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The Man Swept Up in the Furor : Friends, Family Say King Was Sometimes Lost but Never Violent

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Even those who have elevated Rodney G. King’s case to a cause celebre know little more about the man than what they saw in a grainy, homemade video showing him being bludgeoned, kicked and electrically stunned by Los Angeles police officers.

In his single public appearance after the incident, a battered and bruised King, seated in a wheelchair and with one leg in a cast, seemed bewildered and confused. He gave only one brief glimpse into his personality by noting that he took the beating “like a man.”

But those who know him say that even if King were to lay open his life, there would be little anyone would call unusual or extraordinary. The King they describe is a man who sometimes seemed lost, but who was never violent or cruel.

His 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame makes him an intimidating sight, they said, but behind the bulk is a mostly passive human being, a “Baby Huey,” as one friend described him.

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Even King’s one brush with crime seems typical of the way most of his acquaintances characterize him. The Monterey Park grocer who was robbed by King in November, 1989, said he did not believe King had the heart to hurt him.

“He just wanted the money,” said Tae Suck Baik. “I hit him first. If I didn’t hit him, he wouldn’t have hit me.”

Reporters have bombarded King and his attorneys with requests for interviews. People from as far away as Australia have tried to contact him, some offering to make donations.

But King has remained in seclusion. “He needs peace and quiet,” said Robert Rentzer, one of King’s attorneys. “He needs an opportunity to recover.”

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Most family members also have refused to talk about King or the beating, as have the two men who were with King at the time--Bryant Keith Allen and Freddie Helms.

Nevertheless, some relatives, neighbors, lifelong friends and co-workers describe him as an essentially ordinary man caught in an extraordinary furor.

King was born in Sacramento but grew up in in a middle-class neighborhood on the west side of Altadena, surrounded by relatives who had begun migrating to Southern California in the 1960s, said an uncle, Phil King.

His father, who died four years ago, was a construction worker who sometimes did maintenance work around town and was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, Phil King said.

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At John Muir High School, King was put in special education classes because of difficulty with reading, according to teachers there. They remembered that he played on the school’s baseball team but was not a standout.

He had no serious behavior problems, they said, but did have trouble making it to school every day. None of the teachers could remember the reason for his truancy.

By his senior year he was at least one year behind, his teachers said. In 1984, six months before he was scheduled to graduate, he dropped out, they said.

Cedric Hill, a car salesman who has known King since childhood, said King seemed to drift after dropping out. “All the Kings are really good people at heart,” he said, “but Rodney at that time was running around, hanging out, being youthful.”

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The crowd Rodney ran with, Hill said, were not criminals, as far as he knew. “Singing on the corner, hanging out at the park,” he said.

King and his wife, Crystal Waters, a friend from high school, live on Lincoln Avenue with her two young sons. Neighbors said that the couple never caused trouble or drew attention to themselves.

“They are always very polite,” said Tony Fernandez, who lives next door.

King’s robbery conviction was the result of a guilty plea to the second-degree robbery of the Monterey Park store--a perplexing incident for his friends and relatives, many of whom only found out about the incident after his record was broadcast in the past few weeks.

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“I didn’t think he had that in him,” said Anthony Beaty, a United Parcel Service supervisor who has known King since childhood.

Baik, the owner of the 99 Market, said King walked into the store, bought a single piece of bubble gum and then pulled a two-foot-long tire iron from his jacket. “Open the cash register,” King told the store owner.

Baik was willing to let the robber take the cash, but when he reached for two checks, Baik moved to stop him. “You don’t need the checks,” he said.

In an impulsive burst, Baik grabbed the robber’s jacket, pulled it off and began whipping his adversary with a three-foot-long rod he grabbed off the floor.

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Baik said King could have hit him, but instead tried to pull away, dropping the tire iron.

Baik ran around the front counter to whip the robber some more, but by that time King had grabbed a metal pole. King hit the shop owner once with the pole and then fled with about $200.

He drove off in a white Hyundai, the same one he drove on the night he was beaten. Baik scribbled down the car’s license plate number.

“I’m not mad,” Baik said. “I held him and he didn’t hit me. I hit him twice.”

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King was arrested 10 days after the robbery, and began serving a two-year sentence at the California Correctional Center in Susanville after pleading guilty to the charges.

While in prison, King wrote a judge asking for a reduction of his sentence:

“I have all good time work time. I have seriously been thinking about what happen and I think if it is possible that you can give me another chance, your honor. I have a good job and I have two fine kid who wish me home. Have so much at stake to lose if I don’t get that chance. My job and family awaits me. So please reconsider your judgment, your honor. The sky my witness and God knows.”

King’s plea was rejected. He was paroled Dec. 27 after serving a year.

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He has never publicly said why he robbed the store, but his parole agent, Tim Fowler, described it as an impulsive crime of desperation.

“He was unemployed and untrained,” Fowler said. “It was something that wasn’t planned, really. It was spur of the moment. The opportunity was there. He recognizes it was stupid.”

Fowler said that by all appearances, King seemed motivated to set his life back on course. “He’s been a good case,” said Fowler.

A week after his release, King found temporary work as a laborer at Dodger Stadium--a dream job for a former high school ballplayer who loved to talk baseball with co-workers.

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“You could set your watch by his timeliness,” said Scott Dalgleish, superintendent of Gardner Building Co., which hired King for the stadium job.

“He was never late once, never missed a day, including two weeks when he had car trouble and rode the bus to Chinatown and walked over the bridge to Dodger Stadium.

“I told him when he gets well, to call us,” Dalgleish said. “I’d take him back in a minute.”

King has not said where he and his two friends were headed the night of the beating. But one source familiar with the case said the men “were just bored and took off on the Foothill Freeway headed north.”

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The source said King was frightened when he realized the police were following him, wrongly believing that a traffic violation could send him back to prison.

King’s attorneys have said that the beating has left their client “emotionally and physically traumatized.”

His memory of the incident is blurred. He has been plagued by nightmares, replaying the incident in his sleep, his lawyers say.

King underwent surgery Thursday to repair some of the injuries, which included a fractured eye socket, a broken cheekbone, a broken leg, bruises, facial nerve damage, a severe concussion and burns from a Taser stun gun, according to Dr. Edmund Chein, one of five doctors who have examined King.

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Chein said the bones at the base of King’s skull were broken in 11 places. The blows to his head were so severe that several tooth fillings were knocked out, Chein said, adding that King may never recover from some of his wounds.


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