One hundred thirty-five San Diegans were murdered in 1990. More than 100 of those deaths occurred south of Interstate 8 and were concentrated in the neighborhoods such as Barrio Logan, Southeast San Diego, City Heights, and the border area. But if San Diego has a killing field, it's that rectangular swath of real estate with its western boundary on downtown's Tenth Avenue, extending two miles east to 30th Street.
Market Street is the northern boundary of this deadly parcel; its southern limit runs along the Commercial Street trolley tracks, just six blocks south of Market. Eleven men and one woman were murdered inside that rectangle last year, the targets of gang violence, drug disputes, and domestic abuse. The youngest victim was 16 years old, the oldest was 69. At least three were the recipients of a bullet or knife blade meant for someone else.
Nine Hispanics and two blacks died on these streets. One victim was white. Only one of the killers or suspects was white; he was an on-duty police officer who shot an armed purse-snatcher. Handguns were used in seven of the murders, knives in three. One victim was hammered to death, another was assaulted and struck his head on a curb.
Drugs were a common thread in the murders. Toxicology tests performed by the county coroner revealed traces — or substantial amounts — of alcohol, cocaine, morphine, methamphetamine, alone or in combination, in the bloodstreams of nine victims.
“It all comes down to drugs,” says San Diego police officer Bret Righthouse. He patrols an area around Imperial Avenue that includes 29th Street, the center of the city’s rock cocaine traffic. Three men were shot or stabbed to death last summer near that corner, making it the single deadliest spot in San Diego in 1990.
Righthouse says the gang-related killings in the south-of-Market Street rectangle are also tied in with drugs. “The only purpose of a gang is drugs,” he says bluntly. “A gang isn’t something you join to be cool. That was the 1950s.
"They’re in it for money, and the only way they make money is illegal activity, and drugs are the most profitable illegal activity. So drive-by gang shootings are over the sale of drugs. They shoot each other up because they want them out of their territory.”
But Captain George Saldamondo says the murder pattern inside the rectangle is more complicated. He sees the area as three distinct neighborhoods, each with its own set of problems;
• The blocks between 10th Avenue and 16th Street are now home to transients displaced by the new hotels and office buildings in the city’s downtown core. Some of these homeless commit crimes to support their drug or alcohol habits, but they’re also vulnerable to the gun-carrying drug dealers and tough undocumented migrants who steal, rob, and sometimes murder.
• The dangerous trades of alien smuggling, prostitution, and narcotics trafficking intensify in the central portion of the rectangle, between 16th and 25th streets. Latino gangs have a heavy presence in that area, where another group — mainly undocumented migrants — are sometimes the victims of drug-addict thieves.
• Though the Latino gangs are extending their turf eastward, Saldamondo says black gangs and drug dealers were responsible for more of the crime and murders that occurred last year on the blocks between 25th and 30th streets.
Homicide detectives have arrested suspects in 6 of the 12 murder cases. That 50 percent rate is on par with their efforts throughout the city as a whole in 1990, when they arrested the culprits in approximately one half of San Diego’s 135 murders.
But killings within the downtown rectangle can be especially difficult to solve. A description of the car driven by a murderer is often hard to get because the shootings or knifings happen so quickly and because the killers frequently drive stolen vehicles. “You’ll get a description like ‘four black males in a two-door sedan,’ ” explains Officer Righthouse. “Maybe you’ll find it 30 minutes later abandoned in an alley on J Street. It’s a stolen car, so the license plates and registration don’t help. And good fingerprints are usually hard to get. It’s not like on TV.”
Some of the murderers flee to Mexico, where they can avoid capture. Getaways are made easier by the abundance of freeways and public transportation in the area. The San Diego Trolley, for example, snakes down 12th Avenue to Imperial as it picks up passengers on its frequent trips to the border. Buses depart from downtown in all directions. Four major freeways — interstates 5 and 15 and highways 94 and 163 — run into or alongside the rectangle. “People can get in and out of this area very easily,” says homicide Lt. Dan Berglund.
Gang shootings are especially hard to solve because the victim’s fellow gang members seldom talk with authorities. “The code is, you don’t cooperate and you don’t testify,” explains Deputy District Attorney James Fitzpatrick, who prosecutes gang murders. “You take care of matters yourself.” Bystanders who’ve witnessed the crime are often mum too, but for a different reason. According to Officer Righthouse, “People in the community don’t want to get involved because they’re scared they’ll be the next victim of the next drive-by shooting.”
