John Sorrentino got to work Wednesday morning and spotted a silver SUV parked outside his furniture warehouse in South L.A.
He walked closer and saw a man in the driver’s seat with blood on his face. A child’s body slumped in the back seat, his eyes partially open.
“The young boy was just staring straight out, almost like he was staring into my eyes,” he said. Sorrentino then noticed two more victims: the child’s brothers. Sorrentino ran back to the warehouse and, in a panic, dialed 911.
Officers arrived about 7 a.m. and found the three children, Luis, Juan and Alexander, stabbed to death in the SUV. The children’s father, identified by family as Luis Fuentes, was hospitalized with stab wounds.
Police said that the man is the main suspect in the killings, but would not say why the family was in the area, or what led to the stabbings. A sharp-edged object was recovered from the scene, police said.
Authorities declined to identify the children in the car, stating only that they were ages 8 to 12.
The killings were the latest amid a rise in homicides in the city, prompting officials to send extra officers to the most violent areas. Last month, 39 people were killed, the most in a single month since 2009, data show. Most of the killings occurred in South Los Angeles.
Police Chief Charlie Beck held a somber news conference at the scene, in the 300 block of East 32nd Street, across from an elementary school. The children attended other L.A. Unified Schools, he said.
The children’s stepmother was interviewed by police and was cooperative, officials said. There was no record of a custody dispute involving the children.
“These are incidents that scar not only the community, but the first responders who have to handle them,” Beck said.
LAPD Det. Meghan Aguilar acknowledged that the scene was “very emotional” for police, paramedics and other first responders.
“Many of us are parents,” Aguilar said. “It’s hard enough to see a child be a victim of any crime, much less three children murdered.”
City Councilman Curren Price said a fund is being created to help the children’s family.
“I take this personally,” he said. “I live right around the corner.”
Evelyn Aleman, 30, dropped her daughter off at school Wednesday morning and drove to the area. A single mother with two young children, she said she lives nearby and was rattled by the news.
“I can’t believe this,” she said, standing across the street from the yellow crime scene tape Wednesday afternoon. “It’s a dangerous area, but something like this?”
Maria Munoz, a resident in the neighborhood where the children lived, said her 10-year-old grandson would play on scooters with the three boys.
“I always saw them happy,” she said. “They were like normal kids.”
Recently, Munoz said, their father had moved out and taken the children with him. Since then, she hadn’t seen the brothers.
“Let’s hope he didn’t do it,” she said. “Because that’s a horrible thing.”
People gathered at the crime scene Wednesday night and placed flowers, candles and food including Cheez-Its and Doritos — the children’s favorite snacks — on the sidewalk along with a poster board with pictures of the children smiling. Family members said the children were happy and active and hinted that their father may have been having financial difficulties.
“He was a good man who had fallen on hard times,” said Rene Chanquin, a cousin of the father.
Byron Fuentes, the man’s brother, said the last time he saw Luis Fuentes was about a month ago. Lately, his brother had withdrawn from relatives. As tears welled in his eyes, he said family will always be family.
“I’m trying to process what happened, I just don’t understand it,” he said.
The brothers’ mother died in 2008, and photos on Fuentes’ Facebook profile show the three children visiting her grave.
“Even though they lost their mother, they were still very happy children,” said Xiomara Mena, 35, another cousin.
The profile depicts the father as a stocky man with a mustache and shaved head. It says Fuentes attended Thomas Jefferson High School and presents the image of a sports fan who follows the L.A Dodgers and Mexican soccer.
In October 2014, Fuentes wrote a post in Spanish that said, simply: “I’m not happy.”
One commenter responded: “You have kids. They should be your happiness.”
Times staff writers Joseph Serna, Kate Mather and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.