Saturday, February 16, 2008


By Diana L. Chapman

188 voices silenced. Forever. No more laughs. No more sighs. There will be tears no more from these victims.
188 faces and their smiles have left no trace -- except perhaps with their loved ones lurking somewhere behind faded and yellow-patched memories. All of them, every single one, were murdered here in our lovely coastal community of San Pedro between 1989 to 2007. Many were killed by gangs. Others were killed in cases of domestic violence.
To honor these lost souls, a peace vigil will be held Thursday, May 15 at 6 p.m., at San Pedro High School -- an event sparked by the shooting death of popular high school football player, LaTerian Tasby, 19, who died in October trying to protect his friends when gang members crashed a party.
Of these 188, 23 listed are children -- ages 1 to 17.
One was a one-year-old-girl named Baby Ochoa. Another was 8-year-old Alba Flores. Others were 15-year-old Vincent Villa and Brenda Garcia, 16. They were just beginning their lives.

About one-third ranged from 18 to 30-years-old, including LaTerian, who unlike the shooting death of Cheryl Green, 14, on a Harbor Gateway street corner over a year ago, didn’t prompt hordes of media attention, politicians screaming for change – or even a candle light vigil. No reward for his killer's capture was posted either.

It didn’t matter that like Cheryl, he too was black, and that he too was allegedly shot by a Hispanic gang – and this might be just another one of these hate crimes Los Angeles has been rippled with in recent years.

