Measuring to find Robles' grave. Robles died with police handcuffs shackled to his left wrist.
  • Measuring to find Robles' grave. Robles died with police handcuffs shackled to his left wrist.
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One hundred thirty-five San Diegans were murdered in 1990. More than 100 of those deaths occurred south of Interstate 8 and were concentrated in the neighborhoods such as Barrio Logan, Southeast San Diego, City Heights, and the border area. But if San Diego has a killing field, it's that rectangular swath of real estate with its western boundary on downtown's Tenth Avenue, extending two miles east to 30th Street.

29th and Imperial — center of the city’s rock cocaine traffic

Market Street is the northern boundary of this deadly parcel; its southern limit runs along the Commercial Street trolley tracks, just six blocks south of Market. Eleven men and one woman were murdered inside that rectangle last year, the targets of gang violence, drug disputes, and domestic abuse. The youngest victim was 16 years old, the oldest was 69. At least three were the recipients of a bullet or knife blade meant for someone else.

Tomas, Rudolph, Cosme Luque. Tomas' family didn’t realize he was missing until the hotel’s deskman called them.

Nine Hispanics and two blacks died on these streets. One victim was white. Only one of the killers or suspects was white; he was an on-duty police officer who shot an armed purse-snatcher. Handguns were used in seven of the murders, knives in three. One victim was hammered to death, another was assaulted and struck his head on a curb.

Ernest Sharp. Sharp insisted that dealer Daniel Vazquez take a woman’s wristwatch as payment for two chunks of cocaine.

Drugs were a common thread in the murders. Toxicology tests performed by the county coroner revealed traces — or substantial amounts — of alcohol, cocaine, morphine, methamphetamine, alone or in combination, in the bloodstreams of nine victims.

Sammy Santos, standing, left. One of the bullets pierced Santos’s heart and lung.

“It all comes down to drugs,” says San Diego police officer Bret Righthouse. He patrols an area around Imperial Avenue that includes 29th Street, the center of the city’s rock cocaine traffic. Three men were shot or stabbed to death last summer near that corner, making it the single deadliest spot in San Diego in 1990.

Rock cocaine. Crack cocaine dealers on Imperial Avenue prefer cash transactions.

Righthouse says the gang-related killings in the south-of-Market Street rectangle are also tied in with drugs. “The only purpose of a gang is drugs,” he says bluntly. “A gang isn’t something you join to be cool. That was the 1950s.

Billy Helton, 1989. Three months before he was murdered, Helton sent his mother a letter from the Donovan Prison.

"They’re in it for money, and the only way they make money is illegal activity, and drugs are the most profitable illegal activity. So drive-by gang shootings are over the sale of drugs. They shoot each other up because they want them out of their territory.”

Numbers on map correspond to each of the victims described below.

But Captain George Saldamondo says the murder pattern inside the rectangle is more complicated. He sees the area as three distinct neighborhoods, each with its own set of problems;

• The blocks between 10th Avenue and 16th Street are now home to transients displaced by the new hotels and office buildings in the city’s downtown core. Some of these homeless commit crimes to support their drug or alcohol habits, but they’re also vulnerable to the gun-carrying drug dealers and tough undocumented migrants who steal, rob, and sometimes murder.

• The dangerous trades of alien smuggling, prostitution, and narcotics trafficking intensify in the central portion of the rectangle, between 16th and 25th streets. Latino gangs have a heavy presence in that area, where another group — mainly undocumented migrants — are sometimes the victims of drug-addict thieves.

• Though the Latino gangs are extending their turf eastward, Saldamondo says black gangs and drug dealers were responsible for more of the crime and murders that occurred last year on the blocks between 25th and 30th streets.

Homicide detectives have arrested suspects in 6 of the 12 murder cases. That 50 percent rate is on par with their efforts throughout the city as a whole in 1990, when they arrested the culprits in approximately one half of San Diego’s 135 murders.

But killings within the downtown rectangle can be especially difficult to solve. A description of the car driven by a murderer is often hard to get because the shootings or knifings happen so quickly and because the killers frequently drive stolen vehicles. “You’ll get a description like ‘four black males in a two-door sedan,’ ” explains Officer Righthouse. “Maybe you’ll find it 30 minutes later abandoned in an alley on J Street. It’s a stolen car, so the license plates and registration don’t help. And good fingerprints are usually hard to get. It’s not like on TV.”

Some of the murderers flee to Mexico, where they can avoid capture. Getaways are made easier by the abundance of freeways and public transportation in the area. The San Diego Trolley, for example, snakes down 12th Avenue to Imperial as it picks up passengers on its frequent trips to the border. Buses depart from downtown in all directions. Four major freeways — interstates 5 and 15 and highways 94 and 163 — run into or alongside the rectangle. “People can get in and out of this area very easily,” says homicide Lt. Dan Berglund.

Gang shootings are especially hard to solve because the victim’s fellow gang members seldom talk with authorities. “The code is, you don’t cooperate and you don’t testify,” explains Deputy District Attorney James Fitzpatrick, who prosecutes gang murders. “You take care of matters yourself.” Bystanders who’ve witnessed the crime are often mum too, but for a different reason. According to Officer Righthouse, “People in the community don’t want to get involved because they’re scared they’ll be the next victim of the next drive-by shooting.”

The following summaries describe the 12 homicides that occurred within San Diego’s deadly 120-square-block rectangle during 1990. The information was gathered from police and court sources, witnesses, and families of the victims.


January 14: 10th Avenue and Market Street, Tomas Jordan Luque

A human fist and a concrete street curb killed last year’s first and perhaps most innocent victim, Tomas Jordan Luque. The 69-year-old pensioner lived in a $65-dollar-a-week room at the Workman Hotel, at 13th and J streets. He liked eating at downtown’s cheap cafes, and he’d just finished dinner at Los Panchos Taco Shop when he walked into the path of the two men who murdered him.

It’s unclear why the husky young black man hit Luque in the face. Police reports indicate that Luque and the unidentified young suspect “exchanged angry words” outside the restaurant near Tenth and Market, and his son says Luque might have known one of two men who were arguing that night. But Luque’s brother says the retired postal worker avoided feuds. “He was just a happy-go-lucky guy who was friendly to everybody,” says Cosme Luque, who believes Tomas was pummeled when he refused his attacker’s demand for money. Tomas apparently lurched forward and cracked his head on the curb, which knocked him unconscious.

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