What began as a toe-to-toe argument between two groups of teen-agers escalated into a wild shooting incident inside a West Covina shopping mall Monday night, leaving one bystander and one gang member injured and sending more than 50 horrified shoppers ducking for cover.
The melee, one of a number of violent incidents that have plagued Los Angeles-area shopping malls and theaters, broke out between members of two warring gangs about 6:30 p.m., during peak shopping hours at The Plaza, police said.
Like other malls, The Plaza in the San Gabriel Valley has become a magnet for young people--some of them gang members who engage in occasional arguments and shoving matches. Until Monday night, it was mild violence that the mall's unarmed security guards could usually handle, merchants said.
But during the gunfire, a 45-year-old woman was struck in the leg by one of 15 bullets that ricocheted through the mall, police said. The shopper, whose name was not disclosed, was treated at a nearby hospital and released. Another bullet passed through the wrist of a 15-year-old gang member involved in the dispute, police said. He also was treated at a hospital and released.
Police said the battle involved four gang members from Duarte and 11 rival gang members from Monrovia and El Monte, most just 14 or 15 years old. The two gangs had been feuding for some time, said West Covina Police Cmdr. John Distelrath, adding that one recent conflict involved a killing in another city.
"Why these two gangs ended up in West Covina is beyond me," Distelrath said. "They were a long way from home."
The incident took police and mall operators by surprise.
"This is really shocking," said Bill Garcia, a shoe store manager at The Plaza. "In my 16 years at this mall, there's been absolutely nothing of this magnitude."
"All the people were talking about it," said Elisa Rodriguez, another mall shop employee. "I'm worried. A lot of the young boys, they act so crazy."
Robert Medina, 35, a shoe store employee, said he called mall security when he saw the two groups arguing near his shop. The gang members decided to fight outside the mall and were followed toward the doors by a large group of onlookers, Medina said.
But some of the gang members broke into a run and sprinted for the entrance. Two of them then turned, took out automatic handguns--.22-caliber and .25-caliber--and fired the shots, Distelrath said.
The hail of gunfire sent shoppers scrambling. Sales clerk Teedra Moses, 17, said she heard the shots echo through the mall and felt they were close to the nut store where she works on the mall's first floor.
"There were about seven of them," Moses said of the shots. "I didn't know where they were coming from. So I just ran to the back of the store because I didn't want to get shot."
Another shopper, who asked not to be identified, said she feared for her infant son and so stayed on the mall's upper level. But her boyfriend ran to a window and saw the shooters fleeing in a car, she said.
By the time police arrived, gang members had left, Distelrath said.
On Tuesday, West Covina police were investigating and no arrests had been made, he added. Meanwhile, the mall's manager joined police in pledging that security guards and police officers would be more visible both inside and outside the mall to prevent future gang clashes.
"We are going to discourage gang members from entering the mall," Distelrath said. "There's no problem if they're there to shop, but we don't want them hanging around."
However, policing the problem is not expected to be easy. Distelrath said gang members regularly visit shopping malls and cannot be summarily ejected.
Glendale Police Sgt. Matt Wojnarowski, who staffs a substation inside the Glendale Galleria, said gang members frequent malls and movie theaters along with other youths. They are ejected by mall security guards if they misbehave and can be banned for 90 days from the mall. If they engage in criminal behavior, Glendale police step in.
But gang membership in itself is not sufficient to ban them from the malls.
"If they're walking through the mall, just that alone is not going to cause us to bother them," Wojnarowski said. "They need to buy clothes, too."
Deborah Hardy, marketing director at Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, expressed similar concerns. Mall security or staff members may not be qualified, she said, to decide who is a gang member.
"We don't label people as they walk in the door," Hardy said. "The mall is a quasi private-public entity and we don't eject anybody from the mall unless there are very good grounds to do so."
Greg Beyer, general manager of The Plaza, said the mall's 22 security guards may work different shifts or be beefed up with new hires to provide additional visibility. Typically, the security guards identify and eject gang members promptly if they create disturbances inside the mall, he said.
But one merchant, who called for gang members to be prohibited altogether, doubted whether additional security would make the difference. "I'm quite upset," said the merchant, who asked not to be identified. "It's getting worse every day."
The gunfire follows a series of violent incidents at public places.
On Dec. 22, 1990, a 17-year-old boy and a 49-year-old woman holding her grandchild were wounded at the Long Beach Plaza when shots were fired between between rival gangs. In 1988, a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed by gang gunfire at the Panorama City Mall.
A year ago, five kidnap-murders occurred at shopping malls in the San Gabriel Valley, leading to four arrests. Movie theaters showing gang-related movies also have been the sites of gang violence, notably in Westwood and Monrovia.
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