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Aspiring Ballplayer Killed in Shooting

Angel Lopez, a popular athlete, is shot by gang members who crash his backyard party.

September 01, 2003|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

The hour was late and the crowd was thinning at a backyard party in Mar Vista last weekend when a group of gang members confronted partygoers.

Twenty-year-old Angel Lopez, a pitcher for Los Angeles City College who had hosted the party for friends who like himself were passionate about baseball, tried to defuse the tension.

"We're not gang members. We're baseball players," Lopez said simply.

The gang leader thought for a second, then pulled out a semiautomatic pistol and asked coldly, "How fast can you run?"

The member of the Culver City Boys street gang opened fire, according to police, putting a bullet in Lopez' heart. In chaotic shooting, five others were struck by bullets and hospitalized.

Lopez died in his father's arms in the driveway of his home on Aug. 24, near where they had practiced ball for years and nurtured the young man's dream of a career in the big leagues.

"They don't just seem to care about life," said his father, Angel Sr., of his son's assailants, as he gazed out a window toward the spot where his son had fallen. A collage of photographs of his son's life, along with flowers, votive candles and a baseball cap marked the spot.

"This was an innocent kid indiscriminately shot by a bunch of cowards," said Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Ken Hillman. "This could have been anyone's kid."

Hillman, head of patrol in the Pacific Division, said that, in a city with so many murders, officers try to stay dispassionate. But he said the sense of outrage in the Lopez case is overwhelming.

"This was their only son," Hillman said, choking up. "He was the peacekeeper here. Do we now have to train our kids to be able to negotiate with gang members?"

All but one of the five injured people had played baseball with Lopez. Police declined to identify them, citing fears for their safety. The fifth is believed to be a member of a gang that is a rival to the Culver City Boys, police said. One of those injured was shot in the chest, two in the ankle and one in the wrist, police said.

The assailants remained at large, but investigators said they were pursuing several strong leads. Det. Joe L. Lumbrenas said witnesses were cooperating and the investigation was being aided because Lopez had been a popular, well-known athlete who grew up in the neighborhood.

"You try to find a place safe for your kid," said Martha Lopez, Angel's mother, siting in her living room. "We thought this was one of them. It's quiet here."

"He was always an athlete," she said, gazing at a series of photographs that depict Lopez from a pint-size karate kid to a powerful pitcher on the Venice High School baseball team, which won the city championship at Dodger Stadium in 2000. His No. 9 shirt lay nearby.

"He had a future," she said. "He planned to transfer to Chico State or Loyola or maybe UCLA."

He was born tiny and three months premature, and she always told her son, "God has his reason for your being here." She raised him to respect adults, prevent conflict and help others. She set an example by going back to finish school.

His coaches said he had always given his all.

"This was a kid with a big future," said Los Angeles City College baseball coach Alec Adame. "We're talking Division 1 or Division 2 NCAA. He worked on the field and in the classroom."

Lopez became a pitcher at Venice High School, where he participated in Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Coach Tim Alcantar trusted him enough to use him as a baby-sitter for his sons.

"When his mom named him Angel, it wasn't just a name," Alcantar said. "Players come and go. I've been coaching for years. He was a friend. He was almost like a son."

Even in death, Lopez gave others life. His parents donated every organ and body part they could. Consoled by loved ones and prayer, the family isn't bitter.

"We just want the guys off the streets," Martha Lopez said. "It's got to stop, for the sake of our children."

Funeral services were held at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hawthorne.

Those with information related to the case can call police at (877) LAWFULL.

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