The following summaries describe the 12 homicides that occurred within San Diego’s deadly 120-square-block rectangle during 1990. The information was gathered from police and court sources, witnesses, and families of the victims.
January 14: 10th Avenue and Market Street, Tomas Jordan Luque
A human fist and a concrete street curb killed last year’s first and perhaps most innocent victim, Tomas Jordan Luque. The 69-year-old pensioner lived in a $65-dollar-a-week room at the Workman Hotel, at 13th and J streets. He liked eating at downtown’s cheap cafes, and he’d just finished dinner at Los Panchos Taco Shop when he walked into the path of the two men who murdered him.
It’s unclear why the husky young black man hit Luque in the face. Police reports indicate that Luque and the unidentified young suspect “exchanged angry words” outside the restaurant near Tenth and Market, and his son says Luque might have known one of two men who were arguing that night. But Luque’s brother says the retired postal worker avoided feuds. “He was just a happy-go-lucky guy who was friendly to everybody,” says Cosme Luque, who believes Tomas was pummeled when he refused his attacker’s demand for money. Tomas apparently lurched forward and cracked his head on the curb, which knocked him unconscious.
A second suspect, a Hispanic man, grabbed the manila envelope Luque was carrying. Other men loitering outside the taco shop took his wallet, wristwatch, and billfold. When paramedics arrived a few minutes later, Luque’s pockets contained only a scrap of paper with a Tijuana address: “192 Ave. Constitution, #20.”
Luque’s family didn’t realize he was missing until the hotel’s deskman called them to report that Tomas hadn’t returned to his room. The family called police, who matched Luque’s description to the beating victim. By then, neurosurgeons at UCSD Medical Center had already opened the right side of Luque’s fractured skull and removed a large blood clot. They performed a similar operation the next day on the other side of his brain, but Luque never regained consciousness.
Doctors turned off the life-support system and harvested his corneas for the eye bank on January 17, three days after the attack. Though the murder was re-created in a television public-service spot produced by the police department’s Crime Stoppers unit and a $1000 reward was offered for information, Luque’s attackers haven’t been identified. Police have no new leads, and the murder case is now almost 16 months old.
“The frustrating thing is that my brother survived World War II, only to be killed stateside,” says Cosme Luque. Cosme is sure that the manila envelope Tomas was carrying contained no money, only a few handicapping tip sheets from the horseracing track. The Tijuana address was probably a friend’s apartment; the divorced Luque sometimes crossed the border to go dancing.
February 9: 12th and Island avenues, Jorge Robles
San Diego Police Officer John Cain was escorting a drunk to the detox center at 12th and Island when he heard Alice Masse scream. Cain looked north, in the direction of Market Street, and saw a man running toward him. The man had a woman’s handbag in one hand and a gun in the other. Cain says he identified himself and shouted at the man to drop the pistol. Though Jorge Robles slowed to a walk, he wouldn’t let go of the handbag or the gun and moved closed to officer Cain, who again ordered him to drop the gun.
Cain says Robles got to within eight feet of him and started to raise the pistol. “The minute he made that move, I didn’t have time to think,” Cain later told investigators from the district attorney’s office. “The only thing that I could think of was that he was going to get on the scoreboard and shoot us. That’s when I shot him.”
One bullet from his police revolver hit Robles’s right hip, the other tore through the Nike logo on his T-shirt, penetrated his left nipple, perforated his left lung, heart, liver, duodenum, and right kidney and lodged in his lower-right back.
Paramedics performed CPR on the 29-year-old resident of Tijuana’s Colonia Libertad, but doctors at UCSD Medical Center pronounced him dead after emergency cardiac surgery. Robles died with police handcuffs shackled to his left wrist. County authorities attempted to locate his parents in the Mexican state of Jalisco and notified the Mexican consul, but when no one claimed his body, Robles became one of the 71 paupers buried last fiscal year at taxpayers’ expense in unmarked graves at Mt. Hope Cemetery. That burial, arranged by the county public administrator’s office, cost $549. The cemetery charged $279 to open and close the grave and supply a grave liner; the mortuary’s $270 fee included an inexpensive casket and the required burial permits.
Ordinarily, the county cremates the bodies of indigents who have no known relatives, since the cost of cremation is about half that of burial. Last year 163 such cremations took place. But homicide victims like Robles must be buried so as not to destroy any potential evidence for a trial.
