Teacher Slain in Ambush at Home : Former Student Questioned, Released; Not a Suspect, Police Say

Times Staff Writers

A well-liked veteran teacher at Grant High School in Van Nuys was ambushed and shot to death as he left his Sherman Oaks home for school early Friday, Los Angeles police said.

A former student at the school was questioned about the attack for about six hours Friday but police released him and said they had no suspects in the case.

Hal Arthur, 60, who was senior class adviser and had taught government and history classes at the school since 1962, was hit in the back with at least three bullets moments after he opened the door of his car parked in front of his home in the 13900 block of Milbank Street, police said.

Attacks on Teachers

The shooting was the latest in a wave of recent attacks on teachers, who have been increasingly concerned about their safety and school violence.

Arthur was following his daily practice of leaving for the nearby school at 6 a.m., police said. He had placed a bag containing school books and homework he had graded the night before in the car and was about to step into it when an assailant with a .22-caliber semi-automatic weapon fired on him from across the street and behind.

"It certainly does not appear to be a random shooting," said Lt. Warren Knowles, commander of the Van Nuys Division detective bureau. "Someone was more than likely waiting."

At least six shots were fired before the gunman sped away in a dark-colored sedan, police said. Arthur's wife, Virginia, and son, Jason, a senior at Grant High, ran from the house to where the victim was laying in the street. Several neighbors, who also heard the shots, ran to the scene.

Arthur was taken by paramedics to nearby Sherman Oaks Community Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Police said there was no evidence indicating a motive or suspect in the killing. Robbery was ruled out because the gunman did not approach the victim, police said.

At first, the investigation focused on a 16-year-old Van Nuys boy who had attended Grant High until February when he was transferred to North Hollywood High School because of disciplinary problems stemming from a campus fight.

Knowles said investigators decided to question the boy because 10 to 12 Grant students had given his name and said they believed he had access to guns and may have held a grudge against Arthur.

The boy, who had not attended school at North Hollywood High since Tuesday, was taken into custody at his home about 2:30 p.m. and taken to the police station for questioning. He was released about 9 p.m.

"There is no evidence to connect the kid to this case," said Detective Mel Arnold. "We are looking elsewhere. We are looking at all avenues. We need people who may have information to come forward.

" We have found no reason why anybody would have a grudge against this guy," said Arnold. Arthur was described by his fellow teachers, former and current students, and neighbors as a well-liked and respected teacher who had a good sense of humor, was outgoing and helped plan the senior prom each year. As a sidelight, Arthur organized Hal Arthur Tours for the last six years, taking students from all over the Valley on a 36-day trip to Europe.

Grant Principal Bob Collins called Arthur the "pied piper" of the senior class.

He 'Was an Institution'

"Hal was an institution," Collins said. "He was the type of individual who really gained the confidence and enthusiasm of the senior class."

Dan Gruenberg, dean of students at Grant High, who knew Arthur for 25 years, said his longtime friend was a gourmet and a lover of traveling, books and classical music.

He said Arthur was easy-going and rarely sent students to him because of disciplinary problems. But Arthur could be tough, too, said Gruenberg, explaining how the two first met when Gruenberg was trying to stop a student from scaling a fence. The student punched Gruenberg in the face and broke his nose, "but Hal grabbed him and tackled him . . . he always backed his friends."

Students described Arthur as a friend and confidant. He secretly helped those who couldn't afford to go to proms or rent coats and ties for graduation--he even helped wallflowers find dates for a prom.

Students at the school were shocked and many cried when Arthur's death was announced over the public address system during first period.

Seniors to Honor Him

Seniors said they plan to dedicate their graduation and their yearbook to Arthur.

"He was a special man," said senior Alon Elbaz-Deckel, student body historian who planned to go with Arthur to Europe this summer. "Always doing something for somebody else. . . . The students always came first."

Barbara Halpern, who was a student of Arthur's before graduating from Grant in 1966 and is now a teacher at the school, said that two years ago when Arthur heard that one of her students couldn't afford to go to the prom, he arranged a free prom ticket and a gown from a local dress shop. He also "got boys jackets and ties for graduation if they could not afford them," she said. But Halpern said Arthur also was humble about such acts and "no one ever knew."

On Friday flags were at half-staff at the school where 3,100 students attend.

The walls of Arthur's room, Bungalow 18, were papered with clippings about Grant sports, jazz music and food reviews and postcards from around the world. In one corner was a poster with a caricature of his face and signed by the Class of '88.

Psychologists Offer Aid

A group of 12 school district psychologists came to the school Friday and planned to return Monday to speak with students and faculty. On Friday they talked to about 20 students, district officials said.

Arthur's death follows other incidents of violence against Los Angeles-area teachers. On March 6, a 15-year-old boy at Olive Vista Junior High School in Sylmar stabbed his teacher in the back while she was writing him up for misbehavior. In February, a teacher at Rosemont Junior High School in La Crescenta disarmed a 13-year-old boy who brandished a loaded .357 magnum in a classroom.

The attacks have heightened concerns generally about school violence. According to United Teachers-Los Angeles President Wayne Johnson, assaults on teachers that require medical treatment average one a day in the district. Statistics provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District show that while campus assaults overall have not risen, reports of incidents involving firearms have tripled and the number involving knives has doubled over the last three years.

Although no student is considered a suspect, Arthur's death has raised concerns about teacher safety, Halpern said.

"What do you do?" she said. "You never fail a kid? Never discipline them?"

Memorial Services Set

Memorial services for Arthur will be held early next week at Grant High, said Rabbi Jim Kaufman, of Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood where Arthur and his family were active members.

"I've known him since he was 12 years old--he was a superb human being," Kaufman said of Arthur. "It was a real tragedy."

Throughout the day Friday several students from Grant High drove slowly by Arthur's home or stopped nearby. Neighbors also stood by until long after the police had left the scene.

Arthur lived next door to a woman who was his student at Grant in the late '60s and whose daughter was currently in his government class. She asked that their names not be published.

"I knew him as a teacher and a neighbor," the mother said at her home Friday. "He was a perfect neighbor and a well-liked teacher. This is so hard to believe. Why him? Of course, why would anyone do this to anybody? But I can't believe someone would want to harm him."

The daughter said that one of Arthur's last assignments to his students in the senior government class was an essay on gun control which followed class discussions about drive-by shootings, gang violence and other recent crimes involving guns.

The daughter brought her essay home Thursday. On it, Arthur had written, "Very Good" and drawn a happy face.

Staff writers Tracey Kaplan, Elaine Woo and Amy Pyle contributed to this story.

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