Boy's Tragic Death : TV, Suits Keep Controversy Alive

Times Staff Writer

Television and litigation seem to have been intertwined with the short life and tragic death of Patrick Andrew Mason, the 5-year-old accidentally killed by a Stanton police officer on March 3, 1983.

In the two years since the boy's death, the survivors of the incident have done their best to continue their lives as a civil suit works its way through the courts, but factual and fictional re-creations of the shooting on the small screen have poked at the emotional wounds.

According to Newport Beach attorney Richard Farnell, who represents Patrick's mother, Patricia Ridge has returned to Chicago, where her only child Patrick was born. "She's still struggling with the loss," Farnell said.

"Her family tells me she's a different person," he said, although "she's gone on with her life," working part-time as a clerk in an auto-parts shop.

Anthony Sperl, the former officer who shot Patrick, remains unemployed and "depressed," according to his attorney, Stephen Yagman. Sperl, who has filed a cross-complaint alleging economic as well as emotional damage, receives about $800 in disability payments each month, Yagman said.

An Orange County grand jury that probed the tragedy indicted neither Sperl for shooting the boy nor Ridge for leaving the child alone.

Recently, an Orange County Superior Court commissioner postponed a hearing to determine whether Patrick's natural father, Larry R. Hewitt, now serving time in an Illinois prison, will be permitted to join the $20-million civil suit that Patrick's mother has filed against Sperl and the City of Stanton. Hewitt was named in a paternity suit shortly after Patrick was born; Ridge said later that Hewitt never paid child support or sent the child a birthday card while Patrick was alive.

There have been negotiations between attorneys representing Ridge, Sperl and the City of Stanton in an effort to reach a settlement and avoid a trial. Attorneys for all sides said that if no settlement takes place, they expect the case to go to trial within the next three to six months.

Because her son had been ill during the last part of February, 1983, Patricia Ridge decided to buy the boy a small present at the U-Tote-M market, less than a block from the Continental Gardens apartment complex where they lived. Ridge said Patrick picked out a red plastic gun, holster, nightstick and badge based on the television series "T. J. Hooker," about a California policeman played by William Shatner.

On a Thursday, a few days later, the single working mother went off to her job at a Sears auto repair shop, leaving Patrick at home in the apartment bedroom with cookies and milk and only a small, black-and-white television for company. She had no money to pay a baby sitter and was unable to reach a friend who had been taking care of the boy free.

About 5 p.m., a call to the Stanton police from a concerned neighbor, who said she hadn't seen Patrick for 10 days and had not been able to contact Ridge, brought Officer Anthony Sperl, who had been on the force for 15 months, to check on the locked apartment. Admitted by the manager with a pass key at about 5.30 p.m., Sperl entered the apartment and found the door to the bedroom tied shut.

The officer kicked the door open, finding the room illuminated only by the television. According to Sperl, a "figure" in the darkened room then pointed a gun at him, and the officer fired a single shot. Patrick Mason, clad in his T. J. Hooker police regalia, with his red plastic pistol nearby and a bullet in his neck, fell over in front of the television set. When Sperl rushed across the room to investigate, the dying boy grasped the officer's leg and looked up at him.

Last season the popular police television series "Hill Street Blues" re-created the event, down to the smallest detail, in several of its episodes, which it reran this season. Actress Alfre Woodard, who portrayed the mother of the slain tot, received an Emmy award for her performance.

According to her attorney, Patricia Ridge did not participate in the program and was not compensated in any way.

'She Didn't Watch It'

"I know she didn't watch it," Farnell said. "She couldn't bring herself to watch."

Sperl believed that the "Hill Street Blues" episodes "illegally infringed on his right of privacy," said Yagman, his attorney, and represented "an unlawful appropriation of his private life." Sperl was not consulted and, for a time, considered suing the producers.

Last month, the CBS program "60 Minutes" devoted one of its segments to the incident. Ridge, who has shunned the press since the incident, did not participate in the program, and Farnell declined to give her reasons.

Sperl, who also has also avoided talking to the press, was interviewed extensively during the segment, during which he broke down in retelling the incident. In granting the rare interview, his lawyer said that Sperl believed that "60 Minutes" "was an appropriate news forum that would not distort the events."

Reluctant to Talk

At the apartment complex where the shooting took place, managerial personnel were reluctant to talk about the shooting. The night the "60 Minutes" segment aired, a vandal painted "Stanton Police--Number 1 Kid Killers" on a wall in the complex.

As soon as it was painted over, the slogan was again scrawled on the wall.

The television program was "the main topic of gossip for the next two weeks," said one of the staff, who asked that her name not be used. The current residents of the unit where Patrick was shot, another staff member said, are not U.S. citizens and have no idea that the killing took place in their building.

Few of Sperl's former colleagues from the Stanton Police Department remain in contact with him, and nearly half of those on the force at the time of the shooting have taken jobs elsewhere. Their opinions vary on the manner in which the incident has been portrayed on television.

Chief Changed Jobs

Ronald Johnson, who was Stanton police chief at the time of the shooting and who has been named in Sperl's cross-complaint to the civil suit, is now chief of police in Cathedral City. Johnson said that the "Hill Street Blues" version provided "a fairly decent portrayal of the events that took place," so accurate that "I thought they had access to some of our reports." The "60 Minutes" account, while fair on the part of CBS, Johnson said, allowed "a distortion on the part of Anthony Sperl."

James W. Brown, another former Stanton officer who is now head of the police division of the China Lake U.S. Naval Weapons Center, said he believed CBS "went out of their way to be straight" in explaining what happened but said he had no comment on the manner in which "Hill Street Blues" re-created the shooting.

A statement marking the second anniversary of Patrick Mason's death, issued by the Child Care Advocates of America (CCAA), a group founded by three Orange County women in the wake of the shooting, said in part: "We hope each community will identify the gaps in child care so that other children don't fall through them like Patrick Mason did. We want to create a system to plug those gaps."

The group contacts various employers and municipal and civic organizations, suggesting ways to set up child-care programs. They also are lobbying legislators in support of Senate Bill 303, known as the "latchkey bill," which failed to gain passage last year.

Patricia Ridge wrote CCAA around Christmas, thanking the 150-member organization for its efforts in memory of her son.

"America needs you so much," Ridge wrote Linda Farnell, who, as the wife of Ridge's attorney, helped found CCAA.

"Keep up the good work," Ridge's letter continued, "and I hope that one day soon I'll be able to join you and speak out about this important issue of child care. What could be more important?

"It is our responsibility to do what we can for our children. If we don't, no one else will."

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