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Slayings Shake Hard-Knocks Town That's on the Upswing

Some say police have helped turn El Monte around, but others say officers have gone too far.

August 01, 2004|Zeke Minaya and Nikki Usher | Times Staff Writers

Even for a city toughened by adversity, the last two weeks have been a test for El Monte.

First, 6-year-old Bryesha Limbrick, out for an ice cream run at the end of a hot weekend two weeks ago, was fatally shot in the head as she and her uncle emerged from a local 7-Eleven.

The shooting left this working-class town of 120,000 in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley in shock, with many rallying behind the girl's heartbroken family.

But two days later, the unity was shattered by a second shooting. Detectives investigating Bryesha's killing came across two men in a car they considered suspicious. According to police, one of the men refused to cooperate and reached under his seat, prompting an officer to shoot him to death.

Just as Bryesha's killing symbolized the cruelty of random violence, some in El Monte came to view the death of David Viera, 23, as the act of overzealous officers who took fighting crime too far. It has set off a debate in the city about how police do their job.

"Tragedy and death is on everyone's minds here; it's just not everyone agrees on what the tragedy was," said Councilwoman Emily Ishigaki.

On Thursday, authorities made an arrest in the killing of Bryesha when Eric Andrew Odell, 18, was taken into custody in Sacramento, according to Deputy Rich Pena of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Odell is expected to be charged with one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder, Pena said. The Sheriff's Department is handling the investigation because El Monte police don't have a homicide unit.

The day before the arrest, a crowd of about 300 people protested at a city-sponsored summer concert, claiming that Viera's death was unjustified. Mayor Ernest Gutierrez took the microphone to offer his condolences to the family of the slain father of three, and a priest led the crowd in a moment of silence.

It was a bittersweet moment for city leaders, who had heralded this first-time summer concert series as a sign that El Monte was on the upswing after seeing years of crime problems and departing businesses.

El Monte has a proud heritage. It is among the oldest cities in Los Angeles County, and was an important crossroads in 19th century California, because the Santa Fe Trail ended there.

Over the last two decades, the once predominantly white suburb has experienced a major demographic shift. Today, about 70% of residents are Latino.

The city has seen some of its biggest businesses -- including a Sears and a JCPenney store-- leave town. Pat Wallach, a longtime resident, remembers a period in the 1990s when gang crime seemed out of control and the city struggled against a tide of graffiti and litter.

But in recent years, El Monte has seen a drop in crime, a major rise in real estate values and a fiscal revitalization, thanks in part to tax revenues from car dealerships that line the San Bernardino Freeway. The city now has an aquatic center that opened this year, a small version of the Statue of Liberty at City Hall to mark El Monte's immigrant roots, and a museum honoring Mexican Americans.

Today, Wallach said, people have "no reason to groan when they say they're from El Monte."

City leaders attribute the turnaround in part to aggressive community policing programs.

"Police are really proactive here and do a great job of really getting into trouble spots, and they're part of the boom that is going on right now in El Monte," said Richard Nichols, head of the El Monte Chamber of Commerce. "When the police got tougher and we got kids into gang prevention programs, it really brought pride back."

Not everyone sees it that way.

In some of El Monte's poorer neighborhoods, residents say officers often harass them. Several said the two detectives involved in the Viera shooting were among the worst.

Several residents said officers enter their homes at all hours, searching for drugs and gang members. Laura Baez, 29, said her family had to leave its home of 22 years because of repeated searches, though she insisted that no drugs had been found.

Baez's mother, Irma Ornelas, said an officer with the gang unit began to focus on the family when her son, Sergio, was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting. Eventually police went to the landlord, who then refused to renew the lease.

"That was our home," Baez said. "We grew up there."

Miguel Capacete said his neighborhood had gang problems, but he questioned whether police had gone too far.

"From what I've experienced, it's like cops are always on the hunt for something," he said. "There's no question that there is a gang problem here, but if an officer thinks you are in a gang, then you are in a gang."

The chain of events that shook the city began two Sundays ago. Bryesha was shot by a gunman who sprayed 14 rounds outside the 7-Eleven on Valley Boulevard. She was killed, and another girl and her father were wounded in what police described as a random attack.

Officers began swarming the city, looking for two young men driving a compact car -- the description witnesses gave.

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