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Jesse James Romero, 14

Jesse James Romero (2016-08-09)

Jesse James Romero, a 14-year-old Latino, was fatally shot by a Los Angeles Police officer Tuesday in the 2200 block of East Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights, according to Los Angeles County coroner’s records.

About 5:35 p.m., gang officers assigned to the Hollenbeck Division received a call of two vandalism suspects involved in possible “gang writings” and narcotics activity near East Cesar Chavez Avenue and North Chicago Street, said LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Arcos.

The suspects were described as being between 14 and 16 years old, and when officers arrived, one of the youths ran east on Cesar Chavez then south onto North Breed Street.

“According to a witness, they saw the subject running from the officers. The witness saw the subject shoot a handgun in the direction of the pursuing officers,” Arcos told reporters.

As officers approached Breed Street and Cesar Chavez, they heard a gunshot, he said. When they arrived at the corner, one of the officers fired at the boy, killing him.

Police recovered a loaded handgun, which will be processed for fingerprints and DNA, he said.  Investigators are also looking into whether the revolver had been fired.

Romero was pronounced dead at the scene at 6 p.m., according to coroner’s records.

“While the loss of life is particularly tragic, it is particularly so when the loss involves a youth,” Arcos said. “The tragedy of this event cannot be understated. In a community where violent crime continues to rise, particularly gang crime, this event underscores the need for youth programs and outreach, which could provide opportunities and alternatives for the youth of our community.”

The officers were wearing body cameras, he said. Investigators are reviewing the footage, which will be compared with other evidence, including witness and officer statements.

Police had initially identified the suspect as a man in his 20s. No officers were injured in the pursuit or shooting, which happened in a commercial district in the Eastside neighborhood.

Although Arcos declined to say whether Jesse was involved in gang activity because the investigation is ongoing, he said Hollenbeck officers keep tabs on 34 gangs, four of which are violent and active in the area of the shooting.

The second suspect, who was not armed, was later detained, Arcos said.

Romero was the 12th person killed by on-duty LAPD officers this year. Three other people have been shot by on-duty LAPD officers and have survived.

At the dead boy’s home, his mother, Teresa Dominguez, 36, sat inside a cramped one-bedroom apartment amid bouquets of flowers sent by mourners and burning candles. She said she could not understand why the police would shoot someone so young.

“It was not right for them to do what they did or kill him,” Dominguez said. “That’s why they are trained as police officers. Not to kill him.”

Born in Puebla, Mexico, Jesse was a year old when he and his single mother came to the United States and settled in Boyle Heights. Dominguez said she works in the shipping and packing department at a produce manufacturer.

The boy’s mother said she didn’t think her son was involved in gangs and didn’t know where he would get a gun. She said he mostly hung out with two friends who would come over to their home and play video games.

“He was a very good student,” she said. “He was a very good person.”

Diane Covarrubias, a family friend who stopped by the family’s home on Wednesday, said Jesse was enrolled in Soledad Enrichment Action’s gang program that works with high-risk teens and was making a lot of progress.

Earlier Tuesday, Jesse went the gym to work out. Later, friends and family found out that he was killed, she said.

As news of the shooting began to spread through the neighborhood, residents described a different series of events that led up to the shooting. A woman who said she witnessed the shooting and who would only identify herself by her first name, Norma, said she was in a car stopped at a traffic light at Cesar Chavez and Breed Street when she saw someone running from Chicago Street.

He was pulling up his basketball shorts, which appeared to be falling down, she said.

As the runner turned onto Breed Street, he pulled a handgun from his waistband and threw it toward a fence, the witness said. The gun hit the fence and fell to the ground, and she heard the weapon fire, she said.

At that moment, she said the runner turned around and appeared startled. She heard two more gunshots and the runner fell, she said.

Moments later, officers placed handcuffs on him, she said.

“He didn’t shoot,” the woman said of the runner.

Word of Jesse’s death spread quickly Wednesday at Hollenbeck Middle School, where Jesse was a student.

"He was a bright, smart kid," campus aide Ramon Gomez said. “To see him go like this, I never expected this."

Gomez said he often saw Jesse hanging out with friends, and was surprised to hear that the boy was carrying a gun. "It's hard," Gomez said. "It's difficult, you know, these kids."

On Wednesday morning, the streets were still covered with evidence from Tuesday's violent scene. Chalk markings were laid out on Breed Street, near Cesar Chavez Avenue, and blood spots spattered the sidewalk just around the corner from El Rincon De Ross ice cream shop.

A makeshift shrine had been arranged near a graffiti-covered power pole, which bore a small photograph of a smiling boy. Surrounding the photograph were several burning candles, three red roses, a Virgin Mary figurine and a potted cactus with a prayer card.

Maria Ramirez, a longtime Boyle Heights resident, stood over the shrine.

"He doesn't even look like he is 13," Ramirez said.

The mother of 10 children has seen the aftermath of violence before, she said. As she looked over the shrine, she recalled a recent officer-involved shooting on Lorena Street, a shooting that involved three men at a neighborhood bar.

"The violence here in Boyle Heights is escalating," she said.

The community,  she said, needs more programs for teens and fewer guns on the streets.

"I feel the loss. I have a 16-year-old," Ramirez said. "But I feel for the officers too. They are overwhelmed."

Following an LAPD news conference Wednesday, the ACLU of Southern California released a statement saying it was “particularly concerned” by the killing and argued that the department should change its body camera policy so that recordings are made public.

“Under current policy, LAPD will show the body camera footage to the officers involved before they make an initial statement, allowing them to tailor accounts to the details they see on video,” wrote the group’s executive director, Hector Villagra.

“At the same time, LAPD will keep the video secret from the public.”

On Wednesday night, a vigil was held. There, women and children stood side-by-side, holding votive candles and signs that read, "El pueblo unido for Jesse (The people united for Jesse).”

Another stated, "No más madres en luto (No more mothers in mourning).”

--Times staff writers Matt Hamilton and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

Photo: Boyle Heights residents gather near the intersection of Breed Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue on Wednesday to protest the shooting of Jesse Moreno Romero, 14. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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