Four thousand Army soldiers and Marines sent to quell the recent week's civil disorders were sent home Saturday from riot-scarred Los Angeles, leaving the streets patrolled by National Guard units and a battle-weary police force demoralized by public bickering over their readiness and performance during the unrest.
Soon after the order to withdraw came from Washington about midday Saturday, a force of 2,500 Army troops were packing and boarding transport planes for flights back to their base at Ft. Ord. At the same time, about 1,500 Marines were convoyed south in trucks to Camp Pendleton.
Thousands of National Guard troops remained in the city, and though only a handful were visible in the caravans of Humvees that had overrun much of downtown and South Los Angeles in recent days, more than 9,000 stood by in the event of more violence.
City officials indicated that they expect the Guard to stay at least a few more days before beginning to pull out of Los Angeles.
"We're slowly becoming invisible," said a Guard spokesman. "We're not leaving town, but we are pulling back to our armories and assembly points, such as the Hollywood Bowl, where we're not quite as obvious."
Yet there were abundant signs Saturday that the city was still far from returning to normal:
- As federal troops left, Los Angeles police officers began reassuming their central law enforcement role in rubble-strewn neighborhoods that continue to display flashes of chaos and violence. LAPD officers cut short a demonstration attended by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) against Gov. Pete Wilson's proposed welfare budget cuts and arrested eight demonstrators Saturday after they refused to disperse. Meanwhile, police report that in the days since the riots, there has been a surge in sniping at officers on the streets.
- The morale among many officers, deflated by the Rodney G. King beating incident, the riots and a week of dangerous 12-hour shifts, appears to have hit a new low as a result of continued feuding between high-level police department and city officials over the breakdown in preparations for the verdicts in the King beating trial.
- More details of the Police Department's response during the first hours of the riots in South Los Angeles at Normandie and Florence avenues emerged. Police line officers said that several units attempted a harrowing drive into the mobbed intersection after the first wave of officers had retreated from the scene, only to be ordered back by higher-level officers.
- After pleas from Los Angeles civic leaders and residents for bold action that would speed the city's recovery from the three days of riots, President Bush ignored criticism by Democratic Party officials and said in a radio address that his urban policies will be sufficient to deal with the causes of the nation's worst urban rioting this century.
- After Bush's announcement last week of a $19-million anti-crime and urban development grant to the city, several City Council members argued over how to make the best use of the funds. Council members also debated whether to have Police Chief-designate Willie L. Williams replace Chief Daryl F. Gates before his June departure.
If there was any definitive movement Saturday, it came from the Army and Marine troops heading home.
Wilson, visiting National Guard troops at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Los Alamitos, announced that federal authorities had transferred their command back to state authorities.
The Army and Marines had already completed their withdrawal from the city on Friday, but remained on alert at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, both in Orange County. During six days in the city, Marines took up positions in Compton and Long Beach. The Army arrived on the scene later on, assigned to patrol the smoky streets of Watts. Neither force inflicted injuries on any rioters, but Guard troops shot and killed a motorist who allegedly tried to run them down.
"I'm very proud of them," said Maj. Gen. Marvin Covault, the commanding general for the 13,000 active duty and National Guard troops sent to deal with the riots. "These are soldiers who are trained for maximum response, and we asked them to use the absolute minimum response. They did it."
Some residents hated to see them go. Jenny Kim, owner of a women's accessory store in Watts, returned to her looted shop for the first time Saturday. As she sifted through the broken glass and other damage, she worried that other businesses might suffer her fate once the soldiers leave.
"If they pull back, I think it's going to happen again," Kim said of the troops.
Some Guard troops were called into action Saturday, backing up a force of Los Angeles police officers as they broke up a demonstration outside City Hall. Eight protesters were arrested after they refused police orders to disperse.
Waters and other leaders of the march said that they received the rally permit two months ago and had permission from Mayor Tom Bradley's office as late as Friday. But Police Sgt. Daniel Witman said the demonstrators were ordered to leave after officers learned that several groups "which have violent backgrounds" had joined the marchers.
Witman said he knew of no march permits, and added that the continuing state of emergency superseded any permission.
At several inner-city police divisions, officers who were on alert after the firebombing last week of a probation office and the underground circulation of flyers calling for gang retribution against police, reported that sniper fire has been a persistent problem since the end of full-scale violence 10 days ago.
Police spokesman Bill Frio said: "Compared to before the riot, we are getting a lot more sniper fire than we ever did. Right now, a lot of little gangsters out there don't fear the law at all."
Although he had no official tallies to back up the reports, Frio estimated there have been 20 to 30 incidents of gunfire aimed at officers in the last week.
The most recent incident occurred Saturday morning, when two suspected gang members fired at two officers in an unmarked patrol car, touching off a fusillade that left one gang member critically wounded.
One suspect, Robert Crittenden, 19, was in critical condition at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center after the shootout. A second unidentified suspect, who also shot at the officers, was arrested five hours later, surrendering after briefly barricading himself in his home.
