Most Looters Endured Lives of Crime, Poverty : Riots: Thieves ranged from addicts to students. Majority were repeat offenders, Times analysis shows.
They were poor, uneducated and--in most cases--no strangers to the criminal justice system.
The majority looted within walking distance of home, but some motored five miles or more to reach prime riot zones.
A few hurled rocks--and epithets--at police, but most were after goods. Electronic gear and liquor were their favorites. Some used a U-Haul to carry vast loads, but others sifted through the ashes of convenience stores for a beer or a can of peanuts.
And when they were caught, usually after dark, they did not cite anger over the Rodney G. King beating trial or other social grievances to explain their involvement in the nation’s worst civil unrest of the century.
“C’mon man, I just wanted some free stuff like everyone else,” declared Daniel James O’Dell Andrews, 26, arrested on La Cienega Boulevard with nine cassette tapes.
Yet the multiracial legions who took to the streets a year ago included others who were unlikely looters--people who had jobs, clean records and semblances of family lives, but who were swept up in the frenzied lawlessness that began April 29, 1992. Often, they could not say what turned them into criminals for a night.
“I’m poor, but I’m not a thief,” insisted Carlos Olivo, 29, a street-corner laborer who joined a crowd ransacking a Pico-Union liquor store.
These profiles are drawn from a Times study of nearly 700 people convicted of riot-related felonies, more than 90% of them looters. Extensive background information on each--including criminal records, work histories and residency patterns--was collected from courthouses throughout Los Angeles County, then computerized.
Among the findings:
RACE: The vast majority of those convicted of riot-related felonies were African-American or Latino men. But the Anglos who joined in, 4% of the total, were the most extreme examples of the bleak patterns seen in all groups--of destitution, fragmented families and past criminal behavior. A typical Anglo looter was a transient stealing to support a drug habit.
CRIMINAL RECORDS: For 60%, the arrest was not their first. Half the repeat offenders had prior felony convictions. Some had been released from prison weeks--or as little as one day--before their riot arrests.
POVERTY: Only a third were employed, most often as low-paid laborers--though the arrestees included an actor, a former golf pro and many security guards. Nearly two-thirds were high school dropouts; not a single defendant in the survey was a college graduate.
IMMIGRANTS: The Latinos who looted were overwhelmingly immigrants. Nearly 80% were foreign-born, a quarter having moved here in the last two years. They were more likely to hold jobs than black or white looters.
ROOTLESSNESS: Two of every five riot felons had lived at their present address one year or less. Another 11% were homeless or transients.
GANGS: Although gang members were accused in some high-profile crimes, only one in 10 of the felons had gang affiliations.
For a year now, Los Angeles has debated the meaning of the unrest that followed the acquittals by a Simi Valley jury of the Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of beating King--four turbulent days in which at least 53 people were killed, 2,383 injured and more than 8,000 arrested.
From the start, the debate has been framed by starkly contrasting visions. Some portrayed the events as a riot, others as a rebellion. One side saw the looters as motivated by greed, the other by need.
The Times undertook the study to better understand who, in fact, was on the streets--and what they were doing--from South-Central to West Los Angeles, from Long Beach to Hollywood.
To criminologists, the findings underscore differences between last year’s unrest and the riots that swept America’s urban ghettos, including Watts, a quarter-century ago.
In both periods, incidents involving perceived injustices against blacks sparked the initial violence. But in 1965--despite short outbursts elsewhere--the looting was confined largely to black neighborhoods in South-Central Los Angeles.
This time it was widely scattered among a diverse underclass who “didn’t have a stake” in their communities, people “living on the margin,” said UCLA’s James Q. Wilson, a leading expert on crime.
If the chaos had been triggered by nonpolitical events, such as an earthquake or blackout, Wilson said, “many of those persons would be back on the streets.”
“There’s no doubt some went out with rage in their hearts for Rodney King but my guess is that’s a small number,” he said.
But Paul Hoffman, the American Civil Liberties Union’s director of legal services in Southern California, said the findings do not diminish his belief that, for many participants, the unrest was “a response to longstanding neglect in the communities.”
John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, said there was a need to distinguish between the first “explosion of angry people” and the greater numbers who later joined in looting.
Although some were “the ