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Friends and family morn the loss of Richard Juarez in front of the Thelma Terry Center at Virginia Avenue Park on Wednesday. Juarez was shot and killed Tuesday night after leaving the park's Teen Center with friends. Police apprehended four suspects. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PICO NEIGHBORHOOD — A 20-year-old Santa Monica man was fatally shot Tuesday night at Virginia Avenue Park in what police called a “brazen” attack that could be gang related.

Richard Juarez, a graduate of Olympic High School whose family has lived in Santa Monica for four generations, was attacked by two men as he and three friends left the Virginia Avenue Park Teen Center around 9 p.m. after participating in an art class, said Frank Juarez, the victim’s uncle.

Santa Monica Fire Department paramedics were called to the scene, but Juarez was dead on arrival, police said. No other injuries were reported.

“He was a loving son … who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, which is kind of hard for us to understand how Virginia Park at nine o’clock can be the wrong place at the wrong time,” Frank Juarez said. “He loved life. … he liked people and people liked him as soon as they met him.”

A police officer who was in a marked police car just a block from the shooting heard the shots and responded to the scene. He saw the two suspects running from the park toward a vehicle occupied by two other men. The officer drove behind the vehicle and arrested the two occupants. The alleged shooters continued running on foot south onto 22nd Street.

One of the suspects was found shortly after, hiding under a van during a K9 search. The other suspect was found hiding in the rear yard of a vacant home.

Detectives would not release the names of the suspects as the investigation is still ongoing. Anyone with information is urged to contact the SMPD’s Criminal Investigations Division at (310) 458-8451 or the watch commander at (310) 458-8427 (24 hours). Those wishing to remain anonymous may call the We-Tip hotline at (800) 78-CRIME (27463).

Detectives on Wednesday were not prepared to label the shooting gang related, however, officers were on heightened alert Tuesday night and notified park employees about the possibility of violence following a murder in Venice in which an African-American male was shot and killed while walking in an alley off Westminster Avenue, said Santa Monica Police Department Sgt. Dave Hunscke.

SMPD Chief Timothy Jackman placed additional officers in the Pico Neighborhood as a precaution, which is why the officer in the marked car was stationed at 21st Street and Pico. His patrol car’s camera captured the two suspects running from the scene.

“This was about the most brazen attack as I have ever seen,” Jackman said. “Those suspects had to have walked by that [officer]. They ran right in front of him [after the shooting].”

Those who knew Richard Juarez said he was not a gang member but may have had friends who were. Oscar de la Torre, a school board member and executive director of the Pico Youth & Family Center, which provides after school programs, counseling and job training for at risk youth, said his staff had a meeting with Richard Juarez roughly two weeks ago to express their concerns about some of the people he was hanging out with. de la Torre said Richard Juarez, a fan of classic cars who enjoyed drawing, was looking to make positive changes in his life.

“We had this young man within our reach, but unfortunately it was too little too late,” de la Torre said.

It is believed that Richard Juarez may have been targeted along with his friends simply because of the clothes they were wearing.

“There is an important message to get out to the youth … if you look like you are gang involved, even if you are not, your life is at risk,” de la Torre said. “He was a polite young man with a good heart … . His exterior did not reflect his interior.

“People will say that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but unfortunately in L.A. if you are a young man of color you are in the wrong place all the time.”

de la Torre said he is trying to convene a meeting with Venice activists to address gang violence and make sure no more violence ensues.

“We just hope this doesn’t escalate,” he said.

Several friends and family members of Richard Juarez gathered at the Pico Youth & Family Center Wednesday to talk about the shy, but friendly young man who served as a teacher’s assistant at Olympic.

“He loved to laugh,” said Laura Alexander, a teacher at Olympic who spent considerable time with Richard Juarez. “He loved to draw. He was very loyal. He had a lot of friends and would often spend time after school helping out. He was really just one of the nicest kids. He always had a huge smile.”

Frank Juarez said he can’t understand how his nephew could have been killed right in front of a SMPD Substation at the park. He also questioned City Hall’s response to calls from Pico residents for more youth programs to keep kids away from gangs.

Frank Juarez is related to Michael and Anthony Juarez, two brothers who were shot and killed in a violent attack at a clothing store on Lincoln Boulevard in 1998.

“We question how this murder could happen right under their noses,” he said. “Instead of addressing it, it seems the city shrinks from it and uses more police to get to it instead of working with the community closer. It is very disheartening.”

Another Santa Monica resident, Miguel Martin, 22, was shot and killed near the substation in December 2006.

Because of budget cuts, Jackman said he had to pull officers from the substation and put them on the streets where they could be more proactive and have a greater impact on crime. Officers on occasion open the substation to file reports and will assist residents if they approach them there.

“I don’t know how I was supposed to stop that,” Jackman said of the shooting, given that he placed additional officers in the Pico Neighborhood the night of the attack. “I think the city reacted as well as we could. The brazenness of this attack was something we don’t see very often … . It had nothing to do with the substation being closed.”

Jackman will continue to deploy more officers in the Pico Neighborhood for the time being and his detectives are working closely with Santa Monica College police and the Los Angeles Police Department. There will also be more police on hand at the Santa Monica High School football game this Friday against Inglewood. There was a non-fatal stabbing at SMC’s Corsair Field earlier this season after a Samohi football game.

“We are working with the school district and the park to make sure all kids are as safe as possible,” the chief said.

Human Resources Manager Julie Rusk said City Hall dedicates roughly $25 million a year to youth programs that include job training, the arts, sports and gang intervention through the Night Bridges program. Rusk, who lives near where the shooting occurred and has a son attending a local school, said she is concerned on a personal level.

“We are doing a lot of good things, but when something tragic like this happens it feels like it’s never enough,” Rusk said. “Our focus now is on trying to support the family and the kids and help them make sense of this.”