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South Vermont Avenue: L.A. County’s ‘death alley’

Tiny Westmont has highest homicide rate in the county.

L. Christopher Caver Jr., 38, shows a scar on his stomach, a result of a 2012 shooting when he was hit seven times inside his car. He has lived in the Westmont area of South L.A. for more than a decade. More photos

A detective calls it “death alley.” The two miles of South Vermont Avenue that stretch north from Imperial Highway are home to churches, liquor stores, mortuaries and one of the highest rates of homicide in L.A. County.

Sixty people have been killed along this corridor since 2007, most shot to death.

The violence, which seems never-ending, landed at Angela Hawkins’ doorstep.

When gunshots sprayed from a passing car in October, panicked neighbors fled through the hallways of her apartment complex on West 92nd Street.

Hawkins opened her door to find Joe Anthony Ordaz on the floor, saying he’d been hit. People surrounded him, telling him he would be OK.

She recognized him. Their young children played together. Ordaz, 24, would die before sunrise.

Homicides in ‘death alley’
Since 2007, 61 people have been killed on a two-mile stretch on or near South Vermont Avenue between Manchester Avenue and Imperial Highway. The area is the border of the Westmont and Vermont Vista neighborhoods.
Sources: The Homicide Report, L.A. County Coroner’s records.
Graphics reporting by Nicole Santa Cruz and Ken Schwencke

Early last year, Hawkins, 31, moved out of her mother’s home and into this unincorporated community, known as Westmont, lured by a cheap deposit.

Since then, she’s seen Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies storm the mint green complex, guns drawn. She’s watched as people tossed weapons and drugs onto the roof to avoid arrest. In the courtyard, a man was beaten and stabbed with shards of a broken plate.

By the time Ordaz lay mortally wounded, Hawkins had seen enough. She vowed to find a way out.

“There’s violence everywhere,” she said. “But it’s not like this.”

In a county of 10 million people, Westmont is among the deadliest places to live. In the last seven years, 100 people — nearly all of them male — have been killed in the 1.8 square miles wedged between the city of Los Angeles and Inglewood. Times analysis of homicide data collected in that time found Westmont’s rate of killings to be the highest overall.

The community, which has no city government of its own, has fallen through the cracks, said Nathan Arias, who heads a nonprofit group trying to make a difference. There’s a youth center south of Imperial Highway, a general community task force meets weekly and scattered school programs exist, but there has been no widespread effort to reduce violence.

“It’s amazing that an area with such high need is so underserved,” he said.

Westmont’s homicide figure is about the same as the combined total in Highland Park, Glendale, Pasadena, Eagle Rock, Glassell Park and Atwater Village, an area with 14 times as many residents and some neighborhoods that have experienced gang problems of their own. Even among a patchwork of areas across South L.A. notorious for gangs, drugs and violence, Westmont stood out among data reported since 2007 for the online project The Homicide Report.

Westmont’s neighbor to the east, Vermont Vista, shares “death alley” as a boundary. But the L.A. city neighborhood, similar in size and demographics, has had a little more than half as many homicides, 57, over the same period.

A woman and child walk down an alley between 93rd and 94th streets in Westmont. The 1.8-square-mile area has seen 100 homicides in the last seven years. More photos
People hang out in front of a pawn shop along Vermont Avenue and 83rd Street in the Westmont area of South Los Angeles. More photos

Violent crime in the nation — and in Los Angeles County overall — has reached its lowest levels in decades. In many respects, that downturn has spread evenly across neighborhoods, a Times analysis found. But depending on where you live, violence may be an everyday fact of life or so rare that it still shocks.

The face of who gets killed was unchanged over the seven years of homicides.

Men account for nearly 85% of homicide victims. One of every three males killed is between the ages of 17 and 25. Latinos, about half of the county’s population, account for nearly half of all killings since 2007.

Blacks, just 8% of the county’s residents, remain disproportionately affected, accounting for 32% of homicides. Last year, black people in L.A. County were killed at more than seven times the rate of all other racial and ethnic groups combined. The homicide rate for blacks has remained stubbornly high even as homicides have plummeted in the county from 941 the year Homicide Report began to 594 last year.

In many ways, Westmont provides a window into chronic issues facing urban communities. Until a sharp uptick to 15 last year, homicides here had dropped like elsewhere in the county. But they still occurred at a much higher rate than other neighborhoods. Blacks in Westmont are killed at four times the rate as Latinos, although each group makes up about half of the 30,000 residents. People here are poor — about 40% live below the poverty line, more than double the average rate in the region. Few residents have college degrees.

On these streets, children watch how they dress for fear of being confronted by a gang member. Residents complain of break-ins and gunshots. Nonprofit workers tasked with removing graffiti have faced threats. Finding a person who has been the victim of or witness to violence is as simple as walking the blocks and asking.

