LA HABRA — This is not the sort of city that craves attention, much less the sort of attention it is getting these days.
Since Jan. 1, four people have been killed in and around La Habra, a community of 54,000 people where four slayings in a year are usually enough to raise alarm. A place where a wave of gang posturing back in 1991 was fought so quickly and so completely that residents and police thought they had the battle against crime won.
But this year's killings are more disturbing because of both their number and nature. They involve a child who was dismembered. A mechanic beaten to death. A teenage girl killed by a stalker who then killed himself. And, on Sunday, an elderly woman found slain in her bedroom, a crime law enforcement officials are struggling to solve.
"It's upsetting, very upsetting, to have to deal with things like this. This is not what La Habra is really all about," said Jim Gomez, a shop manager who grew up here and has never thought of leaving. "I just feel very sad that this all has happened. It doesn't make sense. It's not like La Habra."
Squeezed in a narrow valley between the Puente Hills on the north and the Coyote Hills on the south, La Habra has become accustomed to being ignored. The freeways, and much of the crime associated with them, long ago passed the city by.
Next door, Brea got the shopping mall. La Habra got boarded-up shops, blight and two telephone area codes.
But La Habra also got something more:
A Police Department whose officers generally have enough time to make themselves liked and to keep their eyes out for trouble before it breeds. A community where more than 1,000 people attended a prayer breakfast last May and vowed to pray every day for the well-being of city leaders. Decent schools. Relative harmony along with the recent influx of immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East who have changed the face of the city.
And now the slayings. More than one a month. Violent deaths that have come so fast, one atop the other, that the Police Department is worrying about going over its yearly budget for overtime. Volunteers have poured into police headquarters to help. And television and newspaper reporters have learned by heart the major streets of a city they more often overlook.
La Habra's quiet was broken in 1991, after a gang of teenage girls moved in and other gangs followed. That year, there were six homicides, all gang-related.
And for the first time anyone in La Habra could remember, families stopped walking on the streets after dark. Children were told not to use the park. Parents were scared.
Police, schools and city leaders didn't wait for the gang problem to get worse. In 1992, the Police Department and four other agencies applied for and got a $500,000 state grant to combat the problem. The city installed brighter street lights and illuminated parks. Schools started counseling programs. Probation officers enforced curfews on gang members who had been in trouble with the law before. Code enforcement officers scoured the city's subdivisions and apartments for violations of health and fire ordinances.
The program was such a success that it was cited by the California Department of Justice as a model for other cities La Habra's size. Today, gang-related killings are considered a thing of the past. Robberies are down in the city 43% since 1993. Assaults 38%. Thefts 22%.
Then in January, the New Year's parties had barely been cleaned up when an auto shop owner, Don Gilchrist, was beaten to death in his Whittier Boulevard shop. In February, Glenn Brabham, a Moreno Valley man, killed Desiree Roman, a 15-year-old girl he was enamored with, before killing himself. Then on March 21, the dismembered body of Juan Delgado was found, encased in concrete, allegedly by a panhandler who had been following the young boy.
And on Sunday, the day after Delgado was buried, Charlotte Snowden-Meissner, 60, was killed inside her home in an unincorporated area near La Habra. Deputies are searching for her roommate, Roy Wallace, 44, saying they are concerned for his safety.
"I hope people aren't afraid to move here. This is a great little community, and we're working very hard to get it cleaned up," said Mayor Dorothy Rush, who was elected to the City Council in 1994, after she led a fight against the culprits who had shot at and vandalized her home.
"It's very discouraging that these things have happened in such a short time. I just feel very sad. I just sat down and cried on Sunday when I heard about the latest murder."
Jaime Austria, 28, was having lunch at a popular La Habra Boulevard market Monday as he talked in low tones about the wave of killings.
"It's incredible, one murder after another after another after another," Austria said. "I feel sick. What's next?"
Along La Habra's potholed streets, its avenues with power lines stretched over them, its fast-food restaurants, carnicerias and half-empty strip malls, the people of this city are asking the same question.