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Hostility Holds Police, Families in Deadly Grip

March 14, 1992|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIVERSIDE — The Ahumada and Lozano families are accustomed to receiving tragic news out of the barrio known as Casa Blanca, a square mile of Southern California cityscape where scores are settled privately and outside authority is often viewed with suspicion.

For more than a quarter-century, a blood feud between the rival Casa Blanca clans has left the streets strewn with family victims--at least 11 of them dead, gunned down in ambush attacks on sidewalks, in vehicles and on front porches.

But the most recent violent deaths to touch both families can't be attributed to the feud, and instead has shifted their animosity for now onto a common adversary--the Riverside Police Department.

Johnny Anthony Lozano, 16, was shot by officers 10 times last June after he allegedly pulled a handgun. Last month, George Manuel Ahumada, 32--an ex-con and longtime drug user whose run-ins with Riverside police had given him almost mythic status to some in the Casa Blanca area--died mysteriously after a late-night struggle with officers in a muddy front yard.

Riverside police have said that the officers' actions in both cases were justified. But the always-delicate relations between the neighborhood and the police have plunged to a new low, largely due to lingering questions about the circumstances of Ahumada's death.

Relatives and at least four witnesses interviewed by The Times allege that Ahumada's death followed a brutal police attack on the unarmed man that culminated when an enraged officer put a knee to Ahumada's back, and a nightstick to the front of his neck, and choked him as he lay handcuffed face-down in the mud.

Ahumada passed out and never regained consciousness, according to the witnesses, all longtime friends of the dead man.

"It was straight murder is what it was," said Emmith Johnson, a 39-year-old sometime-roofer who knew Ahumada since his youth. "It was vicious and uncalled for. . . . They beat him to death."

The clash occurred a block and a half from the house where Ahumada--a parolee known to all as Georgie--was reared and where his family ran a grocery for decades.

Police acknowledge that there was a scuffle, but say officers never choked or handcuffed Ahumada. He fell unconscious and probably died of natural causes aggravated by drug use, said Riverside Police Chief Linford L. (Sonny) Richardson, who added that Ahumada "reeked of PCP" that night in Casa Blanca.

Autopsy results that could verify the role of drugs and specify the cause of death are sealed. Richardson said he is confident that laboratory analysis would show evidence of the street drug PCP in Ahumada's system.

However, the chief and the Casa Blanca witnesses agree that Ahumada offered only passive resistance. He refused to budge for police but never struck at them.

"It seemed like it was all rather subdued and controlled," said Richardson, chief of the 305-member department since 1983. "From what I gather, there really wasn't any kind of violence on either side, Georgie or the officers."

The officers acted appropriately and were returned to patrol, Richardson said, although an internal police investigation is continuing and will be submitted to the district attorney's office for review.

Whatever happened to Ahumada, his death less than eight months after police killed the Lozano teen-ager has reopened a festering wound in Casa Blanca, an insular neighborhood of 2,500 residents three miles southwest of downtown that has long had its differences with police.

Activists charge that the Riverside Police Department has long had a vendetta against the mostly Chicano enclave, particularly against the Ahumada clan, stemming in part from a series of violent encounters and community complaints dating to the 1970s.

"The police here take it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner," said Richard Roa, a longtime Casa Blanca resident who is vice chairman-elect of Community Action Group, a neighborhood rights organization that broke off relations with police after the Lozano shooting. "To me, the police are just like another gang."

But the police chief, who served a tumultuous year as sergeant of a special enforcement squad in Casa Blanca 17 years ago, insists that his officers have no vendetta against the Ahumadas or other neighborhood families.

"We're not killing them--they're killing each other," Richardson said. "If we really (sought) revenge, and wanted to carry it to its extreme, the best thing we could do is sit back and do nothing because they'll eventually kill each other."

For the moment, though, the combat between the Ahumada and Lozano families--which stems from a drunken brawl in 1964 that left John Ahumada Sr., Georgie's father, with severe brain damage--has given way to a new cause in the barrio, where turf is strictly delineated between the two clans.

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