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Longtime youth volunteer shot dead in South L.A.'s Harvard Park

Police believe the 19-year-old shot in broad daylight as he sat on a bench may have been mistaken for a gang member. Security cameras for the park had been delayed.

September 27, 2012|By Angel Jennings, Los Angeles Times
  • Flowers, candles and cards fill a picnic table as Gail Sears listens to a memorial service for her son Patrick Caruthers, a 19-year-old student and longtime youth volunteer at Harvard Park, where he was shot Tuesday afternoon.
Flowers, candles and cards fill a picnic table as Gail Sears listens to a… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

For Patrick Caruthers, Harvard Park was like a second home.

It was at the South L.A. park where he played soccer as a child, and where his passion for basketball later flourished. It was where the 19-year-old spent countless hours as a youth volunteer.

He was at the park this week, sitting on a bench listening to music under the shade of a tree when a gunman walked up to him and shot him in broad daylight. Police believe he may have been mistaken for a gang member.

The brazen killing Tuesday afternoon prompted another call for security cameras in the troubled park, a known stronghold for a Bloods street gang. The cameras were expected to be operating this summer, but the issue has been stalled at City Hall since February.

"You would think they would have cameras, but they don't," said Caruthers' distraught stepfather, Louis Blackmon Jr.

"It is totally unexpected and unexplained as to why this is back and forth and not in progress," said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who lobbied for the cameras.

On Tuesday, a couple of hours before Caruthers died, Councilman Mitch Englander, chairman of the public safety committee, forwarded the initiative to the City Council for final approval, he said in a statement. An equipment issue that had been holding it up "seems to have been resolved," Englander said in an emailed statement.

The cameras might not have prevented Caruthers' slaying, but Parks said they would probably have provided leads for police, and maybe even images of the suspects.

A student at L.A. Trade Technical College, Caruthers got out of class a little early Tuesday and headed straight to Harvard Park. He called his stepfather at about 3 p.m. to check in.

Caruthers was sitting at a picnic table with his headphones on when a gunman shot him multiple times in the back. The gunman fled in a compact car.

Police said the shooting was gang-related, but that Caruthers was an innocent bystander.

The shooter "thought he was targeting a gang member," LAPD Det. Chris Barling said. "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, somebody doesn't walk up and shoot somebody on a park bench. That is something a gang member would do."

Caruthers, who had a learning disability, volunteered at the city-owned park for years, until the director finally hired him in the Summer Night Lights anti-gang program. There, he helped steer youngsters from trouble.

"He was the one guy you would go to the park and see and he was always doing something positive," said Officer Gary Verge of the LAPD's 77th Division. "I've been on the scene of a lot of shootings but hearing about this one really bothered me."

Family members described Caruthers as a charismatic young man who overcame his learning disability to achieve great things in his short life.

"I would just leave him alone and when I looked up he was always doing something that I didn't know he could do," said his mother, Gail Sears.

He taught himself to play the drums and the organ and showed off his musical talents every Sunday at Jesus House of Prayer, his mother said. Caruthers even enrolled in a DJ class despite having problems with fine motor skills.

"When they say special ed, they mean that because my child was truly special," Sears said. "He wasn't afraid of anything."

The Los Angeles Police Department has offered a $50,000 reward for the conviction of suspects involved in the shooting, but authorities have traditionally struggled to find people to come forward.

For years, a Bloods street gang has claimed the South L.A. park as its own. Members would often guard the entrance, denying access to neighbors and construction crews. Reputed gang members shot a graphic music video inside the park, which prompted Parks' push for cameras.

Recently, things seemed to turn around. Residents started taking lessons at the tennis court and frequenting the swimming pool. Youngsters tried out their skills on the skate ramp.

The cameras, Parks said, were the last step needed to ensure safety.

"[The shooting] puts us back to square one," Parks said. "Because the general public is going to be fearful again."

angel.jennings@latimes.com

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