The district attorney’s office, which investigates all shootings involving police officers, cleared Officer Cain four months after Robles died. Though Robles’s .22-caliber pistol was unloaded, Deputy District Attorney Craig Rooten concluded, “The facts in this case establish legal justification for the use of deadly force by Officer Cain.... The use of deadly force by a peace officer is justified if a reasonable person under the same or similar circumstances would believe that such use was necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or others.”
A toxicology report shows that Robles’s blood alcohol level was .27 percent at the time of death, more than three times the legal limit. Traces of codeine and morphine were found in his body. Three months before his death, Robles had been released from a California state prison after serving a term for second-degree burglary.
March 26: 2420 K Street, Javier Cano-Martinez
“A lot of these kids think it’s a game,” says police Captain George Saldamondo. “They don’t realize that saying one word or throwing up one hand signal could cost them their lives.”
That one deadly word for 16-year-old Javier Cano-Martinez was “Sherman.” He and 21-year-old Jorge Herrera-Torres were standing outside Torres’s clapboard bungalow on K Street, in the heart of Sherman Heights, about 10:45 p.m. on March 26, 1990. A light-colored car carrying several members from a rival Logan Heights gang stopped in front of the bungalow. Cano-Martinez yelled out “Sherman” and flashed his gang’s hand sign. The car’s occupants pulled out a 12-gauge shotgun and 9mm pistol. When Cano-Martinez and Herrera-Torres saw the weapons, they ran toward the front door of the house but were cut down by a volley of buckshot and bullets.
Herrera-Torres suffered gunshot wounds to his lower legs, and Cano-Martinez was struck twice in the back. One fragment pierced his left ventricle, and by the time the ambulance reached the emergency room at 11:16 p.m., his heart had stopped pumping.
Captain Saldamondo, who headed the police gang unit when Cano-Martinez was murdered, says the killers “were very bold in what they did that night.” Saldamondo notes that the Logan gang members took the time to fire numerous rounds from their shotgun and pistol, committed the murder in a heavily populated neighborhood with many potential witnesses, and did so relatively early in the evening, when many neighbors were still awake.
Saldamondo thinks this killing wasn’t drug related. “It’s about [gang] territory, rivalries, maybe girlfriends,” he says. But that hasn’t made it any easier to solve, and homicide detectives haven’t developed any significant leads in the case. They can’t even get a complete description of the car. “Families won’t talk,” he says. “They’re worried about repercussions. They have to live there, so they hope it will just go away.”
Cano-Martinez’s sister, who lives in a tiny house on South Evans Street, with stickers on the front door that read “Aqui' Somos Catolicos” and “Answer the Census,” refused to talk about her brother. A teen-age girl who lives near the murder scene was more cooperative. She recounted the killing and remembered Cano-Martinez as “a good kid who used to work but just got more and more into gangs.”
May 22: 2665 L Street, Beatriz Hernandez
Helen Guy remembers Pedro Hernandez as a very nice man who got along well with his wife and four children. But Hernandez would later complain to authorities that his wife Beatriz was going out too often with her friends and returning home too late at night. The 45-year-old Hernandez solved that problem on May 22 by smashing his 38-year-old wife’s head with a hammer.
The following morning, one of the couple’s three sons went into his parents’ bedroom to say good-bye before leaving for school. He later told police that he saw “a lump in the bed” and noticed that his father had blood on his workshirt. Another son witnessed the same scene before leaving for work, but their father told them their mother was sleeping.
When the children returned home that night, the eldest son, Pedro, Jr., cooked dinner. At about 8:00 p.m., he went back into the bedroom, where he found his mother’s uncovered body lying on the left side of the bed. The corpse was decorated with a crucifix, and its feet pointed toward the headboard.
Police found a hammer under the bed, and the medical examiner concluded that Mrs. Hernandez died of a skull fracture and hemorrhages from 15 blunt wounds to her head. Her blood tests showed an ethyl alcohol level of .05 percent, less than the .08 percent legal minimum for intoxication.
Mr. Hernandez, meanwhile, had fled to Tijuana, where he was arrested the following day by Mexican State Judicial Police. Two San Diego police detectives interviewed him there, and he admitted killing his wife.
Because Hernandez is a Mexican citizen and was captured in Mexico, he will be tried in that country’s courts for the murder. The San Diego County District Attorney’s office likes that provision of the Mexican Federal Penal Code, because it saves the county the cost of trying the case here. Hernandez has been in custody in Mexico since his arrest last year, and his murder hearing will probably be held within a month.
