Riot Violence in Venice Has Echoes of Denny Case : Terror: A man was pulled off his bicycle and beaten by a mob. The upcoming trial carries racial overtones.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Half an hour before Reginald Denny drove his truck into the now-famous intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, Mark Rosenberg pedaled his bicycle along a residential street in Venice--and into a chillingly similar reign of terror.

Much as Denny was pulled from his truck, the 33-year-old Rosenberg was pulled off his bike, then beaten unconscious by a group of young black men. Like Denny, Rosenberg was saved by good Samaritans, including a black woman who stopped her car to shoo off his attackers.

But in Venice, too, the rescue did not end the violence. Mobs smashed windows of cars and houses, looted a nearby store, then joined in among the most horrifying episodes of the riots--storming a series of Venice homes while the occupants huddled in side rooms. One father clutched a shotgun as his disabled daughter, screaming, crawled to safety.

Four months later, the criminal cases stemming from the April 29 incidents in two very different Los Angeles neighborhoods are following parallel tracks through courthouses 20 miles apart. But while the Denny case has become a political event, a lightning rod for post-riot tensions, the Venice case has moved along in relative anonymity because of one basic difference: no videotape.

In some respects, the case dubbed "Denny West" in the Santa Monica courthouse carries even higher emotions than its high-profile counterpart.

This was one area of Los Angeles where riot violence was not primarily targeted at businesses, but at homes. The victims were not strangers or absentee shopkeepers, but neighbors in a community where different races and social classes have tried to live side by side.

"Everybody thought it was a pretty good experiment, the only really mixed community on the Westside," said Don Tollefson, owner of a triplex that was ransacked while two young women tenants hid in a bathroom.

"They were horrified and they left, never to return," Tollefson said. "Since the riot, nobody's saying anything (about) the great experiment."

There are five defendants in "Denny West," charged variously with attempted murder, terrorist threats or other counts.

The backdrop for the case is Venice's Oakwood area, where 9,000 people--Latinos, blacks and whites--live in a mix of modest bungalows, modernistic fix-ups and 15 federally subsidized housing projects. Tensions have increased in recent years as poorer residents fear displacement by gentrification, while others have been outraged by brazen drug-dealing around the projects, stomping grounds of the Venice Shoreline Crips gang.

Two years ago, President Bush awarded a "Point of Light" to the founder of the Oakwood Beautification Committee, declaring that "Oakwood is no longer a setting for terror. It is a neighborhood for hope. The darkness of drugs, crime and fear is being banished."

The committee was typical of Oakwood's liberal populace, people committed to making the diversity work.

It is the kind of community where Mark Rosenberg, who is white, "didn't give a second thought" to taking his usual evening bike ride after the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating trial, in the words of a prosecutor.

But when he passed the apartments in the 600 block of Brooks Avenue, "he heard someone yell out, 'white boy,' at which point he observed a male black running from the crowd towards him," Los Angeles police Detective Joey Rivera testified at a preliminary hearing in July.

Rosenberg told police the man hit him and "that's the last thing he remembers."

The cyclist declined to discuss the incident, but witnesses said six or seven men beat and kicked him, using rocks and bottles at times, until a middle-aged black woman stopped her car and screamed at them "to leave him alone." A neighbor called for an ambulance and Rosenberg was taken to the hospital with a concussion, broken collarbone, bruised ribs and cuts on his arms, legs and face.

"What she did was fairly heroic," Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Stone said of the motorist. In an early hint of the uneasiness generated by the case, however, the woman said she wouldn't testify against the attackers. "She could I.D. everyone there, but she's scared to death," Stone said.

Another black witness also refused to testify.

Although the Denny suspects were arrested in two weeks, arrests were not made in Oakwood until June 2, when 22 alleged gang members were rounded up as suspects in the Rosenberg beating, in attacks on two houses located on the same block and in the looting of a Korean-owned stereo store.

Prosecutors eventually declined to press charges against 12 of them, and several others pleaded guilty to relatively minor counts, leaving the five who face up to 11 years in prison if convicted.

But without a videotape, the prosecution hinges on testimony of two neighbors--both white, injecting unavoidable racial overtones into the case.

One of the two told police she saw Shauntee Snodgrass, 21, lead the assault on Rosenberg. Later, when the riot had gathered steam, she heard a gunshot and "the sound of metal striking metal." Officers found a bullet hole in her wall. She has since moved out of state.

The other witness was Marshall Bagby, a 37-year-old Coast Guard veteran and boat engine repairman who considers Venice's social activist set "very naive."

From his glassed-in, burglar-barred sun porch, Bagby has a front row seat to the goings-on along Brooks Avenue. Every other day, he calls police to report drug dealing. His phone is programmed to speed-dial the Pacific division's front desk.

Bagby's testimony dominated the preliminary hearing as he described the attack on the bicyclist and recalled the spreading mayhem that finally reached his front door.

When he told how one purported gang member "picked up a brick from the yard and walked over and hit (Rosenberg)," a defense attorney noted the parallel to events at Florence and Normandie.

"You're not confusing this with the Reginald Denny incident that you watched on your TV, are you?" he was asked.

