When Pauline Gaitan heard two “bangs” early on Sunday August 24, she thought it was firecrackers. But she heard three other bangs soon after and she went outside her home to see what was happening on her block.
In front of her house, a gray-colored Toyota Sequoia had its windows blown out and she heard a woman screaming from inside the vehicle. Then she looked at the sidewalk next to the car.
“The dad was right there on the sidewalk, laying down on the sidewalk and his son was next to him telling him ‘dad, get up’,” she recalled. “He was bloody. I didn’t know there was a dead person inside.”
Gaitan also saw a tan-colored SUV go by and then speed off after reaching the corner.
“This was horrifying,” said Gaitan, a witness to the aftermath of a heartless shooting along the 1400 block of Celis Street in San Fernando that claimed the life of Mariana Franco, 22, who was with her family en route to Santa Rosa Church, where her parents, Jose and Beatriz Franco, were Eucharist ministers and members of the church for twenty years. Two younger children, also in the car, were not injured.
Several parishioners showed up at the site later in the morning, including Isabel Rodriguez, who said the Francos had been part of her wedding at the church.
“They were very involved in the church,” said Rodriguez. “This is pure vandalism, by people who simply think of bad of stuff, and ‘boom ‘ ‘boom’, anyone of us is in danger.” Others noted the challenges the family already had and the tragedy of losing their much loved daughter, who had special needs and was wheel chair bound.
It was also noted a somewhat ironic twist, the Francos used to live almost in front of the home where they were shot at on Sunday, according to Al (who did not want to provide his last name), another neighbor who heard the shots.
“I used to see them passing by all the time (as they headed to church),” he said.
According to police, the Francos were shot after they pulled over to the side of the road.
“A car was driving erratically behind them. They thought the person was drunk and decided to pull over. The car pulled right next to them and then somebody starts shooting,” described San Fernando Police Chief Robert Parks.
That shooting, at 5:50 a.m., was one of three recorded in a span of an hour in the area of San Fernando, Sylmar and Pacoima.
At around 6:20, a man between 25 and 35-years-old was gunned down at Sylmar Recreation Center where he was picking up recyclables. His body laid on the ground next to the basketball court, covered with a sheet by late Sunday morning. No family appeared at the scene and it was speculated that he was homeless.
And around 6:45 a.m., 59-year-old Gloria Esperanza Tobar, was gunned down inside her vehicle while she waited along Fillmore Street to give someone a ride. She was parked close to the corner at Glenoaks in Pacoima and was headed to Guardian Angel Catholic Church where she also served as Eucharist minister.
“She was a God fearing person,” said Tobar’s niece, Lupe Flores, who showed up at the scene of the crime, where white sheets covered the back and front window of the tan-colored Toyota Camry Tobar was driving.
“People were waiting for her at the church and she never showed up,” Flores added.
Tobar had three children and six grandchildren, said Flores, who was as distraught and confounded as everyone else with the rash of shootings in the tight knit community early Sunday morning.
“We just don’t know what’s happening,” she said.
Residents gathered on street corners beyond the yellow taped barriers that police set up and throughout the day the sounds of police and media helicopters flew overhead. Families tried to keep their children indoors while others unsure about their safety sought refuge elsewhere. Parents were nervous and wondered whether they should consider keeping their kids home from school.
By Sunday afternoon, Sgt. Frank Preciado of the Los Angeles Police Department, confirmed the three shootings were perpetrated by the persons riding in the same vehicle and with the same weapon and sounded a note of alarm.
“It’s a major public threat,” Preciado said, but he noted the shootings “appeared to be random.”
Late that night, SWAT and police agents showed up at a Sylmar home where a man barricaded himself for nearly an hour.
On August 25 authorities identified Alexander Hernandez as a “person of interest” in the fatal drive-by shootings. On August 26, authorities began to build their case against him charging him with animal cruelty and other shootings prior to those in the Northeast Valley.