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LAPD serves warrants in connection with Montecito Heights park slayings

It was a chilling discovery in a popular Montecito Heights park: the bodies of two teenagers, in some bushes not far from a hiking trail.

An uneasiness settled into the Northeast L.A. neighborhood as detectives tried to find who killed Gabriela Calzada, 19, and Briana Gallegos, 17. Joggers and dog walkers said they were worried about going back to the park. Residents organized a vigil at the spot where the girls were found.

On Thursday, two weeks after the bodies were found, police appeared to make some progress in the case, searching three homes about a mile from Ernest E. Debs Regional Park and questioning several people in connection with the killings.

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But police remained tight-lipped about the investigation, even as detectives were seen carrying bags and black bins out of the homes in Montecito Heights and El Sereno.

Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman, said the people detained for questioning were later released and no arrests were made. He declined to say what they told investigators, but he said none were considered suspects or persons of interest in the case.

“We believe that they may have some information about this case,” Smith said. “We wanted to talk to them and see what kind of information they had.”

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Police also did not say what investigators recovered during their search.

“We’re going to do everything that we can to make sure we can put together a case that’s airtight,” Smith said. “We don’t want to do anything that in any way could compromise the case.”

At a community meeting held Thursday night at the Rose Hill Recreation Center, LAPD Capt. Martin Baeza asked the dozens of residents who gathered for patience. After he outlined the day’s events, he asked anyone with information to call police.

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“There’s nobody more anxious than I am to bring this investigation to a successful conclusion,” Baeza said. “Nobody deserves to be treated the way these young ladies were treated. It was atrocious.”

As Krystle Salas arrived late to the meeting, she asked a man standing near the wall, “Are we safe?”

For Salas, the killings have sparked concern. She said she grew up in the area and lives near one of the homes that was searched. She knows there’s crime in Los Angeles, but this case stands out.

“It’s so close to home,” she said. “It just breaks my heart. Because somebody, they lost their children.”

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A hiker discovered the bodies the afternoon of Oct. 28. Police said both teenagers had suffered significant head trauma, but coroner’s officials have not said how the girls were killed.

Police have said they do not believe the slayings were random or the work of a serial killer. But an uneasiness has settled into the community as the case has remained unsolved.

“The fear is very real,” said Raquel Roman, who organized a vigil last week to honor the girls. “If nobody is caught, I think the fear will continue.”

Those who knew the teenagers said they were excited for their futures. Calzada recently graduated from a nonviolence program run by a northeast L.A. nonprofit and wanted to try out for firefighting training. Gallegos, her friend, was eager to finish high school.

Glove-wearing investigators walked in and out of one home that was searched Thursday, a pink house in El Sereno. Neighbors, who declined to be identified out of concern for their safety, said the property was a nuisance — young people came and went at odd hours, they said, and often hung out in the backyard.

One woman said helicopters buzzed her windows Thursday morning as police surrounded the home and took one person into custody. The woman said she saw the officers give each other a thumbs-up during the sweep.

Down the street, investigators carried several brown paper bags and black bins out of another home and loaded them into a white van.

For breaking news in California, follow @nicolesantacruz, @VeronicaRochaLA and @katemather on Twitter.

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