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Shootings alarm neighborhood

Some fear the two attacks are linked to an anti-gang march.

April 03, 2008|Andrew Blankstein and Ruben Vives | Times Staff Writers

They had hoped to reclaim their neighborhood from violence. Scores of marchers walked through a section of the South Robertson area of Los Angeles with banners calling for an end to gangs and guns and urging other locals to join the fight against crime.

But just days later, residents of the Westside community have been shaken by fresh bloodshed in two separate shootings that left a 37-year-old resident dead and a transient wounded.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles police officials said they had no evidence of a link between Sunday's march and the shootings, and downplayed fears of violence in the area.

But organizers of the event expressed concern that the shootings were related to the rally and complained that the area had been plagued by gang-related crime.

They said residents of the La Cienega Heights neighborhood, where the march took place, reported gang members taking posters left over from the event and scrawling anti-police messages on them. Then they shouted anti-police slogans to mock the earlier marchers.

"They were harassing the neighborhood," said Baila Romm, a member of the local community police advisory board that helped organize the rally and who lives nearby. "People are frightened because people are getting shot and killed. But [residents] don't want us out of there. They want our support."

Romm said the march was part of an attempt to revive a neighborhood watch group in La Cienega Heights, which is near the 10 Freeway between La Cienega and Robertson boulevards.

About 70 marchers and police officers attended the event, stopping on street corners to call for residents to join them. About 30 residents signed up to become members of the neighborhood watch, but others kept their distance, Romm said.

"Some people were afraid to come out," she said. "The truth is, if you're watching, they can't commit crimes. . . . If the neighborhood is intimidated and shuts themselves in, they can continue doing it."

But a day after the march, a transient known to frequent the La Cienega Heights area was shot several times. On Tuesday evening, Rene Wilfredo Cortez's body was discovered in a narrow pathway leading to the backyard of a home in the 1900 block of South Garth Avenue.

Lt. Ray Lombardo said Cortez had lived nearby with two sisters and a niece since arriving from El Salvador a year ago. He said detectives knew of no motive for the slaying.

The shootings reignited fears about crime in the area.

Jay Handal, chairman of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and the local Chamber of Commerce, said residents had been e-mailing him about threats they received from gang members after the rally.

"If the shooting wasn't a direct retaliation, certainly the threats" were, he said.

Robertson Boulevard has long been a dividing line. West of the street lie the upscale communities of Beverlywood and Cheviot Hills, where home prices can far exceed $1 million. On the east side is La Cienega Heights and several other communities.

They are far from the most crime-ridden in Los Angeles. Because they are adjacent to affluent areas, they have seen an influx of new residents who have fixed up old houses.

On some blocks, the gentrification has been dramatic. But other blocks are dense with apartments, and police said gang activity remains a problem.

Two years ago, gang gunfire claimed the life of 16-year-old Hamilton High School student Ana Interiano as she walked with friends in the South Robertson area.

The shooting prompted increased patrols and more vigilant community organizing that many credit with reducing crime.

But then in July, concerns were renewed with the officer-involved shooting of a 14-year-old boy who police say was armed with a handgun.

Today, Handal complains of gang crime in the La Cienega Heights area, including a recent rash of graffiti that involved more than two dozen homes.

But Los Angeles police officials said serious crime was on the decline.

Although the neighborhood has seen three shootings in the last two weeks, Lombardo said Cortez's death marked only the second homicide of the year for the department's West Los Angeles Division.

Indeed, crime statistics show that the division has seen a 17% reduction in serious crimes so far this year.

"The sky is not falling," said Capt. Bill Eaton.

"It's still a safe place to live. We are still enjoying healthy crime reduction there and will continue to work with the community to keep it going in that direction," he said.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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ruben.vives@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

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