Leslie Zepeda died the day after Christmas. She had no time for a final hug, a final kiss, one last chance for her family to tell her how much they loved and cherished her. Scared, confused, in pain, she only had time to say, "It hurts." And then she died. Leslie was 11 years old. Nobody should die like that when they are 11 years old.
Actually, the word die is not quite accurate. Die conjures up melancholy images of incurable diseases or sad accidents. That is not what happened here. In this case, it would be more accurate to say murdered. No one should be murdered like that when they are 11 years old.
It was a little after 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening when the shots call came out. My partner and I started rolling as soon as we heard. We were gang detectives, and that part of the city was disputed gang territory. Two local gangs, one black, one Hispanic, had been embroiled in an ongoing gang war there for years. In recent months that war had heated up with a number of tit-for-tat shootings. No doubt this call was going to be a continuation of that war. It was. The victims weren't.
You could say that Leslie's schoolmate was the lucky one. The two bullets that ripped through her flesh only grazed her head and chest. She would, at least, live to mourn the senseless loss of her best friend. Leslie was not so lucky. We found her laying on the front lawn, where the bullet that tore through her tiny chest had left her.
The neat, circular hole was mute testimony to what had occurred. All around her still body was the chaos of those still living. Hysterical friends and family screaming and crying in anguish, praying to all they believed in that what they saw before them was a bad dream, and not the unfathomable horror they knew it to be.
Police officers were shouting commands; trying to locate witnesses; cordoning off the crime scene; and trying to get a handle on what had happened. One glance told me all I would ever need to know about her condition. Leslie's unblinking gaze remained locked upon the sky, forever fixed in that flat and lifeless stare that cannot be mimicked by any but the truly departed.
But we had work to do.
Half the gang game is knowing the players. Within an hour of the shooting, witness descriptions, combined with our knowledge of who's who in the zoo, led us straight to the intended victim, a local black gangster with the moniker of "Midnight." As is typical in gang investigations, neither Midnight nor his fellow gang members were interested in helping the "PoPo" solve their attempted murder, or Leslie's actual murder.
Still, by confirming the intended target, it was an easy leap to guessing which gang was responsible for the shooting. From a pool of thousands, we had just narrowed our suspect list down to about 300 known and identifiable bangers.
The other half of gang work is good old-fashioned legwork, following up on leads; interviewing and re-interviewing witnesses; canvassing the neighborhood; dropping off fliers throughout the area asking for tips; tapping confidential informants; and getting citizens, who were generally scared senseless by both gangs, to tell you what they had seen or heard.
Over the course of the next week, we slowly pieced together the big picture. A Latino gang member had come looking to settle a score with the rival black gang. When he spotted Midnight and some of his cronies hanging out, the shooter exited the passenger seat of a car and opened fire. Midnight, always quick on his feet, ran into a yard and behind a truck that contained the victims and their unfortunate family.
The family had only just returned to the house to pick up a doll Leslie had received for Christmas. The shooter kept on firing, his reckless barrage of rounds never even scratching Midnight, but destroying the lives of the Zepeda family. A typical day in the casually incompetent and vicious world of street gang warfare.
By the end of the week, we had a moniker on the shooter and shortly thereafter, we had him identified. Aptly enough, he called himself "Criminal," a parolee at large and a documented gang banger with a long and violent criminal history. The hunt was on. By Jan. 4, a relentless search by dedicated detectives and gang officers from the South Bay Gang Task Force had tracked Criminal to his crash pad.
As is so often the case, this hardened killer of children declined to test his skills against those willing to be tested. His anti-climatic surrender came with a whimper, his meek exit into custody a testament to the cowardly lifestyle so falsely represented on television as heroic and glamorous. In the end, he was just another self-absorbed, methamphetamine-addled sociopath unfit and undeserving of life in civilized society.
Detectives moved quickly to shore up the case. More and more citizens came forward with information and firsthand accounts—six packs were made and shown; identifications obtained; and most damning of all, his girlfriend, the getaway driver, was identified, located and convinced to roll over on her boyfriend. In the end, the criminal case was a slam dunk. Criminal was tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. He would never see the free light of day again.
Like so many other innocents before her, Leslie died a violent and brutal death—caught in the crossfire of a senseless gang culture immune to the pain and suffering they cause to those around them. Many years have passed since that day. Like most cases, once the press fades, the victims slowly start to dissolve into faceless, nameless statistics—unremembered except by family and friends whose lives will never be the same.
Having lived a small part of that nightmare, I sometimes feel that it's part of my duty to remember. To remind myself why I do this job—to remind myself that without law enforcement officers willing to fight the good fight, there will only be more Leslie Zepedas dying needlessly and more "Criminals" killing wantonly. Even if I wanted that memory to go away, who could ever forget an 11-year-old dead on the ground the day after Christmas? Not me.