On the corner of South Vermont Avenue and West 88th Street, L. Christopher Caver Jr. clutched a can of Modelo beer and smoked a cigarette as soul music flowed from a small boom box. Another man known on the streets as “Maverick” swayed to the beat.

Brian Sanders, left, a manager with the Gang Alternative Program, watches as one of his charges paints over gang graffiti on a nearby storefront along Vermont Avenue in the Westmont area. More photos

Caver, 38, has lived around here for more than a decade. Two years ago, he was shot seven times inside his car. He lifted up a red Buccaneers jersey to reveal a thick, jagged scar that runs down his stomach.

“It’s just Vermont,” he says. “It’s one of the most dangerous places in L.A.”

Nearly every street in the area is claimed by gangs known as the Underground Crips, South Los, The Hoovers, 8 Trey Gangsters, the Raymond Crips and the Rollin’ 100s.

“There’s not a whole lot of blocks you can go to that are up for grabs,” said L.A. County Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard White, who works in the area as a gang investigator.

Kevin “Twin” Orange used to claim alliance with the Hoovers. But after he survived eight bullets in 2006 and his brother and cousin were killed three years later, he made it his mission to help quell the violence in the area. He is one of three gang interventionists and two case managers for Soledad Enrichment Action, a nonprofit headed by Arias that gets private funding to reduce violence in Westmont.

“We’re more passionate about stopping the violence than anybody,” he said of his team, which works in the Westmont area. “Because we created it.”

On a recent evening, Deputies Branden Williams and Lisa Moya drove down West 105th Street between Normandie and Denker avenues. As the two flashed a bright light into the dark, men automatically lifted up their shirts to reveal their waistbands — proof that they weren’t carrying a gun.

The street was once two-way, but in 1996, the Sheriff’s Department requested that it be changed to a one-way to help with crime-fighting efforts. The area has long been controlled by a gang named the Underground Crips whose members would, in more violent days, walk across Normandie to shoot at rivals.

“At least if there’s a drive-by, we can catch them,” said Williams, who has been patrolling the area since 2010.

The violence here goes beyond conflict between gangs.

Isaiah Kevin Gray, 28, was shot to death in December on the balcony of the light blue apartment complex where he lived for three years. His brother has been charged in the murder, which allegedly took place after a dispute over keys to a storage space.

“It’s the hardest thing to see the love of your life just collapsing and dying,” said Gray’s fiancee, Jacky Pineda, 27, who still lives at the apartment.

That night, her neighbor, Tarasha Patterson, took care of the couple’s two children, Elijah, 3, and Noah, 2, while detectives and deputies processed the crime scene.

Patterson, 37, said she’s always on high alert. She avoids grocery shopping in the area. On New Year’s Eve, she crouched in her hallway, hiding from stray bullets.

Jacky Pineda, 27, holds 2-year-old Noah as 3-year-old Elijah plays outside their Westmont apartment. Her fiance, Isaiah Gray, seen with their sons in a family photo, center, was shot to death on the apartment balcony in December. A neighbor cleaned up his blood. “I cry every day,” Pineda, with Noah at right, says. More photos

Still, she was shocked when she found herself cleaning up Isaiah Gray’s blood.

“It’s rough, but the thing is, it’s affordable,” Patterson said of the neighborhood, then paused. “You don’t have a choice.”

Down the street, Angela Hawkins is saving to move away, but it’s slow going. With three children, ages 3, 5 and 7, even the expense of school pictures can be a setback. Hawkins, an in-home caretaker, volunteers for overtime shifts whenever she can, and has a family member watch the kids.

Her shifts sometimes start as early as 4:30 a.m. On those mornings, she’s afraid to walk to the bus stop in the dark. Thoughts of her children keep her going.

“I want them to be able to go out and play and everything, and not have to worry about being shot, and seeing guns and stuff like that,” she said. “That’s too much for me.”

Staff writer Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

Follow @latimeshomicide to track killings in L.A. County

For the record: A previous version of this story misspelled Jacky Pineda's first name as Jackie and incorrectly gave her age as 22; she is 27.

For the record: A previous version of the map showing homicides along South Vermont Avenue incorrectly said nearly 60 homicides took place within 500 feet of the street between 2007 and 2013. The map should have shown homicides in an area within 1,300 feet of the street; that is where 61 homicides occurred during that time period. Instead, the map showed 60 homicides that took place over a longer time period, 2000 to 2013, within a smaller area, 500 feet of the street. Of that 60, there were 42 that occurred since 2007. See the original map here.

Explore seven years of homicide data using our interactive maps.

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