Arms and the Law : Mysterious Killer of Holdup Suspect Won't be Prosecuted

Times Staff Writer

To police and prosecutors, it was a simple act of self-defense when an unidentified patron of a Westside Vietnamese bar shot and killed 19-year-old Louis Moses.

Moses and a friend, they said, had gone into the aging Gio Khoi (Seabreeze) Bar, at 1296 W. Willow St., two weeks ago to commit a robbery.

Standing by a pool table near the Willow Street entrance, Moses pulled a gun--one incapable of firing real bullets, it turned out--and demanded money as his friend moved toward the cash register, prosecutors say.

Within seconds, a Vietnamese man known only by a nickname and unseen by the intruders fired two rounds from a .22-caliber pistol.

One shot entered Moses' left eye and he died instantly, the coroner told his parents. His friend, Claude Vernon, fled with wounds in the arm and side but was captured when he sought treatment.

"I don't know where the shots came from," Vernon said Tuesday from the Los Angeles County Jail, where he is being held on a robbery charge.

"We were there less than a minute," he said, but he refused to comment on whether he and Moses had been robbing the bar.

From the perspective of the police, who still have not found the mysterious patron with the sure aim, the sudden events of that Saturday evening are an open-and-shut case.

Case 'Almost Wrapped Up'

"This case is almost wrapped up," said Long Beach homicide Detective William MacLyman. "I'd like to talk to him (the gunman) and we're continuing to look for the man, but it's not taking as high a priority as some cases. I'm not seeking a criminal complaint against the shooter."

Nor would prosecutors file a criminal charge, said Long Beach-based Deputy Dist. Atty. Kurt Seifert. "This is simple self-defense. He was stopping a felony in progress. If he were arrested, I would reject it as justifiable homicide."

Seifert said he saw no reason why police should try to find the man who shot Moses. "For what purpose?" he said. "For a civic award?"

Moses had a long police record of nonviolent crime, but to Moses' father, his son's death in a bar just down the street from their home is hard to accept.

He wants to know why that unknown patron was so quick on the trigger and careful with his aim, and why the police are not trying harder to find him.

"(The shooting) was just uncalled for," said Alden Moses, a small, quiet man who worked as an electrician at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard for 20 years before he was disabled by a neck injury in 1982.

"If he had been hit any place else, he would still be alive," said Moses, staring at snapshots of his son. "He was strong and he had the heart of a bull.

Rejected by Employers

"He tried and tried to get a job, but he had a felony and nobody would give him a chance. The Marines wouldn't take him. And he was going to be a boxer. He said, 'Daddy, I can be a champion.' Now this happened. They had no business doing that to my son. He was my only son."

The Moses shooting was the latest of several high-profile cases in Southern California during the last six months in which private citizens have fatally wounded crime suspects. The incidents have raised questions about when it is legal to use deadly force against an assailant.

None of the citizens in the recent cases was charged with homicide. Each was found to have acted out of "reasonable and honest" fear that he would be badly hurt or killed, as required under state law on justifiable homicide.

In one case, last New Year's Eve, an 81-year-old Beverly Hills man shot and killed a suspected robber he mistakenly believed was armed. The man was fined $100 for illegal possession of a firearm.

In December, an elderly customer at a South-Central Los Angeles hamburger stand shot and killed a 20-year-old man who had clubbed another senior citizen and taken his money.

Six weeks ago, a Los Angeles man shot a suspected car burglar three times when the 17-year-old boy lunged at him shortly before police arrived. The district attorney ruled the youth had caused his own death by his actions.

Gas Station Shooting

In a recent Westminster case, a gas station attendant who was hired to stay overnight to guard the station killed a fleeing burglary suspect. Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. John Conley refused to prosecute, but cautioned that his decision "doesn't mean any person with a commercial building can shoot and kill someone . . .. We want it clear that it's not open season on burglars."

Conley cited a state law that says use of "deadly force" is justified by "anyone" trying to apprehend a person committing a felony. But he noted that California courts typically apply that interpretation only where there was threat of death or great bodily injury to the killer.

Inevitably, these cases have been compared with that of Bernhard Goetz, who shot four teen-agers who approached him on a New York City subway train and solicited money. Three of the youths have recovered, but one is partially paralyzed. Goetz is charged with various crimes, including attempted murder. Prosecutors say statements Goetz has made indicate premeditation.

Comparing the Goetz and Moses cases, however, may be unreasonable, said Paul Hoffman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles.

"This doesn't sound like a Bernhard Goetz-type case," he said. "Goetz took the law into his hands and the response was a gross over-response. I don't know, in this case, if it was an overreaction. It sounds like people felt they were in danger for their lives."

Nonetheless, authorities should find the gunman "and make sure they have evaluated all the evidence," Hoffman said. "Otherwise, they are, essentially, authorizing a shooting that should not be authorized."

Prosecutor Seifert said identifying the gunman has been difficult because witnesses knew him only by a nickname. MacLyman, of the police department, refused to disclose the nickname. "Apparently, he was just a casual customer, like the other people in the bar," Seifert said.

The details of what occurred when Moses and Vernon entered the Seabreeze Bar on May 18 may be examined at Vernon's preliminary hearing, scheduled for Monday. Vernon, 21, is a former Millikan High School student with one burglary conviction.

Moses' parents, Al and Sue Moses, said they are troubled by witnesses' accounts of the shooting. Their son, who had been twice arrested for illegal possession of firearms, was familiar with weapons, they said. So why would he take a starter's pistol, the type used at sporting events, to rob a bar, they asked.

Such questions, however, will have to be answered by the police, whom Sue Moses says she trusts to conduct a thorough investigation.

Since her son's death, she said, she has focused not on the shooting but on trying to "shake up" some of his friends who might be headed in the same direction.

200 at Viewing

About 200 people, many of them young and close to Moses, viewed his body before the funeral, she said. "He was loved by a lot of people," she said. "People called from all over after they heard. They said, 'Why couldn't it be me instead of Louie?' His friends have been over here, wanting to latch onto his pictures, but I can't let go of none of them."

Moses starred in football and baseball at Millikan High School before entering Poly High, his mother said. She pointed to a dozen trophies atop the living room piano. Even after his dreams of high school glory faded and arrests for drugs, weapons possession and burglary mounted, he would work at a local Boys Club, telling the youngsters not to be like him, she said.

The boy had a good side, said his father. Moses refused to wear his Poly High senior class ring until he had earned a graduate-equivalent degree in jail. And he was steadfast in his support of his father, accompanying the older man, who had a drinking problem years ago, to counseling sessions.

Released in January after spending nearly two years in jail for possession of marijuana for sale, Louis had found work as an aide at a home for the mentally handicapped in Orange County, Sue Moses said. Six weeks ago, his parents said, an old enemy showed up where Louis worked and started a fight, which led to Louis being fired. His parents said his unsuccessful search for a new job had been left him depressed.

'He Fought Back'

"The last month or two, all Louie wanted was a chance," said his mother. "My son was no angel. He was arrested 14 times in five years. He had minuses, but he fought back," she said.

The parents said they instructed the minister who delivered the eulogy to point out both the good and the bad about their son.

"We told him we wanted to tell the truth," said Sue Moses. "We just wanted to reach out to at least one person and tell them to wake up and do something with their own lives that is positive."

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