Crime & Justice

LA sheriff searching for suspect in murder of 4-year-old Altadena boy

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While the L.A. County Sheriff's Department hunts for a suspect, the Altadena community where a 4-year-old boy was shot and killed Tuesday night is trying to process the tragedy.

Yesenia Cervantes shook her head as she recalled hearing the pop, pop, pop.

“I told my husband, 'that doesn’t sound like firecrackers,'” she said. “He’s like, 'well yea, it is.  Don’t worry about it.'”

Cervantes, 40, grew up in the neighborhood and had to investigate. After pushing her three children into the back part of the house, she went outside.

“I stepped out, and I saw the yelling mother saying ‘my son my son,'" Cervantes told KPCC.

Salvador Esparza, just four years old, lay mortally wounded, shot in the head, on the porch of the corner house. A 27-year-old investigators described as a "friend of the family" was wounded.

Wednesday evening, sheriff's investigators released new information on the shooting. Detectives said at 10:30 p.m. a man walked up to the house at Figueroa Drive and Olive Ave. and fired "several shots." The suspect, described only as a black male, ran south on Olive and sped away in a dark colored car.

Previously, sheriff's officials had described the attack as a drive-by shooting.

Officials also revealed information on a possible motive. 

"Detectives believe the incident possibly stemmed from an argument that occurred earlier that evening, just down the street from the residence on Figueroa Drive," the department's statement said. " The boyfriend of the child’s mother, who has no relation to the child, was involved in an argument with other individuals."

No arrests have been made of as yet.

Cervantes said she doesn't know Esparza's family but recalled walking by the house and seeing the little boy playing in the front yard and smiling.

Altadena sits just north of Pasadena in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains.  

The area always been a mixture of upscale and lower income areas, but gentrification has accelerated.

That in part prompted Charlena Green to Figueroa Drive from the San Fernando Valley  just a year ago.

Green also heard the shots. She began to cry as she thought of the boy’s mother and father.

“I just can’t imagine what his family is going through,” Green said. “I have a five-year-old and she plays in the front yard every day.”

Statewide, violent crime rose last year, reversing a long term trend. Murders jumped 10 percent to 1,861, according to the California Attorney General's office.

Criminologists have said it’s too early to call the jump a trend, and note crime remains at historic lows.

That’s of little comfort to people close to the violence.

“Every day we – my daughter and I – would come down the street to go to the store and I would see the little boy play and he would wave and say hi,” Green recalled.

"I just hope they catch these guys."

A few months ago, she also heard an “aggressive knock” at her door. She didn’t answer. Instead, she  looked out her window and saw a man running away, then heard gunshots. He was wounded by an assailant.

Now she’s wondering if she should move back to the San Fernando Valley.

“I don’t think I can do this,” she said. “This really hit home for me - the killing of this boy.”

Cervantes is staying put, but said the kids will no longer be allowed to play in their front yard.

“Things are going to change a little bit for awhile, just for their own safety," she said, "because you never know.”