Booby Trap Debate : Protecting Property--What Price?

Times Staff Writer

The burglar was on the roof. It was night. He punched a hole in the tar paper and wood and shimmied through.

His name was Odell Hicks, and this was how he made his living. He skulked along the top of the ceiling to the front of the store, where there was another opening, and dropped down to the floor.

He snatched up armfuls of shoes and blue jeans and pushed them into the alley through the iron bars of the locked back gate. He could retrieve them later. Then he stuffed some watches into his pocket and picked up a radio.

Finally, he was done. He climbed back into the same hole in the ceiling to get out. And that was his undoing. This time, his skin touched a booby trap made of two metal grates bolted to the plaster. It was rigged with an extension cord plugged into a 115-volt outlet in the wall.

The jolt killed him on the spot. His stunned body was found the next morning, the radio still clutched in his arms, his crime and his punishment visible through the jagged hole in the ceiling.

Public Debate Rekindled

But closing the books on the Sept. 30 electrocution of Odell Hicks was not as simple as hauling away the corpse. The death of the small-time Miami burglar revived a long, vexing debate about when action to defend property becomes a crime.

Florida law--like that of most states, including California--says a life may not be taken just to protect property. It is a principle that dates back to English common law.

Prentice Rasheed, who set the electrical trap, was arrested and charged with manslaughter. "I didn't mean for anyone to be killed," said the shopkeeper, a convert to Islam. "I just wanted to shock him and warn him not to be coming in here."

Seemed to Decide Both Ways

Three weeks ago, a grand jury anguished over the booby trap and the state law--about a crime-weary black businessman and a dead burglar with a long rap sheet. Then it wrote a report that seemed to decide it both ways.

Rasheed's use of deadly force was wrong, the jury said, but it declined to indict him: After all, his mantrap was crudely wired and plugged into regular household current. He could not have expected it to kill anyone.

"I'd like to say to the American people, Allah akbar , God is the greatest!" the relieved merchant exclaimed.

Then he and his agent made plans to go out on the hustings--to hit the talk shows and lecture circuit of a nation that is mad as hell and not going to take it any more.

The way the two of them see it, they are onto a "Rasheed concept" and it is all about crime victims fighting back: a fund for victims, a hotline for victims, new laws for the benefit of victims.

"I'm trying to move him into the celebrity line," said Miami lawyer Alvin Goodman, the agent. "I want to get him booked making speeches once a week for a year, in the price range anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000.

"That's what I'm shooting for at the present time. I've also got someone on the side to coach him with his speaking. All we need to do is get his material together."

Rasheed and Goodman have known each other for 20 years, since the days when Rasheed was still Prentice Edwards, a good-timing kid who had come to the big city from his father's peanut farm near Dublin, Ga.

Now, a month after the burglar's death, they stood in Rasheed's store, reviewing deals and arrangements. A thief was dead, and the ordinary profile of a struggling merchant had been inflated with a tough-guy symbolism.

Case Stirred Interest

They could not be sure how far things would go. Rasheed was not as well known as, say, Bernhard H. Goetz, the man who shot four youths on the New York subway in 1984. But the interest in Rasheed had plenty of spin. The phone was still ringing.

In a few days, he was scheduled for TV talk shows in Pittsburgh and Boston. Then came "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in Chicago. He had already appeared on ABC's "Nightline," "The CBS Morning News" and "Larry King Live" on CNN. It had been that kind of a whirlwind.

In New York for "The Today Show," he was whooshed around in a limo, leaning out of the window to take photos of the tall buildings. NBC put him up in The Essex House.

"There is always an opportunity in everything, and this just happened to be the opportunity for Rasheed," Goodman said blithely of their big plans.

The lanky storekeeper listened quietly. He is a calm, polite man with a habit of pulling at the soft brush of beard along his gaunt face. His style is to wear a hat indoors and out.

He is not quite sure what America wants from him--or for how long--though he knows he has touched some frightened pulse that beats across the land.

Regret, Not Guilt

"People are aware that the police don't do enough to protect them," he said. "People are saying: Hooray! Somebody finally did something."