Though Mr. Hernandez told authorities that he and his wife had fought before, the family’s neighbor says she never heard any arguments during the five years the Hernandezes lived on L Street. “I was so surprised,” says Helen Guy, whose daughter owns the house in which the Hernandezes lived. “They were so quiet and nice, you never would have known this.” She last spoke to the children when 17-year-old Pedro, Jr., came to tell her that “Daddy killed Mommy,” and she says the four children moved away from the house after their mother’s funeral.
June 10: 572 21st Street, Carlos Loyola-Soria
Carlos Loyola-Soria had a job, some friends, and a drug habit. He also had the misfortune to be walking past the corner of 21st and Market streets at 12:58 a.m., Saturday, June 10. A small white car drove by the corner at the same time, and one of its three occupants fired at least three shots from a small-caliber handgun.
Police reports indicate that one of the bullets injured Jose Luis Soto, a transvestite whose street name was Juliana. Two other bullets killed Loyola-Soria. One lacerated his aorta and traveled though his right lung, the other smashed his jaw and lodged in his spinal cord.
Police say the murderers were apparently aiming at someone else on the corner. “The problem is, a bullet has no brain, and it can’t distinguish between a gang member and an bystander,” says Captain Saldamondo. “And it’s not like these people practice shooting at the rifle range or gun club every week.” A nervous gunman firing from a moving car may hit an object 20 feet from his intended target, Saldamondo explains.
Little is known about the 20-year-old Mexican citizen who died that night. A security guard at San Diego Physicians and Surgeon’s hospital remembered that Loyola-Soria washed dishes there but couldn’t recall anything else about him. The coroner’s report lists his parents in Mexico City and a girlfriend in Northern California. It was the girlfriend who signed a release allowing the body to be returned to Mexico City.
Loyola-Soria’s address is shown as an apartment at 24th and C streets. The landlord says two women, one of whom had a baby, rented the apartment. “They had two boyfriends move in with them, and the men always had friends coming over. I had to ask them to leave,” recalls the landlord.
Loyola-Soria had been arrested for drug possession in August of 1988; and on May 22, 1989, a warrant was issued after he missed a court date on that charge. His drug use continued. Toxicology tests performed by the coroner’s office show he was high on cocaine, morphine, and codeine when he was killed. There are no suspects in the case.
June 20: 29th Street and Imperial Avenue,
June 26, 1991, could be a very bad day for Billy Helton’s mother. On that day, the man she believes killed her son will be released from state prison in Otay Mesa. The suspect, Kirk Woods, still hasn’t been charged with her son’s murder.
Woods was picked up by law-enforcement officials a week after Helton was killed during a drug deal at 29th and Imperial. The state parole board later found “good cause” for the allegation that Woods, a 34-year-old black man with an extensive criminal record, had violated his parole by murdering Billy Helton. He was sent to R.J. Donovan Prison on Otay Mesa, but the district attorney’s office has so far declined to charge Woods with murder. A DA’s spokeswoman wouldn’t discuss the Helton case in detail, saying only that it “has been rejected for now.” But Helton’s parents say prosecutors have told them that witnesses who saw Woods commit the crime are no longer available to testify. And without that crucial testimony, the DA can’t meet the tough burden of proof required to make the murder charges stick. “The witnesses were allowed to get away,” Helton’s mother says, angrily.
The victim’s mother, Lydia Helton, says her 30-year-old son’s life started falling apart not long after the family moved here from Groton, Connecticut, in 1977. Helton had been a star placekicker for the Fitch High School football team, but he didn’t adjust to San Diego. “In Connecticut, he was someone, but here he was second fiddle,” his mother remembers. “He was down, and he started in with the wrong company.” Helton developed a bad drug habit, which he supported by stealing. He died with a lengthy rap sheet that dates from 1979 and includes convictions for receiving stolen property, burglary, and battery.
Three months before he was murdered, Helton sent his mother a letter from the Donovan Prison on Otay Mesa, where he was serving time for a parole violation after he was found carrying a small quantity of rock cocaine. “I know I’m going to be O.K. and things in my life are going to change,” he wrote. “I know God has saved me, and with his help, and mercy, and my faith and worship in him, I will be able to stay away from life’s temptations and evils.”
Helton was released from prison on July 19. By 1:30 that morning, he had found his way to Southeast San Diego, where he could buy a $10 rock of smokable cocaine from one of the dealers who work the west side of 29th Street, just south of Imperial Avenue. Police and autopsy reports indicate that Helton argued with a man, who then pulled out a large-caliber pistol and fired once into Helton’s chest, hitting his heart.
