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Deadly Deja Vu Is Visited Upon Family

Drive-by shooters in Boyle Heights claimed a girl's life four years ago. Now, her cousin is slain.

March 19, 2004|William Wan and Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writers

Stephanie Raygoza was playing in front of her Boyle Heights home four years ago when a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting pierced the fifth-grader's chest, killing her.

Her death brought residents out of their homes and onto the streets to protest gang violence and the lack of policing in their area. The mayor, the police and the district's city councilman all visited, promising to bring change. And some change did come, residents said.

But last week, a cousin of Stephanie was killed on his way home from work. Jesus Alejandro Hernandez, 19, was struck by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting on the same street and involving the same two gangs, according to police.

On Thursday, two sisters -- the mothers of Stephanie and Alejandro -- tried to come to terms with their grief. Instead of calling for revenge, they urged the community not to give up their efforts to battle gangs and make their neighborhood safer.

"We have no security," said Maricela Hernandez, Alejandro's mother. "Children should be able to play on the street. When we're here hurting, the police is here, but when it all passes, they're gone."

As she sat in her dining room telling stories of her son, the phone rang repeatedly with condolences from friends and relatives. But one of her six daughters was answering the phone. Alejandro was her only son, she said, and she no longer had the energy to answer calls.

"I have to start getting used to the fact that he won't be home with me anymore," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "He won't be coming through the door after work anymore."

Norma Rubalcaba, Stephanie's mother, listened from Hernandez's couch. Since Alejandro's death on Friday, the memories of her own daughter's death have come flooding back. The funeral plans, the consolation calls and police interviews are bitter reminders of her own tragedy.

"This is impossible," she said. "Why us?"

Rubalcaba paused, then mumbled to herself, "Such is destiny. I can't be angry with people. God will punish them. I leave it in his hands."

The search for Alejandro's killers is being led by Los Angeles Police Det. Scott Smith, who four years earlier headed the investigation into Stephanie's death. As in the earlier killing, evidence is scanty and few people are cooperating -- perhaps out of fear of gang retribution.

"We know there's probably a dozen witnesses, but they're just not talking," said Smith. "We have people in the neighborhood candidly telling us that we are police, and they don't talk to police."

Smith said two gang members driving in a gray car began shooting at rival gang members the afternoon of March 10 at the intersection of 6th and Clarence streets. Up the street, other gang members returned fire, he said.

Police believe the gang members exchanged at least 12 shots. One of the bullets traveled two blocks north, where Alejandro and an uncle were driving home from their construction jobs. The bullet shattered the rear window and struck Alejandro in the back of the head.

Smith stressed that Alejandro had no gang ties and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He died two days later.

Friends and relatives described Alejandro as a friendly but private person, talkative and a joker with those he knew, shy with those he didn't. But there was a side of him that no one knew until his death.

On the night he died, his sisters and girlfriend discovered more than 300 poems he had written hidden in notebooks and binders in his room.

After Stephanie's death, he wrote several poems predicting his own violent death at a young age.

One of them reads: "Life goes by fast/ try to enjoy it while it lasts."

At the bottom, he wrote "Bye" and signed his nickname, "Kabetch."

Alejandro and Stephanie used to do homework and draw pictures together. After the girl's death, her mother and other family members moved in with Alejandro's family.

"It's sad," Smith said. "I've never dealt with two cases like this before."

Stephanie's death, police believe, was caused by one of six armed gang members firing at a rival from a van. The rival gang member also was killed. A woman driving the van was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder, but none of the shooters were ever charged by the district attorney's office because of a lack of evidence.

Stephanie's death marked a turning point in the community. Her family and neighbors held marches, protests and vigils. Parents threatened to sit in the streets until the city installed speed bumps to deter drive-by shootings. Community leaders began meeting once a month with police, the mayor's office and housing officials to address neighborhood problems.

The efforts led to an anonymous tip line to report crime, more streets lights and a pool of parents who walk each others' kids home from school every day.

But four years later, community leaders and Alejandro's parents say more must be done. Alejandro's mother blamed police for a lack of protection and allowing gang violence to return to the neighborhood.

"Where is the police?" she asked. "They've forgotten about [Stephanie]. The problem is not going to go away and it's their responsibility to fix it. Don't let police forget about [Alejandro], too."

In meetings and news conferences this week, community leaders demanded that the city install 24-hour security guards at the Pico Gardens near where Alejandro was shot. The project is gated, making it difficult for police to enter quickly in the event of trouble, said Rita Chairez, a community organizer.

"The residents feel it is a prison," she said.

City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa has promised to deliver added security by April 1. Residents have threatened to sit in the streets and block traffic if he doesn't.

"We've got to translate the outrage into sustained action over time," Villaraigosa said.

Alejandro's family planned to bury him this morning.

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