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SPECIAL REPORT

A Shaken Community Fights for Its Children : Rash of Slayings Sends Grim Message

Some Call 5 Killings a Statistical Anomaly; Others Fear for Their Lives

September 08, 1996|SCOTT HADLY and ERIC WAHLGREN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — On a late afternoon, the voices of playing children drift down the streets that surround Durley Park, a working-class neighborhood of pastel-colored houses and bungalows, and streets named after trees like birch and cedar.

In many ways, it is a vital and racially diverse community. Parents coach baseball in the summer and Pop Warner football teams in the fall. There are four local schools and more than a dozen churches where families gather for Sunday worship.

But something has gone dramatically wrong here in recent months that has shaken the community of Durley Park and the neighborhoods that surround it--setting the south-central Oxnard area apart from most of Ventura County.

Since New Year's Day, five young men have been killed, mostly in gang-related violence. The slayings in a neighborhood of less than one square mile represent about one-fourth of all the homicides in Ventura County this year, marking the area as the county's deadliest neighborhood.

And even the police are puzzled. The official view is that the actual death toll is just some kind of statistical anomaly. And men like Oxnard Police Officer Jim Stallings are hard-pressed to explain it.

"I know I work in the murder capital of Ventura County," he said one recent evening as he drove along the back alleys that cut through the neighborhood.

But Stallings quickly added that, despite the killings, the area is really no more dangerous than others in Oxnard in terms of overall violent crime.

The residents of the area have mixed views. Some are frightened and say they wish they could leave this place where they came to raise their families. But others say it is still a good place to live, and that they have decided to make a fight for their homes.

Michelle Godoy, who leads a Neighborhood Watch group, is one of those fighting to keep her community from turning into another urban war zone. She and other volunteers patrol the streets several nights a week, looking for signs of trouble.

"My thing is to get the crime down and make it a family neighborhood again," said Godoy, who lives across the street from Durley Park in a house her parents bought in 1955. "I can't see the neighborhood go down the drain. My goddaughter is growing up here."

Diversity Evident

Framed by Wooley Road on the north, Channel Islands Boulevard on the south, Saviers Road on the east and Ventura Road on the west, the neighborhood that includes Durley Park, Bartolo Square and the Kamala area is a community in transition, much like all of south Oxnard.

Many of its 13,000 residents are newly arrived immigrants from Mexico, and some of the old-time white and African American families have moved out. The children who play in Durley Park and in nearby Beck Park reflect the diversity of the community, which is now more than 75% Latino, 14% white and 8% African American.

Overall violent crime--rape, armed robbery, assault--is actually down both here and in the city of Oxnard as a whole, police say. But the five killings have shaken the sense of safety that many residents had taken for granted.

The bloody series of killings in this area of 2,800 families began with the New Year's Day slaying of two men shot in the head in Durley Park. One neighbor, who lives near the park, told police she heard two men arguing over how to kill their victims.

"I'll show you how to do it right," one of the men finally said before shooting Manuel Encarnacion, a 28-year-old gardener, and Jesus Silva Onofre, 22, who worked as a waiter.

Three weeks later, 16-year-old Felipe Hernandez was gunned down about 1:30 p.m. in front of shoppers at the aging Centerpoint Mall on the far southeastern corner of the neighborhood.

Police later arrested 22-year-old Victor Raul Aguilar, and two juveniles, all suspected gang members.

About two months later, 15-year-old former gang member Gabriel Gomez Torres was beaten to death with a bat on Hill Street less than a block from Durley Park. Police found Gabriel just after dawn, face down in a flower bed about three blocks from his home.

And then, in the most recent slaying, 17-year-old Jaime "Jinx" Morales, a former gang member on the mend who had plans to attend college, was chased down by three men July 25 in an alley near N and Hill streets. He was beaten to death.

Jaime's slaying was the 12th homicide in Oxnard since January, a 175% increase over the same period last year. The killings have sent shock waves throughout the city, but nowhere stronger than among the families of the dead.

At the Morales home on a cul-de-sac near Durley Park, many relatives complain that they have had trouble eating and sleeping since Jaime's death.

"I was worried about violence, but you never think it is going to happen to your family," said Jaime's brother, Anthony Morales, 27. "You just think this only happens on TV."

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