The congregation was singing and praying Sunday evening inside Iglesia Principe de Paz, a weathered storefront church on Beverly Boulevard, when a parishioner checking on the food being set up in the parking lot saw something suspicious.
A young woman was spraying graffiti on a church wall. When he asked her to stop, she knocked him to the ground. Just then, Andres Ordonez and another church member rushed outside to help.
As they arrived, a man emerged from a nearby car and opened fire, killing Ordonez and wounding the other parishioner.
Churchgoers poured into the street, kneeling next to the victims and praying in Spanish, witnesses said.
“For God’s sake, if people going to church aren’t protected, then who is?” asked a nearby business owner who bolted out of his store when he heard the gunfire and saw the dead man lying on the asphalt, surrounded by loudly grieving parishioners.
Residents said that gangs have long been a problem in the area and that recently gang members had threatened violence against residents who complain about or paint over graffiti.
The evangelical church, whose name means “Prince of Peace,” is made up largely of Guatemalan and Central American immigrants who live in the dense rows of apartments in the Westlake District. The church operates out of an old market with gated front windows. Coats of paint cover graffiti on the walls.
LAPD detectives are searching for the gunman and tagger but believe some witnesses are afraid to come forward out of concern about gang reprisals. Several witnesses talked to The Times only on the condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety.
“They were going to church. They didn’t do anything to deserve what happened,” LAPD homicide Det. Jeff Cortina said. “We need the public’s assistance. This wasn’t gangster-on-gangster. It could be anybody. It could be anybody’s kids.”
Ordonez, 25, who attended church regularly, was a cook and the father of a 1-year-old boy. One friend said Ordonez was a deacon and had been going to the church since he was 10.
“If you needed help, he would help you,” said the church’s handyman, Martin Delgado. He described Ordonez as humble, hardworking and accommodating.
“He was like the right hand of the pastor,” Delgado said. “From work to church, there was nothing else. To me, he was an extraordinary young man.”
Socorro Hernandez, 40, came to the church Monday evening, still in a state of disbelief that Ordonez was dead.
Hernandez knew the Ordonez family for years and said they were humble and religious. Ordonez’s father got up at 3 a.m. to collect cans around the neighborhood to support his family, she said.
The younger Ordonez, she added, wouldn’t walk by without offering a blessing.
“He was always talking about God. It was good morning, good evening and may God bless you,” she said, stifling tears.
Delgado added that Ordonez and the other church members were “not aggressive people at all. You can insult them and they won’t insult back. They’re very peaceful people.”
Amalia Corado, 70, said that the church was filled with the sounds of song and prayer at the time of the violence and that she didn’t hear the gunshots. But she saw the commotion and raced outside, praying over Ordonez’s mortally wounded body.
Residents said the area has crime problems but said they can’t believe the church was targeted. There have been five homicides reported this year by the LAPD in the Westlake District.
“No one thinks you’re going to shoot people in front of a church,” said one mother of four who asked that her name not be used. “You think someone getting robbed at this store or that store. But at a church? That’s so disrespectful. And just because someone said, ‘Stop writing on the wall.’ ”
Resident Danny Deschamp, 29, heard the gunfire Sunday night coming from the church.
“I’m sick and tired of this,” he said of the gang activity in the neighborhood.
Outraged city officials announced they will seek a $50,000 reward Monday asking for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the gunman and tagger.
“This is as bad as it gets,” said City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the area and said his office had been fielding calls from outraged residents and merchants all day. “To kill a servant of God, to kill a young father, takes a special kind of cowardice.”
The councilman, who is running for mayor, said the Police Department has assigned “considerable resources ... to finding these killers.”