For the dead burglar, Odell Hicks, Rasheed feels sadness but no guilt. He was good and Hicks was evil. The forces collided. Evil fell.

"It was society's responsibility for letting Mr. Hicks go bad in the first place," he said. "I didn't do that. Society did."

Prentice Fareed Rasheed, 43, has been displeased with society for a long time. He has strong opinions about how to put life back into empty ghetto storefronts. He often publishes editorials as advertisements in Miami's black newspapers.

"Misspending all of and/or most of your money outside of your community is a major crime that will not change until you change," he wrote earlier this year.

Rasheed criticizes public officials as "political criminals" who serve the "heartless rich." He calls for black businessmen like himself to open collective efforts to bring better goods into the ghetto at cheaper prices.

Rasheed, the Movie

For the most part, black community leaders in Miami think him a gentle, well-meaning man who is long on rhetoric and short on pragmatism. He used to join some of them for coffee at a popular restaurant on 79th Street. No one paid him much mind then, but now a booby trap has made him a name.

"You know how I envision the Rasheed movie?" Alvin Goodman said. "It begins with the burglary and then the scene will flash to a few days before, and two cops will be sitting in a restaurant when a call comes in."

The policemen dawdle. One wants to finish his coffee. The other looks at a photo of his family and says he does not want to mix in.

"And, you got to show the skull-duggery," Rasheed said. "You got your politicians selling off the community . . . everybody reaching into everyone else's pocket with the dog-eat-dog thing."

Rasheed's store had been burglarized six times in September alone--all roof jobs. Maybe Odell Hicks did them. Maybe not.

The whole block along northwest 7th Avenue had the problem. It is in the midst of a Miami neighborhood known as Liberty City, and it has suffered from riots and crime and years of neglect.

Rasheed opened the Amcop Station and Trading Post a year ago. He already owned a small jewelry store to the north. This time, he was proprietor of a cooperative affiliated with a Muslim group in Chicago.

The store sells shoes at two pairs for $11, bargain watches, hair spray, toilet paper, cold sodas. The green carpet is grimy and there is only a single overhead fan. Water damage had opened a hole in the ceiling even before the first burglary.

Profits, Rasheed said, keep the store just this side of survival--there is certainly not enough to pay for insurance or a burglar alarm. Banks generally do not make loans in this area. It is a tough go.

On Sept. 18--just 12 days before Hicks died--Rasheed spoke up at a budget hearing of the county commission. He told the commissioners of the break-ins, and he asked them what good it does to pay taxes if there is no police protection.

"The people in the Afro-American community are not being serviced by a defense or a protection force," he said.

He was tired of finding his store a mess in the morning. In just a few weeks, about $4,000 in merchandise had vanished. He had six case numbers across six burglary report forms to show for it.

"The police come by and fill out a report and put down that fingerprint dust and you'll be cleaning it up for two days after that, but they'll never even call you," he said.

So first Rasheed set a path of nails sticking up from the two-by-fours of the roof. Then he rigged something more complicated, something electric.

It was in place almost a week before Odell Hicks climbed up one of the big trees near the store and hopped onto the roof.

The Liberty City merchants were furious. How could they arrest Rasheed? Give him a medal, maybe. But drag him off to jail?

A group of them quickly arranged his $6,500 bail. He spent barely four hours in custody. Back at the store, he was surrounded by reporters.

Then came the well-wishers, the autograph seekers, the calls and letters. Only one man faulted him, and he said Rasheed was stupid for not ditching the burglar's body and simply forgetting about it.

The Miami Herald took a poll; 73% favored letting Rasheed go. Three out of five said they wanted the right to kill anyone who breaks into their homes.

"What is more important: the rights of an honest storekeeper or homeowner or the rights of a felon, a scum, who comes in to steal your very life source?" asked Rasheed's attorney, Ellis Rubin.

But if the lawyer was all tough talk, the storekeeper was mostly remorse. He was not sorry he had caught a thief, but regretted killing one.

Burglar's Criminal Record

The sorrow seemed almost noble, in light of the dead man's resume. Odell Hicks, 26, was a crack addict, a convicted burglar and rapist.

