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Gang members accused of killing witness

A man stabbed 80 times may have seen who shot an L.A. girl, 14.

February 24, 2007|Amanda Covarrubias and Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writers

Members of a Harbor Gateway gang accused in the racially motivated slaying of 14-year-old Cheryl Green later killed a man who witnessed the attack, fearing he would testify against them, prosecutors charged Friday.

Five members of the 204th Street gang allegedly stabbed 21-year-old Christopher Ash 80 times and cut his throat before dumping his body in the middle of a Carson street Dec. 28, according to the L.A. County district attorney's office.

Lt. Roger Murphy of the Los Angeles Police Department's Harbor Gateway gang detail, said Ash lived in an apartment in the heart of 204th Street gang turf and associated with members of the gang. Ash, who was white, had been questioned about Cheryl's Dec. 15 killing, but he neither cooperated with detectives nor asked for witness protection, Murphy said.

An LAPD crackdown after Cheryl's slaying resulted in the arrests of several 204th Street gang leaders, and Murphy said that instilled an "atmosphere of paranoia" in the gang.

"Whoever they think is the weakest link, they tend to go after," he said. "It might have been done to send a message to others."

Several other witnesses to Cheryl's killing have moved out of the neighborhood, said Najee Ali, an African American activist who has worked to build a gang truce in Harbor Gateway.

"It was one of our biggest fears and concerns after Cheryl's murder that we knew that this day would unfortunately come," he said.

The charges mark another twist in a murder case that outraged the community and prompted a major LAPD campaign against street gangs, focusing particularly on those that target victims based on race.

Cheryl was standing with a group of friends on Harvard Boulevard, just south of 206th Street, during the day when two men approached them. Without saying a word, one suspect pulled a gun and opened fire, killing Cheryl and wounding three others, witnesses and police said.

Authorities declared Cheryl's slaying a hate crime, concluding that members of the predominantly Latino 204th Street gang killed her as part of their effort to intimidate black residents of the Harbor Gateway district.

The violence highlighted the racial tensions that have plagued the working-class neighborhood east of Torrance for a decade.

Cheryl's mother, Charlene Lovett, said Friday she was saddened that her daughter's killing might have spawned more violence.

"It's crazy. It's horrible," she said.

Each of the five suspects named Friday is accused of one count of murder, with special circumstances of intentional murder of a witness to a crime, lying in wait and carrying out the murder to further the activities of the gang. They are to be arraigned Monday in a Long Beach courtroom.

The defendants were identified as 18-year-old Jonathan Fajardo, who had already been charged in Cheryl's murder; Jose Covarrubias, 20; Robert Gonzalez, 29; Raul Silva, 31; and Daniel Aguilar, 19.

The complaint filed by the district attorney's office alleges that Covarrubias and Gonzales were the ones who used a knife to kill Ash.

The 204th Street gang has 120 members and is accused of terrorizing African American residents in a nearly 2-square-mile area it considers its turf, according to the LAPD.

Most residents of Harbor Gateway are Latino, and authorities say the gang has been harassing black residents for years.

Blacks in the neighborhood say they've been shot at, chased and beaten by members of the gang. A building being erected by a black contractor was burned in 2005; arson investigators suspect that it was started by 204th Street gang members but can't prove it, according to a Los Angeles Fire Department report. Some black residents of the area say they avoid a market -- the neighborhood's only business -- because it is in the heart of the territory the gang claims.

Cheryl's killing made national headlines and prompted Police Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to launch a campaign focusing on 11 specific gangs, including 204th Street.

The crackdown is beginning in Harbor Gateway, where authorities said they've boosted patrols and used other legal tools to combat gangs. Police are planning to ask judges to approve "stay-away" orders for gang members to keep them out of the neighborhood.

Lovett, Cheryl's mother, said she was glad police were focusing more on Harbor Gateway and hope the charges filed Friday mark a step forward.

"They are doing a good job catching these guys," she said. "They need to continue what they're doing. They're being quick about it. That's the good thing."

A decision on whether to seek the death penalty against any or all of the defendants will be made by the district attorney's office as the case moves closer to trial.

amanda.Covarrubias@latimes.com

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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