Kaneisha Dunn, left, Laneasha Woods and Tanisha Caliman comfort one another.… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
Barbara Jones said she had a warning ready for her grandchildren whenever they visited her Compton home. Keep an eye out for her neighbor, Julian Carter.
"I'd tell them, 'If you see Julian walk up, come inside. I'm too old to be fighting with him,' " the 61-year-old Jones said Monday. "I'll fight with him, but I don't think I can win."
Carter, 25, on Monday was accused of killing his 5-year-old niece, placing her body in a plastic trash bag and stuffing it into the closet of the family's home, which is next door to Jones' home.
Family members and neighbors were in mourning Monday for the little girl, who was often seen playing and singing on the street and had just graduated from kindergarten.
"My daughter loved him, and he loved her. That's why I can't understand. I mean, he loved her," said Mireya Nila McCall's father, Travon McCall, between sobs. "I grew up with Julian. We grew up with each other."
But neighbors say Carter's behavior had become increasingly bizarre and menacing.
Last August, he slapped a 3-year-old neighbor girl, hard, in the face. Sheriff's deputies took Carter away, said Wendy Walker, 29, that girl's mother. His behavior just got stranger and stranger, she said. Walker said that in January, she caught him snarling profanities at her daughter through her window.
Carter used to have a job; he dressed well and loved to dance, Walker said. He used to go to her house to play dominoes and other games, Walker said. He used to play kickball with her daughter, who was close to Mireya. Carter sang gospel songs too, she added.
"He was raised in the church," Walker said. "We used to hang out during the holidays.... That dude was a dancer. He loved to dance."
But in recent years, Carter's odd behavior grew worse, and neighbors said he would sometimes dance in the middle of the street from before dawn into the late afternoon. Sometimes he danced during downpours.
Neighbors said they thought he was into heavy drugs. Brandon Ellison, 27, said Carter cut a "zombie-like" figure in the neighborhood.
Jones said he developed a hard stare.
"He looked at you like he wanted to kill you," she said. "Like he hated you."
Not long ago, she said, Carter tried to break into her house. Jones said he knew she was there, and she grabbed a knife. Before she could get help, one of his brothers stopped him and dragged him away, Jones said.
"It was in broad daylight," she said. "It's like he got a hold of some really bad stuff, and he was tripping."
Carter lived with his sister, niece and parents in a small house in the 1100 block of East Peck Street; family members had been apologetic about his behavior, but they seemed powerless to stop it, neighbors said.
Residents said the tree-shaded neighborhood was not without its problems, including gangs. It's calm during the daytime, rougher at night. But for the most part, neighbors get along, and even some of the well-established gang members seem respectful of many of their neighbors. The neighborhood had an Easter celebration, Jones said.
In many ways, the girl's killing was more shocking than any gang murder could be.
Lt. Liam Gallagher, of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department homicide bureau, said Mireya's mother called about 7:20 a.m. Sunday to report Mireya missing. Deputies found her in the closet. Though investigators said her body was in a trash bag, family members said they were told it was not. Carter was not home. According to a coroner's report, Mireya was killed by "sharp-force trauma to the neck."
One of Carter's sisters said family members went out looking for him and, shortly after Mireya was found, they found him and drove him back to his home, where he was arrested. Gallagher said investigators have recovered evidence tying Carter to the killing. He is expected to be arraigned Tuesday.
Jones said she knew something bad was happening when she heard the girl's mother screaming in the back yard.
"She was screaming, 'Mrs. Barbara, I can't find my baby!' " Jones said.
She said deputies struggled with the distraught woman and restrained her. Jones said it wasn't long before they found the girl's body.
McCall, 26, said he arrived at the house and was so grief-stricken that he fractured a hand when he slammed it on a car. A deputy walked up to him and gave him a hug, he said.
"He hugged me, as a father to a father, and he said, 'I have kids too,' " McCall said, his voice cracking.
Gallagher said he didn't know about the girl's mother being handcuffed but said "there were a lot of emotional people out there."
Though McCall did not live with his daughter or her mother, neighbors said he frequently visited her and doted on her fiercely. They read stories together, McCall said. Even before she was born, he said, he knew she would be a girl.