By Jennifer Clark, 15, City of Angels School
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Photo by Cindy Mojica, 16, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. 

Paul Anthony Perez, 17, was shot to death in Whittier in 1998, the same day his baby was born. His grave, which describes him as a son, brother, father and husband-to-be, hints at the loss of the loved ones he left behind.

Since I’d heard so much about violence, I wanted to learn about it up close and personal. I wanted to see what happened after the gun went off. I wanted to learn not just how teens died, but who they were. With another LA Youth reporter, Katrina Gibson,  I started to look into it. First we picked a month in 1998—January. We went to the county Health Services Department and looked up the death certificates of all the teens that were killed that month. There were 15 total, 14 boys and one girl. Most of the youth were Latino and a few were black. I felt empty and unnerved when I saw how many had died. And nobody really noticed their deaths. They just became another homicide counted up by the Coroner’s Office.

Why did these youth have to die?

The death certificates contained only minimal information on each teens. There were so many unanswered questions. Why were they killed? Were they gang members? Did they know the murderers? How could we find the murderers? Would they be remorseful?

Our research took months. We contacted the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office to try to get more information. We found out which police department investigated each murder, and we played phone tag with many police officers. We learned that most of these cases were unsolved and that suspects had not been arrested.

Then we had to write to each teen’s family, in English and Spanish, requesting an interview. Those letters were difficult to write. There we were, complete strangers, asking these families to share their child’s life with us. After we mailed the letters, some came back—the families had moved. Others didn’t respond. We tried calling information, but the phone numbers were disconnected.

Finally I started getting some information

Finally Katrina was able to interview family members of Anthony Escobedo. Then I got my big break. Chuck Drylie, an officer at the Whittier police department, said he would talk to me about a teen named Paul Anthony Perez. But first, he said I should call the Whittier Daily news, and find out more about another teen named David Yanez. This boy would lead me to Paul.

I talked to Sue Marquez at the Whittier Daily News, and she sent me some old newspaper articles about David. Apparently he was an 18-year-old who had just started working at a gas station when he was shot. The newspaper articles said Paul was suspected of killing him. His aunt was quoted, saying Paul was a gang member.

When I interviewed Officer Drylie, the picture of Paul got worse. His body had been found early in the morning of Sunday, January 25, 1998. He was slumped in the passenger side of a stolen black Honda. Drylie described his appearance: baggy khaki pants, a white long-sleeved shirt under a black long-sleeved shirt, a shaved head, a pencil-thin mustache and pointy beard that Drylie called a “stinger.” He sure sounded like a gang member to me.

‘You never get used to it’

Drylie said he had personally investigated the scene. “You never get used to it. To see any 17-year-old dead with gunshot wounds to the head is not something you want to see,” he said.

After the interview, I went over to the street in Whittier where Paul was killed. I lost it for a moment, looking at the tranquil residential street, lined with trees. It didn’t seem like a violent place.

Then I asked Sue Marquez for anything else that had appeared in the Whittier Daily News on Paul. She sent me all she had. I discovered that Paul had a girlfriend who had given birth to their child the same day he died. I learned that Paul’s family had threatened to sue the Whittier Police Department, saying that the police didn’t bother to try to find Paul’s killer because Paul was a suspect in the death of David Yanez. (Drylie denied this. He said “Regardless of who died … we try and handle every homicide exactly the same way.”)

At that point I was desperate to find the family. I hated that LA Youth’s readers were only going to see the most negative side of Paul, the violent teen stereotype we see on the news all the time. I tried to find Paul’s girlfriend, but there was nothing. Finally I reached Paul’s grandmother. She put me through the Spanish Inquisition, asking me in an intimidating voice who I was and what I was doing. I explained the concept of this articles about a million times, but I didn’t get anywhere.

Then I discovered another Perez number, and actually talked to Paul’s sister Marlene. She was very nice and sincere. She said she and her mom would talk, but when I called back, she had changed her mind. “We’re trying to put this behind us … we feel that it is best that we not talk to you.”

Are gang members evil?

So all I got was newspaper clippings and the point of view of Officer Drylie, who told me, “It’s a jungle out there … flat outright violence homicides perpetrated by youth …” Despite gang members being violent, I had always figured that they were normal people with feelings just like you and me. Drylie, however, viewed violent teens and gang members as heartless, completely cold to others’ suffering. He blamed some of these teens’ behavior on their parents. He said some parents do not even know how their kids spend their time; they don’t even know what their child’s bedroom looks like.” Gangs commit destruction … they don’t do charity work,” he said. Maybe Drylie’s point of view is correct. He sees violence on daily basis, while I do not. 

I’ll never know who Paul Perez was

In this article, I couldn’t help but focus on the bad part of Paul: he was a gangster suspected of killing another teens. We took a picture of Paul’s gravestone, and it hinted of all the love his family had for him, but that’s all I can give you: hints and guesses. There’s about a million questions unanswered. What was Paul really like? I don’t know. How is it possible for me (or anyone else) to change stereotypes about teens, when the only information available comes from people who really didn’t know the teens that well, such as the police and the Coroner’s Office? The only way you can find the truth is getting both sides of the story.

In a way, it doesn’t matter if Paul was a gangster or not. When you read the list of the 15 teens who were killed in January, 1998, it ought to make you mad. It doesn’t matter if these youth were “good” or “bad.” Either way, teen violence needs to stop. We should never accept people being killed so young. Teen homicides shouldn’t be normal. As Scott Carrier at the Coroner’s office told me, “We don’t need the business.”