L.A. County Sheriff's Department Explorers Alexis Frenes, 16, and… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)
It was their first homicide case. And it hit close to home.
Dozens of teenage Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Explorers went door-to-door Saturday in the unincorporated county area of South Whittier looking for witnesses to the drive-by shooting death of a member of their Explorer unit.
Nineteen-year-old Cesar Rodriguez of Whittier was fatally shot as he chatted with a friend Aug. 28 in front of a house in the 11800 block of Painter Avenue where they were leaving a party. The second man, Larry Villegas, 24, also died in the shooting.
Investigators believe that the shots were fired about 3:30 a.m. by the driver of a gray Scion sedan. Three or four other people were in the car, deputies said.
Rodriguez had spent four years in the sheriff's Explorer program, where teens sample police work by undertaking nonhazardous law enforcement functions. He had filed his application to become a sheriff's deputy the week before he was killed; applicants must be at least 19 1/2 years old to sign up for deputy training.
"He was like a brother. He taught me everything I know," said fellow Explorer Mariah Banks, 17, of Norwalk, who has spent two years in the program. "The uniform was his life."
The Explorers were joined by adult volunteers from the Norwalk sheriff's station as they knocked on doors and handed out fliers to residents south of Amelia Mayberry Park. Many of those they encountered had known Rodriguez "since he was a little boy," as one resident put it.
Members of Rodriguez's family also distributed the "information wanted" fliers Saturday.
His mother, Lupe Rodriguez, said her son had earlier gotten off work and had paused to meet with friends on his way home. Of his killer, "may God forgive him, that's all I can say," she said.
His father, Jorge Rodriguez, said his son had worked for a year as a security officer at a Target store. "He always liked to help people. That's why he wanted to be a sheriff's deputy," he said.
Sheriff's homicide detectives Sgt. Mike Rodriguez, who is unrelated to the victim, and Gary Sica gave the Explorers advice before they fanned out through the neighborhood. The Explorers and the adult volunteers were told to alert deputies if they encountered witnesses to the shooting.
Norwalk Sheriff's Capt. Patrick Maxwell acknowledged the seriousness of Saturday's neighborhood canvassing. "Unfortunately, this is something you'll experience again if you go into law enforcement," he said.
Explorer Darleen Martinez said the killings of Rodriguez and Villegas — who was not affiliated with the Explorer program — stiffened her resolve to become involved with police work.
"This is going to push us to go out and get people who do this kind of thing off the street. It's going to have a positive impact on us," the 19-year-old La Mirada resident said.
Explorer Mario Melendez, 18, agreed. "It's going to make me want to go into law enforcement even more," the Norwalk resident said.
The Explorers discovered that many in the neighborhood were aware of the killings and were horrified by them.
"I heard seven or eight gunshots and then a car burning out toward Carmenita Road" but did not see the car, said resident Jonathan Hall, a restaurant waiter.
As the Explorers reached Painter Avenue, they paused where their fellow Explorer was fatally shot. Above the flowers and memorial candles, a handmade banner from Explorers at the Industry sheriff's station proclaimed that Rodriguez would "forever be a partner" with them.
Mariah Banks tugged at a necklace chain and pulled a shiny dog tag from beneath her khaki Explorer's shirt. On one side was Rodriguez's name; on the other side was his picture.
"We've all bought these. Everyone at the station has one," she said. "It's part of our uniform now."