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9-Year-Old Boy Dies After Being Hit by Stray Bullet

Holiday: Head wound apparently resulted from gun fired into air.

July 06, 1999|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 9-year-old boy died Monday evening after he was hit in the head by a bullet apparently fired indiscriminately into the air during Fourth of July celebrations.

Brian Perez died a day after being admitted to County-USC Medical Center with a bullet wound that reportedly penetrated his brain. He never regained consciousness after collapsing on his front porch while playing a game with friends.

Los Angeles police, who for years have campaigned to end indiscriminate shooting of firearms on the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve, said they would investigate the incident as a homicide. They had no suspects as of Monday night, they said.

Police are seeking witnesses who may know the shooter's identity.

Brian was the 39th person killed in Los Angeles County since 1985 from bullets fired into the air during raucous Independence Day and New Year's Eve celebrations, police said, citing a 1995 study by Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center.

Brian, described by a friend as a "good kid" who usually stayed in his yard, was playing in front of his family's modest home on 75th Street with other children about 8:50 p.m. Sunday as his parents cooked hot dogs and corn during a frontyard barbecue.

Moments earlier, a nearby aerial fireworks display ended with a crescendo of exploding fireballs that the enthralled children had watched from their frontyard.

With the fireworks over, the children, playing, lined up on Brian's porch in stairstep fashion, with the tallest on one end and the shortest on the other.

Then it appeared as if one of the children pushed the others and they tumbled to the ground like dominoes, a next-door neighbor said. The youngsters, crying, picked themselves up. All, that is, except Brian.

Unknown to those around him, he had been hit in the head by a bullet that plummeted out of the sky with a velocity of at least 300 feet per second, penetrating his skull and apparently lodging in his brain.

"The little brother of Brian went inside to get his mom. He said, 'Brian doesn't want to get up.' We were saying, 'Brian. Get up!' Then his mom went, 'Brian, get up please. Stop playing around,' " Karina De La Cruz, the neighbor, told reporters.

Then, De La Cruz said, the boy's mother saw her son bleeding from the head.

"His mom was holding Brian. She was just crying," Brian's friend, Hector Ardon, 12, told reporters. De La Cruz said she called 911, and paramedics rushed to the scene. "He didn't want to breathe. He was so pale. There was just a lot of blood," said De La Cruz, whose 4-year-old son, Mario Hernandez, was only "inches" from Brian when he was hit.

Her son came running home in tears, crying in Spanish, "Mom! Brian's dead! He has a lot of blood on his hand!' "

Lt. William A. Guerrero, an LAPD spokesman, said the boy's parents at first thought he had been hit by a rock. He said paramedics discovered that his wound was from a bullet.

"Apparently a bullet fired by someone celebrating the Fourth of July found its way to this area and hit poor, 9-year-old Brian Perez in the head," Guerrero said. "It's a very tragic and unfortunate incident."

National Rifle Assn. studies show that perfectly vertical shots return to earth close to where they were fired. Pistol bullets fired at even a slight angle will follow an arc that could bring them down blocks away. Rifle shots can travel several miles.

When a bullet is fired into the air, a typical slug climbs at a velocity of about 2,700 feet per second and can soar as high as two miles. It can stay in the air more than a minute before falling to earth.

Depending on its orientation and weight, the speed of descent can vary from 300 to 500 feet per second.

Usually bullets fall base-first, exposing a broader area to air resistance. But if it falls point first, speeds can be 50% higher.

A speed of only 100 feet per second is necessary to penetrate the skin, and 200 feet per second is sufficient to break bone and penetrate the skull, according to the 1995 research by physicians at King/Drew Medical Center.

The mortality rate from such random shootings, about 32%, is much higher than the 2% to 6% normally associated with gunshot wounds, the King/Drew study found. That is probably because 77% of the victims were hit in the head.

Three-fourths of survivors hit by so-called "space bullets," the study said, suffer severe long-term disabilities, including paraplegia, quadriplegia, seizures and chronic pain.

The study also reported that 118 people were treated at that hospital for such injuries on the two holidays, and 38 of them died between 1985 and the end of 1992.

While the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported only about half a dozen deaths in the same period, Guerrero cited the 38-fatality figure. The most recent had been in 1992.

"We've seen a decline in these instances," Guerrero said. "The sad part is it only takes one."

Gunfire-related calls to police dispatch centers showed 600 such incidents on New Year's Eve in 1996, down from 788 in 1992 but up slightly from 567 in 1995.

Guerrero said Monday there were 613 gunfire-related calls in 1997, the latest figures available.

On Monday, neighbors on the narrow residential street with modest but well-kept homes milled about outside, attempting to make sense of the tragedy.

Chalky residue from burned-out flares served as a mute reminder of an Independence Day celebration turned tragic.

De La Cruz leaned against her frontyard fence under a hot sun recalling the bloody scene next door. She doesn't want her son Mario to know what happened.

She paused a moment. "My baby was next to him," she said of Mario. "It could have been my son, or my daughter."

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