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Fatal shooting sends shudders through a reborn Inglewood

The killing of Fredrick Martin Jr., who died shielding his son from two gunmen, raises haunting questions in a city that has been recovering from a siege of gang violence, with crime at a 32-year low.

April 10, 2012|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • Fredrick Martin Jr. holds his son, Tre, in a family photo. Martin was fatally injured April 3 while shielding his son from gunfire.
Fredrick Martin Jr. holds his son, Tre, in a family photo. Martin was fatally…

The Inglewood where young Fredrick Martin Jr. grew up was plagued by crime, gangs and the fear that came with both.

But by the time he returned in 2006, after graduating from college in Texas, the city was slowly turning around. Crime was down. Graffiti had largely disappeared. The barred windows and gated front doors were still fixtures on the street where he lived with his wife and child and grandmother, but every day they seemed less relevant in this community under the flight path to LAX.

Until a week ago.

Martin, 28, was cleaning the garage on the evening of April 3 with his 8-year-old son and a friend when two gunmen approached on foot and began firing. Martin threw the boy to the ground and covered his body, shielding him from the bullets. He suffered two gunshot wounds and died later that night. His son escaped with a minor graze.

The shooting has broken the community's hard-won but fragile sense of security. To many in the city, it's a reminder that even as crime recedes, the dangers of street violence still exist.

"We were so proud of the fact that homicide has been dropping in our city. We didn't have a murder until the month of April, which is unprecedented," Inglewood Mayor James Butts said. "But this brings it home that every murder is a tragedy for some family somewhere."

Last year, Inglewood officials joyously announced that crime had dropped to its lowest level in 32 years — part of a larger plunge in crime across South Los Angeles and the rest of the region. Inglewood recorded 13 homicides in 2011, compared to 39 in 2001 and 55 in 1990, according to Police Department statistics. Other violent crimes have fallen drastically as well.

The shift made residents hopeful. Jaaye Person-Lynn, an attorney and high school friend of Martin, said he had just bought his first home in the area and was encouraging old friends to "come back to Inglewood."

It was in this new Inglewood where Martin often greeted neighbors outside the brown double doors of his garage on 109th Street. There, he showed off his new motorcycle, walked his dog and played catch with his son.

Martin's smiling presence was part of what residents said was a safer vibe on the block. Yolanda Garcia, who has lived in Inglewood for 17 years, said she recently started taking walks around the neighborhood for exercise. "It's been so quiet and peaceful," she said.

Before the shooting, resident Shadonna Shelby said her main safety concern was having the city install speed bumps on 109th Street to slow down traffic so children could play. After her neighbor was killed protecting his son, Shelby said, she's thinking about moving out.

Walking back from work Monday along 109th Street, nearly a week after Martin's killing, 19-year-old Viron Hopwood summed up the change.

"My mom just told me be careful," he said. "She probably wouldn't even want me out here right now."

Police say they still don't have a motive or suspects in the slaying.

Butts hailed Martin as "a good son, a great father, and … a hero," calling him an innocent victim of a senseless crime. Martin's family has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killers.

"If what happened on 109th Street had happened in a war, my brother would be receiving a congressional Medal of Honor," said Martin's half sister Micharri Pratts. "The next best thing we can offer him is justice for this unspeakable crime."

Friends and relatives describe Martin as an upbeat young man and proud father. He graduated from Westchester High School in 2001 and earned a degree in sociology from Texas Southern University in 2006.

He had separated from the mother of his son, Fredrick "Tre" Martin III, but both parents remained actively involved in raising the boy.

Last year, Martin married Amanda Grant, a high school friend with whom he reconnected after college. She is expected to give birth later this year. He was employed as an analyst at Kaiser Permanente for several years but more recently worked in catering with an eye to opening his own restaurant.

About 6 p.m. on April 3, Martin and his son met up with Joey Hickman, a close friend who is also Tre's godfather. They went to Home Depot to pick up cleaning supplies, then returned home and started working in the garage.

Martin was several feet from the boy, facing away from the street, when the gunfire began, Hickman said in an interview with The Times.

"Fred ran straight for his son," Hickman said. "He thought of his son before he thought of himself."

After the shooting stopped, Martin told Tre to run inside. He and Hickman, who was shot in the foot, lay on the ground until police arrived.

"The last thing I said to him was 'we'll be all right, we'll get through this,' " Hickman recalled.

Hickman rode with Tre in an ambulance to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood. Martin was taken to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where he died in surgery.

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