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Man Scheduled to Donate a Kidney Is Slain

Friends of the victim -- including the one who was supposed to receive the organ -- plead for the public's help in finding his killer.

June 14, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

It shouldn't have ended that way, say the friends of Jonathan Merino Escalante -- not for a friend like that.

Escalante, 25, of Arleta was slain Sunday in a robbery in the Mid-City area, just as he was preparing to be a possible kidney donor to a childhood friend. On Friday, Aristides Cerna, 25, who said he suffers from a lifelong kidney ailment, pleaded for the public's help in finding the killer.

"I lost a friend," said Cerna, who will now receive a kidney from his younger sister. "It's one thing when it's a natural death. But this -- a friend who wanted to help me like this -- it's just impossible to think that another person could do this."

Police said Escalante was sitting in a car talking with a friend after 2 a.m. Sunday in the 3000 block of West 12th Street when a light-skinned man with blond streaks in his hair and wearing a shiny yellow nylon jacket brandished a gun and robbed him.

The suspect then went to the passenger side of the car and tried to rob Escalante's companion, said Wilshire Division Det. Tom Murrell of the Los Angeles Police Department. She screamed, and when Escalante tried to come to her aid, the robber shot him, Murrell said.

The man escaped in a light-blue late-1980s Chevrolet Suburban.

Cerna was among Escalante's friends who gathered at a news conference in Los Angeles on Friday to plead for help in finding his killer.

They stood grimly before the cameras -- half a dozen young men, all from the town of Berlin, El Salvador -- childhood buddies who had played soccer together and supported each other through the trials of immigrating and starting new lives in the U.S. For years they had stayed in touch, calling long distance and visiting when they could -- more like brothers, they said, than friends.

"You don't know how much we miss him," said Gilmer Ramirez, 25, of Dallas.

Although the men had immigrated in small groups to different parts of the country, Escalante was always trying to make sure the bonds stayed strong, his friends said. And when one of their number fell gravely ill, it was Escalante who stepped in, offering to donate a kidney to Cerna.

Cerna said his kidney ailment, which requires him to get dialysis nightly, had recently taken a turn for the worse. He was suffering infections and growing steadily sicker.

"Think of the heart he had," said Jorge Bonilla, 23, who drove from Houston for the news conference. "He just had to help his friend."

Police said Escalante died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Murrell said miscommunication may have prevented doctors from removing the kidney.

Blanca Merino, Escalante's mother, said she arrived at the hospital about 9 p.m Sunday, and waited there until 2 a.m., trying to get officials to pay attention to her request that her son's organs be donated.

Cedars officials said patientprivacy laws prohibited them from commenting on the matter. "I certainly would want to communicate this to someone," said hospital spokeswoman Leslie Porras. "We would want to know more about it."

Officials with the Los Angeles County coroner's office said they could not comment on the specifics of the case, but said that, in general, many factors can complicate organ donation in cases of homicide. These include the swiftness of death, the need to preserve the body for investigation and possible injury to needed organs.

Escalante died quickly. He was pronounced dead about 45 minutes from the time he was shot in the abdomen.

Police are asking anyone with information about the suspect or the vehicle to call (213) 473-0400, or (213) 485-4022 after hours.

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