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‘I don’t know why people do evil things,’ says grandma of 4-year-old boy shot to death in Highland

Daniel Munoz, 4, who was playing in front of his grandmother’s house, was shot and killed Wednesday night in the small San Bernardino County city of Highland.

The day was spent under the inland sun — running around the frontyard of his grandmother’s Highland home, splashing in the plastic wading pool. Daniel Munoz eventually went down for a nap, but when he woke, the 4-year-old rushed back outside to play once more, his arms clutching a stuffed bear he called Superman.

The blasts rang out in quick succession. Fireworks, his family thought, as they picked fruit and watered plants in the frontyard Wednesday evening.

Then the terror set in.

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Daniel lay face down next to an orange tree. Blood pooled beneath his body, onto the dusty sidewalk. His 5-year-old cousin would later describe Daniel’s fetal position. “He was like this,” Julio Cesar Munoz said Thursday as he folded his hands under his head and leaned over.

Daniel was taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.

San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies have offered few details about the shooting and have asked for the public’s help. They released a photo of a person of interest: an unidentified young man in a white tank top at a convenience store. They also are looking for a white 1990s, four-door Toyota Camry with black bumpers.

“Children are innocent, especially at the age of 4 — it’s tragic and senseless for a child to have to suffer from an act like that,” Deputy Adam Cervantes said. “I think it gives us a sense of urgency to want to bring who’s responsible to justice.”

San Bernardino County has seen about 60 homicides so far this year, according to the coroner’s office.

Family members said they think the shooting may be related to a feud between a group that frequently gathers across the street from the home and whoever was in a car that quickly sped away after the shots were fired.

At the home on McKinley Avenue, a trail of blood led to the back of the property, marking the path Daniel’s aunt took in a panic as she held her nephew.

Daniel, who lived with his family in Rialto, had wanted to go to Knott’s Berry Farm that day with an older sibling and cousins, who were being chaperoned by his mother, Yuliana Morales, but there wasn’t enough room in the van. Morales made a promise: Next time it would be his turn.

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Now his mother can’t shake the guilt. “It’s my fault for leaving him here,” Morales said.

But Daniel’s grandmother said she feels her own burden of blame.

Leaning against her front door for support, Ramona Perez struggled to speak about the loss of the boy with the brown eyes and toothy smile. She said she will never make sense of what happened — her grandson, she said, only wanted to play.

“I don’t know why people do evil things like this,” she said.

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A small city of about 54,000 in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, Highland sees its share
of violence, said neighbors who stopped by Thursday to offer comfort to the family.

In October, a man who held hostage a woman and two children was fatally shot by deputies. The woman, who was found with a gunshot wound, later died. Six months earlier, a Highland couple had been found slain inside their home.

In an attempt to address increasing violent crime in the region, authorities last year arrested 102 individuals in Highland during an operation called SMASH — San Bernardino Movement Against Street Hoodlums.

The purpose of the sweep — which included suspects for burglary, vehicle theft, sex registrant violations, narcotics sales and weapons charges — was to target and identify gang members within the city, according to a San Bernardino County sheriff’s statement.

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In December, authorities in Highland and San Bernardino arrested 33 known members of the Crips and Bloods in their communities.

“There is a problem and the problem is not being solved,” said Edgar Smith, who lost two sons — ages 18 and 31 — to gun violence within the last year. One was killed in Highland, the other in San Bernardino.

Smith’s wife, Denise, said Daniel’s death raised the issue of every parent’s fundamental right:

“Your children should be able to come out in their yard and play freely without you being worried about them being hurt or shot.”

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

For more Inland Empire news, follow @palomaesquivel.

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