Locals are in shock after the murder of 19-year-old Patrick Caruthers, which took place Tuesday afternoon.
Caruthers, who had special needs, was sitting on a bench at the Jackie Tatum/Harvard Recreation Center, where he'd been a volunteer and fixture for years, when someone ran up to him from behind and gunned him down. He died at the scene.
Locals and police alike say Caruthers wasn't involved in gangs. Although LAPD Detective Chris Barling described the shooting to the L.A. Times as "something a gang member would do," Detective Stacey Szymkowiak with the LAPD's 77th Street Division says the gang element in the case is, so far, unclear.
"The suspects may be gang members but the victim is not," she said, suggesting it was a case of mistaken identity.
Phillip Rawls was sitting at the park on Wednesday morning. He grew up in the area and said this kind of violence was an anomaly.
"There's not a lot of gang violence in this area," he said. "So that's really what's so surprising – especially right here at the park." In his 25 years in the neighborhood, Rawls said he's never heard of or seen a killing in the park.
He echoed police in saying Caruthers wasn't involved with gangs, and said he was probably shot because "he's a black kid and they saw his back and figured he was a gang member."
"They just shot a boy in the back," Rawls said, referring to the shooter. "The boy wasn't facing the street, and the [shooter] doesn't even know who he shot. They just saw an opportunity to catch somebody slipping, as they say."
A makeshift memorial had been set up at the park bench where Caruthers was killed. A sign read "I am innocent; I am defenseless; I am harmless; I am a child of God; I am Patrick."
In 2005, Caruthers met Jeremy Yorke, who at the time was working at the park as the recreation coordinator. Yorke said Caruthers was like a son to him, and that when they met, Caruthers was being bullied for having special needs.
"I basically worked with him on school, life, developing confidence," said Yorke. "We'd meet every day. I'm talking seven days a week, 24-7. The only time we were separated was when he was in school and when we went to sleep."
Yorke said the same day Caruthers was killed he'd gotten a couple phone calls from prospective employers who were interviewing Caruthers and looking to hire him. They both told Yorke that Caruthers had described him as his mentor.
"To that community, Patrick was the face of Harvard Park," Yorke said. "You can't go to Harvard Park and not know Patrick." He said Caruthers was always at the park before the staff arrived at 9 a.m. and when they left at 9 p.m.
"If it weren't for school, [he'd be at] that park, and at the park, he was at peace," he said. "When a kid's just trying to be normal and trying to live a civil lifestyle even though he gets bullied in school at times and things like that, when he came to that park, he was like God."
The park, said Yorke, was Caruther's "life and heaven and place of peace."
"All day, 24-7, he was with me," Yorke said. "He was with me, man. That was my partner."
Szymkowiak said this shooting can be taken as evidence that the area's gangs are becoming more emboldened, even though for the most part, Harvard Park's crime rate has remained steady.
For now, all detectives know is that the shooter is male and fled the scene in a compact car. Anyone with information can anonymously call (800) 222-TIPS or text TIPLA (84752). As of press time, the LAPD had not requested that Councilman Bernard Parks, whose district was the site of the shooting, offer a monetary reward for information leading to the capture of the gunman.