IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

FRIENDS OF A MURDER VICTIM SAY POLICE LABELED THEM AS GANG MEMBERS--AND IGNORED OPPORTUNITIES TO CAPTURE THE KILLER

The way she remembers it, he just shone a flashlight on her and said, "`Aw, you're doing all right. You're doing fine.'"

The paramedics arrive, do what they can. Tommy is taken away.
A couple of hours later, Suzzane Rivera is sitting in Detective Robert Mills' car, and the interview is over. He hands her his business card. It reads "Homicide."

"You mean he's dead?" she says.

At first, everyone is herded into the Rivera house. Everyone remembers the Ayons and the Riveras telling the officers to go to the other house, that the trouble came from over that way. The response was, yeah, yeah, go sit down, somebody will be with you.

No one will say the gunfire was returned until Alex Contreras tells one of the officers, I'm going to be honest with you--I did shoot back. He tells them Josie Ayon put his gun away, and she finds it for them. A minute later, he's on a stretcher on his way to the hospital.

Carl Rivera tells the officers his shotgun is in the old Chevy but that it hadn't been fired. Suzzane Rivera says she has a gun in her room. Both are secured by officers.

The questioning starts right away. Suzzane remembers them asking: "First of all, 'What gang are you guys from?'"

"Everybody kept telling them, go over there, two houses down, that's where they came from," Carl Rivera says. "I was sitting right here going, 'God, how could this happen?' And this officer goes, 'Oh, you know how it goes, ese, you know how it is to be a gangbanger.' The sergeant told him [that officer], 'You apologize, and then you leave.'"

"Oh, he left," Suzzane says. "But he didn't apologize."
Betty Contreras is near the doorway, telling the officer there she wants to accompany her wounded husband. I just want to be with him, she says. Why can't you let me be with him? What if he dies and I'm not there because you won't let me be with him?

They keep pushing her back in, saying, go sit down, laughing, saying, man, did you see her? She's drunk.

"I said, 'Forget this,'" Betty Contreras says, "and I walked out the door and said, 'Somebody take me to the hospital.' And they said they were going to arrest me. They brought me back inside. I said, 'You can't keep me here. I want to be with my husband.'"

Josie Ayon finally grabs the keys and takes her.
Suzzane Rivera: "And Richard [Ayon] by this time had called Josie's brother-in-law to come pick up the kids, and he went to hand him the keys. They [the police officers] said, 'No,' and he said, 'I'm just handing him the keys,' and they got him in an armlock and put him face down. And they kept pushing him and telling him he was going to jail."

Suzzane's neighbor says to her later, "You should have heard them saying, 'Aw, they're nothing but a bunch of cholos, anyway.'"

Here is how secure the crime scene was: As the commotion settles and the questioning begins, Suzzane Rivera notices someone she doesn't recognize standing behind her kitchen counter, laughing amid the grief and shock, eating the chicken wings she'd set out for her guests. "I guess he had come in with the police," she says. "I looked at him and I said, 'Who are you?', because he didn't fit in. And he came over here and got some dip, and he was laughing. He said, 'I'm Mart¡n.' I go, 'I don't know you. Who are you?' He goes, 'I was here, at the party.' I said, 'There was no party here.' He said, 'Bobby sent me. To watch you.'"

She finally figures he's from the other party, and she tells an officer, who says to her, he was here with you guys. And she says to him, no, he wasn't. Why does he have to stay here? He's from next door. "But they sat him down and made him very comfortable," she says. Mart¡n Galas, whom police had picked up hopping nearby backyard fences, was finally taken in for questioning; he told police his cousin had driven him to a house party, and that when he heard shots go off down the street, he just took off running, not knowing who was involved. Eventually, police match his prints with those on a beer cup found in Cristal Grende's yard.

When Detective Mills arrives at 3:20 a.m., it all continues--which of you fired the shotgun? and so on. Nobody had. Finally, Tommy's friends realize that no one is going to go looking for anyone outside of the house anytime soon. And they can't, for the life of them, figure out why.

Suzzane Rivera: "Detective Mills was saying, is this a gang hangout? I said, no. I work with gang members. We get together. Some of the kids. I write pamphlets, you know . . . and when I do gang seminars, I use their work. And I said, they don't sit here and get drunk. And he said, well, what types of people hang out here? And I told him; I named a couple of the gangs. And he was like, he was writing them. And that's the first time I seen him really show any interest. He was like: 'Oh.' And, you know: 'Who else?' And he got the other officer--`Oh, yeah, these gangs hang out here.' He didn't listen to what I was saying.

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