Firefighter Shot; Tension Grows in Arson-Plagued Area

Times Staff Writer

After more than 25 small arson fires in the last two months, residents of a South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood say they were on edge.

"Sometimes we get three fires a night," said Lynnetta Rogers, "My house, my car. It was like they (were) trying to kill us."

Zenia M. Brown, Rogers' next door neighbor in the 700 block of West 49th Street, said she and others would "lie in wait in the dark, night after night, hoping to catch who was doing it."

Los Angeles police said the tension erupted in gunfire just before midnight Saturday when firefighters arrived to investigate the latest blaze, which several hours earlier had seared a wood storage bin in Rogers' backyard.

One of three shots that rang out from a bedroom window of Rogers' house hit Firefighter Ronald L. Mathews in the right foot, police said.

Police on Sunday charged Michael Vercher, 32, Rogers' brother, with attempted murder in the shooting. Vercher, an unemployed delivery truck driver, was being held Sunday without bail at 77th Street Station.

Mathews, 23, of Woodland Hills, who became a firefighter Jan. 6, was listed in good condition at Tarzana Regional Medical Center.

He said in an interview that random gunfire is "sort of common" to firefighters at Station 46, where he works.

Nonetheless, Mathews said he was "not particularly" afraid as he strode into the Rogers' backyard because "we know most of the people in that area. We've been there about a dozen times in the last few weeks."

Because they were investigating a fire already reported to be out, Mathews' crew did not sound its siren, he said.

He said that the backyard was well lighted, that he was wearing a yellow firefighting suit and that, just before the shooting, he had shone his flashlight into corners of the yard.

Also, he said, the fire truck's strobe light was "flashing throughout the backyard. I don't see how anyone could have missed that."

Mathews said he was crouching to look inside the wood bin "when I heard three shots and felt this stab of pain in my foot."

He crawled behind a nearby car and "tried to figure out where the shots were coming from."

He said that Vercher, who emerged from the house moments later, "was apologizing all over the place for shooting me."

Police said Vercher fired the shots with a .32-caliber pistol without opening the bedroom window, which is about 50 feet from the blackened bin.

Authorities quoted Vercher as saying that he thought he was shooting at someone in the act of setting a fire.

Brown, who along with Rogers has been the target of most of the blazes, said the outbreak of violence was "not a total surprise to me. The tension has been getting unbelievable around here."

Most residents along the street of aging bungalows suspect that the fires were set by local youths, Brown said, but there have been heated disputes over which ones might be responsible.

She pointed to an 8-foot-high scorch mark on the side of her clapboard house, saying: "That's the result of at least three different fires. It gets you kind of terrified."

Rogers said that after her wood bin was set ablaze Saturday evening, "we figured we were going to have another long night."

It was "too bad a fireman got shot," Rogers said, "But we been really scared for a long time around here."

Mathews said doctors had removed a .32-caliber bullet that had lodged against, but did not break, his ankle bone. He said he hoped to be discharged today.

He said he is "anxious to get back to work."

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