Robber a Victim, Wife Says : Family at a Loss to Explain Crime Role

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To his family and friends, Herbert Burgos was a responsible, intelligent man who rose through the ranks of McDonald's employees from a humble cook to the position of store manager at one of the chain's franchises.

Even now, days after Burgos, 27, was killed by police after he robbed a McDonald's in Sunland, framed diplomas and certificates from the fast-food company line one wall of his Venice duplex.

Burgos left McDonald's last year and enrolled full time at a Hollywood business school. His English teacher there, David Thomas, said: "He was probably the nicest person we've known at this school. I can't see anyone of his caliber deserving to be shot in the back."

Los Angeles police know Burgos as a very different man. They say he and his brother-in-law, Jesus Arango--also a former McDonald's employee--used their knowledge of the fast-food business to direct a ring that may have robbed at least nine other local fast-food restaurants since August.

The two men were shot and killed early last Monday by nine officers of the LAPD's Special Investigations Section, a controversial and secretive police surveillance unit.

The officers confronted Burgos, Arango, 25, and two other men as they fled the McDonald's on Foothill Boulevard. The officers fired 23 shotgun blasts and 12 shots from .45-caliber handguns at the robbers, who were carrying three pellet guns. In the early-morning darkness, the pellet guns appeared to be deadlier firearms, police said.

Burgos was killed as he tried to flee. Arango and 20-year-old Juan Bahena died inside the late-model Thunderbird they had driven to the McDonald's. Alfredo Olivas, 19, was seriously wounded.

A 1988 Times investigation found that SIS surveillances often ended with the criminals being killed or wounded. Police officials have defended the unit and its tactics. And they say no department regulations were violated in the unit's handling of the robbery at the Sunland McDonald's.

"We have got people who choose to be armed robbers," said Lt. William Hall, head of the department's officer-involved shooting unit. "They have chosen the game and all we tried to do was identify them and arrest them. And I don't think that in this case that there is really any reason for a lot of criticism to come up."

Family members are at a loss to explain why Burgos, whose future seemed to hold so much promise, would risk everything by robbing his former employer. And they are angered because they say he shouldn't have paid for his crime with his life.

"Why didn't they give him a chance to surrender?" asked Elizabeth Burgos-Arango, 23, Herbert's wife and Jesus' sister. "Even the worst human being deserves a chance, and they didn't give it to him."

Burgos was a Salvadoran immigrant who arrived in the United States about eight years ago, family members said. He hired Arango, then a teen-ager from a recently arrived Cuban immigrant family, to work at a Westside McDonald's about six years ago. The two men became friends and eventually Burgos married Arango's sister, Elizabeth.

Former McDonald's employees recall Burgos as an honest man and a caring supervisor.

"He was my manager and he always gave me a lot of advice," said Patricia Reyes, 21, who worked for Burgos at a McDonald's near Venice. "He always told me to stay in school. He helped me so much, I can't believe he's gone."

Family members said Burgos left McDonald's last year to study computer diagnostics at the United College of Business in Hollywood. School officials say he never missed a class.

On Friday, Feb. 16, the last school day before the shooting, Burgos had taken the first part of a high school equivalency examination.

"I'm going to pass that test," Burgos told one fellow student just before taking the exam. "And if I don't pass it, I'm going to take it again."

Burgos was apparently unaware that since early January, his home was being monitored by SIS. Police believed that Arango, who lived with Burgos and his wife in their Venice duplex, was connected to a string of robberies of nine fast-food restaurants, including eight McDonald's.

In each robbery, four Latino suspects wearing Halloween-style masks forced managers to open safes, either after the restaurants had closed or shortly before opening, detectives said.

Although police declined to provide the exact locations, dates and details of the robberies, they said that in each case the robbers appeared to have knowledge of the restaurants' layout and operations. During the holdups, they used handguns and sometimes sawed-off shotguns, police said.

In four instances, store managers were abducted shortly after arriving home from work and brought back to the closed restaurants. They were then forced to open the doors and safes.

On the Sunday evening before the Sunland robbery, SIS officers renewed their stakeout of Burgos' Venice duplex. Inside, Arango and Burgos were watching television with Burgos' wife and her mother, Julia Gomez.

Some time after 10:30 p.m., Burgos kissed his wife goodby, telling her that he and Arango were leaving to play billiards at a local pool hall. He promised to return soon.

Just as the two men were walking out the door, Burgos received a phone call from a friend and classmate at the business school. The friend, who asked that his name not be published, said Burgos told him he "was just going out for a few hours. He told me to call him at 6 the next morning because he would pick me up to go to school."

Burgos and Arango then left in Arango's 1987 bronze-colored Thunderbird. The two men stopped somewhere in the Venice area to pick up Bahena and Olivas, police said.

According to the police account, the four men arrived in Sunland about midnight. The suspects spent 90 minutes watching the closed restaurant from several positions--on foot and in the car--before parking directly across the street.

Burgos, Bahena and Olivas then left the car and walked toward the restaurant while Arango stayed behind in the car. At 1:26 a.m., manager Robin Cox, 24, the only employee left inside, heard someone trying to pry open the door. She called 911. But SIS officers were already watching the restaurant, and police patrol cars did not respond.

Lt. Hall said the SIS officers considered making arrests at that point, but decided against it because the four men were not all together. "There was a problem in gathering (the suspects) up because one suspect was still in the vehicle across the street, there were two behind the store and one on the side."

Once the restaurant door was opened, Arango joined the other three men inside the restaurant. The four then apparently put on Halloween masks, police said. For nearly 30 minutes, the robbers stayed inside the McDonald's, while at least four unmarked police cars remained quietly parked outside.

Cox was tied up and threatened at gunpoint until she agreed to open the safe. About 2 a.m., the men emerged from the restaurant with several thousand dollars in cash, police said. The nine officers approached the suspects and began firing when one of the passengers in the car pointed a pellet gun at the officers, police said.

Burgos was in the front passenger seat. When shooting began, he jumped out of the car with a pellet gun in hand and was shot as he ran away from the officers into a vacant lot, police said.

Among the possessions returned to his wife last week was the wallet he was carrying--inside were several powder-burned and blood-stained dollar bills that had apparently been pierced by a bullet.

Elizabeth Burgos-Arango said she has come to accept that her husband and brother were involved in Monday's robbery. She said she had no idea why her husband and brother would have participated in such a crime. And she refuses to believe they were involved in any others.

"They were decent and honorable people," she said in Spanish. "For that crime they should have punished them with jail. Even if they had gotten 20 years, I would have the opportunity to see them again. Instead, (the police) killed them."

Attorney Charles Mathews, who knew Arango and Burgos, said he is writing letters to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp asking for a grand jury investigation of the SIS.

"The Police Department has created a unit that is out of control and violating the civil rights of citizens," Mathews said. "If we let the police decide who is guilty, then we are destroying the foundations of democracy in the name of police justice and expediency. We have juries to decide who are criminals."

Olivas was charged Wednesday with robbery and murder in connection with the deaths of Arango, Burgos and Bahena.

Times staff writer Amy Louise Kazmin contributed to this story.

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