Katrina Ervin, left, weeps while describing the shooting in South Los Angeles… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
For more than 40 years, the extended Williams, Russell, Dill and Cherry families have celebrated the Fourth of July with firecrackers on 97th Street in South Los Angeles.
They barbecue all day outside the beige duplexes near Normandie Avenue that have been the family gathering spot for decades. At night, the kids light fireworks in the street.
For years, this tradition went off peacefully, family members said. But on Wednesday night, shortly after 10 p.m., as the celebration was in full swing, two men approached the crowd and fired.
The gunshots sent men playing dominoes diving for cover. The bullets hit and killed 14-year-old Unique Russell. A cousin, 12, was also wounded, as was a 21-year-old man.
Unique's death was part of a violent Fourth of July in South L.A., with police responding to eight other shootings — including two more homicides — during a six-hour period overnight.
"July is typically one of our busiest times of the year. We put many more officers out on the streets to deal with the added number of people on the streets watching fireworks or partying," said Los Angeles police Cmdr. Andrew Smith. "But we were all a bit disappointed by the number of violent incidents as the evening progressed."
At one point, police called a modified tactical alert when alleged gang members pelted officers with lighted fireworks, rocks and bottles early Thursday in the 1300 block of East 111th Place.
Officers were responding to more than 250 people in a nearby parking lot drinking and lighting fireworks as a DJ blasted music. One man became belligerent, and, as officers tried to subdue him, the crowd became unruly, police said. One officer was hospitalized for burns. Another suffered a dislocated shoulder.
Most of the shootings were also believed to have a gang connection, police said.
One such attack took place about 10:30 p.m. in the 4800 block of 2nd Avenue and left one man dead. Police said five men were standing in front of a home when a white SUV drove past and someone opened fire. One man in his 20s, who was not identified, was pronounced dead. Four others were hospitalized in stable condition.
About 2 a.m., officers were called to Manchester and Vermont avenues, where they found an 18-year-old man with a gunshot wound to the chest. The victim, who was not immediately identified, died at a nearby hospital. Police said they do not have any information on the assailants.
Fifteen minutes later, a man was shot multiple times in a suspected gang-related attack moments after he stepped off a bus near Florence and Western avenues. The victim was listed in stable condition; the shooting is under investigation.
Sheriff's investigators said they have no motive yet in the shooting of Unique Russell, a bubbly girl entering 10th grade at Washington Preparatory High School.
Unique lived on Crenshaw Boulevard with her mother and sister, but was a frequent visitor to the two duplexes on 97th Street, where her great-grandmother lived, and near where her grandparents and father lived.
"On 97th" was a frequent response her mother, Donna Wade, received when asking Unique where she was going.
"It was the house. It was the holiday house, the eating house," Wade said. "That's a big family, and they're like a real family."
The family came from the small town of Thomaston, Ga., in the 1960s. Though 97th Street is in a neighborhood where gang violence was once rife, in all the years the families have gotten together for the Fourth, Wednesday night marked the first shooting during the celebration.
"People don't realize they're hurting you when they do things like that," said Mary Dill, one of Unique's many aunts.
Sheriff's investigators have made no arrests in the case and ask anyone with information to call (323) 890-5500.
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