Just Another Roadside Distraction

Anatomy of a murder on Beacon Avenue

Julia Campos is used to the commotion of the nightly fireworks show that erupts over Disneyland, a few blocks north of her West Anaheim neighborhood. She tunes it out and enjoys a few hours of television in the seclusion of her bedroom.

Julia is 70 years old, a full-time caretaker responsible for three generations of Campos. She knows going to bed with a full stomach is more important than a trip to an amusement park. She doesn't have time to concern herself with the trivialities Disneyland represents in her life. After her grandchildren have been put to bed, it's her time to unwind and prepare for another long day of caring for a full house: her two sons, their wives and her three grandchildren. When she's not raising families in her single-level home on Beacon Avenue, she's in her father's hospital room, sitting beside his bed pretending she's not waiting for him to die.

On Sunday night, Sept. 11, 2005, Julia sat on her bed engrossed in the Lifetime series Strong Medicine. At 9:45, she heard a loud bang outside her home. She dismissed it as Disneyland's fireworks and turned back to her hospital drama.

Seferino, Raquel and Cuauhtémoc Garcia at the place their march against death ended. Photo by Matt Otto

*   *   *

About a block down Beacon Avenue, past the intersection of Walnut and Beacon, Seferino Garcia sat on his striped sofa below framed portraits of Emilio Zapata, Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez. He was watching the news on CNN. While he listened to what he calls the "bullshit and wild lies" spewed by a media run by Big Business, his daughter, Raquel, washed her face in their one bathroom. His son, Cuauhtémoc, hung out on their front stoop, waiting for friends. Raquel had put her own daughter to bed a half-hour earlier. The house had settled into its quiet nighttime mode. The volume on the television was just low enough for Seferino and Raquel to hear the bang outside. Raquel turned off the sink and silently thanked God her daughter was tucked in bed. As soon as she finished her silent prayer, she ran to the front of the house to make sure that it had not been Cuauhtémoc's friend on his way over. Seferino sprang from the sofa and met Cuauhtémoc at their front door.

"Some young guy got shot, Dad, right down the street," he said.

*   *   *

Julia's son Frank Campos was in their living room when he heard the same loud bang. Born and raised on Beacon Avenue, Frank knew the difference between fireworks and a gunshot. With two broken feet still in walking casts, he ran as best as he could outside, fearing that someone he knew had been shot. His brother Raymond heard the gunshot too. He stayed in the living room. He, too, feared that someone he knew had been shot.

Frank returned to his home a few minutes later. He burst into his mother's bedroom.

"Mom, there's somebody shot down on the corner!" he told her.

Julia followed her son onto Beacon, without shoes or a sweater, realizing now that the single bang she'd heard wasn't the result of pyrotechnics. Her neighbors saw Julia and yelled for her to hurry.

*   *   *

Cuauhtémoc ran toward the sound of the gunshot too. But Seferino, who had worked alongside Cesar Chavez, knew better than to run toward the sound of gunfire. He walked. Cautiously. Seferino believes the FBI once attempted to blow up his house in Los Angeles. He says that until five years ago, when his wife died, he would not go anywhere without bodyguards. Experience has taught Seferino to walk when a homeboy fires a shot; he says he's learned that the same homeboy can shoot him just as easily.

Raquel followed her father and brother down the street. She saw a crowd gathering but couldn't tell whether the victim was her brother's friend.

*   *   *

Francisco "Chico" Betancourt Celis was lying on his back, his legs tangled in the baby-blue low rider bicycle he'd been riding when three men in a maroon Toyota Camry with dealer plates had pulled up. They had stopped their car and asked, "Where are you from?" Chico had cousins in one of the local gangs, but his wife and friends say he wasn't a member. This didn't matter to the three men in the Camry. They'd shot Chico once—point blank—in his chest.

When Frank arrived, he found Chico lying facedown on the street. Frank turned him over to see if he was still alive before running back home to alert Julia.

Julia saw this kid, only 23, and, like his murderers, assumed she knew what his bald head and white T-shirt meant. But she also understood something else: this kid in the street is a human being. He is some mother's son. Ten years ago, rival gang members stabbed Julia's nephew. Through her sister's pain, Julia had learned that those who suffer most from gang violence are the mothers. Kids killing kids on the street leave mothers at home with sons in cemeteries and prisons.

Julia ran barefoot to the kid's side. She ran her hands over his face, his neck and his hands. All were ice-cold.

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