Mystery surrounds northeast L.A. park slayings, but mourners honor teenagers whose lives held promise
When Tina Padilla met Gabriela Calzada a year ago, the teenager was fresh out of juvenile camp. Calzada wore baggy clothes and a tough-girl attitude to go with her ankle bracelet. She wasn't regularly attending school.
But over the past year, Padilla saw a change in Calzada, whom friends called "Gabby."
Padilla, a case manager at Aztecs Rising, a nonprofit that provides community services in northeast L.A., said Calzada became a model in her program. She fulfilled the terms of her probation. She began attending school and worked with the city's Summer Night Lights program, helping other youths. Calzada had aspirations: She wanted to try out for a firefighting program organized by the nonprofit.
"She was becoming a different person," Padilla said.
Last week, a hiker found Calzada, 19, and her friend, 17-year-old Briana Nicole Gallegos, dead in the bushes of Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Montecito Heights with significant head trauma. The killings have sparked an uneasiness in the community that has lingered as the case has remained unsolved.
"Everyone is still being vigilant," said Roy Payan, a 24-year Montecito Heights resident who walks through the park daily. "Everybody is still being leery."
Detectives have said there isn't any evidence to tie the double homicide to a serial killer but added that they are actively investigating all leads. So far, no suspects have been taken into custody. On Friday, LAPD Capt. Martin Baeza said that he couldn't comment on a possible motive.
"We haven't connected this crime to any other crime in the area or outside the area," he said. Baeza said he has increased patrols and has six detectives following up on leads, many of which are coming from the community.
Even after Calzada graduated from Padilla's program, Padilla would still see the young woman and her mother waiting at a bus stop near her home in Glassell Park. Padilla would give them rides.
Less than a week before the killings, Calzada called Padilla for information on a mentoring program. She was looking for something to do until firefighter training started in January.
"She was very, very upbeat; she was very easygoing," Padilla said of Calzada. "She had a really good personality."
The next Padilla heard, she was one of the girls found dead in the park. Then she started seeing photographs of Calzada paired with Briana, a quiet middle child who was a cheerleader for the Glendale Bears.
Padilla then realized the second victim was a Briana whom she knew, a family friend. Briana Gallegos was eager to finish high school, her mother said by phone Friday. She declined to be identified out of fear for her safety. Briana was attending a home study program at City of Angels, an independent study school, her mother said, and was excited for the future.
"She was always laughing," her mother said, adding that Briana always flashed her signature dimples. "She was a really sweet girl."
On Thursday night, dozens of people attended a vigil to honor the teenagers. The group marched from the Rose Hill Recreation Center to the spot in the park where the bodies were found. Some held signs asking for the FBI to help with the investigation.
A community intervention worker addressed the crowd, citing other homicides in the area this year.
"My heart's heavy right now, it's been heavy, seeing all this death," said Johnny Torres, who works with the city's gang intervention program. "We need to wake up, we need to stand together, we need to stop killing ourselves."
Raquel Roman, one of the event organizers, said she knows two young women who look like Calzada and Briana. The women told her that they're afraid to go out for fear of their safety. Others, she said, want officials at Debs Park to post notices about what happened.
"I think the fear is very real," she said. "If nobody is caught, I think the fear will continue."
Payan, the longtime resident, organized a community meeting this week to address residents' concerns. He said the meeting, held by the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council, "did calm a lot of fears," but residents are still anxious.
On Friday afternoon, Padilla and a few co-workers went back to the crime scene to reflect on the victims without the glare of television cameras.
Padilla said next week will be hard with the teenagers' services coming up.
"We know it's true, we know it's reality, but actually having to go to the services ... it just makes it heart-wrenching for me."
Photos: (Top) Manuel Gamboa and his mother, Irene Gamboa, center, join in a community procession and vigil in memory of Gabriela Calzada and Briana Gallegos. (Second) Xochitl, 31, who gave only one name, leads a group in song. (Third) Josie Parra holds a flier for Saturday's fundraiser, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Glassell Senior Center in Glassell Park. (Fourth) A woman holds a candle during Thursday's vigil. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times