Fighting Crime Together

He visits his daughter's grave every Sunday, always bringing a bouquet of the roses he started growing after she was murdered a year ago.

Call them Sheila Lorta roses.Sometimes on the way home from the cemetery, Henry Lorta takes a detour past Paramount High School, where his 16-year-old daughter was a popular cheerleader until she got caught in the middle of a gang shooting just outside the campus.

"Sheila!" the still grieving father shouts from his window as he drives by.

No one has been arrested in that slaying - one of a record 2,116 homicides last year in Los Angeles County.

How do you gauge the cost of such crimes?

"She's not here anymore, and that's the biggest loss," said Sheila's 35-year-old father.

A year later, Sheila's mother, Esther Lorta, still finds it impossible to accept that loss. There are moments, in fact, when she sets an extra plate on the dinner table for Sheila, the eldest of her three children. And on the Christmas cards she sent out last year, the 35-year-old mother signed: "From all of us and Sheila, forever in our hearts."

"Putting her in her resting place was the hardest," Esther Lorta said, "like putting a whole life in a box."

"Your outlook on life completely changes," she added. "Sometimes you don't know how you even get up in the morning. You may still be smiling, but that sadness is in your heart always."


Economics can't tally lives' worth

Every year the state Justice Department computes the total dollar loss to criminals, but how do you measure the value of lives destroyed in a gang war or at the point of a carjacker's semiautomatic or in a robber's fit of paranoia?

And those economic statistics don't tally the freedom and security crime has stolen from many people

Nor do the dollar figures compute the intangible costs associated with the Southland's increasingly tarnished image.

Crime, or even the perception of a crime problem, casts a long shadow, sometimes stretching across the country. A recent Newsweek article, for example, referred to Long Beach as the "gang-riddled" hometown of alleged murder suspect rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.

And finally, there is the loss of innocence as children increasingly confront a very scary world.

On a downtown Long Beach street corner last month, a transient grabbed a 7-year-old boy's book bag, terrorizing the child. In that case, bystanders ran after the thief and quickly retrieved the bag. But for the small victim, the frightful memories are just beginning.

"Kids shouldn't have to go through this," said Dick Van Der Laan of the Long Beach Unified School District. "It's frustrating because you want to do something about it."


Local crime cost totals billions

Financially, the cost of crime is staggering.

In California, $2.9 billion in stolen property was reported in 1992,compared with $1.6 billion in 1982. To fight crime, authorities in California spent $13.7 billion on law enforcement, courts and prisons in the 1991-92 fiscal year, up from $8.4 billion five years ago.

Last year, burglars stole $6.4 million in goods from Long Beach homes and about the same amount from businesses in Compton; Lakewood residents lost $4.5 million in auto thefts; robbers made off with nearly $100,000 from Bellflower banks; Cerritos stores lost $127,030 to shoplifters; and $40,824 in bicycles were stolen in Downey.

Caltrans spends more than $29 million to wipe out graffiti, and such abatement programs are also placing a strain on city and school district budgets.

The Downey Unified School District, for example, spends $30,000 to $40,000 a year just on graffiti and other vandalism. In Long Beach, taggers cost the school district more than $220,000 during the 1992-93 fiscal year.

Long Beach school officials estimate that last year its total crime-fighting costs - from the security officers' salaries to vandalism repairs - amounted to about $51 for each of the district's 76,000 students. That's much-needed money that school officials would rather spend on educating children.


Farewell to fear and Southland

The cost of living in fear is getting to be too much for Carol Gooler. As soon as she retires, the 55-year-old school teacher is leaving for Northern California. The Long Beach resident said she has had enough of crime.

Gooler left Torrance three years ago after her home was burglarized four times and her next-door neighbor was murdered. Long Beach seemed a bit safer - until a neighbor's party guest was fatally shot last year in Gooler's new neighborhood near the Traffic Circle.

"I tell you, it's extremely scary," said Gooler, who has spent thousands of dollars to protect herself with a gun, shooting lessons, a police scanner, CB radio and deadbolts on all her doors. "We've lost so much of our freedom because of crime."


Car shop moves to 'safer' Signal Hill

After 15 years of fixing cars at the same central Long Beach corner, Mark Jones decided it was time to move his shop out of the city - or lose even his most loyal customers.

"This is the best move I ever made," the 36-year-old owner of Datsun Alley said about relocating to Signal Hill six months ago. "I feel a lot safer now. Business has improved, and all of a sudden longtime customers are giving referrals - something they never did before."

