For Gilbert Villalobos, 16, the rambling old rooming house in the 500 block of North Avenue 50 was a haven from the mounting gang violence in his Highland Park neighborhood. Inside the graffiti-scarred building, he learned about art, music and religion from the self-described modern hippies who live upstairs.
But last Sunday night, just a few doors down from this unpretentious oasis of peace, love and understanding, Villalobos had a stark encounter with urban violence. Police said the youth was fatally shot in the head during a robbery while lying face-down on the sidewalk.
"It wasn't even a drive-by shooting," said Tom Iamele, a friend of the victim. "It was a straight-on assassination."
Frustrated by such nightly eruptions of gunfire and bloodshed, he and other members of the loose-knit 1960s-style commune decided to take their message of harmony to the streets. Members of the collective, sometimes called "Art House" or "Ground Zero," created a flyer featuring a portrait of Villalobos and a simple plea for calm: "Stop the Killing."
The group made 1,500 copies of the handout and on Tuesday began putting them up throughout Northeast Los Angeles. Villalobos was the 47th homicide victim of the year in the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division, where 39 killings were recorded last year.
"We're going to stick them on every post and tree that we can see, going through the
neighborhoods of the gangs," said Jesse Muro, 28, a member of the counterculture group. "We're trying to put the word out about love and peace.
"The gang members may not pay attention, but the younger kids might," he said. "And their parents might sit down and talk to them about it after they see it."
Ted Fairbanks, 24, who is a messenger and amateur artist who belongs to the commune, designed the flyer in a psychedelic style. Around the victim's face he drew a peace sign, a rose, a sunrise and a grave.
"It's going to say that love is the answer," Fairbanks said while working on the flyer. "It's a simple choice between love and hate."
He said the message reflects the philosophy of the commune. "It's very religious, but we don't have a name for our church," Fairbanks said. "We believe in love."
On Monday morning, members of the group were mourning their loss in a room decorated with a Grateful Dead poster and an original sketch by Villalobos. Two dogs and a cat frolicked among the well-worn furnishings, and two guitars leaned against a wall.
Some commune members wore long hair and beads and one wore a tie-dyed shirt, all reminiscent of the 1960s flower-power era. But showing some contemporary concerns about becoming gang targets, several asked that their faces not be photographed.
The members include Paul, who wears a full black beard and white robes. He described himself as a Russian Orthodox monk who uses no last name. He said he regularly talked to Villalobos about religion.
"I personally consider Gilbert a martyr because he was a Christian," said Paul. "He believed in the church and that Jesus was coming soon."
Villalobos became acquainted with the group while living in the rooming house, and he continued to visit after his family moved a short distance away. His friends said he spent a lot of time in the building's lobby, chatting with his girlfriend, Marcella, who lived downstairs near the front door.
From that post, Villalobos kept an eye out for intruding gang members, his friends said.
About 9 p.m. on Sunday, the teen-ager went to the corner store to buy a bus pass. While walking home with his girlfriend's brother, Eduardo Enriquez, 17, he encountered four young men who had just committed a street robbery, said Los Angeles Police Detective John Munguia.
The robbers ordered Villalobos to the ground. After they took his money and watch, "one suspect decided to shoot him for no apparent reason," Munguia said. "There was no resistance, no words exchanged. He just shot him in the back of the head."
After Villalobos was hit, Enriquez leaped up and was shot in the leg as he ran off. Munguia said investigators do not believe either of the victims was a gang member. He said he suspects the gunmen were.
Commune member Muro heard the shots Sunday night and ran out to aid Villalobos. "I was the first one to get there," he said. "I saw him lying on the ground. I picked up his head. I checked his heart and his pulse."
Muro said he started cardiopulmonary resuscitation, then called 911 when another onlooker took over. "I started to scream because I could see his body was lifeless," he recalled.
The youth was taken to County-USC Medical Center with a severe head injury. His stepfather, Jose Ramos, said the family agreed early Monday to disconnect life-support equipment. "I didn't think he would appreciate being kept going by machines if he couldn't really be alive," Ramos said.