Car wash slaying frays nerves in west Houston
Ground zero of west Houston's current crime scare is a car wash owned by a former Houston Oiler. It was here, Aug. 5, that 64-year-old Rolando Rivas was gunned down, allegedly by four teenage Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
Speakers at a recent Houston West Chamber of Commerce luncheon and numerous others at a heated public forum Wednesday night cited the slaying as the final, frustrating straw. Getting hard numbers on Katrina-related crimes other than homicides is difficult, but Mayor Bill White continued the tough talk when asked about the issue Thursday.
"Anybody who comes in here who has the intent to commit a crime," he said, "they'll know that in Houston, Texas, we don't tolerate that, and you're likely to wind up with a criminal record and in jail."
At City Hall, council members who represent the area acknowledged that constituents have complained about crime, particularly among evacuees.
"From my perspective, we have to find a solution to the crime problem. I don't know exactly what's causing it," said Councilwoman Pam Holm, whose district includes the venue of the Wednesday night forum. "Last night it was really clear that the community wants the problem solved, and we're going to be addressing it."
Jim Murphy, president of the Westchase District, a business alliance, said residents are especially frustrated because his group had warned city officials for two years about the need for more police.
"The manpower shortage was exposed when we had an influx in population and a demand for police services," said Murphy, who was at that meeting.
Houston Police Officers' Union President Hans Marticiuc echoed those concerns.
"The real 800-pound gorilla is the staffing," he said. "Everything goes back" to that.
Westside business owners interviewed Thursday said the neighborhood had its share of crime before Hurricane Katrina. But they link a spike in robberies, burglaries and street-level drug dealing to an influx of evacuees into low-income apartments.
"It's not like this was a sacred place," said a convenience store owner who would identify himself only as Sam. "My store was robbed before the evacuees, but I was robbed four times in December."
Rivas was ambushed about 6 a.m. at the car wash in the 11000 block of Briar Forest as his wife, Ivonne, witnessed from inside the car. At least one of the four teenage suspects shot Rivas during a robbery attempt, police said. Rivas pleaded for his life, saying he did not have money, but the men shot him and ran away.
Rivas, 64, a U.S. citizen who came from Guatemala 25 years ago, had become increasingly concerned about safety in the months before he was killed, family members said. He and his wife moved from their apartment of nine years after the dynamics of their old complex became more chaotic with an influx of evacuees.
"He was very concerned about his safety," said a nephew, Francisco Sotomayor, who lives in another Texas city. "That's why he was washing his car early in the morning. He thought it would be safer than doing it at night."
On Thursday, Sotomayor helped Rivas' widow move from their upscale, gated complex to a new city, where she hopes to start anew.
"I need to move away because I'm scared now," she said. "They have robbed me of my love and my security."
The day after the shooting, police arrested three suspects in connection with Rivas's death.
In the months before the slaying, the coin-operated car wash and nearby parking lot of an auto parts store at Lakeside Estates and Briar Forest had become a gathering place for young men who appeared to walk to and from a nearby apartment complex, said HPD homicide investigator Roy Swainson.
Car wash customers had complained that the men would approach offering to wash cars. When customers declined, he said, many young men would ask if they wanted to buy drugs.
The encounters sometimes resulted in armed robberies, said Jesus Delgado, an assistant manger of the auto parts store.
Rivas, he said, was a regular customer, and a friend.
"They had to kill someone for (police) to finally take action," Delgado said. "That's wrong when this has been going on since last year."
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