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Neighborhood Holds Vigil to Defy Arsonist After 2 Homes Are Torched

Los Angeles

Crime: Police say the attack was meant to prevent organizing of a Neighborhood Watch.

November 17, 2001|MANUEL GAMIZ JR. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time in days, children laughed and played after dark in the 100 block of West 62nd Street in South-Central Los Angeles. Parents and grandparents sipped coffee and talked to neighbors they normally see only in the daytime.

The get-together of more than 100 residents Thursday was a show of support for Ramon Negrete, the area's Neighborhood Watch block captain, whose home was firebombed recently in an apparent act of retaliation.

Fire Department officials are investigating the incident, which police describe as an attempt to intimidate Negrete.

"It's terrorism," said Lt. Gary MacNamara of the Newton Division.

Negrete insists that the fire was the work of criminals who got word that he was organizing a Neighborhood Watch group for his block of West 62nd, near Main Street.

The 53-year-old Negrete expects to be back in the house in a few months and said he wants, more than ever, to continue his block captain post.

"I just want this street to be quiet and peaceful like it used to be," said Negrete, who had lived in the house for 20 years. "These criminals are not just punishing me, but they are punishing the entire neighborhood."

The neighbors are grateful for Negrete's work and said they will stand by him. At the gathering Thursday, they lit candles and prayed for an end to drugs and violence in the neighborhood.

"Thank you for taking a stand," Newton Division Capt. Reggie Maeweather told Negrete.

The fire tore through the gray house as Negrete, his wife and 21-year-old daughter prepared to have dinner Nov. 6. The daughter, America Negrete, said she heard liquid splashing against the house, something she now believes was gasoline used to start the fire.

Ramon Negrete smelled smoke and heard the sound of shattering windows. Soon the entire back part of his house, and an attached one-bedroom unit that he rented out to a mother and three children, were engulfed in flames.

The Negretes and the occupants of the attached unit ran outside and were not hurt.

Both homes were destroyed, but Negrete has insurance and will start rebuilding as soon as possible. In the meantime, he and his family are living with a 28-year-old son.

The nearby Numero Uno grocery store donated $1,000, and the police and city are helping Negrete until he rebuilds.

Newton police officers consider the incident similar to other cases of witness intimidation. Such incidents, officers said, happen entirely too often in the area.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time [the intimidation] is just a threat, but that is enough to scare most people into not talking," said Det. Kelle Baitx, who works on the gang and crimes against persons detail.

Baitx said the fire is being investigated as arson with potential counts of attempted murder.

The fire has prompted officials to consider eliminating access to a walkway, just outside Negrete's house, known for its high drug and gang activity.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who attended the vigil, said she is looking into ways to reduce crime near the Negrete house. One option includes closing the walkway. Another is additional lighting in the street and alley.

Negrete started working with police about a year ago. Soon afterward, he said, threats against him began. About a week before the fire, all the windows in America Negrete's car were smashed.

"I feel so bad for what happened," said Senior Lead Officer Reginald Gay, who patrols the area and who helped Negrete start the Neighborhood Watch group. "I was in that area before it happened but I was called away. When I saw what happened later that night, it was terrible."

America Negrete, who works in the Los Angeles Unified School District and attends Southwest College, fears for her father's safety but is proud of him.

"I'm still afraid, but he's my dad, and he just wants to help our neighborhood," she said.

Residents are signing up for the Neighborhood Watch group. A community meeting at the Newton police station, postponed because of the fire, may be held by the end of the month.

"This is horrible," said 38-year-old Sonia Sanchez, who lives just a few houses from Negrete. "We cannot be afraid to talk."

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