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Delays, Chaos Add to Woes in Solving Riot Homicides : Slayings: Workload and reluctant witnesses hamper efforts. Police indicate many cases may never be cracked.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Almost two months after the Los Angeles riots, detectives say they have made little progress in solving the homicides stemming from the unrest and indicate that most cases may never be cracked.

Arrests have been made in four of the 33 cases in which civilians took the lives of fellow civilians. The bulk of the homicides have been difficult to solve, authorities said, because investigators got a late start, most attacks were random and cooperative witnesses have been scarce.

“We usually put up yellow tape . . . and immediately knock on some doors,” said Lt. Richard Molony of the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau homicide division, which is investigating a dozen riot-related killings. “When we get a homicide during civil unrest and the body is driven from the shooting location to the hospital, we don’t even know where the victim was killed.”

In the chaos of the riots, LAPD investigators initially believed that the first three victims--Dwight Taylor, Louis Watson and Greg Davis--were shot in separate incidents in South Los Angeles.

Days later, however, detectives discovered that the three--rushed separately to hospitals by friends--apparently were shot by the same young gunman outside a swap meet at Vernon and Vermont avenues.

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Watson’s father, Eric Fleming, began investigating the deaths on his own and has forwarded crucial findings to detectives. In a rubble-strewn parking lot, he found his 18-year-old son’s bloodstained baseball cap with a hole from the fatal bullet. Detectives now say they are confident they will solve the case.

“When all the police officers were handling the rioting, the only investigator was me,” Fleming said. “I’ve been in dope houses, hanging out with gang members. I’ve seen it all.”

LAPD Detective Richard Marks said: “We’d be nowhere without the family’s help.”

Hostility was so intense after the shooting of motorist Howard Epstein that detectives towed away the victim’s Thunderbird while his body was still behind the wheel. This unusual step was taken, they said, to preserve evidence from the crime scene.

Weeks later, the hostility lingered. “If I saw the license plate (of the getaway car) and had a photographic memory and a cop came up to me, I wouldn’t tell him a thing,” said longtime neighborhood resident Leroy Miller, who was near the scene of the April 30 shooting.

In the case of a stabbing victim in the Pico-Union neighborhood, LAPD detectives were not notified of the homicide for 24 hours and did not begin their investigation for 10 days. Rampart Station detectives, whose caseloads were already brimming, had to help with patrol duties during the unrest, authorities said.

Detectives then were unable to find the family of Adolfo Morales, also known as Andres J. Garnica, until they received a lead through a wire service reporter’s inquiry.

Police attribute 45 deaths to the civil unrest that rocked Los Angeles County after the not guilty verdicts in the case of four white LAPD officers charged with beating Rodney G. King. Gunfire killed 33 people, most of whom did not appear to know their assailants. Investigators said it does not appear that any assailant participated in more than one deadly shooting incident.

“None of them are related,” said Molony. “The 9-millimeter is the gun of choice now and some of the attacks were with 9-millimeters. But we haven’t been able to match any of the homicides. The vehicle descriptions are different, the suspect descriptions are different.”

Besides the shootings, three traffic fatalities are being investigated as possible vehicular homicide cases--including that of a woman pedestrian struck by a motorist on the Harbor Freeway. Four other riot victims--one unidentified--died in fires set by arsonists in commercial structures. Other victims were stabbed, beaten or strangled.

The district attorney’s office is investigating the deaths of 10 young men shot by law enforcement officers during the unrest. Final rulings on whether the officers acted properly are not expected for at least two months.

Authorities say two other riot-related deaths--one of a heart attack, the other of a drug overdose--did not appear to be homicides. In addition, the shooting of a Koreatown security guard by a co-worker during a mini-mall looting incident has been called accidental, and the shooting deaths of two assailants outside retail stores have been deemed justified.

Those killed included a onetime college basketball star, the manager of a Japanese restaurant, a grocery store owner, felons and illegal immigrants from Central America.

