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Pomona hit by a new wave of killing

Parents, left, of a shooting victim talk to a Pomona police investigator near the crime scene in the 300 block of Orchid Lane.
(Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)

At 2:45 a.m. on a Sunday earlier this month, residents awoke to screaming.

“Wait! Wait! Wait!” Then the gunshots were fired: pop pop pop.

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Screeching tires trailed off into the distance as 29-year-old Angel Bravo became Pomona’s 19th homicide victim in 2013. So far all the victims have died of gunshot wounds.

Bravo’s killing on a street lined by apartments filled with young families was the latest in a string of shootings that has frightened the neighborhood.

“It’s been OK, but suddenly now, Pomona’s getting hot again,” said one resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “I don’t let my kids come out. You don’t know what’s going to happen on the corner.”

Pomona has seen a sharp increase in homicides in the last two years — reversing years of declines in a city that was once notorious for its murder rate and gang wars. The 19 killings so far this year compare to 17 for all of 2012 and 11 for all of 2011. By contrast, homicides are down this year in Los Angeles. The number of homicides in areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which hit a 50-year low in 2012, are up slightly this year.

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Homicides in Pomona peaked in the 1990s, when 34 people were killed in one year. Although the current figure is lower, the violence has the city of 150,000 on edge and searching for solutions.

“There are so many factors,” Pomona Police Lt. Eddie Vazquez said. “We’re seeing a mix of everything. Personal, drug-related, some are straight gang-related.”

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Bravo’s killing capped a violent night in Pomona: Three people were killed and two were wounded in four shootings over six hours.

The first to die during that weekend was Jose Cerda, 44, who was gunned down on his bicycle about 9:30 p.m. Aug. 10. Two hours later and a few blocks away, Ignacio Isaias Garcia Lopez, 24, was killed and a teenager was wounded in an alley off Orchid Lane, a one-way street that cuts through rows of apartments lined with iron-rod gates and barred windows.

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In April, two boys — ages 13 and 17 — were fatally shot in the same location.

About 2 a.m. Aug. 11, police rushed into the city’s Valwood community, also known as Sin Town for a local gang, where they found a 29-year-old man wounded by gunfire.

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The shootings are proving difficult for detectives because there is limited physical evidence, officials say.

“Unfortunately, this year we don’t have a lot of cooperation,” Vazquez said. “We’re up to 19. We have very few leads, very few witnesses who have come forward. The ones we do have are very reluctant because of fear of intimidation or retaliation.”

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Pomona, a predominantly Latino city on the eastern edge of the San Gabriel Valley, takes pride in improvements the city has made in the last decade, including transformation of its historic downtown into an arts district. But Pomona has several entrenched street gangs that continue to operate despite numerous crackdowns. In 2004, a California Highway Patrol officer was killed by a teenager trying to impress the 12th Street gang.

Pomona has averaged about 20 killings annually in recent years — above the state average. There are about 5 homicides per 100,000 people in California, according to the FBI’s 2011 Uniform Crime Report, the most recent completed data available.

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In Valwood, a neighborhood of about half a dozens streets and cul-de-sacs in northwest Pomona, crime seems random and unavoidable for residents. The area is busy with students walking and parents dropping off their children at the local high school. But after the morning rush, Valwood’s streets are empty.

Elvia Rodriguez, who has four daughters and four foster children, moved into the neighborhood five years ago with her husband.

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“You know, violence is everywhere,” she said, walking home one morning, her 5-year-old daughter trailing on a bicycle with ribbons and training wheels. “Maybe we’re getting used to it. That’s not good.”

As she walked to school on a recent morning, Aimee Carillo, 16, said the cynicism that comes with routine crime is hard to escape.

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“It just feels hopeless,” the Ganesha High School student said. “It’s always been pretty violent. People get into fights. You see people doing drugs.”

Hours after Aimee got to school, police swarmed her neighborhood when there was another shooting. Two suspected gang members were arrested. It’s unclear if the incident was related to the previous shooting, police said.

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Resident Bennie Pettigrew, 36, said this summer reminds him of the 1990s, when the city was averaging about 25 killings a year. Between 1995 and 1997, 85 people were killed, according to FBI statistics.

Pettigrew, who said he served eight years for drugs and currency trafficking, said he used to be one of those who stood on a street corner looking for trouble.

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“I’d be on Phillips and Palomares and they’d roll up and say ‘Where you from?’ and I’d pull mine out and shoot,” the 36-year-old father of four said.

Now, Pettigrew said, “it’s just dudes trying to make a name for themselves. It’s like they are trying to get back to the way it used to be.”

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Maria Caldera moved her four children to Pomona last August from East L.A., where she said the Maravilla gang was a looming presence.

“I was born and raised there. I was used to it,” she said just a few steps from the Orchid Lane alley where three people have been killed this year. “I thought moving out of the neighborhood and coming here, we thought it would be better.”

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Instead, after the shootings in April, Caldera said, her neighbors gave her a simple explanation: “Welcome to Pomona.”

“It’s unfortunate that weekends like this put such a negative spotlight on the community,” Vazquez said. “It’s a good town. Unfortunately, you know, the economy has not been kind.”

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As crime has increased, Pomona police have moved more officers to the gang detail, which now works every day instead of just when there are gang crimes to investigate. Pomona is also heading a task force that includes detectives from Covina, Claremont, La Verne, Baldwin Park and Azusa that oversees parolees released under the state’s prison realignment plan.

Last week, police performed a probation compliance check at several locations simultaneously. The sweep turned up six weapons, two smoke grenades and ammunition, police said.

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“This isn’t something that’s going to change this weekend or this month, it’s going to be an ongoing commitment,” Vazquez said. “One or two years, we’ll have some spikes, but in the longer term, its going down, there’s no doubt about it. The trick is to reduce the years” where there are spikes.

joseph.serna@latimes.com


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