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Never the last one

A minister's pledge to hold a vigil for every homicide victim in the LAPD's Rampart Division proves difficult to keep as the deaths continue to mount.

December 16, 2007|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Howard Dotson begins each candlelight vigil saying he "hopes and prays this is the last one."

But sometimes, as one vigil ends, he must announce plans for another.

The vigils are a product of Dotson's pledge to hold a prayerful ceremony for each homicide victim in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division. Dotson has held 11 vigils in the last three months.

They are usually held at dusk on the heavily traveled sidewalks of the MacArthur Park and Pico-Union areas. Only a few days before each vigil, at the same spot or one nearby, the scene had been violent and bloody.

But where there were once victims and attackers, Dotson brings clergy members, family and friends of the deceased, social workers, police officers and a guitarist. "We cannot sit idly by," he said.

The pledge was prompted by the death of Luis Angel Garcia, who was shot in a stroller at his mother's side near 6th Street and Burlington Avenue in September. He was 23 days old.

Police said a street vendor who refused to pay $50 "rent" to gangs was the target, but the three gang members who shot at the man did so amid hundreds of shoppers and hit Luis.

The Rampart Clergy Council, a police-sponsored group that had existed for years but was only loosely organized, held a vigil a few days later.

More than 100 people crowded the sidewalk to light candles; pray for Luis and his mother; and denounce gang violence. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa showed up with other city officials.

At Luis' funeral at a downtown church a few days later, only a handful of people were sprinkled among the pews. So few mourners attended that Dotson had to be a pallbearer, and with tears in his eyes helped carry the small white coffin out of the church.

But that first vigil inspired Dotson.

"You need a ritual to keep yourself from being jaded," said Dotson, who is a minister at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. "And because it's in public, there's this free-floating anxiety. You can't see the candles and not stop and ask what happened."

And yet some pedestrians who stumble across the vigils do not stop, do not ask what happened. And maintaining the vigils has been a struggle. The gatherings rarely swell past more than two dozen mourners.

Generally following the same format, each vigil begins with a short speech by Dotson, followed by an impromptu prayer for comfort and Bible verses preaching peace, such as a passage from Isaiah: ". . . And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks . . . ."

Then the group lights candles and sings a hymn or song, sometimes "We Shall Overcome." But because most of the mourners are Latino, Dotson changed the song to "De Colores," a Latin American folk song.

Relatives and friends of the homicide victims are then asked to come forward and talk about the person who died.

At the second vigil, for Erwin Escobar, the boy's mother, Maria, told a crowd of mourners how she saw the shooting from the balcony of a tall brick apartment building not far away.

The 14-year-old had been shot near the 2nd Street and Kenmore Avenue. By the time his mother could race down to the street, he was dead.

The scene was similar at a later vigil for 14-year-old Rene Vargas, whose mother, Sonya, used the gathering to condemn the violence that took her son's life.

About 20 people attended the most recent vigil this month near MacArthur Park. In an apartment near the Donut Man, a small restaurant on Alvarado street, 71-year-old Flora Carmen Fuentes died a few days earlier when a man broke into her home and stabbed her.

The vigil was held on the bustling sidewalk. Police officers who attended the vigil to support the family instead had to manage pedestrian traffic, and Dotson had to speak up to be heard above the passing cars.

Someone accidentally lighted a piece of paper on fire with a candle, which had to be stomped out, and not everyone knew the songs. But amid the noise and foot traffic came a quiet moment as the group crowded around the elderly woman's son, Jose Vasquez, put their hands on him and prayed.

"We feel your pain, but we don't completely understand," said Pastor Andre Catalanes of Rancho Cucamonga, who spoke in Spanish and has made it to several of the memorials. "Help us understand. Give us peace, give us hope."

Vasquez began to cry. After the prayer he hugged and thanked the supporters around him.

Among those present was Victor Gutierrez, a senior lead officer with the LAPD, who attended the memorial for Luis and who makes as many of the vigils as his schedule allows.

"A couple of months ago we had an infant, now we have an elderly woman. Where are we going as a society?" Gutierrez said. He paused, and then turned to Dotson. "How long do you think he can keep this up?"

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