Angel in Minister's Collar : Reunion: Latino victim who was dragged from his truck and beaten meets the black pastor who challenged the angry mob. 'I thank you. You saved me,' he says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight days after their lives crossed chaotically at the burning corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, Fidel Lopez met the Rev. Bennie Newton for the first time.

In the frenzied early hours of the riots, Lopez, a Latino, had been one of first victims of the mob cruelty, torn out of his truck and beaten senseless. Newton, a black minister, covered Lopez's body with his own, screaming: "Kill him and you have to kill me too!"

Newton's action saved Lopez. The 59-year-old minister's actions were partially caught on videotape by an amateur photographer.

On Thursday night, they faced each other outside a house in Torrance, hugged and cried.

"I passed through a bad moment," the 47-year-old Lopez said, wiping his eyes. "I thank you. You saved me."

"You look well," Newton said softly. Of course, Lopez did not. His face was still swollen from the 29 stitches in his forehead because of a blow from an auto stereo, 17 stitches to one ear--which someone tried to slice off--and 12 stitches under the chin. Although no bones were broken, his body still aches from blows to his back and shoulder, and the pain in his head is unceasing.

The two began to relive that terrible night, sitting next to each other on a couch in Lopez brother-in-law's home. Lopez's family has not dared return to their South Los Angeles neighborhood a block from Florence and Normandie.

As the men talked, Lopez's family and Newton's son, Emanuel, listened intently.

A native of Guatemala, Lopez has been in the United States for more than 20 years and works for a contractor. He was still struggling to understand: "Why did they want to do that? I didn't do anything. I could have left my three daughters without a father."

That evening, Lopez was driving back to his rented home. He had not heard about the not guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King trial. When he was stopped at a red light and saw a liquor store in flames, he figured somebody was fighting.

Newton, pastor of the Light of Love Church in Los Angeles, had gone home from his weekday job running a carpet-cleaning business when he saw a television report showing cement trucker Reginald O. Denny being beaten at the intersection.

He was planning to go to the ministers' peace rally at the First African Methodist Church that night, but he decided to go to the corner instead. "Something was driving me."

One building at the corner was in flames when Newton got there, and people were beating motorists. An ex-convict who says God turned his life around 15 years ago, Newton felt he could talk to the young men in the crowd because "I used to be a gangbanger. I know how they think."

But nobody seemed to listen. "I kept telling people, there's another way, there's another way. But they pushed me to the side. They kept telling me: 'Take that to Simi Valley. We don't want to hear it.' "

Newton saw Lopez jerked from his 12-year-old truck. "They had this spray can. They were spraying this stuff all over his face."

Lopez remembered seeing Newton's face. "I saw him. He was yelling: 'Don't do that! Don't do that!' "

Then someone hit Lopez hard, "and the rest I don't remember."

"Blood was shooting out of your forehead, your eyes rolled back, and your eyeballs literally disappeared," Newton said. "You stopped breathing."

It was at this point that the videotape captured Newton, praying over Lopez's prostrate body.

"About five minutes later you began to breathe again," Newton said.

"It's incredible," said Lopez's wife, Coralia.

"No, it was a miracle," Newton said.

After Lopez regained consciousness, Newton got him into his car and took him to his home. When Newton could not get an ambulance to come, he drove Lopez to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital.

The next morning, Lopez was released. In the past few days, after hearing of Lopez's experience, the National Foundation for the Junior Blind in Los Angeles has given him a 1979 truck because his was destroyed at the corner.

Thursday night, Newton told Lopez his church has started a fund in an effort to replace the nearly $3,000 stolen from him that night. His boss had given him the money to buy insulation and drywall for a big job the next day. Donations should be sent to the church at 7400 Osage Ave., Los Angeles, Newton said.

"The first thing you said to me was, 'They took my money,' " Newton said. "I said: 'Forget about the money, you have your life.' "

Newton sought to comfort Lopez. "Out of tragedy will come good. So many people have called me to find out how they can help. We want to rebuild without politicians, from the grass-roots. I think we can do it and you will have work with us."

Coralia Lopez said she is afraid to return to her neighborhood.

"We have no choice, we have no money," her husband said.

"Don't have fear," Newton said. "The storm is over."

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