The Nickerson Gardens Housing Project in South Los Angeles has a long history of violent criminals terrorizing law-abiding citizens. Gangs that claim ownership of the area have drilled in the idea of fear to keep residents from acting as witnesses to crimes, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Those crimes include a 2010 murder that remains unsolved.
Oscar Cornejo, 34, was arriving home around 2 a.m. on Saturday, July 24, 2010 when LAPD South Bureau Homicide detectives say he was approached by five men.
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"As he's approaching his front door," Det. Jason Turner recalled, "a group of five male blacks are hanging out over here by the baseball field and they start walking up close to him."
Turner said Cornejo ducked his head as if to avoid a confrontation.
“The guy in the middle walks up to Oscar, and at that point in time the suspect produces a pistol, presses it against his head and basically executes him,” Turner said.
As Cornejo fell to the ground, the shooter fired two more shots before running away with the group. While police believe some 15 to 20 people were standing by and watching the scene unfold, no one has come forward with the information needed to catch the killer.
“We’re hoping that since time has passed, the people that did that might be less scary,” Turner said. “They might be in jail. They might have moved and now people might be willing to talk.”
With Nickerson Gardens’ history, however, it could be harder to get that information than police even think. The area has been under siege by local gangs claiming “control” and threatening residents who attempt to become witnesses.
“We need bravery from within this neighborhood,” Turner said. “You have to take ownership of where you live. This may not be where you want to live forever, but you’re here now and you can make a difference now and make your neighborhood better.”
Cornejo’s family understands the fear more than most. Just one day after the shooting, his wife and four kids moved out of the complex to the sounds of sneers and jeers and neighbors calling them “cowards.”
“It’s the worst thing that could ever happen,” Cornejo’s mother, Maria says, “I spend every day at the cemetery.”
Maria said she relives her son’s death every day, imagining the man who put the pistol against her son’s temple and fired those rounds without as much as a hint of humanity.
She believes the group of men who approached her son that night eight years ago are part of the gang that “controls” Nickerson Gardens.
“They live there,” she said.
Her hope is that someone will have the courage to come forward – even anonymously – so police can make an arrest.
“I want justice,” she said. “That’s all.”
LAPD South Bureau Homicide is asking anyone with information on the case to come forward. Callers can dial into 323-786-5113 or submit anonymous tips to 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).