In a confusing standoff in Watts, police officers said they encircled a house for five hours Wednesday after an armed gang, apparently bent on kidnaping for ransom, invaded a residence occupied by 11 illegal alien Salvadorans and shot one of them to death. Police eventually stormed the house, only to find it empty.
Investigators said five of the attackers were arrested a few minutes after the shooting as they attempted to flee.
Ten occupants, carrying the fatally wounded man, ran from the home after the arrests, but police said they continued to surround the home in the 100 block of East 94th Street in the mistaken belief that still more of the attackers and victims were inside.
Finally, at about 12:20 p.m., the officers lobbed tear gas into the residence and went inside, but the modest, two-bedroom home was empty.
The identity of the man who was shot to death was not released.
Detectives said an off-duty LAPD reserve officer happened to be walking by the home at about 6:45 a.m. Wednesday when he saw the gang of armed men pull up in six vans and enter the home from a rear door that faces onto an alley.
"These people were trying to take (the aliens) out and put them in another house in what clearly was a case of (kidnaping for) ransom," LAPD Lt. Bob Kimball said. Kimball said the attackers hoped to extort money from the victims' relatives in El Salvador.
Moments after entering the house, the attackers shot one of the residents and pistol-whipped another, Kimball said.
He said detectives did not immediately determine why the two victims were attacked.
Investigators said the off-duty officer, who was not identified, called for help, and within a few minutes the house, which sits at the rear of a lot behind another home, was surrounded by dozens of police officers.
At about 7 a.m., five of the attackers left the house and were taken immediately into custody, police said. Several other members of the gang were believed to have escaped during the arrests. Officers said they recovered two pistols, two shotguns and a rifle.
Moments later, police said, the surviving victims left the home carrying their fatally wounded companion. The man they carried out was taken to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, where he died about six hours later of a single gunshot wound in the head. The unidentified man who was pistol-whipped was treated for his injuries. A report on his condition was not available.
The five suspects, none of whom were identified by police, were booked on suspicion of murder. The aliens were placed in the custody of federal officials.
Police, unaware that the home was empty, continued to surround the place throughout the morning, lobbing tear gas in about two hours before they entered the house.
During the five-hour episode, residents were evacuated from about 20 homes surrounding the house where the attack occurred.
Cleia Thompson, who owns the house where the attack occurred and lives in another home in front, said she had no idea the house at the back was occupied by illegal aliens. She said she had rented it to a man named Carlos, who lived there with his wife, Elsie, their two daughters and a number of other people.
"They mostly kept to themselves," she said. "You couldn't hear nothing . . . no fussing, no fighting, no loud noise."
Some neighbors complained that the chickens that the occupants raised wandered into neighboring yards and that their dilapidated cars lined the street.
Thompson's daughter said some of those residing at the house were sleeping in the back yard "under the trees."
Thompson's nephew, Darren Johnson, said large amounts of food were taken in to feed the group.
"People would be . . . carrying in sacks of taco shells and beans and all kinds of food," Johnson said. "They could have supported a whole school."
Thompson said she had warned Carlos last week that too many people were living in the tiny house.
"I told him they'd have to leave," she said. "He said, 'They're relatives. They're just visiting.' I didn't see them no more after that."
Times staff writers Sandy Banks and John H. Lee contributed to this story.