A barrage of gunfire that claimed the lives of three men and wounded six others in a South-Central Los Angeles front yard was carried out by gang members seeking to scare "nickel and dime" drug dealers encroaching on their turf, authorities said Monday.
Witnesses to the attack, which occurred at 10:15 p.m. Sunday in the heart of one of the city's most crime-scarred sectors, said it was terrifying even for their neighborhood--where the staccato pop of gunfire is a nightly occurrence.
"It sounded like it went on for 10 minutes, must have been 30 or 40 rounds," said Tony Miles, who lives near the scene of the attack and said he had "never seen or heard anything like it."
One of the wounded said the gang members walked up to the wrought-iron gate shouting, "Shut up and get on the ground!" Then, he said, they robbed the 10 people in the yard of the peach-colored duplex on East 53rd Street and opened fire.
" Gracias a Dios , they didn't get me," said the 23-year-old witness, who identified himself as Jose Estrada, 23. He nonetheless nursed a pistol-whipped forehead and a bullet wound in one calf.
Alfredo Govea, 34, and Jesus (Chuy) Gonzalez, 27, were shot dead in the front yard of the two-story home, detectives said. A third victim, Arturo Macias, 24, died later at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
Meanwhile, at least two of the wounded were lingering near death Monday. Daniel Bravo, 20, was listed in critical but stable condition at County-USC, and his 34-year-old brother, Jose Bravo, was in critical condition at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.
Witnesses said the shooting victims, all men, were playing cards, shooting dice and drinking beer when about half a dozen gun-toting youths, dressed in T-shirts and baggy pants, strolled en masse up the darkened block and into the run-down yard.
At first, the witnesses said, the assailants seemed only interested in the victims' wallets, but within minutes a barrage of bullets was peppering the night air. Two of the victims were killed instantly; others were left bleeding in a litter of beer bottles as their assailants fled down the block.
Macias' brother said he had just left the duplex and walked into his own home two doors down when he heard the gunfire erupt. Alarmed, he turned and sprinted back down the block, just in time to see his wounded brother gasping for air.
As terrified neighbors peered in through the fence, the brother tried in vain to revive Macias through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Macias--who lived at the duplex with his wife and children--later died. His family was unharmed.
"It was like a war," said Eric Johnson, who was inside a nearby house when the shooting began. "All you heard was gunshots everywhere--boom, boom, boom."
Residents in the crime-toughened neighborhood, which is populated mostly by impoverished African Americans and Latino immigrants, blamed the shooting on the Playboys, a neighborhood Latino gang that had reportedly warned some of the victims to stop selling rock cocaine on its turf.
At least one neighbor said that, as they headed toward the duplex, the killers--Latino males in their teens or early 20s--warned the area's black residents to clear the streets so bystanders wouldn't be hurt.
"They said something was about to go down, so everybody should go inside," said resident Melanie Hughes. "When we got here, the bodies were everywhere."
Detectives would not corroborate the name of the gang allegedly involved, but confirmed that some of the duplex's occupants--who were not in any gang--apparently had begun running what they termed "a nickel-and-dime" crack operation in the heart of an area notorious for its cocaine trade.
"In the whole area around 53rd (Street), there's a lot of narcotics trafficking," said Lt. Jim Voge of the LAPD's Newton Division. "I would have to say that probably six blocks in any direction (from the duplex) is a high volume of narcotics sales."
Survivor Estrada denied that any of the victims had been involved in the drug trade.
"We were just drinking and talking--that's all," he said Monday, standing on crutches outside the house.
But Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams said the shooting had been an apparent retaliation by the gang members, who had warned the residents of the duplex one or two days earlier to leave the area.
Williams noted, however, that not all the shooting victims were suspected drug dealers and that many of those at the attack scene were unaware of any narcotics activity. The chief added that uniformed officers have been dispatched from throughout the city to the area in an attempt to forestall any plans for revenge.
"We intend to prevent any escalation of violence in the community," Williams said.
Times staff writers Nicholas Riccardi and Shawn Hubler contributed to this story.
Three people were killed and at least five others injured late Sunday night in a shooting in South-Central Los Angeles.