LONG BEACH — It was last Thursday evening when, after months of frustration and fear, Don Moore and a neighbor settled onto a courtyard bench to talk again about driving the drug dealers out.
Their West Side apartment complex had been a haven for hard-working, middle-class families. But in recent months a handful of young toughs had rented apartments and begun to brazenly hawk drugs from within the development's security gates.
Moore, a social worker, and the neighbor, an educator's wife, talked quietly. She had had all she could take, she told him. The night before she had stretched out in fear along the floor as someone tampered with her windows.
As the nervous woman spoke, not 15 feet away and within the same narrow courtyard, a gang member from central Long Beach began to argue with a youth from Los Angeles. Within seconds, the one from Los Angeles had opened fire with a revolver.
"I was shocked," said Moore, 39, an infantry veteran of the Vietnam War. "I was looking down the barrel of this gun. I could see the smoke coming out of the barrel."
With the first words of argument, the woman had scooted to safety. And now Moore jumped for cover. But he heard the screams of 4-year-old Danny Walker and snatched him from the line of fire before hunkering against a patio fence.
"We were still dodging," said Moore, "because he's just firing wildly. I rush past the guy that's firing and I throw the kid into his mother's arms."
Then, after at least four shots, the firing stopped. One bullet had torn into a staircase next to a young mother, Natalie Turner. Another struck Cynthia Trujillo, 27, in the hand while she was inside a Laundromat across busy Santa Fe Avenue.
As both the gunman and his target fled, Danny Walker's mother, Deborah Coats, a clerk at Todd Shipyards, cradled her young son. "He was shaking and I was shaking. But after a little while he just said, 'Mommy, he wasn't shooting at the little boys.' "
Shooting Mobilized Residents
Tenants and owners at El Capitan Apartments, just north of Silverado Park, were stunned by the tragedy that had almost occurred. And the Thursday shooting mobilized them like nothing before it.
By early this week, angry residents, by picket and organized protest, had forced the horde of drug dealers from their courtyards and sidewalks, though several still live in the complex. They had also secured assurances from the Police Department--which for at least six months had failed to effectively respond to calls for help--that the situation would never again be allowed to get so bad.
Twenty-four hours a day the dealers, some newly arrived because of a police crackdown at Silverado Park, had hustled passing drivers, laughing, arguing over customers, playing radios loudly, and occasionally firing shots from revolvers, residents said.
A few young dealers, occupants of the 163-unit El Capitan complex, used at least two of its seven courtyards as illicit marketplaces. Locks on the security gates were constantly plugged. Strangers wandered in and out.
Owners of the mostly well-kept apartments, which had been converted to condominiums six years ago, tried to sell out and flee, but found no buyers. One dropped his price from $85,000 to $62,500, but received not one nibble. Another said she might just walk away from her property to escape her constant fear. The homeowners association tried to force the eviction of the dealers, but had no luck.
Last fall, homeowners and renters asked Councilwoman Eunice Sato for help, and she said she contacted Police Chief Charles Ussery, who lives just a few blocks away. But when a police sergeant turned up at a homeowners' meeting, he explained that their situation of wide-open drug sales was not unusual and that it was mostly up to them to help themselves.
The two black-and-white patrol cruisers that work the West Side are in no position to document drug sales, and the department's special drug-control unit was working more serious cases, police now explain.
So the homeowners, about 20% of whom live in their condos, hired a series of security companies and a Los Angeles police officer to patrol part time at night. But the drugs continued to flow, said Albert Watkins, vice president of the homeowners association.
Until last weekend, however, it was the residents themselves who failed to force the issue, Watkins said.
'They Don't Come Out'
"There are a lot of working people here. I don't know if they're too busy or afraid or just don't give a damn. A lot of people come home and close their doors and that's it. They don't come out." said Watkins, 56, a mason.
Moore acknowledged the same problem.
"We allowed this to happen to us," he said. "It wasn't until they started shooting over here that we said we absolutely did not want to live this way, and we were not going to live this way."