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Compton residents, city leaders grieve after 3 men found shot to death in neighborhood park

Three men who were found shot to death in a shed in a Compton park appear to have been squatters, sheriff’s homicide detectives said Wednesday.

Luz Lara and her family frequently complained to city officials about the graffiti marring the wall surrounding their Compton home.

Her son, Juan Lara, would often paint over the tagging, which she said got little attention from city officials, who focused their efforts to remove graffiti from the nearby park instead.

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Lara stood in front of her house sobbing Wednesday, because Juan, 22, is believed to be one of three victims of a gruesome shooting that occurred late Tuesday in the park.

"I don't know what to say," she cried. Lara said her son's identity was confirmed by detectives. "My son was here last night and he went to the park where his friends were and I don't know what happened to be honest. I'm not sure but the gangs in this area had something to do with it."

Authorities said the bodies of three men who ay were shot to death were found inside a small utility room connected to two bathrooms at the park sometime before 11 p.m. Tuesday.

At least one of the men appeared to be living in the room where they were found, investigators said. Bullet casings littered the floor along with clothing and other personal belongings.

Esther Bernal stood in her front yard Wednesday morning, eying the park down the street surrounded by yellow crime scene tape and crowded with Los Angeles County Sheriff's investigators.

"Terrible," said the 72-year-old Compton resident. "It's terrible. "It used to be a nice park."

The park is part of Richland Farms, a 10-square-block, semi-rural community  in Compton where residents own 1- or 2-acre properties and keep animals like chickens and goats. The neighborhood stood out for its "inordinate amount of graffiti," said Sgt. Fred Cook.

The Lara family said they kept calling the city to complain about the graffiti, but officials would only show up to clean up the spray painted areas at the park.  Two months ago, someone shot their truck parked out front. Then someone broke the windows on Juan Lara's car.

Sgt. Jamie Arakawa said residents can report graffiti to the city, which sends out clean-up crews to remove or paint over it, usually within a day.

But when residents don't call in, the tagging is often left untouched.

"We're not going to be driving around the parks or the areas looking for graffiti, my deputies are out there, they're handling calls left and right, there's no break in between for them," Arakawa said.

Lara said her son had gone outside with her the previous day when she took out the family dog. He was smoking a cigarette when she heard him say that his friend, who was living at the park, was calling him.

Later that evening she said deputies knocked on her door informing her that they were going to close off the street. She immediately ran to her son's room and saw that he wasn't there.

"I was so distraught," she said. "It didn't occur to me to call him on his phone."

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According to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Steven Katz, deputies haven't faced issues with transients at the park and they can't say how long the shed may have been used as a shelter. A lock to the room had been cut off.

"There was no preceding call of gunfire or any other sort of a disturbance that would have led deputies to the park," Katz said.

As investigators combed the scene Wednesday, a woman ran toward the park crying, hoping to find out if one of the victims was her boyfriend. She told the deputies that she had just seen a video online of the woman who discovered the bodies and mentioned the name of one of the victims.

"I just heard 'Andrew' and stopped watching," she told a deputy.

"He's my boyfriend," she said. "He has a tattoo of my name on his arm."

The deputy listened.

"He's always here, always in that little shed. He sleeps there sometimes," she said, crying.

The woman left but returned later with Laura Casarez, 49, who wanted to find out if her nephew was among the victims.

Luz Lara pointed to a bicycle of one of her son's friends. The woman who was looking for her boyfriend broke down.

"That's his bike," she said before kneeling and crying.

Casarez, wiping tears form her face, placed her hand over the woman's head.

"I can't believe it. I don't want to believe it," Casarez said.

Casarez's nephew had been living with her but she hadn't seen him for the past few days, she said.

In a statement Wednesday morning, Compton Mayor Aja Brown grieved for the victims.

"This is a very sad moment for the city of Compton and our hearts go out to their families. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the young men killed," the statement said. "As Compton prepares to celebrate the spirit of being thankful as a community, the deaths of these three young men will be on all of our minds. Understandably, the impact and shock of this kind of violence adds to the anxiety and frustration of Compton residents."

"We continually need the support of the entire community to help apprehend those responsible and hold them accountable for their actions," the statement continued. "The only way to keep crime down in the community is for everyone to work together."

Anyone with information about the slayings is asked to contact the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Homicide Bureau at (323) 890-5500. Coroner's officials have still not confirmed the identity of any of the victims. There have been no arrests.

Staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

5 p.m.: This article was updated with new details about the crime and comments from residents.11 a.m.: This article was updated with reactions from neighbors and to remove reference to the race of the victims.

8:15 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the crime scene.

7:10 a.m.: This story was updated with more details about the shooting.

6:40 a.m.: This article was updated with details about where the victims were found.

This article was originally published at 2:05 a.m.

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