But Helton’s mother says her son always avoided confrontations and was especially careful when he made drug buys in Southeast. “He was almost killed in a halfway house down there when he didn’t have the money to pay someone he owed for drugs, and he knew how dangerous that place was,” his mother says. And Gary Williams, a Southeast San Diego native who’s familiar with the drug scene along Imperial Avenue, believes that Helton, a Puerto Rican, unknowingly walked into the middle of a fatal dispute between Mexican drug dealers and black drug users that cost him his life. The state’s Victims of Crime program agreed. After investigating the murder, it sent Helton’s parents a check for $2500 to help cover costs of their son’s $5000 funeral.
Though he didn’t witness the killing, Williams was on the corner that night. According to Williams, several blacks who had earlier purchased some bad dope from a Mexican dealer returned to 29th and Imperial to demand their money back. One of them emphasized his point by brandishing a .357 Magnum. Williams suspects that Helton was either mistaken for the Mexican or walked into the middle of the confrontation just as the black man allegedly fired the shot.
The suspect, Woods, will be released from prison in July, if the district attorney doesn’t file charges. But there is no statute of limitations on a murder case. Woods still can be charged if sufficient evidence against him is gathered. But Helton’s mother claims the police and prosecutors aren’t trying hard enough to build a case against Woods. “They don’t care about drug addicts,” she says bitterly. But Lieutenant Berglund points out that in cases like Helton’s, witnesses cannot be detained against their will unless they, too, have committed a crime.
August 19: 29th Street and Imperial Avenue, Ernest Thomas Sharp
Crack cocaine dealers on Imperial Avenue prefer cash transactions. So when Ernie Sharp insisted that dealer Daniel Vazquez take a woman’s wristwatch as payment for two chunks of cocaine, Sharp ended up dead.
The 33-year-old Sharp, his friend Marvin Sims, and two women had been smoking rock on Saturday, August 18. By 6:00 the next morning, they’d run out, so Sharp and the two women took off for the border, hoping to pick up a few undocumented workers and charge them $25 each for a ride into the city. They’d use that money to buy more cocaine.
But that scheme fizzled, so one of the women decided to trade her watch for $20 worth of crack.
They drove to the southwest corner of 29th and Imperial. Vazquez, who wanted to make an early-morning sale so he could buy breakfast, walked up to their parked car, agreed to sell them the cocaine, and handed them two rocks. But when Sharp tried to pay with the wristwatch, Vazquez demanded he pay cash or give back the drugs. Sharp got out of the car, stepped up onto the sidewalk, and was talking with Vazquez when the two were approached by a black man with a knife tucked in his waistband. Sharp’s friend Sims, who was sitting in the car with the two women, sensed trouble. Sims grabbed a metal pipe and walked to the curb next to Sharp. But within seconds, the man with the knife had stabbed Sharp in the heart.
The suspect, 24-year-old Jeff Gaulden, was arrested two days later at his aunt’s house. The knife he allegedly used to kill Sharp was found on the front lawn of a house one-half block south of the murder scene. Vazquez, the drug dealer, later told police detectives that Gaulden wasn’t providing him with protection or making sure that drug buyers paid for their rock cocaine. But Sharp’s friend told detectives that Vazquez may have given Gaulden a “signal” before the stabbing, and Gary Williams says that type of arrangemem wouldn’t be unusual on Imperial Avenue.
Williams says that Mexican dealers realized early last year that the big money is in rock cocaine, not the heroin they’d traditionally sold. Their efforts to corner the market in cocaine coincided with a police crackdown on Southeast San Diego’s black gangs, which dried up the supply of rock available to black dealers. Williams says some black dealers began selling chunks of Ivory soap or macadamia nuts in place of crack, and the buyers took their business to Mexican dealers, who were selling the real stuff. Some black dealers were then reduced to working as the paid muscle for Mexican dealers. “If somebody rips off the Mexicans, these guys will hurt or kill them for a $10 rock,” Williams explains.
Prosecutors say their suspect in the Sharp murder, Jeff Gaulden, is a member of the Neighborhood Crips gang. The 24-year-old, who's in jail awaiting trial, has a criminal record that includes arrests for vandalism, trespass, disorderly conduct, and possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. Gaulden was last sentenced to state prison in 1989 for possession of cocaine.
