathered to say the rosary and light candles for Barajas, a 41-year-old father of four who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting, an apparently innocent bystander.
Monday was the third night of vigil and the crowd had swelled to about 100 in anticipation of a full Catholic Mass on the patio behind Barajas’ apartment building on Witmer Street in L.A.'s Westlake district.
As they waited for the priest to arrive, Barajas’ aunt, Maria Elena Barajas, 70, led the crowd in the Hail Mary: “Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.”
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
The priest, Father Jose Sanchez de Jesus, had grown up in the same town as Barajas’ father in Michoacan, Mexico, and was granted permission to hold the unusual outdoor service as a favor to the family.
Sitting in the front row of white folding chairs, Barajas’ wife, Maricruz, and two eldest children — Juan Jose III, 14, and Fatima, 17 — cried and clung to each other as De Jesus led the crowd in prayers and asked family members to share their thoughts.
The youngest child, 2-year-old Hailey, sat in Maricruz’s lap while 5-year-old Natalie smiled and danced in front of a news photographer’s camera, unaware of the reason for the assembly. The family had not broken the news to the two girls that their father had been shot and killed eight days before Christmas.
Barajas was a naturalized U.S. citizen without a criminal record, and police do not believe he had gang ties. His father, a watch repairman, brought Barajas and his brother to Los Angeles as teenagers. The family had lived in the same neighborhood ever since. Barajas and his family lived on the same block as his parents. His brother, Jorge, a butcher, was one block over.
Barajas worked as a cashier in the cafeteria of an insurance company office on Wilshire Boulevard, while Maricruz stayed home with the children. He was a doting father who took his son to soccer practice every weekend and met his daughter after football games, where she performed with her school drill team, so she wouldn’t have to walk home alone.
On the night of the shooting, Barajas played a game of dominoes with his father. They made plans to go to Mass together in the morning.
After returning home, he sat on the front steps talking with a neighbor. About 12:15 a.m., a gold-colored sedan drove by and someone opened fire. Bullets passed through the wrought iron fence surrounding the building, hitting Barajas in the chest. He died soon after at the hospital.
His wife and children were inside sleeping when they heard the commotion as neighbors flocked to the street. Fatima, an honor student at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex nearby, said she was awakened by her mother crying. Her grandmother, Juan’s mother, Josefina Vega, 66, was outside screaming, “Mi hijo!”
“Still I close my eyes and just think that I’m dreaming, because I can’t believe this happened,” Fatima said.
Police think gang members were responsible for the killing but said it was unclear why they shot Barajas.
Neither he nor his neighbor were believed to be affiliated with a gang, said Det. Chris Linscomb of the LAPD’s Rampart station.
Police don’t have many leads, but Linscomb believes there probably were witnesses.
“I think there were probably a lot of people out even at that hour, but no one has been willing to come forward,” he said.
It isn’t the first time that a beloved local figure has died in a seemingly random act of violence on Witmer Street. In 2009, a local tamale seller, Cosme Gonzalez, was gunned down in a possible robbery attempt or perhaps because he refused to pay protection money to the Rockwood gang, which is active in the area.
Police named Rockwood member Werner Francisco as the suspect, and the story aired on television’s “America’s Most Wanted,” but Francisco remains a fugitive.
The Barajas family is hoping that witnesses will again overcome fear of retaliation and help lead police to a suspect.
In the meantime, Barajas’ brother Jorge will try to keep Christmas alive — at least for the children.
“For us, there won’t be nothing to celebrate, but we’re just trying to make the little girls happy,” he said.
Soon after Christmas, they will hold the funeral. Then the family will fly to Mexico to bury Barajas in Cojumatlan, the town where his father was born.
Police asked that anyone with information about the slaying call Rampart Homicide Det. Motto at (213) 484-3641 or Det. Linscomb at (213) 484-3642.