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Shooting at South L.A. Store Brings New Tension to Area Where Some Seek Unity

October 05, 2005|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

More than a week after a Latino store owner fatally shot two black men in South Los Angeles, the incident was still reverberating throughout the neighborhood and in the lives of the families of those involved.

Gang graffiti urging the killing of Mexicans appeared Sunday on the wall of the discount store in the 6700 block of South San Pedro Street, where the shootings took place.

The wife of owner Rovidio "Ruben" Espana announced she had sold the store, saying she was too afraid to continue, though the business was the family's sole source of income. Espana, 31, of Baldwin Park, who is being held on $4 million bail, has been charged with two counts of murder and being a felon in possession of a handgun.

In the meantime, the families of the deceased, Courtney Whaley, 17, and William Armistead, 23, were searching for a way to pay for the men's burials.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
South L.A. shooting -- An article in Wednesday's California section about a shooting at a store in South Los Angeles misspelled the name of Derek Tennell, director of the Los Angeles city attorney's Victim Assistance Program, as Derek Pennell.

Armistead's mother, Shirley, moved from the neighborhood. "She's not comfortable being here," said her daughter, Lacresia Armistead.

Police said a woman was shot in the leg Friday evening outside the home of Whaley's family. Police said witnesses described the gunmen as Latino gang members.

Some residents expressed fear that the events could ignite interracial violence in a neighborhood that has experienced tension between blacks and Latinos.

"We're calling upon black and brown unity," Najee Ali, a community activist with Project Islamic Hope, said at a news conference Tuesday outside the store. "We can't have vigilantes out there running the streets of South-Central."

Growing tensions between Espana and the two men culminated in the Sept. 25 shooting, according to police and family members. The victims, who police said were frequent customers of Espana's store, were not armed.

Espana's wife, Lorena, contends that her husband was defending himself against the two men. She said they attacked Espana during a dispute over an offensive sexual remark that Whaley allegedly had made to a female clerk a day earlier.

Lorena Espana also said her husband was skittish because of numerous threats from black gang members who had been demanding that he pay protection money -- though she said she didn't believe Whaley or Armistead were involved.

The South L.A. neighborhood has been the scene of a long-running conflict between Latino and black gangs, with racially charged feuds spilling over into the community. Earlier this year, several fights and large-scale melees erupted at nearby Jefferson High School between Latinos and blacks, resulting in arrests and injuries.

Still, the store shootings have left residents bewildered because Espana had a reputation for treating customers of all races with respect and had employed a black youth as a stock clerk.

The store has been closed since the shooting. Lorena Espana had said that she wanted to reopen, but on Tuesday said it had been sold.

"I'm afraid to go there with my children," she said. "We think what's happened was sad. The way we treated our clients, we can't believe that it even occurs to them that this was a racial incident.

"The families of the two people who died know well what happened. They don't want to recognize that they were to blame."

Over the weekend, gang graffiti urging the "187" of Mexicans appeared on the front wall of the store, according to neighborhood residents. The numbers refer to the state criminal code section for murder. The graffiti, which neighbors said appeared to be signed by the Crips gang, was painted over by Tuesday.

On Friday evening, a female friend of the Whaley family was shot in the leg. Police detectives provided only minimal details, saying the case was still under investigation. But witnesses told police that the suspects were Latino gang members, Los Angeles Police Detective Frank Weber said.

The Whaley family declined to comment on the incident.

"We're very concerned that these shootings will continue back and forth until someone is killed," said Ali, who had previously called for a boycott of the Espana store. "Blacks and Latinos have to get along."

Ali on Tuesday urged Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to "become more involved, more engaged on this issue. We have to have some leadership out here on the streets."

The mayor could not be reached for comment.

The families of Whaley and Armistead held a barbecue and carwashes over the weekend to raise money to bury the two men.

An official with the city attorney's Victim Assistance Program said Tuesday that it would be providing money for Whaley's burial, but could not help bury Armistead, who police said was on probation when he died. State guidelines forbid the spending of victim-assistance funds on anyone who is killed while on probation.

"It's not that we're refusing to help anyone, but the guidelines are very strict," said Derek Pennell, the program's director.

"I don't understand. It's not right," Lacresia Armistead said Tuesday. "He was a victim of a horrendous crime, shot in the chest and once in the back. Why won't they bury my brother? He needs to be buried, too. It's not fair at all."

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