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Stunned family and neighbors mourn slain child

The same driveway that played host to so many family parties -- including 4-year-old Roberto Lopez Jr.'s birthday celebration last month -- turned into a scene of sorrow Wednesday, a day after the boy was killed by shots fired at a red car driving through the neighborhood south of Echo Park.

Under a blue tarp suspended over the driveway, dozens of relatives, friends and neighbors formed a circle on the pavement, weeping and praying on the same spot where just a month ago Roberto Jr. blew out his birthday candles and broke his piñata.

His parents, Roberto Lopez and Araceli Gonzalez Lopez, who are due to have a fourth child at the end of the month, sat inconsolable with red-rimmed eyes. They remembered their boy who would proudly don cowboy boots and a felt sombrero to dance among the adults.

"He would dance in the living room. He would dance outside," said his grandfather, Serafin Gonzalez, 52, choking back tears. "He would dance everywhere."

The shooting shook up the gentrifying hillside neighborhood where, two years ago, a 9-year-old girl was killed by gang cross-fire as she stood in the kitchen of her home.

The Gonzalezes, a large, close-knit family, have become well-known in the neighborhood since moving to West Court Street from East L.A. four years ago. They are three generations living side by side in two duplexes: Serafin and his wife, their three grown children, their spouses and more than half a dozen grandchildren.

Neighbors drop by regularly for Herbalife demonstrations, they wave hello from the market down the street and are invited to family celebrations. Araceli is known for selling clothes at local swap meets and Roberto, who can't find work in construction, helps her with the clothing sales.

Neighborhood children run and play comfortably on the block because of a colorful cultural center and community park next to the Gonzalez home.

Family members were about to sit down for dinner about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday when they heard a popping noise in the distance. Roberto Jr., his siblings and cousins were standing outside the center. Serafin Gonzalez said they did not think much of the shots because "we get along with everyone in the neighborhood."

When his granddaughter rushed into the house screaming, "They hit Robert! They hit Robert," Serafin at first thought the children had gotten into a playful scuffle. But then, he said, his granddaughter cried, "There is blood in his mouth!"

Serafin rushed to his grandson's side and lifted his head.

"I cleaned the blood from his mouth so he wouldn't choke," he said between pauses. "I'm trying not to remember that moment. It's pain you just can't bear."

Mourners from the family's native town in Puebla, Mexico, streamed into the driveway to hug Serafin.

"O, padre. Perdon, padre," some said affectionately in Spanish. "Oh, father. I'm sorry, father."

Roberto Jr.'s father briefly emerged from inside the home, sobbing and cradled by relatives. He knelt on the sidewalk at the makeshift shrine assembled by the neighborhood for his son and carefully placed the boy's action figures -- a green Hulk and purple Power Ranger -- among the candles and flowers.

"I just want this to stop," he cried to himself. "Can't this just stop?"

Moments later, his wife, Araceli, pleaded with the police to find the killers.

"My son was only 4 years old," she said. "He was innocent."

Police said at least one person opened fire on a car driving down the street and one of the shots struck Roberto Jr. in the chest.

"We're throwing everything we have at this investigation," said Earl Paysinger, an assistant chief with the Los Angeles Police Department. Police said the shooters were targeting someone in the red car but cannot yet say if it was gang- related.

The neighbors, meanwhile, prepared for a gathering to pray the rosary at the Gonzales' home Wednesday night. They brought sweet bread and donations.

Operators of the cultural center and the neighborhood market posted announcements about the service.

"We need to take care of them and make sure they have everything they need during this difficult moment," said Edgar Jacinto, the market owner.

Police are asking anyone with information about the case to submit it anonymously to the LAPD website, www.lapdonline.org, or to call detectives at (800) LAWFULL or the Rampart station at (213) 484-3450.

esmeralda.bermudez

@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein

@latimes.com

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