In the 77th Division in South Los Angeles, where the riots exploded, officers were armed with mimeographed copies of "Police Killa" flyers that have turned up throughout the area in the past week, bearing ominous threats against the Police Department.
All across the city, officers tried to stay alert, fighting off the weariness that has worn at them in a week of successive 12-hour shifts. At one South Los Angeles reception desk, an officer rubbed his eyes and dozed off for a moment in the middle of a woman's angry narrative about a stolen bicycle.
"Sorry, ma'am," he said, awakened with a start after a colleague elbowed him in the ribs. "We're going through brain meltdown."
Some officers battled their exhaustion and depression by joining in community relief efforts. At the Wilshire Division, officers helped neighborhood volunteers with a hastily arranged food distribution program. On Saturday, more than 300 families lined up in the parking lot for free cereal, canned goods and diapers.
At first, the program's organizers intended only to distribute groceries to needy families identified by churches and schools. But as word of the program spread through surrounding neighborhoods, dozens more people came to ask for a share.
"That's our neighborhood store over there," said Juanita Weed, 32, pointing at a burned-out structure behind the police station. "We've got to go miles for food and I haven't got a car."
While Weed complained that the police in the past "never were there when I needed them," she said her attitude has changed in the last week. "I feel for them having to go through all this rioting," she said. "We're all human beings and nobody deserves to have to go through something like that."
In recent days, as they have watched high-ranking police, fire, public safety and other city officials squabble to find villains in the rapid spread of the riots, already embittered officers have sunk to new depths of Angst.
Last week, several top police officials--among them Deputy Chiefs David D. Dotson and Matthew V. Hunt--suggested failures in preparations for the King verdicts. And Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and city Fire Chief Donald Manning criticized Gates for poor planning. Gates has conceded some mistakes, but also blamed lapses on lower-level police commanders.
"It gets them down, working 12-hour shifts day after day, then reading in the paper how their department is ineffective," said Wilshire Sgt. Ron Batesole, 47. "Everyone's out there pointing fingers and placing blame when they should be trying to figure out what's to be learned."
During the early days of the riots, Batesole said, "it was such frustration. We couldn't arrest anybody."
Batesole also defended 77th Street Station's Lt. Mike Moulin, whose decision to order front-line officers to pull out from the chaos-engulfed corner of Normandie and Florence avenues in the first hours of the riot was singled out as a crucial "mistake" by Gates.
"I've worked with Mike over the years and he's no better and no worse than the average lieutenant on this job," Batesole said. "Other people given that same responsibility probably would have acted the same way. . . . He cares for his troops. He's protective of his people and he felt they were going to be overwhelmed and injured."
Even as Moulin's performance was being debated in street conversations between patrol officers across the city, two 77th Street Station officers described a harrowing attempt to restore order at Normandie and Florence after a first wave of officers had withdrawn.
The officers, who declined to be named, said that they made a pass at the mobbed intersection around 5:45 on the night of April 29. They appear to have been the last officers to try to quell the disorder before a raging mob dragged cement truck driver Reginald O. Denny out of his rig and badly beat him an hour later.
"We drove toward a whole crowd of looters who were standing outside Tom's Liquors and scattered them," one officer said. "They took off running."
Another officer said he ordered the looters to "drop their stuff," and was answered with a hail of obscenities and liquor bottles.
About the same time, the officers said, they heard an order over their police radio to retreat to a command post being set up almost a mile away at 54th Street and Arlington Avenue. The officers said they drove around the block, made one more pass, and again managed to briefly part the mob of looters before pulling out.
"We thought about disobeying orders and going for it, but we couldn't do it," one of the officers said. "I didn't think it was right to leave, but we're good soldiers. In our system, you can't go off on your own. If everyone did that, we'd be in worse trouble than we already were in."
About an hour later, Denny drove into the intersection and was pulled from his truck. He is now recovering from extensive injuries.
Denny's brutal treatment, seen live on national television, was mentioned frequently by President Bush on his recent tour of Los Angeles. On Saturday in a national radio address, Bush said he saw no need to revise his urban policies after the horrors he had seen on his tour of the devastation.
After Bush's announcement last week of a $19-million anti-crime grant for the city, several City Council members argued over how to make the best use of the funds.
Councilman Ernani Bernardi said he wants to use the funds to bolster the police forces, and pay for police overtime in areas hard-hit by the riots, particularly South Los Angeles, Pico-Union and Koreatown.
But Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores said she will fight to have the money go toward rebuilding the economic infrastructure of damaged areas, and said that using it for police would have no lasting impact on the communities hit hardest by riots.
Flores and council President John Ferraro also hinted that they favored bringing in newly appointed Police Chief-designate Williams as soon as possible--even before Gates leaves, as Gates had earlier agreed to do, next month.
Times staff writers Greg Krikorian, Janet Rae-Dupree, Josh Meyer, Gebe Martinez, Vicki Torres, Paul Dean, Elaine Dutka and Bob Elston also contributed to this story.
RELATED STORIES, PICTURES: A28, A30, B1-B3