Boy's killing harkens back to troubled times in LA

Arms flexed in a muscleman pose, Aaron Shannon Jr. was getting ready for a Halloween party while his grandfather snapped photos of him in a Spiderman costume.

Suddenly, the click of the camera lens was replaced by the pop, pop of gunfire and the 5-year-old boy was shot in the head.

The Oct. 31 attack — blamed on misdirected gunfire from suspected Crips gang members raiding Bloods turf — harkened back to the carnage of the 1980s and early '90s when brazen young men patrolled the streets of the area once called South Central and gave little thought to living or dying.

Then, Aaron's death likely would have flared the Crips-Blood rivalry even further and been followed by a retaliation shooting, then another and so on.

"In the old days, this would have been a massive bloodbath," said Guillermo Cespedes, head of the city's gang reduction program. "An incident like this, even a couple of years ago, would have created many more days of violence."

But it hasn't. Immediately after the shooting, at least a half dozen city-funded gang interventionists, experts who are often former gang members, and other volunteers hit the streets in a bid to prevent retaliation.

Residents incensed by the killing of a child were quick to provide details to police, who on Friday announced the arrest of Marcus Denson, 18, and Leonard Hall, 21. Both are alleged members of the Kitchen Crips, which for years has been warring with a subset of the Bloods known as the Swans.

Deputy Chief Patrick Gannon estimated as many as 15 additional shootings were stopped.

The boy's shooting and the days that followed have served as both a reminder of the strife that is all too common in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, and a sign of how much has changed.

The alley wall behind Aaron's house is covered in gang graffiti and several residents say they regularly hear gunfire and live in fear.

Aaron was standing with friends and relatives in the neatly kept yard of his family's yellow stucco duplex when the shooting occurred. The bungalow is in the heart of gangland but no one in the family is connected to a gang.

One block from the house is South Central Avenue, a busy corridor leading to downtown that cuts through industrial areas and impoverished communities of auto-repair shops and low-slung food marts. In Aaron's neighborhood, the road bisects Crip and Blood territories.

Javi Ramirez, who owns a carwash at the end of Aaron's road, said there's a persistent threat of violence and gang members occasionally take shots at each other across South Central Avenue.

"I'm losing a lot of customers," he said. "(Gang members) don't care if they hit anyone else."

Police are unsure of a motive, but say two men walked up the alleyway behind the house and one of them fired about a half dozen shots when he saw the group assembled in the yard. Aaron was struck in the head and died the next day.

"He was the sweetest little boy you would ever meet," said Ralph Shannon, 52, an uncle who struggled to hold back tears as he stood by a large lemon tree next to where Aaron had been shot.

Another uncle, Terrence Shannon, 27, was hit in the wrist and Aaron's grandfather, William Shannon, 55, was shot in the left leg.

"I heard the shots," said Aaron's great-grandmother Bennie Shannon, 76, who bought the family duplex in 1976 and saw violence soar in the early '90s. "I went to see if it was gunshots or fireworks. That's when I saw."

Aaron was the 32nd person killed in the 12 square miles of LAPD's 77th Street area this year. That homicide rate, while still alarming, is the neighborhood's lowest in decades and a fraction of the 161 slain at the height of the crack epidemic in 1991.

In the late 1980s, children were sometimes cut down by stray gunfire, but such shootings have become rare, Detective Chris Barling said. Under gang honor codes, children are seldom targeted.

"The boundaries are still defined ... but they are not as reactionary with the violence," Barling said. "There's not the soldiers out there protecting them as viciously as they were."

The Crips and Bloods grew in number in the 1970s and their grip on South Central peaked as the crack epidemic spread in the 1980s. Immortalized in numerous movies, including the 1988 "Colors," the gangs came to define a generation of Los Angeles gangster.

Since then, the gangs' populations have thinned considerably and they have been replaced by Latino gangs such as Florencia 13. Some Crips and Bloods are in jail, others moved to Palmdale and other desert communities east of Los Angeles as the Latino population grew.

Where once the gangs controlled huge swaths of south Los Angeles, now they only dominate across a patchwork of turfs. On occasion, they will even collaborate to protect themselves against rival Latino gangs, civil rights attorney and gang expert Connie Rice said.

"The Crips and Bloods are waning," Rice said. "In the next 15 years, there won't be any black gangs that have any sizable control in Los Angeles."

It is difficult to know how many Crip and Blood gang members there are today, but they make up a dwindling percentage of Los Angeles County's estimated 90,000 gang members, sheriff's Lt. Chris Marks said.

Rice noted that prison-based gangs, which increasingly influence activities of street gangs, ordered a stop to drive-by shootings. Such attacks have dropped dramatically.

Residents may still fear coming forward, but they're more cooperative, noted Barling, who has worked 24 years in the area. City officials renamed South Central as South Los Angeles in 2003 to re-brand an area once synonymous with urban strife.

Rivalries remain but even the colors associated with Blood and Crip gangs have started to fade. The Blood red color and the blue favored by Crips are less important, Capt. Dennis Kato said.

"It's not going to get you killed like it was before," Kato said. "Now you will see Crips that have red on them."