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Police Suspect Tagger in Shooting Death of Graffiti-Removal Worker

Gunman was probably angry his markings in Boyle Heights were being covered, officials say. Area residents are outraged.

June 25, 2004|Regine Labossiere | Times Staff Writer

A graffiti-removal worker painting over a wall in Boyle Heights was fatally shot Thursday morning by a gunman who police believe was angry because his gang tags were being covered.

The shooting sparked outrage in the neighborhood, where gang violence has long been a problem and community groups have been working to cover up the graffiti that seem to appear in fresh batches every morning.

"There's always shootings, in the night, in the morning, in the day," said Dolores Martinez, 37, shaking her head as she and her son paid their respects at the site of the shooting. "They can't even work. They get shot."

Miguel Rafael Gomez, 34, was shot several times about 5:30 a.m. as he spread white paint over the graffiti-covered wall of a Smart & Final warehouse store at 4th and Breed streets, police said. One or two suspects approached Gomez, opened fire on him and ran down Breed Street.

Gomez and two other workers present were employed by Homeboy Industries, a Boyle Heights-based community organization that provides jobs to gang members as a way of breaking criminal ties. Gomez, a former gang member, was released from state prison three months ago after serving 10 years. Officials could not say what crime sent him to prison.

LAPD Det. Carey Ricard said officials don't believe his gang ties had anything to do with the shooting.

Rather, they suspect the gunman fired out of anger that his gang's graffiti was being removed.

"It was an opportunistic moment. This happened at 5:30 in the morning. They had a couple of minutes of darkness still," Ricard said. "I have nothing to suggest that [Gomez] was doing something wrong."

At the Homeboy Industries office, the group's founder, Father Gregory Boyle, remembered Gomez as someone who had the courage to turn his life around.

"His first step was to say, 'That's it for me, I don't want to go back to prison.' That was a significant step. It was magnificent that he walked through these doors," Boyle said.

Boyle said he had known Gomez for 20 years, from the time the victim grew up in the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village housing projects with his parents and sister. His father died about a year ago.

Gomez was assigned to a graffiti removal crew that worked 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, Boyle said.

"At the end of his life, he was able to tell his mother, 'I am not how I used to be.' That's what she told me today," he said.

Homeboy Industries has been covering graffiti in Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, downtown Los Angeles and surrounding areas for four years. Boyle said this was the first time a worker was the target of violence while on the job. Although the organization was shaken, it will continue its work, he said.

The shooting occurred in the 400 block of Breed Street, a mix of multifamily houses, a community center and commercial buildings, including the Smart & Final store, a beauty salon and a bakery.

But Thursday morning, a stream of water washed away Gomez's blood. About 35 people -- co-workers, friends and area residents -- set up a small memorial for Gomez. The group said a prayer and lighted 20 candles.

Pedro Martinez, 76, looked on from across the street.

He had made his way to the site of the shooting from his home a block away and expressed his sadness that someone who was trying to help the city was killed.

"These are service workers for the city, working to clean up. These workers are good," he said.

Paul Garcia, 64, who was standing outside his bakery, said, "This is a beautiful community, but the bad apples destroy the good apples."

Luis Hoyos, 36, grew up in Boyle Heights and now lives with his wife and three children in Alhambra.

He is often in Boyle Heights to visit his mother, who still lives in the area. When he was younger, Hoyos said, he and his friends would feel safe walking to friends' homes at night.

"Now, I wouldn't walk here at night," he said. "It's a lot of gangs, a lot of young kids who have no guidance.... I'm not surprised at all that these kids would kill each other for graffiti. That's ridiculous."

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa , who represents Boyle Heights, arrived at the scene about 6:15 a.m. to seek information about the shooting from police.

He said Boyle Heights has struggled with gang violence and graffiti, but the community is committed to making the neighborhood safer and cleaner. He said the effort will continue despite the shooting.

"The young men who work at Homeboy Industries all said that they're going to be back tomorrow morning, continue to do their job," Villaraigosa said. "There's resilience in this community and a commitment to improving the quality of life."

Cleaning up graffiti is important because the gang scrawl makes a negative statement about the community, he said.

"It's a general sense of if they can do that to public property, what can they do to me," he said.

"What makes this particularly tragic, it was a young man trying to change his life around," Villaraigosa said. "He was shot down while trying to improve his neighborhood. There is no question, some folks are traumatized by what happened to him."

Boyle spent part of Thursday comforting Gomez's relatives, who were in seclusion and could not be reached for comment.

"He had his share of difficulties. He was a two-steps-forward, three-steps-backward kind of guy," Boyle said. "He was a whole lot more than his rap sheet. He was a whole lot more than what sent him to prison."

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