Circuit Judge Ellen Morphonios thought she had sent him away for good in 1977, and she "wasn't losing sleep" upon hearing that the paroled man was dead.

"He wanted the world to know he was the friendly, neighborhood rapist," she said. "He bragged that he had raped 75 or 100 women . . .

"He went to a wash house and he got one woman's laundry and he spread it out like you'd spread out bread crumbs for a duck. The woman went along picking it up. When she got to a bushy area, he grabbed her."

There were not many around with anything kind to say about Hicks. His mother was dead, his father long gone.

Sister Expressed Grief

It was left to a sister, Aretha Hicks, to remind Miami that Odell was a human being, snared in a trap like an animal and carted away.

"He would play with my daughter. She's 8 now," Aretha remembered. "He would take her to the library and read her books or take her for walks in the park. She broke down when she found out about it."

Worse than anything, this man Rasheed was all over the TV. If he was so sorry, she said, why hadn't he bothered to come by or even send a card?

"When you lose your people, I don't care what they do, they're still your people," she said bitterly.

But her grief was faint against so many louder voices.

It is called "community sentiment," though a lot of law professors say that is just another phrase for passing the buck. Prosecutors turn a case over to a grand jury to get a sense of how the community wants it handled.

Few seasoned observers were surprised when sentiment in Miami called for sending Rasheed home. "What you had here is a city fed up with crime, and a singularly unattractive man killed in a booby trap," said University of Miami law professor Terry Anderson.

With similar cases, that is the way it often happens across the country. Prosecutors refuse to indict, juries do not convict, judges decline to sentence.

"The law sometimes takes second place to human nature," said Tom Smith of the American Bar Assn.'s criminal justice section. "It's hard for a lot of people to accept the idea that you cannot take a life in defense of your property."

In most states, the laws on justifiable homicide are based on a balancing test. Deadly force is permissible to protect life, but it is deemed too severe a response to a threat to property.

Dilemma of the Law

Sometimes that test is hard to apply: Intruders enter a home. Who knows what they are after? Split-second choices are made.

In 1984, mindful of the dilemma, the California Legislature passed a law saying that when someone kills an intruder, the presumption will be that there was reasonable fear of loss of life or bodily harm until proven differently.

But that extra weight on the balancing scales does not apply to setting booby traps, automatic and incapable of making decisions.

Even the grand jury in Florida, in letting Rasheed go, made a bow to the traditional rule of life over property: "Deadly force is permitted and should only be tolerated when it is necessary to protect one's self or others from death or great bodily harm. . . .

"Everyone is on notice that electrical devices designed to 'jolt' you can kill you and laws against such devices should be reviewed and enforced."

That message may have been lost in the ado of the shopkeeper's release, however. "People are thinking, if the police don't do the job, then I can do whatever I want," observed William Wilbanks, a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University.

"That's bad news. I don't think any of us wants to live in a booby-trapped society. A trap can't discriminate between a burglar, a fireman, a policeman or the Amway lady."

Youth Killed by Rifle

In a 1979 case, also here in Miami, homeowner Chuck Falco rigged a .22-caliber rifle to fire at intruders. The slug killed a 14-year-old member of his Boy Scout troop.

Falco pleaded no contest to manslaughter. He was sentenced to probation, plus weekends in jail for six months.

"If Rasheed had killed a 14-year-old first-time offender, maybe he would have been indicted, too," Wilbanks said. "But people were happy someone got the dirtbag. They think it spared them the cost of a trial and it was good riddance."

Odell Hicks was quickly laid out in a flimsy, particle-board coffin and taken to a county-owned cemetery just the other side of a chain link fence from a police station. There was no burial service.

His relatives had tried to raise $100 for a cremation, but they did not scrape up the money in time. Hicks was placed in a trench 416 feet up Row No. 610, as measured from the asphalt road.

A bulldozer filled in the spot from a standing pile of sand and limestone rock. There is no marker, and his place is lost in the flatness of the field.

Times researcher Lorna Nones contributed to the preparation of this story.

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