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Mortal Wounds | COLUMN ONE

Where Eye for an Eye Is Justice

Revenge shootings are common, even expected, on the streets of South L.A. Police race to find suspects before the gang on the victim's turf does.

November 18, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Four days after his cousin was gunned down a few blocks away, a 14-year-old youth sat alone in a dark house, thinking.

He had spent sleepless nights since a man had walked up to his cousin, Anthony Brown, 16, at 8th and Vernon avenues, and fired repeatedly into his chest at close range. Anthony, a tall, skinny, popular boy who loved practical jokes, stumbled a few feet, then fell, bleeding to death on the pavement.

Now, his cousin wondered, would the killer ever pay? Would someone take revenge?

The question hovers around many killings in South Los Angeles, where one homicide often means another in a ruthless pattern of payback.

As old as humanity, as modern as drive-by shootings, revenge propels the cycle of violent deaths on L.A. streets. Retaliation shootings are so common that some police view them as inevitable. "You get one shooting, and you can count on it: It will prompt one back," said LAPD Officer Kyle Remolino. "One shooting, then another. Back and forth."

Anthony Brown's close friends were not in gangs, nor were he and his cousin. But in the week after Anthony's death, this 14-year-old talked about why he was certain there would be retaliation.

Even though Anthony had resisted the pressure to join gangs, he knew gang members; it's nearly impossible to grow up in the neighborhood without knowing them, his cousin said.

Shock and anger over Anthony's killing were widespread. Emotions were running high. Anthony's death was bound to be viewed by some as an attack on the neighborhood. What's more, his cousin acknowledged, the idea of payback made sense. Thoughts of taking revenge on the killer had been on his mind since the murder, he said.

"I just wanted his family to feel what we are going through," the youth said. "He didn't show no remorse, so why should we? An eye for an eye -- you know?"

High up in law enforcement circles, gang violence is frequently attributed to cold calculations over drugs or territory, or else dismissed as so-called senseless violence, the product of inexplicable perversity.

But closer to the ground, police often find themselves confronting a more basic, human factor: overpowering grief and the yearning for revenge. "People have been hurt to the [extent that] they don't care no more, and don't know no consequences," said a 21-year-old Eastside Hustler gang member, who gave only his gang name, "Color."

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Challenge for Police

The challenge for law enforcement is to try to ensure that justice is served instead of vengeance. "It's almost a race," said Sal LaBarbera, an LAPD detective in Watts. "Can we arrest a suspect before they are retaliated against?"

Police employ a handful of strategies -- deploying extra patrols where they anticipate the next hit, for example, and monitoring funerals of some homicide victims. One such operation last month in Inglewood Park Cemetery became the scene of a gun battle when some men attacked mourners from a rival gang, and Inglewood Police officers opened fire on the alleged suspects.

High emotions at funerals have spilled over into violence on other occasions in South Los Angeles. The problem is familiar to the detectives on Anthony's case, who are investigating the possibility that his death was linked to a funeral that day.

Some police also advocate more widespread use of the negotiation tactics employed informally by some investigators in South Los Angeles who try to stop retaliation cycles through sheer persuasion. Besides extra patrols, Cmdr. Jim Tatreau said he tries to send "people who have the ability to go out and converse," after a homicide.

"You need people who know how to talk to people about why they shouldn't retaliate," Tatreau said.

There is also another, straightforward remedy many experts say is key to stopping the cycle: Solve more murders.

There have been hundreds of unsolved killings in LAPD's South Bureau in recent years, and solution rates of below 50% have been typical in high-crime areas over the last 15 years, according to a Times analysis. Especially in poor black and Latino neighborhoods, there is skepticism that police will catch the right people. In some close-knit communities, the victim's loved ones may have a good idea who the killer is, or which gang is responsible. But police lag a step behind, often hampered because witnesses are too fearful to testify.

In such a context, the idea of street justice occurs to many law-abiding survivors.

"I know Anthony wasn't a gang member," explained his cousin. "But to the police, he was just another gang member. That's why people will take it on themselves. They will take it into their own hands."

"There is a lack of faith in the whole judicial system," said Sheriff's Capt. Cecil Rhambo.

Thorough investigations and swift arrests may help forestall paybacks, said Det. Dave Garrido, who is investigating Anthony Brown's murder. Recognizing the emotions involved, he called for witnesses to Anthony's killing to cooperate, "so that we can take retaliation for them."

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