Gang, Bang, You're Dead

Caught in the crossfire of a violent culture, a 16-year-old loses his life


The circumstances of Junior Soto's untimely death are fraught with seemingly simple questions: Did Carolina know there would be a fight? Was she or her unavailable look-alike friend in the middle of it? Did Junior run to her defense or just get caught in the crossfire?

"Everyone has their own story," Carolina says. Hers is that she doesn't know what happened or who did it. It has been a consistent story since the night of the murder.

Hector Soto Jr., 16, was killed in somebody else's gang fight.
Hector Soto Jr., 16, was killed in somebody else's gang fight.
Hector Soto Jr., 16, was killed in somebody else's gang fight.
courtesy of Soto family
Hector Soto Jr., 16, was killed in somebody else's gang fight.

And that brings up one more question: Is she protecting herself or her gang friends? Or is she just plain telling the truth?

The events that led to Junior's death, however, were a series of one-time coincidences. Police reports, eyewitness accounts, family members and neighborhood hearsay tell this story:

Hector Sr. last saw Junior when his son left for work; they'd been playing with a pair of walkie-talkies like a couple of kids. And when Junior left work early in the evening, his usual basketball buddies were out on dates or at the movies, so he called his sister to pick him up at a friend's house. He wanted to go to Palomino Park where there was sure to be a pickup game that he could rotate into.

Carolina didn't want to drive him at first, but then relented, and she and her friend Puppet swung by to get him. They reached the park a little after 9 p.m. Junior went to the basketball court, Carolina played foosball over by the volleyball courts.

Several minidramas emerge from the police report. One witness told investigators that members of MBP and VLS and other gangs, black and Hispanic, had gathered to discuss a possible truce. Another witness claimed that MBP and VLS members were flashing signs and calling out their gang names and going two by two into the vacant lot across from the park for fistfights.

But everyone agrees that the melee began with a fight between two girls, that one of the "strangers" stepped in, and then all hell broke loose, with 20 to 40 rival gang members fighting against five to 10 MBP members.

Carolina contends that the fracas came out of nowhere. If the fight had been planned, she says, "I don't think it would have been four or five of us against a whole crowd of people. That would be stupid. That's why some of the homies felt bad, 'Oh my God, we should have been there.' But honestly, nobody knew.

"If they told me, 'Oh, we're going to meet up,' I never would have taken my little brother. I probably wouldn't even be there myself."

More than one witness told police that Carolina was one of the girls in the skirmish who touched off the brawl. Edwardo, who was not there, had heard -- as have other neighborhood friends of Junior's -- that the fighter was Carolina's friend Maggie. Maggie could not be reached to corroborate; Carolina claimed that Maggie chose not to talk to New Times.

Edwardo had heard that Junior ran over to the fight and got into it with the "big-time guy from the other gang" who had interrupted the girls' fight, and that Junior, fit and heavily muscled, got the best of the match.

"He got embarrassed because a 16-year-old kid knocked him out," Edwardo says, and that was a capital offense in someone's mind.

Detective Fragoso, the police investigator, thinks that Junior was just in the way when the shots rang out. But the autopsy report on Junior details bruises on the wrists and knuckles that are consistent with bruises that might occur during a fistfight.

This much is clear: The park lights suddenly went out, and the shooting started. All that witnesses could see were muzzle flashes against the darkness. Everyone started to run, panicked crowds stampeding across the park, away from the guns or diving into the metal sheds on the park grounds. One other man was struck in the ear by an errant bullet.

Carolina remembers her friend Puppet shouting, "Run to your car now."

She was seen running along 30th Street screaming her brother's name. Junior limped out of the darkness holding his back and saying he'd been shot there. In fact, he'd been shot in the front -- his abdomen -- and the bullet had blown right through him, severing an artery, puncturing his bowels and bladder, and exiting his back. He might have bled to death from that wound alone.

Puppet half-carried Junior to Carolina's car and helped him slide, headfirst, into the back seat.

Carolina peeled away from the curb as the rear window exploded from gunfire. One tire was shot out; Edwardo later pulled a bullet out of the rim. Another bullet struck Junior in the right side of his forehead, passed through his brain and his skull and came to rest beneath the skin above his left ear. He died quickly, although Carolina did not even know he'd been shot a second time as she raced toward the hospital.

Carolina pulled over a few blocks later on Paradise Lane when she saw a police car behind her, thinking that the police could help her get Junior to the hospital more quickly, or perform first aid.

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