Only a handful of the attacks appeared to have had racial overtones, including the shooting deaths of Epstein and of Matthew Haines, 32. A white Long Beach auto mechanic, Haines was on his way to help a black friend with moving chores, was dragged from his motorcycle by rioters, beaten and shot. Eight black males, four of them juveniles, have been charged in the slaying. Warrants have been issued for two others.

The overwhelming majority of the victims were black and Latino men who resided in the riot-ravaged neighborhoods. Several of those killings, authorities said, may have been attempts to settle lingering scores under the cloak of chaos.

Police believe that a gang member shot Watson--and killed two others in the same barrage of gunfire--because Watson had refused to join the neighborhood gang.

The South Los Angeles drive-by shooting death of Alfred Miller, 32, who was wearing a body cast from a previous shooting, may have been connected to a past feud, authorities said.

“There was no exchange of words, no confrontation--just the shots fired,” said LAPD Detective Rosemary Sanchez.

Even when police know the alleged assailant’s identity, they sometimes have trouble putting together a solid case. A suspect was arrested in the Miller slaying, but the district attorney’s office decided that the witness’s identification was too shaky.

Los Angeles police generally solve about 70% of homicide cases, but investigators expect that the rate will be far less for the riot deaths.

Families and friends of some victims have questioned whether the efforts of police agencies have been adequate.

Thanh Lam, 25, was shot by an unidentified gunman at a Compton intersection near his family’s small grocery market. His family, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1978 and arrived in Southern California a year later, said it has been frustrated by the lack of information from Compton police and the apparent lack of progress in the investigation.

“It seems that the police are ineffective,” Lam’s mother, Minh Thi Quach, said through an interpreter. “They’re not working right. Something is not right about the system.”

Detective Gilbert Cross said investigators are doing their best to solve the difficult case.

Most riot-related slayings were tragic instances of victims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such homicides are particularly difficult to solve, say detectives, comparing them to the deaths that occur on New Year’s Eve when guns are fired randomly.

The only shred of evidence that sheriff’s homicide investigator Mike Bumcrot has had to go on in the shooting death of Eduardo Vela in Ladera Heights is the bullet that lodged in the victim’s stomach. Vela, the manager of a Japanese restaurant, was killed as he waited behind the steering wheel of his disabled car on Slauson Avenue while a friend went to make a telephone call.

Bumcrot is banking on a long shot--that the Los Angeles Police Department or federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrested someone during the riots with a gun capable of firing a bullet like the one that killed Vela.

“I’m an optimistic guy so I never say never,” said Bumcrot, a 24-year veteran who has about 30 open homicide cases that he and his partner are working. “But this is going to be a tough one to solve.”

Detectives do not even have a bullet in the death of Hector Castro, 49, who was shot during a Koreatown looting melee. The fatal bullet passed through the Central-American immigrant’s neck and was never found, authorities said.

“There were 150 to 300 people out there,” said LAPD Detective Steven Sena. “Not only were there Korean merchants shooting their weapons to scare off looters, but possible gang members and looters were shooting at the Koreans to get them out of the stores.

“It makes the case almost impossible (to solve),” said Sena, who planned to place notices in English, Spanish and Korean on neighborhood buildings in a last-ditch attempt to find witnesses.

In other cases, photographs or videotapes of looting and arson scenes are being sought to help investigators identify potential witnesses.

Stabbing victim Adolfo Morales, 37, collapsed and died after walking up to Los Angeles firefighters battling a blaze near the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Alvarado Street. However, detectives were not notified of the killing for a day, and did not begin their investigation for another 10 days because they had other riot-related duties.

“We have not been able to establish where exactly he was when he was stabbed,” said LAPD Detective Diljeet Singh. "(If we had arrived quickly) we could have established a blood trail.”

Police believe that Morales, a father of six, may have been attacked a block to the west where looters set fire to a mini-mall.

“You’re talking about a place where there were hundreds of people,” said Detective Gus Olivares. With videos, he said, police might be able to determine where Morales was attacked and who was with him.

Investigators believe there was also a crowd at Slauson and Seventh avenues where Epstein was shot. But getting people to talk is difficult.

Epstein, who had flown from his Northern California home to check on his South Los Angeles metal manufacturing business, was struck in the head by a bullet that apparently came from a pickup truck that had pulled alongside his car.

