Shooting Death in Buena Park Might Be Business-Related

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Police and relatives say they believe the man slain Thursday while waiting in his car for a green light was targeted by business enemies.

Steven Leroy Henry, 35, of Rancho Santa Margarita managed the men who unload trucks at several local grocery store warehouses. Henry provided insurance and workers' compensation for the "swampers," as the workers are called, but also controlled who worked on the lot, took a percentage of the amount truck drivers pay for the service and required the unloaders to pay taxes on their income.

Police say the killer might have been an angry swamper who could not get onto Henry's work roster, or another entrepreneur jealous of Henry's growing clientele.

"He's cut people off from being able to do that job," Buena Park Sgt. Terry Branum said of Henry's operation, called West Coast Unloading, which handles the Lucky warehouses in Buena Park and Irvine, as well as the Food for Less warehouse in La Habra. "Either you join his group, or you can't work there anymore.

"There was a lot of ill feelings about him starting this company," Branum said, adding that Henry had received death threats several times in the past. "He's putting the independent swampers out of business."

Henry's former wife, Robin Henry, who lives in San Clemente, said Friday that she thinks the killer was a competitor, not a swamper, because Henry "gave everybody a chance to work."

Police found no evidence of attempted robbery, and ruled out the possibility that the killing followed a traffic dispute because the victim was described as easygoing and not likely to trigger a confrontation. Henry has no criminal record, and police said they do not think the shooting was drug-related. "He's clean," Branum said of the victim.

Henry was killed at about 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the busy intersection of Knott and Orangethorpe avenues, just a quarter of a mile from the Lucky warehouse in Buena Park, where he was headed for a daily check on his workers.

While Henry sat in his white pickup truck, heading north on Knott, a passenger got out of a car in the left-turn lane, walked to Henry's truck, shot several times through the driver's window, then walked around the truck and fired again through Henry's passenger side window, police said. The gunman then returned to his car--described as a late 1970s/early 1980s light-colored Chrysler or Oldsmobile in poor condition--and fled with another man, either north on Knott or west on Orangethorpe, police said.

Henry died of a single gunshot wound to the chest at 11:25 a.m. at UCI Medical Center in Orange, Branum said. Three other bullets, shot from a .38-caliber handgun, landed in Henry's arm, leg and buttocks.

Investigators on Friday interviewed truck drivers and swampers at the Lucky warehouses in Buena Park and Irvine, but they had no specific leads on the identity or whereabouts of the suspect, whom witnesses described as about 35 with a mustache and collar-length, curly brown hair slicked back.

The car's license plate was identified as IKTG419, Branum said, but that plate was traced back to a Toyota that a North Hollywood woman sold several months ago, so police believe the registration was illegal.

"It just sounds to me like someone hired someone to kill him," said Henry's father, Bill Henry, who lives in Ventura. "It's over a business situation, I'm sure. I don't know how many people he displaced when he came in to do his business, but maybe it was jealousy. It's certainly something underhanded."

Although Henry began West Coast Unloading with the Lucky account in 1987, relatives said the attack may be in response to his recent success. Henry acquired the Food for Less account last year, closed a contract with Vons in San Diego and Ontario last week, and was about to acquire a contract with the Hughes warehouse in Irvine, according to his attorney, Richard Rockwell.

Henry employed 40 to 80 people at the three warehouses, paying swampers about $12 an hour, relatives said. His former partner, Rick Whistler, was considering rejoining the business, they added.

"He was getting mighty big," Jeffrey Henry, a truck driver who regularly delivered to the Lucky warehouses, said of his brother's business. "He was going to eventually get everything, you could see that. (Jealousy) is what everyone in my family thinks."

Added Henry's sister, Vicki Logan: "It was just mushrooming--he was just doing so well."

In March, Henry married Mary Rapp, who has a daughter, Amanda. Mary Rapp Henry handles the bookkeeping for West Coast Unloading.

Besides his business, Henry was a hobby athlete, playing basketball and softball through the YMCA and water-skiing off his speedboat. He shared custody of his two children, Jennifer, 8, and Kurt, 6, with his former wife, from whom he was divorced in 1991.

"He just has such a generous heart. When any of us is in a bind, he's always there," Logan said. "He was always smiling. I can't imagine anyone wanting to take his life."

Relatives said services would be Tuesday, the day after Henry would have turned 36. Arrangements are not yet complete.

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