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Fear sets up camp on a stretch of the L.A. River

For residents along a grimy stretch of the waterway, the shooting of five people a year ago made a perilous place feel even more so.

November 24, 2009|By Christopher Goffard
  • Jolene Musgrove, 51, cooks breakfast among tossed garbage under the 7th Street Bridge next to the Los Angeles River in Long Beach. She has lived off and on at the river for about 30 years, and for the last few months between two bridge pillars under the 7th Street Bridge.
Jolene Musgrove, 51, cooks breakfast among tossed garbage under the 7th… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

After the killings, the people on the river slept with their knives closer. They leashed guard dogs outside their tents and cardboard lean-tos. They listened for strangers' footsteps above the thrum of traffic on the bridges overhead. They got used to the sight of police stepping carefully along the big white rocks of the embankment. Below, in its concrete jacket, the dirty river crawled.

Violence is common and often unreported along the 51-mile Los Angeles River, daytime haunt of the occasional jogger and bird-watcher and in many parts a lawless no-man's-land populated by hard-core addicts, the mentally ill and uncountable others, broke or hiding. But what happened last November made an already fearful place feel more perilous still.

Someone gunned down three men and two women in a homeless encampment a few miles from the river's final southern curve into Long Beach Harbor. Hidden by bottlebrush trees along the Santa Fe Avenue off-ramp of the 405 Freeway, it was a cave-like spot with a single entrance -- a narrow footpath along a chain-like fence -- and a reputation as a drug den.

Police suspect the shooter came to punish a drug debtor and turned the gun on everyone to eliminate witnesses. Two things made it personal for river residents: One of the victims, 24-year-old Katherine Verdun, was a familiar face. And many understood how easily it could have been them.

For weeks, police who usually avoid the river were searching its banks, looking for witnesses, waiting for someone with information to claim a $20,000 reward. A year later, police are waiting still.

"You've got five people that were killed and no one came forward. That's unheard of," said Long Beach Police Det. Mark McGuire. "That community is terrified still. There's no way to get through to them yet, even with the reward."

McGuire calls it among the toughest cases he's worked in nearly 10 years in homicide, owing to "the nature of the victims" -- most were homeless -- and to their transient circumstances. Attempting to track down witnesses is to confront an ever-changing cast. On the river, McGuire said, "it's never the same person twice. Nobody knows who's who, who's coming or who's going."

The river, which once supplied a nascent metropolis with drinking water, is now a gargantuan drainage trench, built by the Army Corps of Engineers after a deadly 1938 flood. It begins behind Canoga Park High School and snakes under a network of bridges and freeways through the heart of Los Angeles.

Like other rivers, its personality changes as it bends and coils, trickling here, rippling there. In places, where the accumulated trash isn't too thick, it's almost picturesque, full of elderberries and willows, alders and sycamores. Visitors can spot hawks, egrets and schools of carp, and stroll in adjacent mini-parks.

On the mental topography of Southern California, it remains mostly a blank spot, a terra incognita glimpsed from an overpass and instantly forgotten. It's easy to grow up here, and grow old, without setting foot in it. It's an invisible city whose population centers do not figure on official maps.

Under the 7th Street Bridge in Long Beach, where a dozen or more people can be found living in the garbage-heaped shade between the pylons, the population obeys the rhythms of any flophouse.

There are relationships of convenience and survival, alliances made and broken, betrayals, sudden, violent spats -- a methamphetamine-fueled soap opera with an ever-changing gallery of prematurely haggard faces.

" 'As the World Turns' on the Los Angeles River," said Jolene Musgrove, a former carnival worker who goes by "Mama Jo" and looks at least a decade older than her 51 years. She's lived on the river on and off for about 30 years, most recently between bridge pillars, one of them scrawled with the words "Carny Power." Her boyfriend had lent their scavenged-wood shelter a tropical feel, hanging the facade with wooden mats and seashells. "I got two ex-husbands living on the river too."

Musgrove, who survives on food stamps and a general-relief check, said she knew Verdun, one of the homicide victims, and the killings scared her off the river. She stayed with her son in Long Beach for a week before returning. "Nowhere else to go," she explained. Decades back, she said, the river was a kinder place.

"I used to know who everyone was and where they were," she said. "It has gotten a lot meaner. People are more ruthless."

The bridge, about six miles south of the site of the killings, has no small number of addicts, their blasted olfactory sense numbing them to the reeking water, human waste and rotting garbage. Although Musgrove has lived in many spots along the river, she feels safest under the bridge -- a place where church groups deliver meals twice a week, and where "everybody cares about everybody, and they take care of each other."

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