Annenberg Media conducted the interviews and responses with the help of translation services provided by Monserrat Rodriguez Ortiz.
Thirty votive candles cluster the sidewalk where Efrain Moreno died. Some lit and filled with wax, others empty, charcoaled black from the burning wicks. They outnumber the years Moreno lived.
“RIP ACE” is spray painted on the curb. A dinosaur-shaped mirror has been nailed to the wooden utility pole. Rounding out the memorial is a bag of Lay’s Barbeque chips, a Modelo beer can, a bottle of Corona, and a large plastic bottle of strawberry melon Brisk.
In the first half of 2022, the city of Los Angeles recorded 181 homicides, on track to exceed the nearly 400 homicides reported last year. Boyle Heights, where Moreno lived his whole life and died, had the third highest homicide rates in the whole city, behind Vermont Knolls at second and downtown Los Angeles at first. The night that Moreno died, three others also lost their lives in L.A. County. This is the story of one man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, killed by gunfire.
The details in this account come from Moreno’s family and friends that were there the night he died. LAPD has yet to provide Annenberg Media with a requested copy of the police report.
Much of that night is a mystery, but what is clear is Moreno left an impact on his community and a legacy of an infectious smile gone too soon.
Moreno, who would have turned 24 next year on Valentine’s Day, grew up in Boyle Heights with two sisters and two older brothers. They lived in a pink house on Wabash Street for 10 years, and he played basketball with his sister Maricarmen Moreno in Wabash Park.
He lived his whole life in Boyle Heights - attending Evergreen Elementary School, Belvedere Middle School and rotating between three high schools. Moreno was born with hemipelagic cerebral palsy and lived with the condition for his 23 years of life.
He struggled with academics, said his mom, Blanca Patricia Sanchez. “Your son is very smart,” she remembered teachers telling her, “he just doesn’t want to learn.”
Moreno worked on construction sites with his dad since he was in high school. He wanted to be an X-ray technician, but dropped out in the final semester of 12th grade, leaving him with few options. So, he carried cement buckets with his dad. It was tough work, his older sister, Kimberly Vasquez, remembered. It motivated him to get another job working as a security guard.
On September 16, Moreno spent the whole day working construction with his dad, Efrain Moreno Galindo. In the afternoon, Galindo fell from a ladder and Moreno took him to the hospital.
By the time the long day had reached 9 p.m., Moreno hadn’t had any food.
That’s why he kept texting his longtime friend, Fernando Aguilera. “He was hungry. That whole day he was bugging me,” Aguilera recalled. His favorite was Jack-in-the-Box, and Moreno ordered a chicken sandwich and a chicken strips combo, and then headed to the 2500 block of Folsom to a friend’s house.
Blue, yellow and white houses encircle the intersection at Folsom and Mott streets. Aguilera, who was in the car when Moreno was shot, explained that the turn at the intersection is a little off. “You need to go pretty wide to make it work,” Aguilera said.
Moreno, driving his mom’s car, asked his friend for his sandwich. Aguilera said no and told him to park first since they were less than a block from their destination.
In the intersection, Moreno honked twice at a car that was about to hit his burgundy Honda Accord. In response, gunshots rang out. Moreno’s foot hit the gas pedal and the car sped west down Folsom Street. Aguilera wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and put his arms over his head as he prepared himself for impact. After the crash, he felt hot all over and began checking himself for blood.
“Luckily, I was good,” he said.
Aguilera got out of the car on the cool September night. He ran to the other side of the car to check on Moreno. His friend wasn’t moving. He had been shot in the back of his head behind his left ear.
Aguilera sent a text message in a group chat that changed everything.
Multiple neighbors came out of their houses to see what happened. Many tried to call the police, but were not able to get through, according to Aguilera. He said the police and ambulance didn’t arrive for 15 minutes, despite the Hollenbeck Community Police Station being less than a mile from Folsom and Mott.
Moreno lived with his mom down the street from where he died. They shared a one-bedroom apartment hidden behind a beauty salon and a cobbler. The front door opens to Sanchez’s bed on the left, the kitchen straight ahead, a bathroom on the far left, and Moreno’s room down the hallway on the right.
His dream was to get his mom out of Los Angeles. “Mom, we’re gonna get out of here,” she remembers him saying. In an interview alternating between Spanish and English, Sanchez said her son visited her after seeing his dad at the hospital that night. Moreno quickly went home to use the bathroom. “Close the door,” Sanchez remembers saying. She had just come home from her dialysis treatment and was exhausted.
“He loved food, huh. He would always be out with his friends eating,” his youngest sister, Maricarmen Moreno, said.
Cheeks, Rex, T-Rex, cacheton, cupid and dinosaur were among the many nicknames his family and friends had for him. “Dinosaur, where is my tree house? You promised me you’re going to be in my tree house,” said Gloria Hernández, one of Moreno’s childhood friends. He had promised her to make the tree house since she was a little girl.
Omar Gonzalez, who described their friendship as “an everyday thing,” remembers the rotating mix of restaurants the two would frequent. Moreno introduced Gonzalez to Korean barbecue, which quickly became their favorite.
Gonzalez is 29 and always looked at Moreno as a younger brother. Gonzalez said he was not exaggerating when estimating the two hung out every single day for four years. They had lost touch, but had just reconnected the weekend before and made plans to get Korean barbecue. He would not get a chance to say goodbye.
Gonzalez was at his home when his group chat lit up with the text. “He got a headshot,” it read. Angry, he called his friends looking for more information.
“I just remember, I just stood standing in my restroom window for, like an hour and a half calling different people just, like, maybe someone will tell me otherwise. The next day, I remember, I just passed through that shit, honestly, it made me sick to my stomach. He didn’t deserve that, man. He was really good kid.”
The LAPD believes the incident to be gang-related, according to officials quoted in the Boyle Heights Beat days after the shooting. The shooter fled the scene on September 16 and the case remains an ongoing investigation, LAPD PIO Officer Rosario Cervantes wrote in an email.
Aguilera said neither party was affiliated with local gangs.
Vasquez clearly remembered her mom calling her crying with the news. As she drove to her mom’s house, “I just was thinking it’s not him, you know, it’s an accident. They got mistaken.”
Sanchez said she hasn’t had a full night of sleep since her son died. She said it is a bit easier after her dialysis treatment because she is so tired. All of Moreno’s belongings are still down the hall from where Sanchez tries to get some rest.
“Once I’m here alone, I get really lonely and I cry,” Sanchez said. “I know that if I’m here one or two days alone, I’m just going to get really depressed.”
Aguilera hasn’t slept much either. He said he feels bad because Moreno just wanted his sandwich.
“There’s days I can’t sleep. It just comes back to me you know. We were just hungry,” Aguilera remembered.
Moreno’s funeral was held on October 18 at the Sepultura Rose Hills Cemetery. A GoFundMe, started by Vasquez, and a car wash organized by his friends, helped pay for funeral expenses. The car wash raised more than $8,000, with donations of money and food from community members.