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Murder stalks minorities

The homicide rate is falling in L.A. County, but not among blacks and Latinos and not in many poor areas.

August 19, 2007|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Homicides are down sharply in Los Angeles County this year, possibly by as much as 14% countywide. But the stubborn problem of deadly violence grinds on in poor neighborhoods of the county at a rate far above the U.S. average. And although fewer family members are suffering this year, they are not suffering less.

An online project of The Times called the Homicide Report has tracked Los Angeles County homicides, as they have happened, since the beginning of the year. The project has yielded a vivid statistical outline of the county's current homicide problem -- at least 520 killings by early August. It also has chronicled some of the damage that rippled through families and communities rent by deaths that happened before their time.

Homicide is not fair, hitting hardest among Latinos and especially among blacks. Latinos are killed at more than three times the rate of whites, while blacks succumb to homicide at three times the rate of Latinos, the Times analysis shows.

Adult males are the eye of the storm. The national homicide rate is about six deaths per 100,000 people each year. But for Latino men in their 20s in Los Angeles County, the rate is 52 deaths, and for black men, 176 deaths. In human terms, that means that losing a son to homicide, a remote possibility in some neighborhoods, looms as a daily threat in others.

In South Los Angeles and Athens this year, for example, there have been at least 20 homicides within a single ZIP Code in just seven months. A few miles away, in the Woodland Hills, Tarzana and Brentwood ZIP Codes, months go by without any.

People living close to frequent violent death find refuge in denial. On the same streets where sidewalks are stained by the melted wax from homicide shrines and young men loiter in wheelchairs, people talk about being "caught slippin' " (letting one's guard down) or about friends having "passed" (not having been killed). Bereaved parents describe years of obsessively protective behavior -- children locked indoors, hourly cellphone calls to check in. Then, in the next breath, they avow that they never thought their child could be murdered.

But no matter how they work to avoid it, the demographics of homicide ruthlessly pursues its targets. In parts of South Los Angeles, for example, there are people who have lost not one, but two or more family members. Michael Presley, 19, killed in the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest Division, was buried in the same grave as his father, also a murder victim.

Theodore Giddens, 44, killed in LAPD's Newton Division on July 13, was the third member of his immediate family to be murdered. Dovon Harris was the second of his father's sons to die from homicide. Both Julio Ramirez, 21, killed in a double homicide in Paramount on July 29, and Noel Velazco, 26, killed in Southwest Division on Aug. 9, were preceded in death by brothers who were also murdered.

"After this pain, we can lose nothing more," said Velazco's mother, speaking after her second son, twin to the first, was shot and killed only yards from where his brother had fallen six years before.

For many grieving parents, all that's left is endurance. "It's still moment to moment," said Dovon Harris' mother, Barbara Pritchett, two months after his death.

"Today may be good. Tomorrow may not."

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jill.leovy@latimes.com

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