PACOIMA — Breeding new fears of escalating gang violence in the northeast San Fernando Valley, six gang members were wounded Sunday morning in a drive-by shooting that triggered an apparent retaliation just minutes later, police said.
Following the shootings, police arrested two men driving a Cadillac and carrying a loaded semiautomatic pistol near a hospital where some of the victims were being treated. They were being held in connection with the second attack.
"We don't know exactly what started this," said LAPD Lt. Jeff Hulet, a watch commander at the Foothill Division station. "But there had to be something going on for six people to get hit."
The violent chain of events began at about 4 a.m. in the 10800 block of Lehigh Avenue, when a car drove by and sprayed five men and a woman with bullets. The victims, one of whom was expected to have a leg amputated, were rushed to three hospitals. Two were listed in serious condition, while the remaining three were not seriously wounded, police said.
Twenty minutes after the shootings, patrol officers heard gunfire from the 13000 block of Filmore Street, just a few blocks away from the first shooting on Lehigh. Nobody was injured in what police described as a retaliation attack. Police said most of the bullets hit cars parked in front of a home that appeared to be the target.
Police initially had no suspects in either of the drive-bys. But they got a break several hours later, when two patrol officers spotted a Cadillac near Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, where some of the shooting victims were being treated.
Officers Steve Garcia and Monica Chavez were on patrol duty about 8:30 a.m. when they spotted two men riding in the car, neither of them wearing seat belts. Garcia said when they ran the car's license plate number, it came back with several warrants.
After stopping the car in the hospital's parking lot, Garcia said Chavez made a discovery when she reached into the car to retrieve the registration.
"When she went into the car she saw a pistol grip of a weapon on the floor of the car," Garcia said. "We were fortunate that another unit happened to be in the area because the weapon was very much in plain view and was fully loaded with one in the chamber. . . . We don't know what could have happened."
The officers discovered spent shell casings in the car that matched bullets recovered from inside the cars at the scene of the second shooting, Chavez said.
Chavez added that the suspects told police they were going to the hospital to visit victims from the shooting on Lehigh. She said that the passenger had blood on his pant leg, but refused to explain how it got there.
Police booked the men, both Pacoima residents in their 20s whose names were withheld, on suspicion of shooting into an inhabited dwelling and illegal possession of an assault weapon. As a precaution, officers from the division's specialized gang unit were called in Sunday afternoon to help investigate and hopefully stave off further attacks.
The shootings shattered what had been a relatively peaceful summer and fall in the northeast San Fernando Valley, which has long been plagued by gang-related violence.
"It's actually been a pretty quiet summer," said Garcia, who spent part of the summer working in the Foothill Division's gang unit. "There were no gang shootings. . . . As far as I know this is the first of its kind this year."
Indeed, statistics for the first six months of the year showed a 36% drop in gang-related crimes in Foothill. Some community leaders speculated that a nearly 3-year-old truce among Latino Valley gangs, which had frayed last year, was on the mend.
Whether Sunday's shootings, which appeared to involve rival gangs, signal a renewal of violence remains to be seen.
"We know they have been fighting for a while," Hulet said. "What we don't know is what they're fighting over."