But Gaulden’s lawyer will tell the jury that his client feared for his safety and acted in self-defense after Sharp’s friend Sims walked toward him with the metal pipe.
Gaulden's attorney might also argue that Sharp was attempting to steal drugs from the dealer and that Gaulden was exercising his “lawful right to prevent the commission of [that] felony.”
In defending Gaulden, the lawyer will try to portray Sharp as a hardened criminal. Sharp’s rap sheet supports that claim. During the last eight years of his life, Sharp was charged with at least ten felonies, including auto theft, fraud, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, and battery. But Deputy District Attorney James Fitzpatrick, who’ll prosecute Gaulden, says defense attorneys frequently try to put the victim on trial. “They’ll say anything to bring down the charges from first-degree murder to a lesser offense,” Fitzpatrick says. While he acknowledges that it’s easier to try cases in which “a bad person has committed a crime against a good person,” Fitzpatrick says he’ll simply have to remind the jury in the Sharp case that “if the crime occurs in hell, don’t expect the people involved to be angels.”
Gary Williams agrees. He says Ernie Sharp was a better man than his criminal record reflects. “Of all the guys I’ve hung around with, Ernie was one of the fairest,” Williams explains. “He kept to himself, tried to stay neat and clean, and respected elder people. I wouldn’t trust him to babysit my kid or stay at my home, but if anybody had a chance to turn their life around, it’d have been Ernie.”
September 18: 29th Street and Imperial Avenue, Frank Eli Heard, Jr.
Frank Eli Heard, Jr. — E.C. to his friends — was a proud member of the West Coast Crips. He loved big women, Olde English 800 malt liquor, and gold jewelry.
Police found Heard’s body on the sidewalk near the corner of 29th and Imperial on September 18. He had been shot with a 9mm pistol, whose bullet entered Heard’s skull at the base of his brain and exited* above his right eyebrow. The coroner’s report notes that there was “a copious amoent of blood in the gutter adjacent to the decedent.” A $20 bill, a $10 bill, 17 cents in change, and an Alupent asthma inhaler were found in his right front pants pocket. Another pants pocket contained a pack of Camel straights and two pieces of Juicyfruit gum. Hidden in his right shoe was clump of bills totaling $34.
Police reports say three Hispanic men approached Heard at approximately 7:50 p.m. There was a brief altercation, and one of the men shot Heard. The murder was drug-related, authorities say, and no suspects have been found.
Gary Williams, who identified Heard’s body for homicide detectives, says that on the night before the killing. Heard was hanging out at that corner with a man who stole some drugs from a Mexican dealer.. When Heard and the man' returned to 29th and Imperial the following night, “the Mexicans formed their little posse, and they shot the wrong guy. But that’s the way it goes on the street.”
Deputy District Attorney Pete Deddeh remembers Heard as a gang member “whose face was so cut up, it was like a road map of all the fights he’d been in.” Deddeh also says Heard “got a little goofy from being hit in the head.”
Gary Williams explains. “In 1985, E.C. slapped a girl at the Oasis nightclub. A week later, her brother caught up with him at the Dolphin Inn. He hit [Heard] with a bat, hard, 20 times, like Hank Aaron. That guy beat E.C. unconscious and woke him up again with that bat.
“A week later I saw him, and his face was wrapped with so much tape that he looked like a mummy. And they put a steel plate in his head. He was never the same.”
Heard is survived by a sister and a one-year-old son, also named Frank.
October 9: 19th and K streets, Sammy B. Santos
The tattoos told as much about Sammy Santos’s life as anything. There were flowers and spider webs, female heads, brick walls, and butterflies. The number 13 was tattooed on his left earlobe, and “San Diego” decorated the right side of his neck. “Santos” was spelled in Gothic letters on his chest, along with the names of two girlfriends — Christina and Sylvia. The back of his right hand warned, “I forgive but don’t forget.”
Prosecutors say Jose Felipe Evan neither forgave nor forgot. On October 9, shortly after Santos was paroled from state prison on an auto theft conviction, he and some friends were sitting on a wall outside the Villa Montezuma museum at l9th and K streets. Police say Evan parked a stolen car nearby and walked over to the wall to talk with the 23-year-old Santos.
Santos apparently insulted Evan, and Evan said something about how Santos had ripped him off in a job they’d pulled together. Prosecutors claim that Evan showed his displeasure with Santos by shooting him four times with a .22-caliber pistol. One of the bullets pierced Santos’s heart and lung, and doctors at UCSD Medical Center declared him dead at 3:43 p.m., two minutes after he arrived there. Toxicology tests revealed traces of heroin and cocaine in Santos’s blood, and the autopsy revealed numerous needle tracks and other signs of “chronic intravenous narcotism.”
