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California

A father’s 18-year crusade for justice

In Los Angeles, not all murder investigations are created equal.

Sometimes a killing shocks our collective conscience so much that the media swarm and politicians line up for press conferences and the police assign dozens of officers to the case until it’s solved.

The 1993 killing of Veronica Ultreras, 22, and her 3-year-old daughter Cynthia in their Highland Park home was not one of those crimes. Media attention was fleeting, and the police investigation yielded no suspects. And this makes Ultreras’ father, a 66-year-old plumber named Luis Navarro, very angry.

“In my case, there are just two detectives, working part-time,” Navarro told me. He calls them every week and visits them at Los Angeles police headquarters. “I try to be there at 6 a.m., so that I’m waiting for them when they get in.” He’s been doing this for 18 years now.

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Navarro’s question to the detectives is always the same: “Do you have any news for me?”

“I share with him as much as I can,” said Det. Ray Morales. “I’m definitely sensitive to his frustrations.”

Meanwhile, Navarro wages his one-man campaign — harassing assorted city and police officials, often showing up at their offices unannounced, demanding that they keep the investigation going.

“I’m going to be a rock in their shoe for as long as I’m alive, or until the case is resolved,” he told me.

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The unanswered questions, and the feeling of impotence before the great machinery of criminal justice, have haunted Navarro since the morning of Jan. 2, 1993.

One of his daughter’s neighbors called to tell him that her home was on fire. Navarro drove from his home in El Sereno and found Veronica being tended by paramedics on the path in front of her Highland Park duplex.

At first, officials said Veronica and Cynthia had been the victims of a fire triggered by a Christmas tree. But when Navarro later entered the home, “I could tell right away that they’d been murdered,” he said.

Only a small portion of the living room had been burned, he said. In the back of the home, where Cynthia had been found in a bathtub, there had been no fire at all. Mother and daughter should have been able to escape.

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Soon afterward the Fire Department confirmed that it was arson. And police announced that Veronica and Cynthia had been strangled.

Navarro was soon consumed by the notion that people in power didn’t care. He upended his life to try to force them to do more. He canvassed the Highland Park neighborhood in search of witnesses. He pressured the City Council to increase the reward offered in the case.

“He’s been a part of this office for many years,” said Tony Perez, communications director for City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the neighborhood where the killings took place. Perez has been meeting with Navarro for 17 years.

Navarro also goes to meetings of the Police Commission. He’s confronted several LAPD chiefs in public, going back to Willie Williams.

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His obsession eventually became so great that his wife left and divorced him, he said. His plumbing business collapsed. These losses he appears willing to endure.

“I made two promises to my daughter and granddaughter,” Navarro told me. “That there would always be fresh flowers on their graves. And that I would not stop until their killer or killers were in jail.”

But as the years go by, he is reminded again and again of how small in the scheme of things the Ultreras case is.

A year and a half after the killings, Navarro said, he watched on TV as police “swarmed like ants” over the homes of O.J. Simpson and his murdered wife.

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Then came the outrage over the killing of Stephanie Kuhen, a 3-year-old shot to death by gang members in nearby Cypress Park in 1995. “Even the president [Bill Clinton] came out and spoke about it,” Navarro said bitterly.

The 1997 killing of Ennis Cosby, son of Bill Cosby, followed, and then the 2003 murder of Yetunde Price, the sister of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, and finally an infamous hit-and-run killing near USC. In all those cases, suspects were arrested.

Navarro believes that his family deserves the same sense of closure — and that he’s going to have to keep on fighting to get it. “I never let anyone know what I’m going to do next,” he said.

Once he undertook a hunger strike at City Hall, sleeping on nearby streets for days. In 2006, he carried a huge cross from his home to Olvera Street, where he hoped to confront Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at an event — he’d been trying, without success, to meet with Villaraigosa for a year.

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He was sitting on the curb with a leg cramp when an SUV pulled up. “The mayor stepped out,” he told me. “We talked for 20 minutes.”

All of this effort has netted Navarro one important achievement. The reward offered by the city of L.A. for information on Veronica and Cynthia’s killings now stands at $75,000, with $25,000 more offered by the county.

In fact, thanks to Navarro’s pressure, the maximum reward the city can offer in any homicide has tripled.

But his frustrations reached new levels in recent weeks, as city leaders mobilized in response to the beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow at Dodger Stadium. Navarro doesn’t express any anger with those demanding justice for Stow. But when an arrest was announced last month, he was stunned by the details reported in The Times: 20 detectives had worked on the investigation, some 6,000 hours in all.

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“I took the bus to City Hall that day because I was so angry I couldn’t drive,” he told me.

He returned to the office of Councilman Reyes. He was seeking to have the reward in his daughter’s and granddaughter’s case renewed — a new council motion is required every six months. But it also seemed he just wanted someone to listen.

“He’s clearly suffering,” Perez told me.

Luis Navarro would like you to contact the LAPD at 877-LAPD-247 if you know anything about the deaths of Veronica and Cynthia.

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And I would like you to know that his lonely crusade has helped the families of all homicide victims in the city. His story is a reminder that, more often than not, it takes a lot of suffering and struggle to win justice.

hector.tobar@latimes.com


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