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Arrest Made in Killing That Shook San Francisco Neighborhood

June 28, 1996

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A suspect has been arrested in an apparently random slaying of a couple walking in a park, police said today.

It was the first Sunday afternoon of summer, when a gunman, coolly, precisely and without warning, shot two young lovers to death, then walked away chuckling. The site was Precita Park on the city’s southern edge _ a handful of scrawny trees on a patch of yellowing grass, a tiny playground at one end.

Police issued a news release this morning saying a suspect had been arrested. No other details were being released pending a late-morning news conference.

The killings of 15-year-old Sylvia Menendez and 18-year-old Carlos Hernandez exposed a nerve in a tightly knit neighborhood that had prided itself on winning its battle against crime.

Residents for years had rallied around Precita Park, a onetime gang hangout known as ``Needle Park,″ because of the drug users it attracted. Investigators said there was nothing to indicate gangs or drugs were involved in the killings, which happened in front of dozens of witnesses.

``We worked so hard to make it a better place, we really cleaned it up,″ said Larry Gabriel, a stockbroker who recalls cringing when heard the gunfire _ at least five shots _ from his back yard.

``It’s so hard to shake from your mind,″ he said during a neighborhood meeting held Wednesday in a church basement. ``I hope they find something that’s rational about this.″

Gabriel wasn’t alone. Many in the neighborhood struggled with their own theories.

``The guy must be crazy. I hear he IS crazy,″ said Jose Solis, sitting on a curb at the park’s edge. ``It can happen anywhere, anytime _ you never really know anymore.″

The suspect, described as a heavyset man in his 40s, was collecting cans in the park before he approached the couple, who were lounging beneath a tree, witnesses said. He talked to the pair briefly, then fired at Hernandez, they said. When Menendez reached over to protect her boyfriend, she was shot.

The victims were described as devoted to each other. Members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, they worshipped and sang in the choir together. Sylvia, friends said, was a bright ninth grader; Carlos had recently graduated high school and planned to become a pastor.

Carlos’ mother, Berta Hernandez, attended a vigil for the victims on Wednesday. Barely able to speak above her tears, the woman thanked scores of people who paid tribute with flowers, candles and tiny wooden crosses.

``I hope one day (the killer) will realize what a mistake he has made. Then God will forgive him,″ Hernandez said.

Aside from a composite drawing of the killer, officers say they have few leads in the case, no motive and no suspects. And the brazenness of the crime makes it all the more perplexing.

``To walk up in front of 200 people at 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, execute them, then calmly walk across the park, put the gun in his waist band, (and) chuckle. ... That I think is the thing that really frightens people,″ police Capt. Michael Dower said.

Among those still frightened was a young man who wandered the park Wednesday, asking people what they knew of the crime. He had watched the killings, he said, and couldn’t erase the terrifying memory.

He said the sudden gunfire had paralyzed everyone in the park.

``No one moved for a few minutes. I thought, `What a sick, sick joke.′ It took me a few minutes more to figure out it was real,″ said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

``I’m still dealing with it,″ he said. ``I haven’t even called to tell my parents. I don’t know what to say.″

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