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Suspect Is Held in 2 Slayings at Restaurant

A shootout between rival gang members may have been behind the deaths of a waitress and customer, according to police.

August 19, 2003|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

A suspected gang member believed to have been involved in a shootout inside a Pico-Union restaurant that left a waitress and a customer dead was arrested, a police detective said Monday.

Robert Martinez, 29, was near the back of the Flor Blanca restaurant on 8th and Alvarado streets Aug. 9 when another gang member entered and started gunning for him, LAPD Det. Jeff Breuer said.

During the ensuing shootout in front of dozens of diners, including relatives of both victims, waitress Yesenia Rodriguez, 28, and Manuel DeJesus Rivas Carrillo were shot.

Carrillo died in the restaurant and Rodriguez died on her way to the hospital after her mother, a cook, tried to stop her bleeding.

LAPD Capt. Charlie Beck said Martinez may have shot Rodriguez under the chin as the other, unidentified, gunman dragged her toward the front door, possibly using her as a shield. Martinez was wounded in the shooting, he said.

"This case is far from being closed," Beck said, noting that the other gunman and two other people who fled with him in a gray 1980s Datsun or Nissan had not been found.

Despite a $25,000 reward and pleas for help, Breuer said police had received no tips, but had relied instead on interviews and their own street intelligence to find Martinez and piece together what had happened in the restaurant.

Martinez was arrested without incident late Friday inside a business near the restaurant, Breuer said.

Until the other gunman is identified and arrested, Beck said, it is unlikely police will know the motive for the shootout.

"Was it a personal vendetta, narcotics-related? We don't know," he said.

Rodriguez's eldest sister, Marlene Castellon, 34, purchased Flor Blanca in 1991, six years after her mother, Juana Valdez, left the cotton fields and poverty of their native El Salvador.

Castellon, Rodriguez and youngest sister Yanira Valdez had worked at the restaurant ever since.

At times, they weathered threats from gang members in the crowded neighborhood where peddlers of illegal documents, extortionists, prostitutes and gang bangers share space with shoppers, workers and business people.

Witnesses said Martinez had briefly chatted with Carrillo near the front of the restaurant before Rodriguez called him to the back. She had asked him not to come back, concerned about the people he attracted to the place, her family said.

Minutes later, a gunman walked into the restaurant and the two men opened fire. During the attack, the unidentified gunman grabbed for another waitress, but she slipped from his grasp, witnesses said. He then grabbed Rodriguez and pulled her toward the door.

She died one day before her 29th birthday, leaving a husband and two small children behind.

Relatives said Carrillo was planning to bring his wife and son from El Salvador next month.

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