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Hate-crime arrests in Azusa evoke memories of attacks years ago

More than 50 gang members were indicted two weeks ago on charges that include waging a terror campaign against Azusa's black population. Relief is mixed with memories of racial attacks that remain unsolved.

June 19, 2011|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Dion Smith and his family moved out of Azusa after someone threw a threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of their home in 2001.
Dion Smith and his family moved out of Azusa after someone threw a threw a… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Dion Smith moved to Azusa because he liked the sleepy suburb, nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, with easy access to canyon trails where he would go walking.

The small San Gabriel Valley city felt like home — until the night of Dec. 5, 2001. That night, someone hurled a Molotov cocktail through the window of the house where Smith and his family were sleeping. The bottle did not ignite, and Smith, his wife and their 6-year-old daughter were unharmed. But soon after, they decided to leave Azusa for nearby Covina.

The Smiths were one of three black families attacked that night in what police described as brazen racially motivated crimes. Police long believed that a predominantly Latino gang hell-bent on getting blacks out of Azusa was behind the firebombings — but they could never prove it.

Federal authorities two weeks ago released an indictment of 51 members of the Azusa 13 gang on a host of charges that include waging an organized terror campaign against Azusa's black population beginning in 1992.

The indictments and subsequent arrests brought a sense of relief to Azusa's small black community — only 3% of the city's population — and to victims such as Smith who have moved away. But it was also a reminder of racial attacks that remain unsolved.

At least eight black families had their houses firebombed from 1996 to 2001, including the attack on Smith's house, according to police files.

And in 2000, a Cedars-Sinai Medical Center nurse named Ge'Juan Sallee was gunned down in broad daylight as he left an auto parts store.

"That's one of the ones that still kind of haunts us," said Azusa Police Sgt. Bruce Badoni, who was among the officers called to the scene when Sallee was shot.

To police, Sallee was an innocent person in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had no gang ties and did not even live in Azusa. At 24, he was the pride of his family. He had graduated from nursing school when he was 19 and moved from Ohio to Los Angeles to look for a job. Later, he bought a house in Covina — in part to get away from the crime in the city — and moved his mother, Carol Sallee, out to live with him.

More than mother and son, Carol said, they were "best friends." He was her only child.

"He was doing everything they wanted a young black man to do, and in the end, it didn't come out right," she said.

On the afternoon of Aug. 8, 2000, Sallee and his cousin made a run to a store in Azusa to find some parts for the radio in Sallee's classic 1968 Oldsmobile Delta. They had just left the store and were about to get back in the car when some people drove into the lot and opened fire without warning.

Sallee was shot in the head and died at the hospital.

Witnesses described the suspects' vehicle as a small white sedan with a black stripe and three people inside. Police set up surveillance in the area looking for the car but didn't find it. They showed lineups to witnesses but were not able to conclusively identify a suspect. The city pooled with other agencies to offer a $65,000 reward for tips. No one stepped forward to claim it.

Badoni said the hate crime investigations, like many involving Azusa 13, were stymied by the lack of witnesses willing to cooperate with police. People were afraid of reprisals by the gang. In some cases, such as the attack on Smith's house, there were no eyewitnesses and little evidence to go on.

Officials believe it's likely that some of the people responsible for the firebombings and Sallee murder are among those charged in the indictment. But they may never know for sure.

Smith, a 42-year-old copy machine technician, said he sees black families when he goes back to Azusa these days — to hike or to take his car to the mechanic — and wonders about their safety. The recent arrests give him hope that the people who attacked his family will be unable to target others.

"I would really like them out of the streets," Smith said. "That way I know people should be a lot safer going in and out of the city."

Carol Sallee agrees that it's good to hear that so many gang members are now off the streets. But even that brings her little personal comfort.

"It doesn't bring my son back," she said. "They all should get what they're going to get, but it doesn't help me any. I'm still lonely. I'm still miserable."

By all accounts, the number of racially motivated crimes in Azusa has decreased dramatically over the last decade. In 1999 and 2000, police investigated 17 hate crimes each year. Over the last several years, the number has remained in the low single digits, and some years there have been none.

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