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Glendale Shaken by Slaying of Student

Communities: Raul Aguirre's killing at the hands of alleged Armenian American gang members has many asking how to end long-simmering ethnic tensions.

May 07, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and LEE CONDON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Raul Aguirre hadn't been in a gang. He didn't have any tattoos. And after school, he worked at Taco Bell to help pay the rent on his family's apartment.

Police, school officials and family said 17-year-old Raul had steered clear of trouble in his working-class Glendale neighborhood and was going to graduate from Herbert Hoover High School next month and join the Marines.

But Raul was killed Friday in a gang-related fight, police said, after being stabbed twice in the heart, twice in the back and clubbed in the head with a tire iron. It started after school at Hoover and ended across the street at a middle school in front of about 40 children.

Although Hoover has been grappling with violence between Latino and Armenian American students for several years, police say this is the first time a student has been killed as a result of those hostilities.

"We've had a reluctance on the part of many people to recognize that this is an issue," said Glendale Police Sgt. Rick Young.

Raul, who wore his Mexican soccer jersey to school to mark Cinco de Mayo, intervened in the Friday fight, police said, and took the side of a Latino teenager who had been jumped by two Armenian American teenagers. The Armenian American boys and the Latino youth were gang members, and the fight erupted after they flashed gang signs, police said.

"Senseless," said Hoover Assistant Principal Sarah O'Reilly. "That's what I keep coming back to--how senseless this was. Raul was a really good kid. Did these boys know they were taking a life?"

The two Armenian American boys, ages 17 and 15, and a 14-year-old girl were booked Friday on suspicion of murder. The 17-year-old is a former Hoover student who had been expelled. None of them knew Raul, authorities said.

It was the second time in two years that a Hoover student had been killed just outside campus, authorities said. The other fatal fight, in September 1998, was between Armenian American teenagers and didn't involve a Latino.

But Hoover students and recent graduates said the 2,800-student school is polarized between the two ethnicities. The groups don't mingle much in the cafeteria or on the yard, they said, and often when there's an argument between a Latino and an Armenian American, more students get involved, splitting along ethnic lines.

"I've known about Armenians fighting Hispanics ever since I was in junior high," said Asin Smith, a 22-year-old who graduated from Hoover four years ago. "It's just part of the culture."

The trouble started Friday at 3:45 p.m. in front of the school as Raul was waiting for a bus to take him to work. The two Armenian American boys pulled up in a car and flashed gang signs at the 17-year-old Latino boy, whom Raul casually knew and who was also waiting at the bus stop, said Sgt. Young.

The two Armenian Americans stepped out of the car and attacked the boy, Young said, adding that Raul jumped in, and the brawl spilled across the street to a sidewalk in front of Toll Middle School.

The 15-year-old Armenian American boy ran back to the car, grabbed a tire iron, and in front of a crowd of 40 middle school and high school students, struck Raul across the face, Young said. Then the 17-year-old stabbed Raul four times with a small knife, leaving him crumpled on the sidewalk.

The Latino teenager, whom police would not identify, ran away, as did the Armenian American boys. Raul was taken to County-USC Medical Center, where he died two hours later. The Armenian American boys and the girl were arrested hours later. The 17-year-old boy is from Glendale and the 15-year-old from North Hollywood. The girl is a Los Angeles resident.

All three were being held at Eastlake Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.

Herbert Petrosyan, a recent Hoover graduate who is Armenian American, agreed that there are ethnic tensions, but he said it cuts both ways, with Latinos sometimes instigating the violence.

For decades Latinos were the dominant minority in Glendale. But with a massive wave of immigration in the last 20 years, Young said, Armenian Americans have become the new "majority minority" in Glendale, now about 35% of the city's population.

The problem is not just at school. Many newly arrived families live in overcrowded apartments in the southwestern part of the city, and buildings are typically split by race.

"I see [bias] everywhere I go," Young said. "I see hatred projected through little statements and looks."

Frank Quintero, chairman of the Glendale Youth Alliance, said the community should focus on more activities that will bridge the ethnic divide. And he thinks Glendale should come to grips with its gang problem.

"All of the various youth programs need to be focused on kids who are gangbangers," he said.

Glendale Councilman Gus Gomez said the city needs to get involved in healing the rift between Armenian American and Latino youths.

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