“I always suspected something like this would happen,” Santos’s sister Leticia said in a recent interview at the family’s well-kept home in Barrio Logan. Born in Mexicali and raised in San Diego, Santos began hanging around with members of the Sherman gang while he was still in elementary school. By the time he was 14, “he was in trouble all the time,” his sister says, in and out of reform school and jail and saddled with a bad drug habit. “In a life like that, you don’t expect anything good. You always expect that he’ll be killed or overdose.”
Working with a good description of the stolen car, a police officer arrested Jose Felipe Evan on October 17, eight days after the murder. Evan, who goes by six aliases, including Ulises Santana Carillo and Eduardo Covarrubias Rubio, has been charged with first-degree murder, auto theft, and four other felonies. He’s currently in jail awaiting trial.
December 24: 12th and Island avenues, Francis O. Prosper
“The day Pancho died, his dog Chico was so depressed,” Mark Herbst remembers. “Chico’s ears were down, and he was just a totally different dog. Chico knew Pancho was dead. He definitely knew.”
Francis “Pancho” Prosper had lived at the Palm Hotel for more than 30 years. His neighbors, Mark and Janet Herbst, say he was a very friendly and popular man who “had the most local attitude of anyone we knew.” Prosper used to talk about how he had rescued rock musician Carlos Santana from a Mexican orphanage and bought him his first guitar. But another young man Prosper befriended apparently stabbed him to death one day before Christmas.
Deputy District Attorney Patricia Atwell says the suspect in the Prosper murder, 19-year-old Francisco Torralba, had been living off and on with Prosper. School papers with Torralba’s name were found in Prosper’s room, and a witness to the murder says Torralba and a second suspect, identified only as Jose, rummaged through a gray box in search of money immediately after entering the apartment about 1:00 a.m. on December 24. The witness says Prosper hid cash inside Christmas cards that he kept in the box.
After pocketing the money, Torralba allegedly hit Prosper on the head with a blue lamp. Prosper and the two suspects fought; the two men apparently pulled knives from their waistbands and hacked at Prosper. The 67-year-old Prosper suffered four stab wounds, one of which severed his aorta and left a gaping, three-by-four-inch hole in the left side of his chest. His right middle finger was found on the apartment floor. Police think it might have been cut off because the suspects wanted Prosper’s ring.
The witness in the murder is a seven-year-old boy, who was in bed with Prosper when the two men broke in. At least one of the suspects had lived with Prosper, and other, undisclosed evidence leads investigators to believe that Prosper might have been a child molester. “There’s probably a good chance that was the case,” says homicide Lt. Dan Berglund. “Looking at the evidence, you might think that,” adds Deputy District Attorney Patricia Atwell, though she also cautions that Prosper might just have been “a really nice man who befriended people.”
Detectives asked the medical examiner’s office to swab Prosper’s body for semen, which was found in significant amounts in his external urethra. But chief medical examiner Dr. Brian Blackbourne says such evidence is inconclusive because death is accompanied by a loss of muscle control that frequently causes men to ejaculate involuntarily. “All it shows is that he was a male and that he’s dead,” Blackbourne says.
The district attorney’s office filed a four-count complaint against suspect Francisco Torralba on January 10, 1991. The complaint charges Torralba with murder, robbery, residential burglary, and dissuading a witness by force or threat. This last charge stems from statements the seven-year-old witness ' made to police that Torralba threatened to “come back and stab him” if he gave police any information. Torralba has apparently fled the city and may be hiding in Tijuana. On January 15, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Prosper died nearly penniless and without relatives, so the county public administrator is handling his estate. The coroner found a dollar bill in his room, and the jewelry he was wearing (a St. Christopher medal and a medical alert bracelet) were sold for $3 at auction. The Christmas cards, some clothes, and a shelf full of books were given to the hotel. Prosper also left behind $1700 in unpaid bills, including a $1400 balance on his Montgomery Ward credit card, a $15.61 phone bill, and an unpaid subscription to Better Homes and Gardens. The creditors will receive letters of insolvency from the public administrator’s office.
Prosper’s body has been buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery.
