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Racial tensions high in Riverside after slaying of ROTC student

March 5, 2012 |  1:46 pm

Lareanz SimmonsRelatives of a Riverside high school freshman who was shot and killed near his grandmother’s house pleaded on Monday for the public's help to solve the seemingly random murder.

Lareanz Simmons, 14, was killed on the evening of Feb. 23 by a young Latino gunman who stepped out of a car, walked up to him and opened fire. The shooting breaks years of relative calm in an area of Riverside that has a history of violent clashes between rival black and Latino gangs.

Racial tensions have escalated sharply since the shooting occurred in Riverside's eastside neighborhood, where police have responded to an apparent uptick in shootings and confiscated an increasing number of firearms being stockpiled by parolees and crime suspects, authorities said.

Investigators said Simmons, who was African American, was a good student and had no gang ties. The freshman was a member of the Junior ROTC program at Riverside’s Poly High School, and had dreams of joining the military or becoming a police officer, said his grandmother Bernice Hobdy.

"Whoever did this, they don’t know what they’ve done. They’ve hurt the whole family. You can’t describe the pain," Hobdy said. "It could happen to you. It could happen to your son. Whoever did this, I don't know how you just could just jump out of a car and shoot someone that you don’t even know, that's never hurt anyone."

Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz during a Monday morning press conference asked for the public's help to identify the suspects in the shooting, saying there was a $50,000 reward for information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of the killer.

Diaz said the department's gang unit, patrol officers and SWAT team have saturated the neighborhood, searching the homes of parolees and interviewing known gang members. Solving the murder is a priority not only because Simmons’ family deserves justice, Diaz said, but also to calm the rising tensions in the neighborhood.  

"We don’t know why Lareanz was killed," Diaz said. "As long as we don’t know, and the community doesn’t know, there are a lot of community tensions out there … We are seeing what appears to be an increasing number of suspects carrying weapons and stockpiling weapons and ammunitions in their homes."

Woodie Rucker-Hughes, head of the local NAACP chapter, said violence and gang activity in Riverside’s eastside neighborhood had been on the decline in the past few years, with black and Latino community leaders working together to address any lingering racial animosities.

"It had reached a point where there was a calm, which we enjoyed. But we were always cognizant that there would be some out there -– I call them knuckleheads –- who wanted to keep a schism between black and brown," Rucker-Hughes said. "It’s tense now. There are more shootings in the neighborhood. Something is brewing."

Simmons was shot as he was walking down Georgia Street to his grandmother’s house around dusk, heading back home after borrowing a video game from a friend. When he was about a half-block away, a midsized tan, gray or bronze car drove up beside him and the suspect jumped out of a passenger-side door. He walked up to Simmons, who witnesses said backed away from the assailant, raised a handgun and fired five or six shoots, police said.

Simmons managed to stagger back to his grandmother’s driveway, where he collapsed. He remained on life support for several days before he died.

Det. Ron Sanfilippo said investigators are pursuing several leads in the case but at this point have no suspects. Detectives are trying to determine if the shooting may have been related to a gang initiation or retaliation for another incident, but all the evidence gathered thus far indicates that Simmons was a random target, he said.

"We know somebody knows who did this. They just need to come forward and let the police know and get this person off the street," said Sanfilippo. "A shooter like that who takes out a 14-year-old who is not involved in gangs is more of a coward than anything else."

Police are urging anyone with information to contact the police at (951) 353-7105 or, for those who wish to remain anonymous, to contact the We Tip hotline at (800) 782-7463.


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-- Phil Willon in Riverside

Photo: Lareanz Simmons. Credit: Riverside Police Department.