IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

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

Loredo says he came away from the call feeling like Torres had called to intimidate him into backing off. "Like he was the department hit man or something. Like I was making too many calls."

Torres says Loredo did call him, and that he was returning the call as a favor. He says he did tell Loredo he didn't know what he was doing, but says it wasn't an attempt to intimidate anyone. "I told him he wasn't calling the right people. He was calling the Maryvale precinct repeatedly, and they respond to radio calls, they don't do investigations. So I said, 'You don't know what you're doing.' I told him, 'That's not the way you do business.' I explained the protocol.

"I hope he didn't misunderstand me."

But there's plenty to misunderstand and wonder about in a case like this, and even now, the friends and family of Tommy Espinoza are left wondering why no one has been arrested. The grapevine has identified a shooter, but Detective Mills says without someone being able to clearly identify him as the triggerman, none of that information does any good--not the calls to Silent Witness, not secret notes concealed in gum wrappers, not even claims that the guy is out there bragging about having committed the crime.

Mills does note that based on the information collected at the time, the reputed triggerman was not included in a photo lineup shown to Alex Contreras the day after the shooting, and that there's not enough reliable new information to have another lineup at this point.

Alex Contreras says he probably couldn't pick the guy out of a lineup, anyway, even though he probably got the best look at the guy. He figures it was a good thing he had his beloved .45 with him, though he says he never thought he'd have to use it. "I think that's what scared them off," he says. "I think that's what stopped them, made them run. I wished it would have helped out more."

It wasn't until Suzzane Rivera and Linda Espinoza obtained copies of the police report that they realized that Alex Contreras had finally been eliminated as a suspect, a notion they say insulted them at the outset. The last supplement of the released report noted that tests showed that the bullet that killed Tommy did not come from Alex's gun.

"That doesn't apologize," Suzzane Rivera says. "That doesn't take away the hurt."

She says it's funny, really, because now the department, through other channels with which she has worked before, wants her help on another case. "All of a sudden, they're asking me to help. Yet they don't believe what I told them that night. It's too weird. It's too, too, too weird."

There are inconsistencies in accounts given by the people who were there that night--what time the Mustang first came by, which of the people in the street had a gun, how many shots were fired--and nowhere in the report do initial field officers say anything about Tommy's friends urging them to check out the other house. Detective Mills points to Richard Ayon's attempt to scale the fence as "not what I would call an unaggressive act," and notes that Suzzane Rivera wouldn't have heard the "click" of a semiautomatic if the shooter did, in fact, use a .44 revolver and fire first.

One interesting discrepancy is that the 911 tape released to Suzzane Rivera by the department is surprisingly different from versions she detailed in previous interviews and the testimony she penned for Gerald Richards, the department's community relations head. For example, the chaos is already in progress when the operator answers; the tape does not include the physical description she says she provided of the people in the street. For this, she has no explanation.

A February 1 follow-up meeting between Richards and the friends of Tommy Espinoza has been rescheduled for this Tuesday, February 21; assistant chief Dave Brewster is now heading the liaison.

The character of Tommy's old room, in the house where he lived with his grandmother, already has changed. She rearranged it for company. His tee shirts and flannels, however, still hang in the closet, and inside a top drawer are remnants of his life: an asthma inhaler, a book by Carlos Castaneda that he got for Christmas, some MEChA notes explaining the transition from gang to school, Drakkar cologne.

Connie Espinoza misses finding her grandson asleep in front of the TV in the morning or hearing him talk to his girlfriends long into the night. Everyone who knew Tommy talks of his boundless energy--an enthusiasm that burned after everyone else's had flickered away, that sometimes grated on their nerves until, suddenly, it wasn't there anymore.

"He went to church with us every once in a while," Connie says, "and I used to kid him: 'You know, Mijito--the way you talk, the way you do so many things, you would be a good leader, a good Christian leader.' And he says, 'Nana, don't lose hope. I may be one.'"

Meanwhile, the character of the neighborhood where that hope was dashed has changed, too. The drinking, the partying, the intoxicated voice that stood out--"That has all completely stopped," one neighbor says.

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