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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Neighborhood Badly Shaken by Recent Shootings

Crime: Newbury Park residents say the incidents, including teen's slaying, make them want to move.

May 02, 2000|FRED ALVAREZ and TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEWBURY PARK — It was Friday night when the first shooting erupted, as two carloads of Salvadoran gang members blew in from Van Nuys and raked the Conejo Creek condominium complex with gunfire, killing one man and wounding another, authorities say.

By Sunday afternoon more Van Nuys gang members had arrived, officials say, this time opening fire on a group on its way to a memorial service for the slain man, 19-year-old Edgar Cruz.

Two shootings in one weekend.

Here, in one of the nation's safest cities, law enforcement officials are scrambling to quell a spate of violence at the complex believed to be stemming from run-ins between a man tied to the Salvadoran gang and residents from Mexico.

Though no one was injured in Sunday's incident, the shootings have residents of this long-troubled west-end neighborhood talking about packing up and moving, fearful that the next hail of gunfire will take one of their own.

"It was pretty quiet for a long time, but in the past few weeks there have been a lot of fights, and now this killing," said six-year resident Norma Barillas, who lives with her husband and their six children half a block from where Cruz was gunned down.

"I'm scared for our kids," she added. "I can't let them be outside without feeling the fear that they might be shot."

Although gang violence once overwhelmed the complex, deputies who regularly patrol the area say problems had diminished.

Authorities say the recent shootings are clearly gang related, a feud pitting the Van Nuys gang against gang members from Thousand Oaks.

Investigators say a man with ties to the Salvadoran gang recently moved into the complex and has had problems with local residents and other gang members.

Though there are few details on what sparked the feud, authorities say it centers on cultural rivalries between the Salvadoran man and his Mexican neighbors.

In recent weeks, fights escalated between the two sides, prompting the Salvadoran to call on his friends in Van Nuys for backup, police said.

"These are out-of-towners brought in to ensure the safety of one of their buddies," Sheriff Bob Brooks said.

To restore order to the community, Brooks has assigned as many as eight extra deputies to patrol the complex each night for at least a week. Sheriff's officials also have organized a "town hall" meeting for Wednesday night so that residents can voice their concerns.

There is even talk of returning a deputy to a neighborhood center in the condominium complex. The officer had been stationed there for six months, ending in January.

In this neighborhood, bordered by tall trees and tidy lawns, residents are shaken by the resurgence of violence.

They say their horseshoe-shaped complex of 540 units has had its share of problems through the years. But they say it has never been this bad.

"It's getting worse all the time," said two-year resident Antonio Cervantes, an unemployed landscaper who says he would move tomorrow if he had the means. "It's very scary. You never know who could be hurt next."

Nowhere is that sense of doom more evident than at the second-story unit rented by Edgar Cruz's aunt, Olivia Alamilla.

Red-eyed and grieving, the 27-year-old Mexican immigrant said her nephew moved in with her in February and was working at a nearby electronics factory to earn money to send to his family in Mexico.

She said he had taken to sporting a shaved head and wearing the baggy clothing often associated with gang members. But she said he was not a gang member. He was a hard worker, she said, a man simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"He wasn't a bad boy--he didn't drink and he didn't smoke," she said. "I don't know why this had to happen."

On Monday morning, Alamilla sat in her living room making plans with Cruz's uncle, Pedro Caballero Cruz, to return to Hidalgo, Mexico to bury the body.

Pedro Cruz said there have been increasing tensions in the Conejo Creek complex between Mexican immigrants and those from Central America.

He said his nephew was at the scene of a fight between members of those two groups more than a week ago, but didn't have anything directly to do with the incident.

Then on Friday, about 8:30 p.m., as neighbors stood outside their condominiums talking and as small children played in the street, two carloads of men pulled up next to 19-year-old Edgar Cruz and his friend Andres Morales, 18, and opened fire.

Cruz died at the scene. Morales was treated for his wounds at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks and released Sunday.

"They gunned him down like an animal," said Pedro Cruz, his eyes red from crying. "He didn't deserve to die like that."

The Conejo Creek complex has long been a hot spot for police, who have logged an average of 850 calls for service during the past few years, 40% of those occurring on weekends.

Most were for minor complaints--loud parties, drinking in public, heated domestic arguments.

But at times, violence has erupted.

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