Dueling narratives about 14-year-old shot by the LAPD
On Friday, Jesse Romero's family and friends will gather for his funeral, remembering him as a bright boy and beloved companion.
On Aug. 9, LAPD officers responded to a report of gang graffiti in Boyle Heights, and ended up pursuing and fatally shooting Romero.
The police department says one witness saw Romero shoot at officers, and a gun was recovered. Others in the community question whether Romero fired at police. The investigation is ongoing.
Johnny Torres, who worked with Romero in a gang intervention program, has watched a debate about Romero play out on social media. On one side, there are those mourning his loss. On the other, people suggest the teen may have brought it on himself.
"People started posting pictures of him hanging out with his friends throwing gang signs. No, no, no – it was his choice," Torres says, paraphrasing commenters.
Torres, a former gang member himself, says boys like Romero can be both armed – and afraid.
"The level of fear is so high," says Torres, who works at Soledad Enrichment Action. "They don’t carry guns because they want to intimidate. They don’t carry guns because they want to rob. They don’t carry guns so they can kill. A lot of them carry guns because they were afraid."
Friends say Romero did belong to a gang, but didn’t deserve to die.
The day after the shooting, his friends and family line up outside Romero’s tiny apartment a couple blocks away from the scene. It’s so snug the living room doubles as a bedroom.
His mother Teresa Dominguez sits at the edge of a bed, almost motionless.
"He was a good boy, respectful," Dominguez says, speaking in Spanish. "He didn’t do anything violent."
She points to a grade-school picture of her son in a vest and tie. Patty Martinez, the wife of the Romero's cousin, explains how the photo is part of a traditional altar for the dead the family laid alongside candles and flowers on a table.
Dominguez brought her son to Los Angeles from Puebla, Mexico when he was still in diapers, Martinez explains.
Romero’s friend Lourdes Miranda says he was a bright boy.
"He was smart, he was friendly," she says. "He did good in school. Very respectful, never disrespected anyone. Always quiet."
Another friend, who asks not to be named, says Romero started skipping school. She says she encouraged him to go to classes, and even offered to take him. He was enrolled in summer school at Mendez High, but stopped showing up, she says.
Now Romero's family is trying to scrape together enough money for a headstone.
Last Saturday, Torres and his fellow organizers raised about $1,600 at a car wash. They initially had a hard time finding a parking lot, Torres says, because people are scared of gangs.
"Some people said they didn’t want to take the risk that something might get started at the car wash," he says.
Others politely cited the drought. Finally, a pastor at a local church helped get them room.
Romero’s death has drained the family finances. His mom was raising two boys. She hasn’t gone back to her job as a vegetable packer since the tragedy.
While organizers had a hard time finding a parking lot for the charity car wash, they had no trouble finding customers, as speakers blasted "Big Poppa" by the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. and volunteers wrapped hot dogs in bacon.
A young man, Miguel Ramos, rode up on his bicycle and asked if it could be washed. He didn’t know Romero, he said, but he recognized something familiar.
"That’s an experience, growing up in northeast L.A., I feel like that’s something that could have happened to any one of my friends," Ramos said.
About a dozen cars soon stretched out of the lot and down the street. People got out of their cars and offered condolences.