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Saved by the cross

February 8, 2008 | 12:05 pm

 


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Feb. 6, 1958
Los Angeles

This was supposed to be a simple story, a story about second chances: A 75-cent crucifix saves the life of a teenage thief who is shot in the chest. Lying in his hospital bed, he exclaims: "I'm gonna reform!"

But life is rarely so simple. Instead, it's a story of East L.A. gangs, violence and murder.

His name was Elias Alvarado. He was 17 years old and lived at 3773 Princeton St. On the night he went into the Jewel Theater, he was on parole from the Fred C. Nelles School in Whittier with arrests for burglary, auto theft and assault with a deadly weapon.

According to an usher at the theater, Elias and three friends stole a purse belonging to Delia Gross, the wife of the theater manager, Loren Gross. The usher said he chased the four youths to the lobby, where Elias pulled a knife.

1958_0522_mugshots "We've been held up in the past and I've been assaulted by some guys in the theater, that's why I carry the gun," the usher said.

"I'm a very religious guy," Elias told the Mirror. "I had a beautiful gold crucifix but I lost it. Then about two months ago an old man came up to me in Laguna Park in East Los Angeles and sold me this one for 75 cents. I'm gonna reform. I've been religious before but what happened tonight taught me something. I'm gonna be even more religious from now on."

It's a nice story of redemption and second chances.

But it's not complete.

Elias said something else. He denied taking part in any purse-snatching. "All I know is that I heard a dame yelling and somebody grabbed me," he said. "It's dark inside a movie house, y'know."

At the time, that didn't seem to bother anyone. As far as The Times was concerned, Elias lived to repent and got a second chance.

But someone else also got a second chance that night: The usher at the Jewel Theater who shot Elias with a .32 semiautomatic. 

His name was Lorenzo Castro. He was 18 and lived at 9212 Abbotsford Road, Pico Rivera. On the night he shot Elias, he also had a record of arrests: for driving a car without the owner's permission and for carrying a concealed weapon. He too had been paroled -- from a state forestry camp.

You see, in the 1950s, the Jewel Theater, 3817 Whittier Blvd., was a hangout for the White Fence Gang, one of the city's oldest and most violent Eastside groups, according to The Times. In 1952, a couple of gang members jumped an off-duty LAPD officer when he asked them and their girlfriends to stop drinking and swearing. According to a 1953 Times story, the White Fence Gang hung out at the Fresno Street Playground, which was on Fresno near Olympic Boulevard. (I'm assuming it was about here).

Lorenzo wasn't charged with shooting Elias, but after that he had been harassed by the gang, he said. "Ever since that other time the White Fence Gang has been giving me a bad time. They've been pushing me around the theater," he said.

He said that on Feb. 23, a Sunday, some White Fence members had harassed him at the theater. On his 6 p.m. dinner break, Lorenzo and a friend, Ruben Ramos, 20, cruised East L.A. and at East 6th Street and Grande Vista, Lorenzo supposedly saw two of the gang members who had harassed him, police said.

Lorenzo and Ruben forced Gerald De La O, 14, and George Rodriguez, 13, into the car and drove up to Soledad Canyon. Once they arrived, Lorenzo told the two boys to get out of the car and start walking. When they were about 15 feet away, he ordered them to turn around and shot them. As they lay on the ground, Gerald kept moaning while George whispered for him to be quiet. Hearing the moaning, Lorenzo returned and shot Gerald again; then he fired at George, but missed.

Gerald died, but George, although wounded, survived by pretending to be dead. Once Lorenzo and Ruben left, George walked to get help and flagged down a truck driver.

Police said Lorenzo had prepared an elaborate alibi to cover his story in the shootings. According to The Times, police and sheriff's deputies said gangs played no role in the fatal kidnapping. Neither suspect  was a gang member, police said. George's family also said he wasn't in a gang. The Times says nothing about whether Gerald was a gang member, so we don't know.

Lorenzo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Ruben was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to five years to life. He was deported to Mexico in 1962. A Catholic when he entered prison, Ruben became a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in 1971 asked the Governor's Board of Executive Clemency to allow him to return to the U.S. so he could have his marriage recognized at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

Did Elias really pull a knife the night he was shot? Did Lorenzo have a reason to shoot him or was he just a gun-crazy youth? We don't know because The Times never wrote anything further about Elias Alvarado, George Rodriguez or Lorenzo Castro. We can only hope that they took advantage of their second chances.

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