It should have been a joyful time for Arkett Mejia, a teen-ager on leave from a North Dakota Air Force base who had returned to Los Angeles to celebrate her parents' 25th wedding anniversary.
But her life ended abruptly late Friday night on the Century Freeway in Hawthorne as she and friends headed home from a beach outing. Mejia and her friend Travon Darnell Johnson, both 19, were shot while driving on the freeway. Johnson was listed in extremely critical condition late Saturday.
"She was really happy to be home for (the anniversary), and she was excited because she had a new nephew and it was her first time to see him," said Rose Mitchell, a family friend with whom Mejia lived for several months in 1993.
The teen-agers and two other friends had been at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey Friday evening, when they encountered two or three gang members, Sheriff's Department officials said. When the friends left the beach, the gang members followed them for more than four miles onto the Century Freeway. They flashed gang signs and then, without provocation, began shooting, said sheriff's Deputy Benita Hinojos.
Mejia, who held the Air Force rank of airman, was dead by the time her friends could rush her to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood. Johnson was reported near death with head and neck wounds, according to hospital officials. The other two occupants of the car were not injured.
Authorities said they could offer no explanation for the attack on the four young people.
"We were told there was no conversation between the two groups, no fight, no argument, no words exchanged," Hinojos said. "They simply followed them and then shots were fired."
Sheriff's homicide detectives had little information on the suspects, except for a description of their car--a burgundy, mid-1970s Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
The Los Angeles police who regularly patrol Dockweiler Beach said gang members have been regular visitors. But most complaints have been for relatively minor incidents, with a few scattered fights between rival gangs, said Lt. Dan Keefe of the LAPD Pacific Division.
Mejia was on her first leave from active duty at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.
She had been looking forward to the two-week leave because her parents had been scheduled to celebrate their silver anniversary Sunday, Mitchell said.
Mejia, a native of Belize, graduated from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. Like one of her older sisters, she decided to join the military.
"There aren't too many job opportunities around here and she wanted to try the military so that she could pay for nursing school," Mitchell said. She called Mejia a sweet girl who attended church and seemed headed for a promising future.
Mejia told her friends that she was adjusting to military life and to the frigid cold of the North Plains. Her assignment was as a chef . providing meals for missile crews.
Mitchell hung her head Saturday as she recalled Mejia. "This is happening every day to different people," she said. "But this is the first time it's come so close."
Times staff writer Lisa Respers contributed to this story.