A story for every victim

No answers in shooting death of bystander police call 'completely innocent'

The family was returning from a sweet-sixteen celebration and the car was loud with chatter. As they pulled up to the curb in Exposition Park, gunfire erupted.

Behind their car, a gunman in an SUV was shooting at a man standing in the street. The family was caught in the middle.

When the gunfire stopped, the driver, Jacob Ayala, called out, asking if his six passengers were OK.

In the middle seat of the silver Honda Pilot, Nelva Hernandez, 45, sat motionless, her head cocked to one side. There was blood around her neck.

"No, Nelva, no," her sister, Blanca Ventura, cried.

The gunman's bullets had missed Blanca's 2-year-old grandson by inches, striking Hernandez in the head. She was taken to a hospital and for the next week, family members, including her two sons, Kevin 14, and Elvin, 18, stayed by her bedside. On April 5, one week after the shooting, Hernandez died.

In the two months since, Los Angeles Police Sgt. Paul Shearholdt has gone door to door in the neighborhood looking for witnesses. He can't find any video surveillance in the area that shows the shooting. So far, he's gotten only a few people to talk.

As the days go on, Shearholdt is running out of leads. The case has frustrated the investigator, who says the mother of two just happened to be in the line of fire that day.

"Simply put," he said, "she was completely innocent."

Hernandez was one of thirteen siblings, and every weekend they found ways to get together. She loved to be behind the scenes, coordinating.

"She was always the one cooking," said her niece, Sulma Ruiz, 27.

Hernandez had already begun planning her younger son's birthday party — in December. And she always had food ready for the boys when they got home from school.

When her sister was diagnosed with stomach cancer in February, Hernandez came each day to drop off kale, bananas and other organic vegetables and free-range meats. The sisters would spend hours on the phone.

Now, Ventura says, "there's a big emptiness."

Jose Antonio Hernandez, 50, said he misses their nightly walks. They'd been together for 20 years. Now there is no one to arrange the roses from the bushes he planted so his wife could have fresh flowers in their Cerritos home.

Shearholdt, the detective, is still hoping for a breakthrough. He believes that the gunman might be a gang member and that someone in the neighborhood knows who did it. Even an anonymous call would help.

"It's one thing to kill a rival.…" he said. "It's another when they hit someone that's unintended." A $50,000 reward offer is pending with the City Council.

"When your investigation is just completely wide open like this one is right now, just getting some sense of direction would be nice."

Hernandez's family has a new ritual. Each night, they exchange text messages to mark the start of a prayer. In Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles, they all pray for the detectives to succeed and for the killer to be found.

Anyone with information can call the LAPD Criminal Gang Homicide Division at (213) 485-4341. Anonymous tippers can call Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477.

—Nicole Santa Cruz

PHOTOS: Innocent bystander

Top photo: Jose Antonio Hernandez shows a picture of himself with his wife, Nelva, that he keeps on his phone. Bottom photo: Hernandez mourns her loss | Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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