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Waitress, Patron Slain in Pico-Union Restaurant

August 10, 2003|Hector Becerra and Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writers

A customer and waitress at a Pico-Union restaurant were killed in front of several dozen diners by a suspected gang member who opened fire after he and others were asked to leave, according to police and witnesses.

Yesenia Rodriguez, who along with her family owned the Flor Blanca restaurant, died on the way to County-USC Medical Center, one day before her 29th birthday, police said.

The customer, identified by police as Manuel De Jesus Rivas Carillo, 24, died at the scene.

Late Saturday, three to four assailants were still at large.

"He opened fire like a madman," said Marlene Castellon, 34, the restaurant manager and Rodriguez's sister, who was eating there when the shots were fired. "It's a miracle he didn't kill more people."

Detectives at the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division station were interviewing witnesses late Saturday, trying to sort out differing accounts.

Officer Dan Cox, an LAPD spokesman, said at the scene that the alleged gang members had been asked to leave and then returned to the restaurant with a gun. The owners and some witnesses said that the shooter opened fire immediately after Rodriguez saw a gun and tried to block their entry.

Flor Blanca, a Salvadoran restaurant on Alvarado Street near 8th Street, has been a part of the neighborhood for more than a decade. Located between a TV repair shop and a pet store in a strip mall, it serves pupusas and chicken and vegetables to a loyal band of patrons, many of whom live within walking distance.

Rodriguez, Castellon and another sister, Yanira Valdez, 27, worked at the restaurant that their mother, Juana Valdez, 51, opened soon after the family arrived in Los Angeles from El Salvador.

Juana Valdez was in the restaurant's kitchen when the shooting started shortly after 4 p.m. She heard the gunfire, ran into the dining room, and saw Rodriguez lying on the floor as the gunman ran out.

"We came to this country to work. And look what happens -- a man took the life of my daughter," she said.

Rodriguez was the mother of two children: Dennis, 8, and Jessica, 4. Her husband, Manuel,, worked Saturday so he could take Sunday off to be with his wife on her birthday, family members said.

"She was the best," Juana Valdez said. "She was a beautiful person. All the customers said she was one of the friendliest people."

Mark Downing, a janitor who has worked for the family for 10 years, said that, when he returned from lunch, the area was cordoned off with police tape.

"It's like crazy," he said, running his fingers through his hair. "I don't believe this."

Downing said that he was homeless, living in the mall's parking lot, trying to clean car windows for change, when the oldest of three sisters who help operate the restaurant paid him to take out the trash.

She asked him to return the next day.

Eventually, he became the janitor for the restaurant and other stores in the strip mall.

"They are my adopted sisters," he said. "They are my adopted family."

As police investigated the shooting, people on the busy street said that they see gang members in the neighborhood and that there had been previous conflicts in the restaurant.

Ricardo Moreno, president of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, described the area around the strip mall -- dense with homes and businesses -- as one with a lot of prostitution, gang conflicts and illegal document sales.

"It's a very hot area," Moreno said. "You can buy a .38-caliber on the streets here pretty cheap."

Last week, Police Chief William J. Bratton and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo had a news conference at nearby MacArthur Park after filing charges against 22 people accused of selling counterfeit documents in the area.

Moreno said that police investigating the shooting have a challenge ahead of them.

"I can tell you, there were probably 80 witnesses to the shooting, but none is likely to talk," he said. "It's the population that is made up of many undocumented immigrants. They are afraid of reporting things to the authorities.

"Honest people around here respect a code of silence because they are afraid of retaliation."

Late Saturday, on the steps of County-USC Medical Center, where she had gone to claim her sister's body, Castellon made a plea to witnesses to the shooting.

"The people have to talk about what they saw," she said. "I know these men didn't come in looking for her. They were looking for someone else."

*

Times staff writers Daren Briscoe and Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this report.

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