South St. Andrew's Place, just west of Western Avenue between 18th Street and Venice Boulevard, is a long block lined with mature eucalyptus trees, two-story apartment buildings and a handful of old, large houses--one of which is the site of the Masjid Al-Mumin mosque, established there in 1979.
Lifelong resident Carol Gimarse, who lives with Espinoza and grew up with him, said the tension began about five years ago when Ghani arrived and, in Gimarse's view, the orthodox Muslims began dictating morality to the rest of the neighborhood.
"If they don't like the way you look or dress they'll fight with you," Gimarse said, adding that her miniskirts have drawn derogatory remarks and her music, considered too loud, has prompted threats with guns.
"They tried to break into a man's car because he had a nude woman air freshener and (they) wanted to take it down because it was disrespecting people in the neighborhood," she recalled.
Their religious zeal has increasingly turned to violence or threats of violence, Gimarse said, "and Wilshire station doesn't do anything."
Espinoza has copies of six police reports he has filed since last summer alleging various threats or armed confrontations by members of the religious group, including the July 19 beating.
He also says that since leaving the hospital, he has been subjected almost daily to intimidation tactics aimed at keeping him from pursuing his criminal case. At least two Latino families recently moved from the neighborhood because they were afraid of the Muslims, he said. Last year, an assault case involving at least one of the suspects in Espinoza's beating was dropped because the victim was too frightened to testify, police sources said.
"After I got out of the hospital . . . they came back to me again and told me they had started me, they were going to finish me," said Espinoza, who remembers little of the beating.
From what he can recall and has been told by witnesses about the Sunday morning incident, the slender mechanic was checking a neighbor's car as a favor and went to his own car across the street to get tools when he was surrounded and struck on the head and back with blunt objects.
"The last thing I remember is opening the trunk of my car. Then I woke up eight or 10 days after that," he said.
He said he thinks he has been singled out because, unlike many of his neighbors, he is willing to make written complaints about the Muslims.
One of the defendants in the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, alleged that it is Espinoza and some of his relatives who are criminals, not members of the religious group. He said he and other Muslims deserve credit for cleaning up the neighborhood but instead have been wrongfully arrested.
"There's a gang problem and a drug problem here and we've tried to deal with it, and as a result we've become the villains," said the Muslim, who would not discuss the criminal charges against him.
Other defendants in the beating case could not be reached or did not return calls.
"The Latinos want to make it a black-Latino thing (even though) we were instrumental in shutting down a crack house run by Jamaicans," he said. "So it's not a black-Latino thing, it's about right and wrong."
About 25 families, including 70 children, belong to the mosque and live in the neighborhood, he said. He said he and other men in the group are in constant contact with the police about neighborhood gangs and drug-dealing. They also patrol the streets themselves, unarmed, he said.
"We definitely deny having guns or threatening anybody," he said.
The beating defendant accused Espinoza and members of his family of organizing the Boys of St. Andrew's, a gang made up largely of children and young teen-agers, to deal drugs for them. Espinoza adamantly denies the accusation.
Curtiss said police have seen gang members run from the street corner into Espinoza's apartment. He said that while he considers Espinoza "affiliated with the gangs," police have found no evidence of drugs or other criminal activity by him or his family.
Curtiss said that during his patrol hours he never spoke to Espinoza, as he did Ghani, because he did not consider Espinoza a "central figure" in the neighborhood.
On the other hand, Curtiss said, Ghani was "pretty much my contact" and a valuable source of information about the gangs loitering at the corner of 18th Street and St. Andrew's Place, one of his chief concerns on the beat.
Days after Espinoza's beating, his companion Gimarse and three or four other relatives and neighbors went to the Wilshire station to complain that Curtiss listened only to Ghani and that crime reports had been ignored.
Police organized a neighborhood meeting after that in an effort to urge the two groups to get along. But Gimarse, Curtiss and the Muslim interviewed all said the meeting accomplished little.
"They still felt that because I'm a black officer working that area I still have a relationship with these people," Curtiss said.