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Man Killed Over Use of Spanish

Times Staff Writers

They had shared a few beers after work, and decided to walk over to an all-night fast-food restaurant in the Pico-Union district for a cup of coffee before heading home.

Claude Garcia, 55, and his nephew, Roberto Figueroa, 42, were seated by the counter. Garcia, from Texas, had spent the day with his El Salvadoran nephew in Garcia’s furniture repair shop, teaching Figueroa the trade. They were “shooting the breeze” in Spanish, Garcia said, when a woman approached them and broke into their conversation.

“The lady was complaining because my nephew and I were talking Spanish,” Garcia said. “She said like, ‘Damn Mexican, how come you don’t speak English?’ ”

‘You Got No Right’

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Garcia said Figueroa answered her--in English--" 'Hey, we speak English, Spanish and Italian. You got no right to come over here and bother us.’ ”

Garcia said he told his nephew, “Cool it, forget about it, let her talk.” But “pretty soon it all broke loose,” Garcia said. Words escalated into shoves, then there was the flash of a knife as the woman’s companion came to her side, and Figueroa staggered out to the street, mortally wounded.

“I tried to take them apart, then the lady knocked me down, I lost my glasses and everything, I couldn’t see,” said Garcia, a Rosemead resident. “I was trying to protect myself. I couldn’t get to him (Figueroa) because I was busy with the other guy.” Garcia’s knife wounds were treated by his doctor late Friday.

“It was a killing over absolutely zilch,” Los Angeles Police Sgt. Richard Kalk said.

Arrested on suspicion of murder in the confrontation at 2:25 a.m. Friday were Christine Rodriguez, 27, who told police she lives in Illinois, and a companion, Miguel Garcia, 55, no relation to Claude Garcia. Miguel Garcia, a native of Nicaragua who told police that he served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War after immigrating to the United States in 1940, is bilingual.

Police said Rodriguez only speaks English, but Claude Garcia said she appeared to understand the Spanish conversation. She has three outstanding warrants for her arrest, two of them on narcotics-related charges, Kalk said. She told police that she had had a couple of beers before arriving at Lucy’s.

Fist Fight Erupted

“Why she stuck her nose into their business is beyond me,” Kalk said.

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When the exchange of words turned into a fist fight, Rodriguez’s companion pulled a knife and began attacking Figueroa and his uncle, Kalk said.

The woman followed Figueroa as he staggered out onto Pico Boulevard and beat the wounded man over the head with a trash can cover, Kalk said.

According to witnesses, Rodriguez then began rifling Figueroa’s pockets, Kalk said. About that time, a patrol car arrived and Rodriguez was taken into custody. Shortly afterward, Miguel Garcia was arrested at a nearby residence.

Figueroa, an unemployed laborer living a few blocks from Lucy’s restaurant, died at Good Samaritan Hospital. He and his wife, who have four children, immigrated to the United States six years ago.

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