Tucked behind the taquerías, mariscos spots and auto body shops that line Los Angeles’ East Olympic Boulevard is an area of abandoned-looking warehouses surrounded by steel and tall fences. The constant hum of factory machines swallows the sounds of the busy boulevard. It's an area desolate enough for someone to throw a huge underground party completely under the radar and desolate enough for someone to think they could hide a body there. It’s where, on a Wednesday morning in January of 2006, an employee of a warehouse found the body of a local missing teen. Her name was Emmery Muñoz and to this day, her case remains unsolved.
“We want answers. That's not going to bring Emmery back, but we need to know why and, and who. Again, it's not going to bring her back, but it's going to give us a little bit of peace.” Becky Haro, Muñoz's aunt and godmother, told VICE.
Muñoz was 14 years old, just a few months shy of her quinceañera. She was a freshman at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School. She was also the eldest daughter in her Mexican American family. Her younger sister Crystal Gutierrez was six years old at the time and one of her earliest memories with her big sister is of them dancing together in the lush garden of their City Terrace home. “No matter what the song was, she was always dancing. And I remember she would try to teach me. And I was just right there, like a little four year old. Didn't know what the heck I was doing,” Gutierrez remembered fondly. “I know I only had her for a brief moment of time, but those six years taught me basically everything you would expect from a big sister.”The last day that Muñoz was seen alive was a Friday afternoon on a crisp LA winter day. She and her siblings had a pretty normal weekday. They woke up, got ready, went to school and came home. According to her mother, Muñoz left to go to a friend's house and said she would be back by 7.30 or 8PM. When her mom got home from the market, Muñoz wasn’t there. The next morning, her mom reported her missing.
Days passed and still no one had heard from her. Her friends and family put up missing person fliers all over their neighborhood. “It just feels like it was everlasting. Like nothing felt right,” Gutierrez recalls. On Wednesday, six days after Muñoz went missing, her family got the news – her body was found at a warehouse in Boyle Heights, a few miles away from her home. She was identified by her school lunch card. “Like I said, everything felt super gloomy. When I picture all this, I picture just gray clouds in the sky,” Guiterrez recalls of that day in 2006. “It was probably like the sunniest day in January, but I pictured clouds. It was hard.”The Los Angeles Police Department described the warehouse as a place where teens would gather to throw parties. Immediately, it was assumed by local media and the LAPD that she must have been at a party the night she went missing. Soon after, it was reported that Muñoz was a member of an all-girl party crew called the Vicious Ladies. The term “party crew” is simple. It’s a group of friends who are dedicated to going to and throwing underground parties called flier parties. The parties usually took place in someone’s backyard or an empty warehouse and the music of choice was 2000s hip-hop and reggaeton. Imagine Too $hort’s “Shake That Monkey” or N.O.R.E.’s Daddy Yankee and Nina Sky-assisted “Oye Mi Canto” blaring through a bulky floor speaker next to a fog machine and party lights.
In the party crew scene, teens were the architects of their own world. The scene spanned all across LA county – in places like East LA, South Central and the San Gabriel Valley – and was made up of hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of mostly Latinx teens. Muñoz was part of the scene in the mid-2000s, but the culture of party crews goes back decades before to the 90s and even the 80s, each with their own style and music. For teens in every era, the party crew scene was a safe space to express themselves without parental supervision, forget about the pressures that comes with being children of immigrants and to create community with other teens across LA.And while the scene offered a safe space for many, there was also a dark side. Violence did happen at parties. There was underage drinking, fights would break out, shootings happened and people got killed. LAPD saw party crews as a type of gang and worked alongside LA’s city council, which eventually used Muñoz’s murder as part of their rallying cry to stop party crews once and for all.
“When we found out that they found her in a warehouse, supposedly that’s where parties have been held… but that doesn't connect Emmery to a certain party that night or flier party or the reason why she got killed,” Regina Borranian, Muñoz’s childhood friend and former member of a party crew called Tempted 2 Touch, told VICE. “They're trying to connect to things that don't go together.”
Muñoz’s link to the party crew world was part of why her murder got a lot of media attention. But what evidence was there that her murder was tied to party crews? And why is her case still unsolved? Why did party crews get blamed for her death and what does that say about the scene?In our new podcast Party Crews: The Untold Story, I attempt to answer those questions. Because when I was a teen in the early 2000s, I was also in an all-girl party crew called the Lustful Laydeez. And when I first came across Muñoz’s case, her story felt personal. She was only a few years younger than me. I kept thinking: ‘Could I have bumped into her at a party?’ We were both just kids navigating through a world that wasn’t made for us. Almost two decades have passed since Becky Haro last saw her niece. But it hasn’t stopped her or the family to continue looking for answers. Haro has been following up with the case as it has moved on from detective to detective from the homicide unit at LAPD’s Hollenbeck station to the cold case unit at Central Bureau. “I feel sometimes that I'm wasting my breath and I'm wasting my time,” Haro told me when I spoke to her in the summer of 2021. She said that many of her calls to detectives on the case have gone unanswered. “But then after I said, if we don't push them, if we don't keep her name, if we don't follow, nothing is ever going to be solved. But then I think it's 15 years, you know, is it ever going to happen?”
During the course of our reporting, LAPD told us in November of 2021 that Muñoz’s case was considered “fresh” again, meaning that while it had been cold, they were investigating new information related to the case. In February of 2022, one of our sources was able to get Muñoz’s family a face-to-face meeting with the current detectives on her case, giving them a chance to finally be heard. Soon after, her family set up an instagram account called @justiceforemmerymunoz to gather information anyone might have about Muñoz’s murder. And in July of 2022, the LA city council ended up re-issuing a reward for $50,000 for any information in her case, though this expired six months later in January of 2023.Today, Emmery would be in her early thirties. She might have been a nurse, just like her aunt told me that she wanted to be. She might have had kids, just like her siblings do. But instead she is frozen in time. Her death is tragic and It’s also a loss that is ambiguous, without closure.
Last year, on the 16th anniversary of Muñoz death, I visited her grave for the first time along with her sister Crystal Gutierrez. In the picture on her tombstone, Muñoz is smiling, wearing a little knitted hat that she had just gotten for Christmas a month prior. Engraved are the words “in loving memory of our little girl, Emmery Muñoz.” The day started off sunny, but as we stood there, the sky became gray and it started to drizzle. I asked Gutierrez how it felt to be there after so much time has passed. “Feels weird because I expected us to grow up together, like physically together, not virtually separate. So having to see her under these circumstances, it's almost surreal,” she told me. “It doesn't feel like she's gone, but the reality is that she is, but it never feels like it.”All episodes of Party Crews: The Untold Story are available now, wherever you get your podcasts.