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Mired in violence at Ramona Gardens

Neither police nor a gang gives ground at L.A.'s oldest project.

February 16, 2007|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

School was out, and the municipal gym jumped with the wholesome noise of girls and boys slapping basketballs onto the hardwood. Then came the clatter of a helicopter overhead.

"LAPD -- you see?" said Jose Saucedo, in a voice too weary for his 18 years. He stood at the gym door, eyeing the police chopper as if it were a storm cloud.

"What's the reason for the helicopter? Why?"

The simple answer is that the gym sits in Ramona Gardens, an Eastside housing project that has seen countless confrontations between the police and its home-grown street gang, Big Hazard. The cycles of seething standoffs and bursts of violence stretch back generations and have defeated every effort to bring lasting security to the neighborhood.

Caught in the middle are Saucedo and his fellow ballplayers, along with about 2,000 other folks determined to lead normal lives in the sprawl of barracks-like, World War II-era masonry buildings.

Some say they feel under siege more from the police than the gang, because of what they contend are heavy-handed tactics, a characterization that the Los Angeles Police Department disputes.

"Growing up here is as close as you're going to get to living in a police state," said Jose Navarro, 29, a USC doctoral student from Ramona Gardens.

Earlier this month, the routines of residents were disrupted again after a reputed Big Hazard member died in LAPD custody. The death of Mauricio Cornejo, 31, who was arrested in the project, ignited yet another round of police-brutality accusations and countercharges of gang intimidation.

Two people said they saw officers beat or kick Cornejo in the head. The LAPD denies it and cites a preliminary coroner's examination that found no signs of serious head injuries. The police also say they are often targeted by Big Hazard. The gang has at least 260 members, including those in prison or living outside Ramona Gardens, and has connections to the Mexican Mafia, according to the LAPD.

Twice since January 2006, the police say, gunmen have fired at patrol cars in Ramona Gardens, with bullets narrowly missing officers.

"Every time we walk away from our car, it's going to be vandalized," said LAPD Capt. William Fierro. "I just don't know how to get the roots of that gang out of there."

None of this surprises housing experts. They say that Ramona Gardens, squeezed by railroad tracks and the San Bernardino Freeway, has become a field laboratory for housing policies gone wrong and that any solution would require razing the buildings and starting from scratch. The city's oldest project, Ramona Gardens opened in 1941.

"It has outlived its useful life," said Rudy Montiel, executive director of the Los Angeles Housing Authority, which runs the project. Rents for the 497 residences are based on income and can be as little as $50 a month.

Montiel said Ramona Gardens typifies a failed model, because it piles poor families on top of each other and is separated from the surrounding community -- hothouse conditions for predatory crime. He said the old Aliso Village project nearby was in similar distress until it was replaced with a combination of low- and middle-income housing. That could ultimately be Ramona Gardens' fate, he said, although there is no specific plan for such an undertaking.

"This is an area that has been neglected for years," said City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Ramona Gardens. He pledged to begin meeting regularly with residents.

A litany of ills

The project has witnessed shootings, a thriving drug trade, shakedown schemes that victimized delivery and bus drivers, apartment squatting by gang members and street skirmishes that rained rocks and bottles on police, according to the LAPD.

Last week, as tensions mounted over Cornejo's death, the threat of more mayhem charged the air. About 100 riot-equipped officers rolled into Ramona Gardens to disperse a group of 40 to 50 Big Hazard members -- some of whom were drinking beer and smoking marijuana -- and residents holding a curbside carwash to pay for Cornejo's funeral.

Because the gang members melted away without incident, LAPD officials declared the operation a success. But it left mixed emotions among residents. As police prepared to pull back, Fabian Puente, 21, who was born in Ramona Gardens, walked onto Lancaster Avenue to applaud them. "These officers are just doing their jobs," he said. "We are living in our houses like prisoners."

Many other residents declined to answer a reporter's questions or even give their names, seeming to show that they were afraid of the gang, the police or both.

The most vocal complained that the police stopped them for nothing and issued jaywalking tickets to teenagers heading home from school. Several accusations were directed at an officer assigned to monitor Big Hazard.

Miguel Jurado, 18, who grew up in Ramona Gardens, said the officer recently ticketed him for riding his bicycle without lights.

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