Los Angeles police have arrested two teen-agers in the fatal shooting of a gang member earlier this month on a freeway overpass in Atwater.
The Sept. 8 killing was the second within a month in the small, Latino working-class neighborhood sandwiched between Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the Glendale Freeway.
On Aug. 8, 14-year-old Mark Iwashita, who did not belong to a gang, was fatally shot as he walked along Fletcher Drive because he was wearing a T-shirt with the inscription "Atwater," police said.
He died hours later at Glendale Memorial Hospital and Health Center. A 14-year-old gang member was arrested two days later and charged. He remains in Eastlake Juvenile Hall.
In the most recent attack, two members of a gang from nearby Elysian Valley allegedly stopped 16-year-old Eduardo Mendez on 36th Avenue at the Glendale Freeway, less than two blocks away from the earlier shooting, and opened fire after Mendez declared his affiliation to the Atwater gang, police said.
On Friday, police arrested two youths, ages 16 and 17. They are in Eastlake Juvenile Hall, said Detective Sam Catalfamo, who investigated both shootings.
The suspect's names have not been released because they are minors.
Although officers said the two shootings do not represent an increase in gang violence, they pointed out that the ages of both the victims and the suspects confirm fears that junior high school students are becoming increasingly involved in the Northeast area's gang rivalries.
"We're used to thinking that gang members are in the 18- to 21-year-old range," Catalfamo said. "We're looking at young teen-agers now. These two shootings are indicative of what's going on in the streets right now."
Unlike Mendez, who was nicknamed "Trusty" by the local gang in which he had been active for just over a year, Iwashita had no gang affiliation, Catalfamo said.
His only offense, the detective said, was to wear an Atwater basketball shirt to school, which the local gang members deemed unacceptable because the name reminded them of a rival organization.
Iwashita was a student at Washington Irving Junior High School, where fellow students said gang graffiti are constantly littering the playground and walls of buildings despite continuous efforts by school officials to get rid of it.
The young victim "was approached by gang members on school grounds and told not to wear the shirt," Catalfamo said. "But he was shot before the situation could be rectified."
Police said Mendez was shot by a rival gang member as he walked back with a friend from a late-night movie at the Eagle Rock shopping mall.
Police records show that a car carrying five or six "male Hispanic juveniles" pulled up next to Mendez and his 14-year-old companion.
The boys in the car asked Mendez where he was from. The victim responded by proclaiming his gang affiliation and told his friend to start running. The driver fired at the two, Catalfamo said.
Mendez was hit four times and died at the scene. His friend was struck once in the arm and was treated and released from a local hospital.
'Signing Death Sentence'
"Mendez knew that by naming his gang he was signing his death sentence," said Lt. Tom Chiarenza, who also participated in the investigation. "But there's a certain element of machismo in gang activity that makes things worse. For these people, the gang is more important than their lives."
Chiarenza said the shooting was a reaction to an incursion by Mendez's gang into rival territory earlier that week, in which the antagonists crossed out the rival gang's graffiti and inscribed their name on top of it. The rivals responded by killing Mendez--a predictable retaliation in the unwritten laws that govern gang violence, he said.
Two weeks after the Mendez shooting, only a few bloodstains remained on the freeway bridge where the attack took place. But four children playing catch under the street lights nearby had no problem in pointing to the scene of the crime.
It was right there, on that sidewalk, on that spot. Right in front of a message scribbled in red spray paint: TRUSTY--R.I.P.--and the name of the gang for which he died.