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Gang Bullets Pierce Santa Monica's Image

Violence: As turf wars cross city lines, officials seek to reassure residents and visitors of their safety.

October 29, 1998|JOHN L. MITCHELL and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

William Henry Juarez grieved over the shooting deaths of his two sons in, of all places, Santa Monica, with its reputation as a city comfortably safe from the gang wars around it.

But despite its reputation, Juarez had seen the danger lurking in Santa Monica and nearby areas.

"I moved to [Cayucos in] San Luis Obispo [County] to get away from the violence," he said, sitting in his mother's apartment in Santa Monica. "My sons were wonderful boys, they were not affiliated with any gangs. My heart goes out to the shooters' families. They don't know the damage their children have caused our family."

His sons, Michael, 27, and Anthony, 19, were killed Tuesday, becoming the latest victims in a string of retaliatory gang shootings in which four people have been slain in two weeks in the city. In addition, a German tourist was fatally shot in an unrelated attack outside an expensive beachfront hotel.

The unusual spate of violence--in a city that saw only one murder last year--has jolted residents and leaders alike who are accustomed to their town being in the spotlight for a beachfront lifestyle, chic restaurants and shops, affluent neighborhoods and liberal politics--not for bloody street violence.

City leaders, quick to protect Santa Monica's image as a major tourist haven--are responding to the crisis by minimizing its impact on everyday life in the city.

"This is a war between two gangs, and they are looking for gang members and they are not interested in anyone else," said Mayor Robert Holbrook. "What we've got is two gangs who are shooting at each other and we happen to be at one end of the battlefield."

Gang experts say that the shootings are the latest in a long-running feud among two to four Westside gangs that have long terrorized pockets of Mar Vista, Venice and other areas of the Westside. This time, however, the turf wars have crossed the border of Santa Monica.

Juarez said he saw the violent clouds gathering years ago, prompting him to pack up and move his family to the quieter town up the coast.

Michael and Anthony were visiting their cousin at a clothing shop he partly owns when the shooting occurred. Michael wanted to open a similar store in Cayucos. Anthony, who had just graduated from high school, was attending a local community college and wanted to be a landscape architect.

"The shootings have got to stop," sobbed Ginger Berg, Anthony's mother. "Losing a child is my worst nightmare come true. It's horrible. I hate guns."

The rash of shootings in Santa Monica began Oct. 12 with the killing of tourist Horst Fietze, 50, of Loebau, Germany. He was shot, apparently by robbers, during a stroll with his wife and another couple near the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

That same day, police said, Omar Sevilla, 22, a member of a Culver City street gang, was shot to death near Santa Monica High School. He had been released from prison and was enrolled in a substance abuse program.

The next weekend, in what police say was gang retaliation for Sevilla's death, gunfire killed one man and wounded another. Juan Martin Campos, a 28-year-old employee of the city of Santa Monica, was slain Oct. 17 as he tried to flee from two men who chased him into a liquor store. Javier Cruz, 25, was wounded Oct. 18 outside his home.

The wounding of Cruz, a Santa Monica College graduate who was attending UCLA, is the only recent Santa Monica shooting in which arrests have been made. Marcos Camarillo, 19, and Alex Acuna, 18, were booked on suspicion of attempted murder after being arrested at their homes in Culver City. Several firearms were recovered at the time of the arrests, police said.

The shootings of Michael and Anthony Juarez and the wounding of two others at the Westside clothing store fit the pattern of gang violence, said Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. The wounded, a customer and the store's part owner, Frank Juarez, were taken to nearby hospitals. Their conditions were listed as good.

"The gunmen walked in and started shooting without asking for money," Butts said. "We are very convinced that this is the work of a gang based in Culver City and Mar Vista who is acting out of retaliation against a Santa Monica gang."

In response to the violence, the Santa Monica Police Department has has increased cooperative efforts with neighboring police agencies and leased a helicopter and will offer updates on gang-related incidents nightly at 6 p.m. on the city's cable channel.

A multi-agency task force patrolling the streets Tuesday night arrested three gang members, one on suspicion of violating parole and two others on suspicion of involvement in a drive-by shooting earlier in the evening in which one person was wounded.

The Westside has long been home to at least five rival gangs, including the Culver City Boys and the Santa Monicas. Police suspect that Tuesday's shooting was triggered by the death of Sevilla, a Culver City Boy, but no one has been able to determine why Sevilla was killed or by whom.

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