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Police, family baffled by siblings' deaths

The fatal shootings of a brother and sister at a South L.A. party appear random, officials say.

August 22, 2007|Ari B. Bloomekatz and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

It was a Saturday evening birthday party in South Los Angeles -- family and a few friends.

Beatriz Santiago, 21, who was about to start her senior year at UC Riverside and poised to be the first in her family to graduate from college, was in the backyard dancing. Her brother Roberto, 22, was sitting on the back porch of a house in the 1400 block of West 38th Street, where the party was held.

About 2:30 a.m. Sunday, a spray of shots blasted from the alley on the other side of the backyard fence. Three people were hit. Beatriz and Roberto Santiago died of their wounds.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives say they are baffled. They describe the Santiago siblings as having no gang ties -- though the neighborhood is known for gang violence.

Police believe the assailants fired randomly into the party. The shooter couldn't see the specific targets, said LAPD Cmdr. Pat Gannon, head of the South Bureau homicide unit.

"They were just shooting into a backyard where they knew a lot of people were standing. The shooter hit the brother and sister by chance. They weren't near each other," Gannon said.

Elizabeth Santiago, 26, eldest of the five Santiago children, said her family had spent the last few nights dealing with the loss and trying to understand why it happened.

"I wake up at 4 a.m. and I hear my dad crying, asking God, 'Why did this happen to my family?' " she said. "We just can't comprehend how out of everyone that was there, they were the two that got killed. It's unjust; they didn't deserve that. My brother doesn't belong to a gang. [My parents are] just in shock. Losing one would have been enough, but two."

The Santiagos moved to Los Angeles about three decades ago from Oaxaca, Mexico, and after years of living in cramped apartments were able to buy their first home 16 years ago.

Roberto Santiago Jr., the family's only male child, had recently been working with his father at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. The younger Santiago was also attending community college classes at night.

But the family's measure of success in the United States had little to do with buying a home or being able to pay bills. The true symbol of "making it" as an immigrant family was carried by Beatriz, the middle child, Elizabeth Santiago said. In one more year she would finish at UC Riverside. She talked of pursuing a career in social work and giving something back to the community.

"She's the one that made it," Elizabeth Santiago said. Beatriz's education was her parents' "pride and joy."

Like the detectives, the family is searching for a motive.

Witnesses said Beatriz was dancing to a track from the Mexican band Mana and her brother was sitting about 20 feet away when the gunman fired.

"We were all dancing. We heard shots, but everyone thought it was the DJ," said Aldys Odilon, 21, a cousin of the Santiagos and the party's guest of honor. "All of a sudden, we heard people yelling, 'Duck down! Duck down!' and then there was screaming and commotion and we called 911," she said.

Friends and family quickly grabbed clothing to try to stem the bleeding from Beatrice and Roberto as they waited for an ambulance, Odilon said.

They tried to keep the siblings awake, talking to them and trying to reassure them they would be OK.

Paramedics took the three victims to a nearby hospital, where the brother and sister were pronounced dead. The third victim, whom police did not identify, was treated and released.

The area where the shooting occurred is concentrated with gangs and sometimes dangerous, police said, but the Santiagos had no such affiliations.

"This is a family trying to get a good education for their children only to see them cut down in the prime of life. They were doing all the right things," Gannon said.

One of the few clues detectives have is a minor altercation that occurred a few hours earlier.

"People who came to the party uninvited were asked to leave and left without any problems," Gannon said.

The family has held a rosary at their home each night since the shootings. In their living room are large photographs of the brother and sister. The family passes the time by recounting memories and stories of the two and how close they were, Elizabeth Santiago said.

"They did everything together," she said.

Because Beatriz had a car but no license and Roberto had a license but no car, the two often went to social gatherings together. When Beatriz needed a loan to pay for school books, it was her brother who came through, Elizabeth Santiago said.

The whole family wanted Beatriz to succeed, she said.

--

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com richard.winton@latimes.com

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