What the . . . you going through my turf throwing the 'B'?"
It was the last question Jaime Casillas heard before he died.
The "B" was a familiar greeting between Casillas and "Goodtime," an alleged gang member. Whenever the two friends saw each other, they jokingly exchanged rival hand signals--Goodtime would make the sign for the Florence gang, and Casillas would throw the "B," a signal for a Huntington Park gang known as the Brats.
The "B" cost 20-year-old Casillas his life. And the gunman who asked the fatal question allegedly was none other than Goodtime.
"It was as if Jaime saw the devil," said a witness to the shooting, describing Casillas' reaction to the question and the sight of his pal toting a pistol and an accomplice wielding a shotgun. "You couldn't believe it. Jaime didn't even gasp."
In Los Angeles County last year, a record 801 people died in gang-related violence. Amid such mind-numbing figures, Casillas' death on Jan. 15 could easily be chalked up as just another statistic.
But it does not lessen the pain that his murder inflicted on his family, friends and neighbors. And it is another chilling reminder of how gangs devalue human life, of young men and women who live in a world where minor disputes--or expressions of displeasure at a joke--are settled with guns.
"I feel that we're living in another world," said Casillas' mother, Maria Luisa, 54. "They don't have a love of God. I don't understand how someone in their right mind could cause so much pain and suffering."
As far as the gang members were concerned, Casillas had defiled what is almost a sacred symbol to them. A gang sign takes on serious meaning for those who wear their symbols in tattoos and mark their territories with graffiti. It is used to flaunt someone's allegiance or, when flashed to rivals, carries a fierce challenge that can end in death.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have identified Goodtime as Ronald Robert Ayala, 19, whom authorities say frequents Huntington Park, Walnut Park and Bell. Ayala and the other gunman, whose identity has not been released by authorities, are being sought.
Witnesses who saw Casillas greet Ayala for the last time at about 11:15 p.m. that Friday said there had been no indication in the previous days that the relationship between the two young men, who had been friends for a little more than a year, had changed. But the speculation in the neighborhood is that Goodtime is a gang wannabe who may have been ordered by members of the Florence gang to kill Casillas as a show of loyalty. Police declined to comment on that scenario.
For Casillas' parents, his sister and two brothers, the news that Goodtime may have been involved makes his death even more devastating. The notion that he may have been killed by a friend who dined at their table and played with Casillas' 21-month-old son, Christopher Jaime, is almost unbearable.
Casillas' mother, other family members said, did not trust many in her son's wide circle of friends, but she liked Goodtime more than the others. They are shielding her from the fact that he is a suspect in the slaying. They say she may not be able to handle it.
Clutching his high tops, on which Casillas had drawn toes, his sister, Elsa, 27, closes her eyes and shakes her head. Seeing his belongings, his clothes, his messy drawer full of party flyers and girls' phone numbers is difficult, she said.
"It's like he's here, only I can't touch him or talk to him," she said. "There's just this incredible void, you just can't believe it."
Jaime Casillas was born Oct. 21, 1972. As a boy, he suffered from asthma and his parents took him to a doctor three or four times a week. That and other ailments probably led to Casillas' comparatively short stature; he stood only 5-foot-4 as an adult. As he grew older, he increasingly resembled his brother Carlos, 23, but with darker hair and skin.
In fact, Carlos' driver's license was among the items Casillas was carrying when he died, along with a tiny picture of his son, a pack of Marlboros and $4.45. He would use his older brother's ID to get into nightclubs and buy beer.
For the past two years, he belonged to a party crew called The Terribles, a group of about 15 friends who held parties at homes for profit. Now, with so much competition from other crews, they mostly just hang out, frequenting underground nightclubs and parties.
"There was never one boring day with him," said friend Frank Ibarra, 20. "Now when we go out, it's all quiet. Before, it would be all rowdy. It's him. We need him."
Friends still find it difficult to believe that Casillas isn't going to show up some day, laughing about what a great joke he has pulled on everyone. They can't bring themselves to mouth the harsh words that describe his fate. Instead, they say "that day," or "when it happened."