What LaTerian's death did to many of our kids, however, was leave a permanent pulsing scar on the beating hearts of hundreds of children who were not only in awe of his 6’7” structure, but were inspired by the way he turned his life around by becoming an athlete. He gave them strength and he gave them hope.
A high school football and basketball player, LaTerian, whose mother moved him to San Pedro to get away from the violence in their neighborhood, always took the time to encourage and listen to kids much younger than him. The “Empire State Building,” as one kid called him, had shockingly collapsed.
After that death, it seem as a community we slipped back into our slumber – and moved on as usual. We, the adults moved on. The kids – while encouraged to forget – seem to remain haunted by his killing. It haunts many of them in their school hallways, when they walk home and even when they go to the store.
Perhaps they wonder this: If LaTerian can fall, that means so can I.
One high school student I know in particular concerns me now. When I see him, he hangs his head down all the time and he doesn’t look you in the eye. He was friends with La Terian, the second close friend who has been murdered by gangs in his short lifetime.
Perhaps he is now reliving again and again that earlier death. That's when gang members killed his bestfriend -- one month shy of their eighth grade graduation -- when the two were playing basketball. In front of him, they shot his bestfriend in the head -- the same bestfriend who befriended him while he was in foster care and taught him their beloved game of basketball.
Having done little as a community in the past in terms of peace or candlelight vigils, the San Pedro School Safety Collaborative decided the time was – now. The collaborative, which formed three years ago, is a mixture of school, police and service organization officials who work on school safety issues.
Because of the event, Los Angeles police provided me with the nine-pages of names, titled “San Pedro Homicide 1987 to 2007.” I pondered the sheets provided to me for the ceremony and sifted through the names. Mostly barren of details, all the list includes are: the victim’s name and age and the “date murdered.” As I read it, a chill went up my back with a sensation of whispering voices saying: “I’ve been forgotten. Remember me.”
Besides listing the children below the age of 18, there were scores of others killed who should have had their entire lives ahead of them, including two visiting Japanese students, Takuma Ito and Go Matsurra, both 19 and attending Marymount College. They were killed brutally by a gang in 1994 at a Ralph’s on Western Avenue about 11 p.m. where they went to get some late night snacks and a gang member was trying to steal their car. That actually made a lot of us stop and think – “Hey, I shop at Ralphs. It could have been me.” At least for a time.
Despite the intense and fierce international media coverage of the last case, even those deaths have vanished from the mists of our minds.
The death list stills sits in the computer bowels of the LAPD, citing the victims names whose ages range from 1 to 91. Many of the murders remain unsolved, such as LaTerian’s.
For Senior Lead Los Angeles police officer, Joe Buscaino, one of the leaders planning the vigil, his mission has become to promote peace in San Pedro, his hometown, in any way he can. Like so many officers, he said, he’s tired of witnessing the intense pain when knocking on family’s door to let them know – yes – your son, your daughter, your mother, your wife, your husband was just killed. Many are under the age of 30.
“We are just tired of burying these young people,” the officer said. “We are tired of going to the crime scenes. We are tired of watching parents bury their kids. So many of these murders leave the unanswered question: “Why, why, why?”
At the vigil, each victim’s name will be read out loud and their faces will flash across a giant screen, said Joe Gatlin, another one of the event’s organizers. The Pirate Dancers will do a performance. And at the end of it all – as was done on Super Bowl Sunday – those attending will be asked to hold up their cell phones instead of candles to light up the night.
“We’ve got to quit burying our heads in the sand and quit pretending this isn’t happening,” said Gatlin, who hopes this will be the first step toward uniting residents here because there is, after all, much more strength in a cohesive than a divided community.
For me personally, all I could keep wondering since I’ve lived in San Pedro for more than two decades is: “Where are all the adults? Where are we to protect the kids when they get out of school? Why don’t we care about all the kids walking home past gang members? Why do we let them be subjected to having their bikes, radios and I-Pods being stolen. Why is this O.K. on one side of town, but not O.K. on another?”
Reading the homicide list left me frozen. There were names such as Gilbert Sandgren, 17, Tamara Hamilton, 16, Luis Navarro, 21, all killed in 1990.
Besides the children’s names that will be read, there were scores of others killed as they had just reached adulthood who should have had their whole lives ahead of them
Snatched away were the lives of: Willie Birl, 20, Reginald Reese, 19, Matthew Alexander, 19.
I picked up the phone and called Yesenia Aguilar, the College Bound director at the Boys and Girls Club. Had she gone to school with any of those kids?
Yes, she attended school with all three of them -- and none of them were in gangs, she said. They just were killed by gangs. All these deaths hurt and still haunt her to this day.
Willie, she said, was an incredible football player – who had a full college scholarship. He did all the “things he needed to do,” she said. “He stayed focused. He maintained a B average. He was highly pressured because so many of the people he knew were in gangs. But he made all the right choices.”
That was all the right choices, she said, until one day he was walking home and a gang member jumped him. He made a mistake then. He fought back, won and went home. Later, the gang member, she recalled, came to his house and killed him with a shotgun.
“He was the last person who should have died, like LaTerian,” she said. But then she started to recall all the names of kids like this she knew, who had been killed by gangs, including Reese and Alexander.
“There’s no more just fighting anymore,” she said. Like sharks, "the gangs just kill." Recently, she said, a 13-year-old was jumped at a bus stop by gang members, who stole his money and I-pod. He ran to the club for safety, she said.
I was just glad he didn't become another statistic.
You can play with the numbers on this list, rearrange statistics and categorize these deaths in all sorts of ways. For instance in 1991, 18 people were murdered -- the highest number in all those years. This included the murder of the Yip children when their mother, Ophilia, who was depressed drove her van into the harbor with her children strapped inside. The voices of Nichole, 3, Jason, 6, Aaron, 8, Derrick, 13, were silenced that day
The 1998 death of the oldest victim remains unsolved. A woman named Elvira Partida, 91, and her husband, Valentine, 78, were found after firefighters doused out flames at the 600 block of Paseo del Mar.
After an investigation, police determined it was a homicide. Requests for information are still listed on an LAPD website.
I had a friend say that 188 murders in 20 years isn’t that many. True. Compared to other areas of Los Angeles, these numbers are small. But the question is this: why should there be any numbers?
Why should a kid like LaTerian lose his life and gang members be allowed to get away with this? The failure to arrest and jail these culprits means they’ll be just another set of murders – at another party -- another innocent kid killed walking home -- another bright star going down in flames. Eventually, the gang members will rule the streets completely.
But until then, we’ll all slip back into our sleepy little slumber. Unless of course, we start encouraging the kids to tell us when they know something's coming down. Because sadly, we really haven’t proven to them that we care.
When they die, we do nothing.
Maybe this peace vigil – just maybe – will be the first step we, the adults take, to show the kids in this town that we really do care -- no matter where they live, where they eat or they sleep.
And just like LaTerian did for them, we might be able to give them an ounce of hope.