"No," Bagby said--Denny happened later.

Soon after the assaults on the truck driver were broadcast on television, Bagby said, he looked out his windows and saw a new scene unfolding with the Oakwood mob.

"They broke the windows out of a Mercedes-Benz that was parked in front of a neighbor's house. They broke his windows. And then they came to the house next to mine and they broke the windows there," he testified. "And they even went into the yards to retrieve the rocks, so they could use them again. Recycling, I guess."

Bagby said he saw Snodgrass fire the shot at the other witness's house, then called out the reputed gang member's name--to let Snodgrass know he was watching and "what he was doing was wrong."

Bagby said he also delivered a defiant message to the young gunman: "I told him I was waiting for my turn."

Not much later, he and his family did come under siege, according to Bagby's testimony.

A group of perhaps a dozen came by about 7:30 p.m., laughing and "yelling racial slurs . . . 'Let's burn the white boy out,' " he said.

Rocks smashed his windows, but the mob soon "moved on to something more interesting," Bagby said--a car passing on 7th Street.

The group returned about two hours later, he said, as many as 30 of them now. They pelted the house with rocks as he was hunkered down inside with a shotgun.

His wife was gone, but the two children were there. Amanda, 5, normally confined to a wheelchair, pulled "herself along the floor . . . to retreat," screaming.

"My son (age 12) was on the front porch for support and I had given him the keys to the back gate and told him that if anything were to happen, to take his little sister, the best he could, and try to get next door."

Police do not know whether the group accused of beating the bicyclist and of terrorizing Bagby were responsible for other violence around Oakwood that night. At least three occupied homes were overrun by rioters, but no witnesses have been able--or willing--to make identifications in those cases.

About 20 young men swept through the lower floor of Don Tollefson's triplex while his two women tenants fled to the bathroom. "Two guys came in and hit one of the girls in the face," he said.

It took him three months to rent the unit after they left.

On Indiana Avenue, a mob ransacked the house of a white family, then set it on fire. The husband and wife were out, but their baby-sitter was home with their 5-year-old son. She grabbed him, ran to a laundry room and locked the door.

"It's not that they hate me," the mother said later. "They don't know me. They hate what I stand for."

They, too, moved.

On Broadway, a house was raided that belonged to a black couple--both active in Neighborhood Watch and who, like Bagby, frequently reported drug dealing to police. "There are a lot of good things to be said about Oakwood," the husband said last week. "But we've been hit so hard . . . we just want to quietly slip out of here."

They're looking out of state.

That leaves Bagby alone among the main Oakwood victims in both staying put and testifying.

The trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 2. Facing various charges along with Snodgrass are James Hill, 23; Arron Soil, 22; Melvin Hayward Jr., 19, and Barron Deal, 23.

During a short proceeding last week, they were brought into court in chains while their relatives sat together. The defendants have been held on bail of up to $150,000.

Much as in the Denny beating, defense attorneys in the Venice case complain that the district attorney's office "over-filed" the charges, making them more severe than warranted.

"They've taken a very hard line," said John Murphy, who represents Hayward. He questions how prosecutors could charge attempted murder in the beating when "this was a spontaneous act. . . . It could not have been premeditated."

The families, meanwhile, are most annoyed at the length of time it's taken to bring the case to trial.

"Four months in jail," said Hayward's father, Melvin Hayward Sr., who manages the apartment complex on Brooks. "Even if the boys beat the case, they'll still have served four months in jail."

Lawyers on both sides of the case predict it could be difficult to get convictions if black witnesses do not come forward. Defense attorneys already have challenged the motives of the white residents in testifying against their black neighbors.

Bagby himself provided the defense with some of its best ammunition when he was shown mug shots from the police "gang book" in an attempt to identify all those who stormed his house. While he had no trouble picking out some, knowing them since they were children, he also "identified" two men who couldn't have been there--one was dead, another in prison at the time of the riots.

"How you going to identify someone who's dead?" Melvin Hayward Sr. said outside court, shaking his head.

"He's always been a problem," Hayward said of Bagby. "He just wants revenge. . . . He's got a thing toward all black kids. They waited to these riots to get these kids. They want you to think there's a lot of problems in Venice with gangs and all that."

Hayward says the case is one of misidentification.

"The guys that did it are still on the street," he said. "It was a few people that didn't live on our street."

Sitting in his sun porch last week, Bagby acknowledged that the case has not helped relations in Oakwood.

"Race will be used as an issue, especially by the defense. But I don't think it's a black-and-white issue," he said. "It's a bunch of bad guys who beat up a kid who came into the neighborhood and who didn't deserve it."

He says he understands why others are "afraid to stand up."

"But the one thing I've learned here," he said, "is the more indecisive you are, the braver they are about making you a victim. . . . I don't know what to do. I can't (afford to) leave."

Blocks away, a former leader of the Oakwood Beautification Committee said he has evolved from a self-described "social activist" to a "law-and-order" advocate, much like Bagby.

"Since the riot, there are a lot of people who are disheartened," he said. "I'm among them, but I still feel there are more good people than bad people. And the good people will win.

"Of course," he added, "we're all better armed than we were 90 days ago."

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