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Flight from gang violence proved to be futile

Residents of a mostly black Harbor Gateway area say they live in fear of a Latino gang. A girl was slain Dec. 15 in an apparent hate crime.

December 30, 2006|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

When Charlene Lovett moved her family to Harbor Gateway six years ago, she thought it would be a respite from the gang violence she had known in South Los Angeles. Her new neighborhood bordered Torrance, a city she associated with a more tranquil life.

So she was startled when neighbors came by her apartment and cautioned her about the 204th Street gang, a Latino gang known for preying on residents of the mostly black neighborhood. They specifically told her not to go north of 206th Street, a block away.

People "warned me to beware, stay away from that side," Lovett said.

And then it happened. Two weeks ago, Lovett's 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Green, was standing with a group of friends on Harvard Boulevard, just south of 206th Street, when two men approached them in broad daylight. Without saying a word, one suspect pulled a gun and opened fire, killing Green and wounding three others, witnesses and police said.

Ernesto Alcarez, 20, was later arrested and charged with first-degree murder and a hate crime because the Dec. 15 shooting is believed to have been racially motivated. The other suspect, Jonathan Fajardo, 18, is still at large. Both are members of the 204th Street gang, authorities say.

Such a brazen act of violence has highlighted the racial tensions that have held this working-class neighborhood in a state of fear for years, residents and city officials said.

At a town hall meeting Thursday night, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn urged the city attorney to pursue a gang injunction to staunch crime in the neighborhood and to take legal action against landlords who rent to families with gang members. Hahn's district includes Harbor Gateway, the narrow strip of city territory that connects South L.A. with the harbor area. She compared Green's neighborhood to the South during the era of Jim Crow segregation.

"This reminds me of a really bad time in the history of this country," Hahn said. Yet "here we are in Los Angeles, in 2006."

Residents say the Latino gang has terrorized their neighborhood for years and in some instances has forced them to change where they shop, how they commute, even how and when they step outside their homes. They say they feel confined to a three-street area, stretching south from 207th to 209th streets, between Western and Denker avenues.

Keith Smith and his 16-year-old grandson, Antoine Johnson, who live in an apartment above Lovett's family, said they knew the gang was racist when they moved into the neighborhood three years ago, but never imagined that it would be so predatory. Concerned for their safety, they described how they often peek outside their door, looking for Latino youths, every time they leave their home.

"They circle the block and see if anybody's out and if there is, they come back and start shooting," Johnson said. "They're always looking around for somebody."

Police and residents said that in the heart of the territory the gang claims is Del Amo Market, a convenience store on Harvard north of 204th Street. The next closest market is a quarter-mile away; the closest supermarket, a mile away.

The market's owners, Seong Son, a Korean immigrant, and her son, Jeremy, said gang members are their customers but usually cause no problems.

"They just come into the store and buy stuff," Jeremy said.

But many black residents say they have never set foot in the market. "I don't even know what it looks like," Lovett said.

Another resident, Derek Thomas, 21, said he hadn't been to the market since he was 10. He stopped to buy some candy, but Latino gang members told him to leave, he said.

Today, community activists plan to hold a 10 a.m. news conference in front of the market, followed by a march "to go everywhere they say we can't go," said Eddie Jones, director of the Los Angeles Civil Rights Assn.

It's not the first time activists have gotten involved. In the mid-1990s, the gang's racist attacks prompted neighborhood volunteers to work together with police and community agencies to clean up the area. For a while, residents say, it was quiet.

But over time, the volunteers dispersed and their efforts faded. A new generation of the gang reemerged and often intimidated residents into not reporting crimes.

"We hear of things that occur but ... people are afraid to bring it to our attention," said Dan Vasquez, a Los Angeles gang detective with the department's Harbor Division. "It goes back to that environment of fear."

Resident Steven Smith, 21, said he recognizes his neighbors and, when he sees a stranger, he steps back from the street. He said he and his brothers often prefer to stay inside, and that may be why they are overweight.

"I got three computers and four video games systems, so ... we can have activities inside the house," he said. "This skin color is a target."

Like Lovett, Carl Wagner and his family moved to Harbor Gateway five years ago to escape South L.A. gangs and crime. The family also was warned not to stay.

In August, Wagner was shot in the leg outside the apartment he shared with his wife, Donya, and their five children.

No arrests have been made in the shooting, so a motive has not been established. But Donya Wagner said the motive is clear.

"It was racial," she said.

After the shooting, their landlord asked the Wagners to leave, and they returned to South L.A.

"The blacks here are scared," she said. "They're scared to death. I couldn't believe it until I became one of them."

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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