December 25: 16th Street and Island Avenue, Gilberto Torres-Moreno
Torres-Moreno was in a drugged stupor at the time of his death. The 22-year-old man, who stood just five foot three and weighed 139 pounds, had been drinking liquor, shooting heroin, smoking cocaine, and ingesting methamphetamine before he was murdered at 2:00 a.m. Christmas Day. He was shot once in the chest during an altercation with two men outside the God’s Extended Hand rescue mission on Island Avenue, east of 16th Street. Police say the murder apparently stemmed from a dispute over drugs.
No money, keys, or drugs were found in Torres-Moreno’s clothing, and the coroner’s report explains why. “A group of approximately ten persons surrounded the decedent after he expired and went through his pockets before fleeing from the scene.” But nobody bothered to steal the two pairs of freshly laundered trousers that were inside the black plastic trash bag Torres-Moreno was carrying. One of the transients who witnessed the murder apparently used that bag to comfort Torres-Moreno as he lay dying. Police found the bag and an all-weather coat under his head when they arrived at the scene.
Though several friends identified the body, the coroner’s office couldn’t find any of Torres-Moreno’s relatives. The Mexican consul’s office apparently arranged for a Tijuana funeral home to retrieve the body, but the pickup wasn’t made, and Torres-Moreno’s corpse is still in storage at the medical examiner’s office.
Police have tentatively identified two suspects, both Hispanic males. Detectives don’t know the men’s names. One is approximately 18 years old, the other is 16 and goes by the nickname Fito. But the shooting occurred early in the morning, and the street people who saw the crime weren’t completely cooperative. “There’s probably someone who knows something more, but they’re not being totally open with us,” says Lieutenant Berglund. “Most of these people aren’t very pro-police.”
Witness interviews and evidence gathering took most of the morning, and workers at the God’s Extended Hand mission were worried that police would keep 16th Street cordoned off for the entire day. But the street was reopened about 20 minutes before Sister Winnie Smith served her annual Christmas dinner to several hundred of downtown’s homeless.
December 26: 15th and K streets, Manuel Mendez-Rodriguez
Manuel Mendez-Rodriguez was one of the witnesses police hoped could help solve the Torres-Moreno slaying.But Mendez-Rodriguez was killed the next day in the second-floor hallway of a hotel just two blocks away. Though both deaths were apparently drug related, there are no other apparent connections between the two murders.
Mendez-Rodriguez tried to enter the front door of the Bell Hotel, near the corner of 15th and K streets, sometime Christmas night. When the manager refused to let him in, he climbed a fence and kicked in a window. “This guy had snuck in at least five times before,” says the hotel’s owner, Jose Marin. “Once he told us he had an important deal to take care of and had some belongings in the room. But whatever relationship he had with the people in that room, it was pretty bad. I think they were dealing drugs.”
The hotel’s guest register shows that Jose Pena-Herrera and Hector Navarro had been living in room 20 since November 18. Marin, the hotel’s owner, remembers the two men as “very peaceful.” Only once did he ask them to quiet down. “You know Mexican guys, they can get very crazy when they drink. They like to turn the stereo up.” But Marin also heard that Mendez-Rodriguez had stabbed or threatened one of the men before.
If it was Pena-Herrera and Navarro who killed Mendez-Rodriguez at 3:00 a.m. on December 26, they certainly exacted their revenge. The victim’s chest was bloodied with five stab wounds, two of them eight inches deep. A portion of his small intestine protruded from another deep five-inch cut on his torso. Knife marks were found on his leg and left arm, and his head and face were battered with a blunt object. The medical examiner performed a supplementary autopsy after being told by police that the altercation also may have involved a sex crime. That examination revealed a one-inch knife wound inside Mendez-Rodriguez’s anus.
Hotel owner Marin says the two men who rented room 20 fled the hotel after the loud 15-minute fracas. “They told my wife, ‘We’ll talk to you later,’ and that’s the last we heard of them,” Marin recalls. He says at least one hotel resident saw the suspects on the street shortly after the murder, but police have been unable to track them down. “We don’t know where they are or what they look like, and we don’t have a picture,” Lieutenant Berglund says.
So far this year, there has been just one murder inside the downtown rectangle. By this time last year, the area had produced three homicides. Police say a crackdown on gangs and drug dealers along Imperial Avenue has contributed to the decline, and the corner of 29th and Imperial has become a safer place since a police storefront was opened there recently. But the drug dealing and the murders that often accompany it hasn’t ceased. Detectives say more of that activity has simply moved north into the City Heights area and east into Southeast San Diego.