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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Murder Case That Cries Out for Closure

October 14, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

Who killed Francisco Hernandez?

Somebody did. He was standing at a corner pay phone on a Sunday morning, nine days after his 19th birthday, talking to his pregnant fiancee. It was 10 minutes before 8 o'clock. The sun was up. People were passing by on foot. People were passing by in cars. Somebody must have seen who shot Francisco and drove off.

A car came by with a white stripe down the side, 8 inches thick. It was a dark--maybe gray--sport utility vehicle, a Bronco or a Blazer, relatively late model.

Two young guys were in it.

Francisco was just up the block from his home in Panorama City, where he lived with his mother, his three sisters and his younger brother. He put on a black plaid shirt, beige pants and black shoes and took a walk to a corner store. For privacy's sake, he used a pay phone at the corner of Plummer and Woodman to call his girlfriend, Monica Duran.

The shots from the car were fired by a large caliber handgun. They hit Francisco several times in the upper torso.

A few days later, his family passed out fliers in the neighborhood, seeking witnesses to the crime. This was back in September. September 1996.

*

Det. Roberta Moore works a lot of cases, knows that some will never be solved. It's just the way things are.

Once in a while, though, a murder tugs at your sleeve, keeps a cop believing two years later that somebody's still going to call her at the LAPD with a couple of leads.

"All homicides are exasperating," Moore says, outside the Van Nuys division's headquarters. "But yes, I do believe that with this particular murder, considering the time of day and the place, somebody had to have seen what happened."

And so, the detective personally asked the city to reissue a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. The numbers to call are (818) 756-8377 or (213) 485-2504.

Glad to oblige, City Councilman Richard Alarcon still feels strongly: "This case is solvable. We think there are definitely people who witnessed it."

The reward was first offered in 1996, but no one came forward.

Months went by without the Hernandez family ever knowing why Francisco got gunned down.

"It's very difficult," Moore says, "because there's no closure for Francisco, or for the child that he never saw."

It is a beautiful child, a boy who was born after his dad died.

Francisco Hernandez III is 1 1/2 now. He was wearing a red shirt and shorts and chewing on a pacifier Tuesday while he was carried to the Van Nuys station in his grandmother's arms.

Kathleen Hernandez can't forget Sept. 22, 1996, or the sound of her son being killed.

"I heard the gunfire," she says.

"It was one of those sounds where you hope that it is just a car making that noise, a backfire. I didn't want to think the worst. But I did anyway, and I went outside and ran up the street and there he was, lying on the ground.

"I said, 'Say something, please!'

"But he did not."

She squeezes the baby.

"This one," she says, "he is my son's exact image." Nearby stands an aunt of the slain young man, holding a poster showing two photographs, one of Francisco III, one of his father.

Naomi Hernandez makes a formal appeal to the public, asking anyone who saw anything to speak up. "If we stay quiet," she says, "the violence will only continue."

His loved ones still don't know if gang members mistook Francisco for someone else, or if, for some reason, he was the shooter's target all along.

"This is a boy," his mother says, "who, although he got into fights at school, he never spoke back to a teacher, never had to be disciplined in any way.

"This was a boy who slept at home. He was not gone for days at a time, where you did not know where he is. This was a boy who came home nights."

*

A few days after the shooting, Kathleen Hernandez walked down Plummer Street to hand out some fliers with pictures of her son.

She still remembers a little girl who looked at Francisco's photo and said, "I know him. He helped me with my bike."

Two years later, a poster in Naomi Hernandez's hands has the words "They Didn't Deserve This" written across the top.

There are two photographs on it.

One is of her nephew, lying in his coffin.

The other is of a 1 1/2-year-old boy, setting flowers on his father's grave.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail mike.downey@latimes.com.

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