When a 15-year-old Robert Torres came home in 1977 with the letters “SF” tattooed on his left hand, his horror-struck mother asked him why he’d gone and “marked [himself] for life.” The initials served to permanently identify him with the San Fers, one of the gangs fighting increasingly violent turf wars in the San Fernando Valley in the late 1970s.
Twenty years later, Torres was just coming off a yearlong stint in jail for violating his probation on previous drug and burglary convictions. But he had long since severed his connection to his old crew and told his mom that he was finally set on getting his life together. He didn’t want to go back to jail, where he had been placed in a gang unit because of the initials on his hand and had been forced to get a second tattoo reading “San Fer”—this time across the back of his neck—to prove again his loyalty to the gang. Now, on his second evening of freedom, he went in search of his ex-wife and five kids to tell them he wanted to make up for lost time.
He never made it. According to witnesses, Torres received a fatal shot to the head as he walked out of a liquor store where he’d stopped to buy some cigarettes. The killing was allegedly payback from a member of the Shakin’ Cat Midgets, a gang that hadn’t even existed when Torres got his tattoo but now considered themselves rivals to the San Fers. Torres’s killing was thought to be revenge for a drive-by shooting that had taken place a couple of weeks earlier—when Torres was still behind bars. According to an LAPD detective, Torres was “just standing on the sidewalk, not bothering anybody. I guess they must have saw his tattoo.”