In a phenomenal indication of the citywide attention riveted on the Rodney King case, an unfounded rumor that the police beating victim had died on a hospital operating table exploded across town Thursday, from homes to hospitals, from factories to high-rise stock brokerage firms.
The midday rumor, spread largely by word of mouth, was denied by King’s doctor and by city officials.
It was not clear how the rumor started. King underwent surgery of an unspecified nature Thursday.
“As of 1:30 (p.m.), he was very much alive and well,” said Dr. Alvin Reiter, a facial and neck surgeon who performed the operation.
The rumor’s volatility was such that Mayor Tom Bradley at noon issued an extraordinary advisory discounting the report: “Mayor Tom Bradley . . . called Steven Lerman, Mr. King’s attorney, who reports that the operation is finished and that Mr. King is presently in recovery in good condition.”
Nonetheless, newspaper, television and radio newsrooms across the city were besieged by urgent inquiries. The Los Angeles Times alone received more than 100 calls between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. from people ranging from rocket engineers to sheriff’s deputies.
Some callers said they heard the rumor on two radio stations and one television news affiliate. Contacted by The Times, however, news directors at all three denied having reported that King had died.
A call to The Times from 41-year-old Jackie Smith of Watts was typical.
“A woman called me and said that Mr. King died on the operating table. Is this true?” asked Smith, who works as a volunteer at the Brotherhood Crusade office in South-Central Los Angeles. “The woman said she heard from a friend who heard it on the news.”
A similar call to The Times came from Glen Stevens, 60, who said the rumor was “sweeping” through his stock brokerage firm in downtown Los Angeles.
“The rumor came through a broker who heard from a client that King died while undergoing restorative facial surgery,” Stevens said. “I just thank dear God that it is not a hot August night.”