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A Shrine Rises in Mourning : Supermarket Parking Lot Becomes Memorial to Slain Japanese Students

April 01, 1994|DEBORAH SCHOCH and PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They came from downtown San Pedro and the suburban slopes of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, bearing flowers and cards and speaking somberly of the specter of teen-agers killing teen-agers.

The mourners crowded around the flower-bedecked shrine outside a Ralphs in San Pedro on Thursday morning, some lost in prayer and others murmuring quietly about the arrests of two San Pedro gang members in the slayings of two Japanese college students in the supermarket's parking lot last Friday night.

The students were both 19. The young men who allegedly killed them are 18 and 20.

"I'm devastated. My God! Youths killing youths. Where is their childhood?" asked Mary Orlando of Rancho Palos Verdes, who stood in the parking lot gathering signatures on a petition calling for the death penalty for first-time offenders who willfully kill another.

However, a few miles down the hill, at the Rancho San Pedro housing project, such views were deemed unrealistic by friends and neighbors of the two suspects, high school dropouts Raymond Oscar Butler, 18, and Alberto Vasquez Reygoza, 20.

There, residents reacting to the arrests emphasized that shootings are a frequent occurrence, with scant attention paid by police or the press--never mind the President of the United States. "Why do they make this such a big thing when it happens here every day?" asked one housing project resident, who asked to remain anonymous.

"With everything that happens around gang members, why would you be surprised?" said Lorenzos Guerra, 27, a friend of Reygoza, who served time with him last year in Los Angeles County Jail.

News of the arrests drew a wide range of reaction Thursday from San Pedro to Tokyo.

In the gritty neighborhood where the suspects lived, residents, while expressing sorrow at the slayings, urged that job and educational opportunities be improved to steer youngsters away from the violence of street gangs.

At the Ralphs shrine, many of the 40 people gathered at noontime urged efforts to stem violence through nighttime curfews, gun control, harsher prisons, less violence on television and stricter parental oversight.

In just a few days, this 8-foot by 6-foot flower shrine has been transformed into the central symbol of community grief over the slayings of Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura.

Some knelt to write messages on long white sheets of paper taped to the pavement around the shrine. The bouquets at center had withered, and the ground was dotted with wax mounds from burned-out candles.

In Downtown Los Angeles, at a somber midmorning press conference, the fathers of the slain students thanked the Los Angeles Police Department.

"This is the news we have been waiting for," said Shuji Matsuura, father of Go Matsuura, adding that the families would quietly await the decision in the prosecution of the two alleged assailants.

Seiichiro Noboru, consul general of Japan in Los Angeles, speaking on behalf of the government of Japan, called the shootings "so regrettable and devastating that we have no words to correctly express our deep sorrow."

The "one bright spot" was news of the arrests, Noboru said, thanking what he called the strenuous police efforts "which have led to such an expeditious arrest," he said.

In Japan, the media took note that L.A. authorities were careful to schedule the news conference at an unusually late hour in order to catch the evening news broadcasts in Japan. The L.A. correspondent for TV Asahi said that the investigation itself was carried out more swiftly than usual because of the international implications of the crime.

The Asahi newspaper reported: "The people who shattered the American dream of 19-year-old film-loving exchange students Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura were American youth of the same generation. They are gang members that can't be cut from American society, even if you could cut out the afflictions of poverty, violence or drugs."

The papers, however, reported that L.A. authorities were stressing that the shootings had no relation to race or nationality.

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this story from Tokyo.

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