LOS ANGELES - In a classic urban nightmare, about a dozen gang members surrounded "a car full of children" that took a wrong turn in the dark, blocked the vehicle, then opened fire on the passengers.
Three-year-old Stephanie Kuhen was killed on a dead-end street early yesterday, Los Angeles police said. Her 2-year-old brother, Joseph, sitting in his infant car seat, was shot in the foot.
The driver, Timothy Stone, 25, was shot in the back in the ambush in the gang-ridden neighborhood he accidentally drove into as they returned from a barbecue.
Stephanie's mother, Robynn, 26; her brother Christopher, 5, and uncle David Dalton, 22, were unhurt.
Dalton's sister, Tina Dalton, said a bullet passed through the back of his baseball cap.
No arrests have been made in what police are calling a completely unprovoked ambush shooting by Latino gang members in Cypress Park, in northeast Los Angeles.
The area is plagued by battles among rival Latino gangs, police said, which is what made the shooting all the more perplexing.
"Clearly, they could look into the car and see male and female Caucasians and not Hispanics," said Los Angeles police Detective Robert Lopez. "You can see a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old and you can pretty much figure they're not going to threaten your life."
No one in the car had any gang affiliation, police emphasized.
"Street of Killers"
The deadly ambush started at about 1:45 a.m. yesterday when Stone, a family friend, was driving Robynn Kuhen and her children home from a barbecue, police and relatives explained.
"They were driving home and taking a shortcut," said Mike Fanning, the children's cousin. Stone "wasn't familiar with the area," he said, and turned onto a dark, narrow dead-end alley where neighbors say about a hundred gang members often hang out.
The road bears two signs: an official yellow traffic sign saying "Not a through street," and a graffiti warning in misspelled Spanish, spray-painted some time before yesterday's attack: "Avenida . . . assecinos" - Street of Killers.
Before Stone realized his error, someone threw a trash can at the car, said Fanning.
Stone made a U-turn and was heading out when 10 to 15 young Latino men moved into the street to block the car, hurling more trash cans in front of it, Fanning said.
Stone floored the accelerator to break through, said Lopez, and as the car lurched free, the gang members opened fire - three or four of them, according to relatives.
"We don't even call police"
"I made myself (get us out of there), flat tires and all," said Stone, looking pale and exhausted.
Stone drove the family to their home nearby. Joe Kuhen, an uncle to the children, said, "They just pulled up, the car was all shot full of holes, and they called an ambulance. A neighbor came and tried to do CPR" on Stephanie.
Stephanie and Christopher were sitting in the back seat between their mother and their uncle. Stephanie was struck in the head. She died at 2:30 a.m. at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
Her little brother Joseph was at the hospital in good condition.
Gunfire is a common occurrence on the dead-end street, said a neighbor who heard the incident but was fearful of giving his name.
"We don't even call the police anymore when we hear bullets," the man said. "There has to be a body for them to come."
Looking nervously at one of his two young sons, he said he often has both boys sleep in the bathroom, where stray bullets are less likely to strike.
"I heard a volley of gunfire," said one 62-year-old woman, who would only give her last name, Gonzalez. She said it is common for 100 or more gang members to congregate at night in the middle of the street, drinking, smoking or trying to persuade their girlfriends to wander off into an abandoned building nearby.
"These are kids without any brains," she said of the gang members.