Tips led to Halloween killer, cops say
BACK OF THE YARDS | Police say 18-year-old gang member shot pregnant mom on her birthday
March 28, 2008
When a pregnant mother was gunned down on Halloween last year, police had a couple of things going for them right away.
Cameras down the street had caught some activity on the block before shots rang out, striking Leticia Barrera in the head. Church leaders and residents came out in the thousands to march and attend the funeral, all the while demanding justice.
But police really needed to get deep inside the neighborhood and push through cultural and language barriers in the Back of the Yards.
So around Christmas, South Side commanders sent two detectives and a tactical officer -- two spoke Spanish, and the other had a special knack at getting people to talk -- to work the neighborhood. They went to parents' meetings and had coffee. They got tips and made arrests, which built trust. They showed photos of the people caught on camera in the minutes before and after the shooting.
And eventually they found Orlando Avila, an 18-year-old alleged gang member who was charged Thursday with Barrera's murder.
"One led to two, two led to three,'' said Deering District Cmdr. Eugene Roy. "It's been a long time coming .''
Identified in lineup
Avila , who has previous drug convictions stemming from two busts in November 2004, was identified in a lineup.
"Everybody should get their due on this one,'' said Chief of Detectives Thomas Byrne. "They pounded it hard. They really did..''
Roy and Wentworth Area Cmdr. Patricia Walsh assigned the team to the neighborhood.
"The Back of the Yards has been an immigrant community throughout its history,'' Roy said. "People come from a culture where government is not necessarily your friend and the police are not necessarily your friend.''
This case shows that crime-fighting begins and ends in a community, says Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis.
"If someone in the community knows something or has seen something, their voice is more powerful than a gang-banger's gun."
Police said Avila , a member of the Latin Saints street gang, was firing at a rival from the 2-6 gang in the neighborhood, when an errant bullet struck Barrera.
Barrera, who was four months pregnant, had just made it home and was trying to open the wrought-iron gate in her front yard in the 4800 block of South Seeley when shots rang out. It was her 32nd birthday.
Her husband was not home at the time, but she had called him to see if he thought it was safe enough to go trick-or-treating.
Today, Barrera's husband, Manuel Flores, is struggling to raise their three children in the same home on Seeley.
Flores works occasionally. The neighborhood has rallied around the family, providing financial support as well.
Through a translator, Flores said he is relieved that the man suspected of killing his wife and the mother of his three young children has been arrested.
It was a murder that shocked even those hardened to the realities of some of the city's toughest neighborhoods.
Last Halloween night, Leticia Barrera was just a few feet from her home in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, her three young children dressed in costume at her side, when shots rang out.
Barrera, who was celebrating her 32nd birthday, was struck fatally with a bullet to the head. Her children—ages 6, 4, and 2—were there as she fell. She was 2 ½ months pregnant.
Police quickly knew that Barrera was not the intended target but another casualty of a war between gangs that could not keep peace even on a family-filled street on Halloween.
While many witnessed the shooting, many hesitated to come forward because of fear of the gangs, police said.
But after months of work by detectives and police, with help from the community and churches, Chicago police announced a break in the case. Orlando Avila, 18, an alleged Latin Saint gang member, was charged Thursday with Barrera's murder. Police are still looking for another suspect.
Supt. Jody Weis credited the work of the detectives and the help of surveillance cameras in the area, but he said the community's assistance proved essential.
"This case would not have been solved as quickly without those witnesses and the support of the community," Weis said at a news conference at police headquarters. "When someone in the community knows something or sees something, their voice is more powerful than a gangbanger's gun."
Chief of Detectives Thomas Byrne said that police learned that two gangs in the area were standing on the block, exchanging gang slogans, when the shots were fired. Surveillance cameras at
Seeley Avenuecaptured images of the intended targets, rival gang members, running away, as well as witnesses to the crime, Byrne said.
Although some tips came early in the investigation, key leads came after officers took to the streets, said Deering District Officer Eric Wier, who said he handed out his cell phone number to countless residents and met with groups of neighborhood women to develop their trust.
"I think it's positive for the community to see—you work with us, and you'll get results," Wier said.
Armed with still photographs from the cameras, Detectives Luis Otero and Joaquin Mendoza went block by block in the neighborhood, working with residents to identify the witnesses to the crime. Eventually, those witnesses helped police identify the suspects.
On Wednesday, detectives roused Avila from his bed to arrest him. Several witnesses positively identified him as involved in the shooting, Byrne said.
Avila of the 4500 block of
South Wolcott Avenueis expected to appear in
Bond Courton Friday.
The detectives on the case said they were inspired to find Barrera's killers by the image of her three young children dressed in costume, witnessing the homicide. They believe the killing of the loving mother outraged the community as well.
"It upset the community to the point that they finally had had enough," Otero said.
"It was a heinous, heinous, heinous crime," Mendoza added.
Speaking through a translator, Manuel Flores thanked police, saying he was happy that his wife's alleged killer has been arrested. He expressed faith in the judicial system to decide his fate.
Since the murder, Flores has not gone back to work, instead saying he has had to become both mother and father to his three children.
"Right now, they're doing OK," said Flores , adding that the children have had counseling. "When they're together, they say their mommy is in heaven."
The slaying stunned the Back of the Yards community, prompting public rallies and even a plea from Mayor Richard Daley for the public's help in identifying the woman's killers.
While Barrera was at the news conference, his three children were at home eating chicken strips and watching the Cubs spring training game on television. Manuel, 6, Evelyn, 4, and Jessica, 3, ran around the house playing and giggling—oblivious to news of the charges.
"We're going to be fine," said their uncle, Lucio Flores.
The Barreras live on a block where Spanish is heard more often than English and many of the families know one another. Violence and gangs are common, and boys are recruited at a young age, said Olga Calderon, the owner of a corner store in the 4800 block of South Seeley .
Leticia Barrera used to stop by Santa Maria Foods almost daily with her children to buy them nachos and other snacks. The randomness of her killing haunted the neighborhood, Calderon said.
"There were other shooting deaths on this block before," she said. "This is the first time it was someone who was accidentally involved."
Calderon said that many people saw the shooting, but that the community was afraid to come forward with information initially because they feared retaliation.
"They didn't want to get involved," she said.
One young mother named Ana was walking home with her two young children on the rainy afternoon on Thursday. She lives a few houses away from the Barrera family.
"I'm more careful with my children now," she said. "We can't even walk down the street."
She was glad to hear that police caught a suspect in a shooting that had left families on the block worried about their safety.
"I feel more safe now they arrested him," she said.