Jones said he had noticed a drop in women customers since the riots hit the streets near his old site at Alamitos Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway. Many of his remaining customers, mostly men, told him they didn't want their wives and daughters bringing their cars to the shop.

And who could blame them? Jones said crack dealers and prostitutes blatantly plied their trades near his Long Beach shop, intimidating the repair shop's customers.

"Even 15 years ago, it wasn't a great neighborhood," said Jones. "But I think the riots were the big turning point. They made people more aware of crime."

A week before Jones moved, his shop was burglarized. An alarm quickly brought the police and scared off the culprits. But the incident reinforced Jones' feelings that he was doing the right thing.

"It wasn't fear for myself so much, but concern for my customers," he said. "I wasn't run out of the city. I chose to leave."


'Such a sense of rage, loss, anger'

Of course, crime is expensive. That's no surprise to veteran probation Officer John Speight. But he feels the costs are escalating out of sight.

"There are a lot more felons now, and felons think differently than the rest of us. Crime is their way of getting excited - like a trip to Disneyland, "said the 45-year-old Long Beach resident. "And crime is costing the victims more than anyone else."

Speight, who is also a family therapist, should know. He's been a crime victim a number of times. Thieves have burglarized his automobile three times, broken into his garage twice and stolen his wife's car.

"When you've been victimized, there's such a sense of rage, loss and anger," Speight said. "It's extremely stressful to put your life back together."


Victimizers are also own victims

The way Cedric Hicks sees it, drug addicts often pay for their crimes by becoming their own victims.

Nowhere is the substance abuse counselor's theory clearer than at the annual Christmas party he organizes for 170 families in the Compton area.

Amid the holiday decorations and Christmas presents, there are fierce hugs and kisses as recovering addicts are reunited with their children for just a few hours.

It's a bittersweet moment for the crack mothers.

As executive director for Compton's Special Services Center, Hicks deals with some of the most hard-core addicts in the area.

Most of the people have records of crimes that were committed to finance their habit, and many of them were referred to the center by the courts.

At least half of them stay clean for a year or more, Hicks said, but the others just go on victimizing others and ultimately themselves.


Memories - and a grave to sit by

Emilia Perez's 19-year-old son was a gang member, but she believes he was trying to escape that world when a bullet ended his life. And that crime has cost her everything important to her.

"All I have are my memories, a grave to sit by on Sundays and pictures," said the 49-year-old Norwalk woman.

In August 1992, her son, Chris, left with a neighbor for a nearby store. But before he got there, he was shot in the head, leaving him brain-dead. The next day, Emilia Perez decided to pull the plug. Her son was a vegetable now, she thought. What kind of life is that?

She heard from kids on the street that Chris was killed by a rival gang member, but she told his friends she did not want to see any payback.

"I don't want this to happen to another mother," she said, still waiting for her son's killer to be arrested.

"My son was a gang member, but he was still a human being," Emilia Perez added. "Nobody had the right to take his life."


A generation at risk of being lost

Tally the lost lives, add up the lost property, then count the possible loss of an entire generation.

That's the cost of crime to Dr. Luis Montes.

He sees it every day at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey, where kids with shattered spines and shot-up bodies are wheeled in on gurneys.

"Our kids are killing each other," said Montes.

Amy Padilla was injured when she was caught in the cross fire of rival gangs in Compton. The 20-year-old South Gate resident knows what she's going to do when she has a child of her own.

"I will keep my kid locked up,'' said Padilla, who belongs to a group of teen-agers and young adults called Teens on Target, sponsored by Rancho Los Amigos. The group warns grade school children about the dangers of gangs and drugs.

Fidel Valenzuela, who leads the group, sees the cost of crime everyday.

"Violence is affecting everyone," said Valenzuela. "We know that guns are killing everyone, but what I want to show are the innocent people who are getting killed."

Members of Valenzuela's group go to schools so they can relate their personal, often painful, stories of how they became victims of violence.

Daniel Romero, an intense 18-year-old from Whittier, was shot in the stomach and leg three years ago in a drive-by.

He tells the schoolchildren that he has an infant son, and that he worries about the kind of future he'll inherit.

He is like many of the Teens on Target members who are pessimistic about seeing an end to violence in their lifetimes.

And that very sense of hopelessness is the hidden cost of crime that scares Montes most.

"It's demoralizing us, demoralizing our youth," the doctor said. "We are almost becoming desensitized to the point we don't care."