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People & Events: The Sleepy Lagoon Murder

courthouseA star from on high, falls out of the sky, and slowly grows dimmer.
"Sleepy Lagoon," music by Jack Lawrence

The Sleepy Lagoon was the larger of two reservoirs used to irrigate crops on the Williams ranch in rural Los Angeles, in what is now Bell, California. For many young people in the area, it was a swimming hole by day and a lover's lane by night. The reservoir, nicknamed after a popular song of the times, was frequented mostly by Mexican American kids who were often denied access to city-owned recreation facilities. On August 1, 1942 the Sleepy Lagoon became part of Los Angeles history when the murder of a young man on the Williams ranch resulted in a violent clampdown by the police against Mexican American young people.

The night of August 1, 1942, began with romance and ended in death. In the early evening several young couples from Los Angeles' 38th Street neighborhood arrived at the Sleepy Lagoon to spend some time together. Among the couples were Hank Leyvas and Dora Barrios. Hank was one of the oldest boys that spent time on 38th Street, and was feared and respected by many. Dora was his girlfriend. As they sat in their car, under the light of a waning full moon, they were suddenly and viciously attacked by a group of boys from a rival neighborhood. Hank and Dora were beaten mercilessly.

Hank LeyvasLater that night an injured Hank returned to 38th Street and gathered reinforcements. Finding people to accompany him was not difficult. Hank was immensely popular and the boys they were going after had violated an unwritten rule by beating Hank's girlfriend Dora. Close to thirty young people -- boys and girls -- piled into cars and headed for the Sleepy Lagoon.

That same night José Díaz, born in Mexico but raised in the United States, had decided to attend a birthday party on the Williams ranch where he and other immigrant families worked and lived. José had reason to join the party: in just a few short days he would report for induction into the Army and head for boot camp. The traditional fiesta was lively -- with food, music, dance and plenty to drink.

The spot where Hank Leyvas had been beaten earlier that evening was deserted, but he and his friends could hear the sounds of the birthday party at the Williams ranch. Convinced that the boys who assaulted him were there, Hank and the others converged on the small house. The fighting was brutal. Men and women, boys and girls struggled for about ten minutes. The fight had all the markings of an Los Angeles teenage rumble, except for what neighbors discovered shortly after the fighting. Lying in the shadows was José Díaz. He had been beaten and stabbed. He died later that night at Los Angeles General Hospital.

The governor, Democrat Cuthbert L. Olson, was becoming increasingly concerned about juvenile delinquency. He used the murder of José Díaz as a call to action. The Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.) rounded up more than 600 youth -- mostly Mexican Americans known as "zoot-suiters" for the ballooned pants and long coats they wore -- and indicted Hank Leyvas and twenty-one others for José Díaz's murder. The subsequent trial dominated headlines in the City of Angels for months. The 38th Street boys were convicted in Los Angeles' tabloid journals -- and the jury agreed. Hank Leyvas was sentenced to life in San Quentin.

Within months of the convictions, Los Angeles erupted in the Zoot Suit Riot. For the better part of a week, sailors and other servicemen dragged kids off streetcars, from restaurants, and out of movie theaters. The boys were beaten and often stripped of their zoot suits. Thousands of white civilians cheered them on and helped the sailors. As the riot progressed, Mexican American boys moved to defend their neighborhoods, setting traps for sailors and assaulting them in their cars. The L.A.P.D. let the riot continue for the better part of a week. After the riot ended, the Los Angeles City Council banned the wearing of zoot suits on Los Angeles streets.

Within a year of the riots Hank Leyvas and the boys were released from prison. Their convictions in the Sleepy Lagoon case were overturned on appeal. The court ruled that there had been serious errors in the trial: a biased judge, the denial of counsel, and a lack of evidence. Authorities declined to retry the case. Whoever killed José Díaz got away with murder.

When Hank and the boys returned, the City of Angels, and their place in it, was changed forever. In little time the zoot suit style faded from view. And eventually the small reservoir known as the Sleepy Lagoon fell victim to urban sprawl and was filled in.

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