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Pastor's slaying is latest in a year of violence for Pomona

Pomona has seen a sharp increase in homicides, reversing years of decline in a city once known for its crime rate and gang wars.

November 17, 2013|By Joseph Serna
  • Youth Pastor Daniel Diaz was shot to death hours after an anti-violence rally at a Pomona high school.
Youth Pastor Daniel Diaz was shot to death hours after an anti-violence… (New Beginnings Community…)

Eddie Reyes was just a 12-year-old in the school lunch line when Daniel Diaz shook his hand, introduced himself and asked Reyes about God.

Twenty years after the pair first met, Diaz was still reaching out to young people. His ability to connect with youths took the longtime friends to the corner of Park and Mayfair avenues in Pomona on Nov. 11, where police say Diaz was shot to death by a lone gunman on foot.

Diaz's killing — just hours after about 200 people gathered for an anti-violence rally at Ganesha High School in Pomona — was the latest in what police and community leaders are calling the worst year of violence in the city's recent history.

"I'm just kind of in disbelief," said Connie Jimenez, whose son Carlos was killed in a still-unsolved homicide in May 2011. "It's a cycle."

Diaz was shot about 12:45 a.m. Monday. He was a passenger in Reyes' car while the pair dropped off three boys who are a part of Diaz's youth ministry at New Beginnings Community Church in Baldwin Park. The group was celebrating Reyes' 32nd birthday and one of the boys' recent graduation from a youth program. Diaz had turned 33 a week earlier.

According to police, someone ran up to the passenger-side door and unloaded four shots into Diaz. No one else in the vehicle was hit, and police have no explanation for the killing. Friends and family say Diaz had no enemies.

"The individual that was out there that night was some lost young soul," Reyes said. Diaz's "entire purpose was to inspire them to not go in that direction."

Over the last two years, Pomona has seen a sharp increase in homicides, reversing years of decline in a city once known for its crime rate and gang wars. There have been at least 24 homicides in Pomona this year, according to the Times Homicide Report.

"There's no way to overlook the fact that we've had a significant increase in gun violence and homicides," said Pomona police Lt. Eddie Vazquez. "All of our other crimes, assaults, thefts, burglaries are all down … but homicides are up."

A majority of the victims of this year's violence have been documented gang members, Vazquez said.

At a recent community meeting, Vazquez said, residents asked what's causing the spike, if there's a solution and if they should be afraid.

"I completely understand," Vazquez said. "Those of us that work and live in the community, we share those same concerns."

Pomona's gang unit has added more officers and now works seven days a week. Meanwhile, two task forces — one includes the FBI — are focused on enforcing drug trafficking laws and monitoring early parolees released from custody.

Police can't point to a specific incident that may have sparked a cycle of retaliation, but Vazquez said Pomona has experienced an influx of gang members from other cities. Witnesses are also reluctant to talk to police because of fear of retaliation.

Said Jimenez, who attended an anti-violence rally and a vigil at the site where Diaz was killed: "It's almost like they're laughing" at police. "To me, it's a laugh in their face. And to the parents who lost their kids, it's a smack in the face."

Pomona's homicides peaked in the 1990s, when 34 people were killed in one year. Since then, the homicide rate had slowly ticked down until this year.

"We're not discouraged by this, we know things are going to happen," said Henry B. Alexander, bishop of Shield of Faith Christian Center in Pomona. "We're hopeful things can change."

Diaz was among those trying to bring change through his work with at-risk youths, said New Beginnings congregant and family friend Henry Dorame of West Covina.

"He was a servant and he knew it. A lot of those kids would've ended up dead, in gangs or in drugs," Dorame said. "I feel like he was just getting started."

Police have no suspects.

"Detectives are working morning, noon and night on this case because there's someone out there that shot Mr. Diaz for no apparent reason and that's a dangerous individual," Vazquez said.

This week, 13 miles from the shooting, about 150 congregants gathered for their regular Wednesday service in New Beginnings' corner church in a Baldwin Park strip mall.

"His labor will not end, his work will be finished," pastor John Euresti told the congregation. "Did they prove anything by shooting him? No. Now many lives will be saved. Pomona will never be the same."

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ari Bloomekatz contributed to this report.

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