His car careened into a liquor store parking lot, where a crowd quickly gathered. Onlookers broke into applause when someone yelled that the dead driver was white, witnesses said, and Epstein’s cellular telephone, camera, briefcase and pistol were stolen.

Several witnesses described the scene in interviews, but said they would not cooperate with investigators because they have an antagonistic relationship with police.

“I don’t believe anybody should just drive up and shoot somebody, but I really don’t give a damn if this case is solved,” said one witness, who refused to provide his name.

Times staff writer Victor Merina contributed to this story.

How the Riot Victims Died

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29

* Louis Watson, 18; Dwight Taylor, 42; and Greg Davis, 15, were shot outside a swap meet that was being looted at Vernon and Vermont avenues. Police believe a gang member was firing at Watson but struck all three black men.

* Arturo Miranda, a 20-year-old Latino, was fatally shot in his car at 120th Street and Central Avenue while riding home from a soccer game.

* Anthony Netherly, a 19-year-old black, was struck in the head by a random bullet while riding in a car at 78th and San Pedro streets.

* Willie Williams, a 29-year-old black, was thrown from a truck during a traffic accident at an intersection at Gage and Western avenues where traffic signals had failed.

* Eduardo Vela, a 33-year-old Latino restaurant manager from Bakersfield, was shot while waiting in his broken-down car in the 5100 block of Slauson Avenue while a friend went to make a telephone call.

* DeAndre Harrison, a 17-year-old black, was shot by Los Angeles police officers outside a liquor store at 112th Street and Central Avenue.

* Dennis Ray Jackson, 38, and Anthony Taylor, 31, both black, were shot by LAPD officers at the Nickerson Gardens housing project.

* John H. Willers, 37, a white construction worker from Utah, was shot outside the motel he was temporarily living in on North Sepulveda Boulevard in Mission Hills.

* Ernest Neal Jr., 28, and Elbert Wilkins, 33, both black, were killed by drive-by gunmen as they stood together outside a liquor store at 92nd Street and Western Avenue.

THURSDAY, APRIL 30

* Ira McCurry, a 45-year-old white golf course maintenance worker, was shot at 102nd Street and Avalon Boulevard as he sought to persuade looters not to start a fire in a liquor store that could have spread to the adjacent residence he shared with friend.

* Brian E. Andrew, a 30-year-old black man, was shot in the head by a Compton police officer in a tussle after a looting incident.

* Howard Epstein, a 49-year-old Anglo from white Orinda, Calif., was shot by gunmen in a vehicle near Slauson and 7th avenues as he drove to inspect his manufacturing plant in South Los Angeles.

* Thanh Lam, a 25-year-old Asian grocery merchant, was shot by unidentified gunmen in a passing car at Alondra Boulevard and Willowbrook Avenue in Compton while driving to inspect his family’s market.

* Mark Garcia, a 15-year-old Latino, was shot as he scaled a fence at 107th and Burin streets in Lennox by sheriff’s deputies who had been pursuing suspects in a previous looting incident.

* Patrick Bettan, 30, a French native working as a security guard at a Koreatown mini-mall at 2740 W. Olympic Boulevard, was accidentally shot by a co-worker during a looting incident.

* Hector Castro, a 49-year-old Latino, was shot outside a block of retail shops at Vermont and Leeward avenues by an unknown gunman during a looting melee.

* Matthew Haines, 32, a white auto mechanic, was pulled off his motorcycle, beaten and shot by a mob at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Rhea Street in Long Beach. Eight suspects were charged and two others are being sought.

* Franklin Benavidez, a 27-year-old Salvadoran immigrant, was shot by Los Angeles police officers who claim that he pointed a shotgun at them when they confronted him after an attempted robbery of a gas station at the intersection of Western and Vernon avenues.

* Juan Pineda, a 20-year-old Latino, was struck by several bullets during a firefight outside Auto Color Plus Inc., a car paint and supply shop near the corner of Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards. A suspect has been charged in the case.

