CERES, Calif. — When young men from the downtrodden Parklawn neighborhood graduate from high school and enlist in the military, they are already considered a success.
"We know from experience that they have a much better chance to make it out of here," said Antonio Diaz, a local fencing contractor and evangelical minister. Diaz lives in the grimy pocket of clapboard homes and rutted, unlighted streets ruled by the local Parklawn Boyz gang, or PLBz.
So Diaz was delighted in the spring of 2003 when Andres Raya, the son of a longtime family friend, graduated from nearby Ceres High School, joined the Marine Corps and, later, went off to fight in Iraq. He felt the surge of community pride when Andres' father, Thomas, a cannery worker, placed a "My son is a U.S. Marine" bumper sticker on the family's Oldsmobile sedan.
For 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Raya, the success story ended Sunday night when the young man -- who friends said was deeply troubled by his wartime experience -- returned home on weekend leave from Camp Pendleton, where he had been posted since September while awaiting a new assignment.
Without even telling his parents he was back, Raya armed himself with an illegal AK-47 assault weapon and, claiming he was being shot at, lured police into a deadly ambush in front of George's Liquor, a Ceres liquor and convenience store where he bought snacks as a boy.
With his military skill and a precision recorded on the store's video cameras, Raya killed one Ceres police sergeant and critically wounded another officer before dying himself in a hail of fire from responding police.
The aftermath has left the Modesto suburb of Ceres, an industrial farming town of 35,000 residents that abuts gang-ridden south Modesto in the San Joaquin Valley, deeply troubled and divided -- largely along ethnic lines.
Many in the community struggled this week over what to think of the terrible episode that resulted in the first Ceres police officer killed in the line of duty in more than 100 years. Was it the case of a young warrior suffering from post-combat stress? Or should he be condemned as a troubled, angry kid whom even the Marines could not cleanse of purported gang experience?
Raya's family and friends in the Ceres and south Modesto Latino community blame the war in Iraq for turning a fun-loving, high school "class clown" into a deranged murderer.
"The war changed him; there is no doubt about it," said Alex Raya, 24, a second cousin and very close friend.
He said that when Andres Raya returned from Iraq in September after a seven-month tour, he urged all his friends to go see the Michael Moore anti-Bush administration documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11."
Alex Raya said his cousin had turned introspective and moody, regularly announcing that "the war's no good" and nervously toying with a piece of shrapnel he said nearly killed him in Iraq.
Ceres police, who initially characterized the incident as a case of "suicide by cop" on the part of a despondent soldier, now point to the gangster milieu and hip-hop culture as the main reasons behind the attack. Raya, they said this week, may have been acting as part of ongoing gang insurgency targeting law enforcement.
Their theory took on added credibility after witnesses said Raya repeatedly told local residents, including the liquor store clerk, not to be afraid because they were "civilians."
Initially, family members said Raya acted because he did not want to return to Iraq.
However, Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva, a Marine spokesman at Camp Pendleton, said Raya, who served in Iraq as a driver for the 1st Intelligence Battalion, had recently been transferred to another unit: the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Division, scheduled next for duty in Okinawa, Japan. There was no immediate indication that he would be returning to Iraq.
Oliva said media reports that Raya was absent without leave when he traveled to Ceres also were false. Raya had a weekend pass.
Relations between Modesto-area police and the community's large Latino population have never been cordial.
But they took a turn for the worse in September 2000 when a Modesto Police Department SWAT team accidentally shot to death an 11-year-old boy -- Alberto Sepulveda -- during a predawn raid while the youth was sprawled face-down on the floor as instructed by police. The SWAT team officer who shot the boy was cleared of criminal charges.
Then this week in Modesto, police and agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced a massive sweep of gang territories that resulted in the confiscation of 46 weapons, including a gun identical to the one used by Raya.
Although apparently coincidental, the announcement of the anti-gang operation after months of undercover work added to the palpable tension between law enforcement and the Latino community.