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stories along The Way

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

(LA Times) Fear sets up camp on L.A. River

Fear sets up camp on a stretch of the L.A. River 

For residents along a grimy stretch of the waterway, the shooting of five people a year ago made a perilous place feel even more so.

By Christopher Goffard - LA Times - November 24, 2009

After the killings, the people on the river slept with their knives closer. They leashed guard dogs outside their tents and cardboard lean-tos. They listened for strangers' footsteps above the thrum of traffic on the bridges overhead. They got used to the sight of police stepping carefully along the big white rocks of the embankment. Below, in its concrete jacket, the dirty river crawled.

Violence is common and often unreported along the 51-mile Los Angeles River, daytime haunt of the occasional jogger and bird-watcher and in many parts a lawless no-man's-land populated by hard-core addicts, the mentally ill and uncountable others, broke or hiding. But what happened last November made an already fearful place feel more perilous still.

Someone gunned down three men and two women in a homeless encampment a few miles from the river's final southern curve into Long Beach Harbor. Hidden by bottlebrush trees along the Santa Fe Avenue off-ramp of the 405 Freeway, it was a cave-like spot with a single entrance -- a narrow footpath along a chain-like fence -- and a reputation as a drug den.

Police suspect the shooter came to punish a drug debtor and turned the gun on everyone to eliminate witnesses. Two things made it personal for river residents: One of the victims, 24-year-old Katherine Verdun, was a familiar face. And many understood how easily it could have been them.

For weeks, police who usually avoid the river were searching its banks, looking for witnesses, waiting for someone with information to claim a $20,000 reward. A year later, police are waiting still.

"You've got five people that were killed and no one came forward. That's unheard of," said Long Beach Police Det. Mark McGuire. "That community is terrified still. There's no way to get through to them yet, even with the reward."

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