* Cesar Aguilar, an 18-year-old Honduran immigrant, was shot by Los Angeles police officers who claim that he raised a toy gun toward them when he was arrested with more than 40 other alleged lootters near the intersection of 6th Street and Westlake Avenue.

* Edward Song Lee, an 18-year-old Korean-American, was attempting to protect shops near 3rd Avenue and Hobart when he was apparently shot by fellow Korean-Americans who mistook him for a looter.

* Adolfo Morales, a 37-year-old Latino, was stabbed in the chest by unknown assailants near the scene of a looting incident on Pico Boulevard near Alvarado Street. He used the alias Andres J. Garnica, police said.

* James Taylor, 26, a black, was shot in the back at the scene of a looted video store and cleaners in Hollywood.

* Jammie Harris, 38, a black, was killed when his car collided with another at Slauson and Avalon boulevards. The traffic signal was apparently out. He died on May 4.

FRIDAY, MAY 1

* Jose Solorzano, 25, a Latino, was shot by a security guard while looting at a store at Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.

* Kevin Evanshen, a 24-year-old Anglo, fell through a roof while trying to put out a fire at a check-cashing store at Braddock Drive and Inglewood Avenue.

* Meeker Gibson, 35, a black man, was shot in the chest in an apparent drive-by at Holt and Loranne avenues in Pomona.

* Charles W. Orebo, 22, a black, was shot by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy after a friend allegedly fired at an officer.

* Aaron Ratinoff, 68, an Anglo, was strangled by a supermarket produce manager in a dispute over corn husks.

* Alfred Miller, 32, a black, was shot in the neck in a drive-by shooting. He had been wearing a body cast at the time from a previous shooting.

SATURDAY, MAY 2

* Carol Benson, a 43-year-old black woman, was struck on the Harbor Freeway near Slauson Avenue in a hit-and-run accident.

* William Ross, a 33-year-old Anglo, was found inside a market that had been firebombed at 2882 W. 9th St.

* An unidentified man was found in the rubble of a Pep Boys auto parts store at Slauson and Vermont avenues.

* Juana Espinosa, 65, a Latina, was shot in the stomach on South Compton Avenue in the Florence area by a 15-year-old boy who authorities say was aiming for two other youths.

* Susan Morgan, a 24-year-old black woman, was allegedly shot by her boyfriend, Dedrick Jordan, at her East 115th Street apartment. Police say he obtained the gun because of the rioting.

SUNDAY, MAY 3

* Howard Martin, a 22-year-old black man, was killed by what Pasadena police have termed a stray bullet fired by an officer in the midst of a confusing gun battle with late-night partygoers in North Pasadena.

* Vivian Austin, a 89-year-old black, suffered a heart attack in her home at 1649 W. 60th St. Friends said she had been distraught by the rioting.

* Marvin (Victor) Rivas, 31, was shot by National Guardsmen at Pico and Vermont avenues when he allegedly attempted to hit them with his car near a barricade.

* An unidentified man died of a possible drug overdose in the jail ward of County-USC Medical Center. The man had been arrested during the riots.

MONDAY, MAY 4

* Betty Jackson, 56, died in a traffic accident on West 58th Place while attempting to deliver food to a friend.

* Juan Vernon Salgado, a 20-year-old Latino, was found burned to death inside a store on South Main Street called Collective Merchandise Inc.

Victims of the Riots

Police authorities attribute 45 deaths to the Los Angeles riots. The majority of victims were young black and Latino men who were killed by gunfire.

By ethnicity:

Anglo: 8 (18%)

Asian: 2 (4%)

Black: 21 (47%)

Latino: 13 (29%)

Unknown: 2 (2%)

By sex:

Female: 5 (11%)

Male: 40 (89%)

By age:

15-19: 6 (13%)

20-29: 15 (33%)

30-39: 13 (29%)

40 and over: 9 (20%)

Unknown: 2 (4%)

By cause of death:

Assaults: 2 (4%)

Burns: 4 (9%)

Drug Overdose: 1 (2%)

Gunshots: 33 (73%)

Heart Attack: 1 (2%)

Traffic Accidents: 4 (9%)

Source: Law enforcement agencies; L.A. County Coroner’s Office


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