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Melissa Downey, 21, lights a candle at a memorial on International Boulevard and 55th Avenue on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011. A five-year-old boy was shot and killed there last night. Her daughter Elysia, 2, used to play with the victim. "He was a nice little kid. He was happy all of the time. It's so sad. It's crazy." Downey said. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

OAKLAND -- Five-year-old Gabriel Martinez Jr. was a familiar sight at his family's popular taco truck in East Oakland.

While his parents worked there, they would keep an eye on the little boy who was looking forward to starting kindergarten classes soon.

On Friday night at 8:38 p.m., as he stood just a few feet from his father outside the truck in the 5400 block of International Boulevard, a bullet ended his life.

Police said Saturday that Gabriel was shot by a man who moments earlier ordered some food from the truck and was waiting for his order.

Police don't have a motive for the shooting and doubt the little boy was the target. Other people, including some children, were standing outside the truck, but no one else was hurt.

Gabriel's father comforted his son in his arms before the boy was taken by ambulance to Children's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 9:04 p.m.

"This is terrible," said Officer Eric Milina, lead investigator in the case. "Here we have another young, innocent child killed for no reason. He'll never have a chance to grow up, and his parents won't be able to enjoy his life. We need the public's help to solve this."

Police said the boy's father had operated a taco truck at the site since 1993.

The boy's parents are not married but live together in Alameda, authorities said. They also have a 2-year-old daughter, who was staying with relatives when the shooting happened.


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Gabriel's mother was working in the truck and became hysterical when her son was shot.

"The family is so devastated right now. They're going crazy," said Maricela Chavez, 26, a friend of the family who used to work for them at the taco truck and the Mariscos Manzanillo restaurant they owned just down the street. "It's not safe around here anymore."

The family has retreated to its home in Alameda, where grieving friends and relatives were gathering to comfort them. The relatives declined to talk about their loss on Saturday.

The gunman is described by police as a black man, 20 to 29, about 6 feet tall and 160 pounds. He had short hair, a light complexion and was wearing glasses and dark clothing. He was with a black woman, 20 to 25, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 130 pounds with long hair. She wore a red jacket.

They fled in a light-colored, four-door American model sedan. Dozens of mourners Saturday stopped by the crime scene, which became a makeshift memorial filled with candles, flowers, signs and handwritten notes left in tribute to the boy, described by family friends as fun, happy and smart.

Emilia Otero, a friend of Gabriel's father, dabbed tears as she visited the scene.

"International Boulevard is getting too dangerous for kids," she said. "This is insane. They're killing our children. They're killing our future."

Gabriel was the third young child to die from gunfire since August and is the city's 110th homicide of 2011.

On Aug. 8, 3-year-old Carlos Nava was fatally shot less than a mile away in the 6400 block of International as his mother pushed him in a car-shaped stroller. Hiram Lawrence Jr., 23-months old, died Dec. 9, 11 days after he was shot in West Oakland as his father held him in his arms. Both killings were gang-related, and two men have been charged in the Nava case.

Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, a friend of the Martinez family, stopped by their home Saturday to offer condolences. "This is an incredible tragedy," he said. "It's very difficult to justify why the city has been unable to stop the killing of these young boys in the past six months. It's unacceptable and unexplainable."

Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan told more than 125 people gathered for a homicide memorial service at St. Columba Catholic Church in north Oakland that visiting with Gabriel's mother earlier in the day was the "toughest 15 minutes" of his career.

"Spending time with the family, seeing the grief they are going through, please know these aren't just numbers to us," he said. "This has become very painful for me and our officers. Know that Oakland police officers are working very hard."

Mayor Jean Quan also addressed mourners at St. Columba.

"I've spent too many times talking to mothers and fathers of mostly young men who died," Quan said. "January is the month we remember the dream of Martin Luther King Jr., that we remember hope. There are many ways to kill the dream. I pledge to walk at least once a month to show we care about the people who live in those neighborhoods (hurt by violence)."

Police and Crime Stoppers of Oakland are offering up to $25,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest of the gunman in Gabriel's death. Anyone with information may call police at 510-238-3326 or Crime Stoppers at 510-777-8572 or 510-777-3211 or contact Milina at emilina@oaklandnet.com.

Staff photojournalist Jane Tyska contributed to this report.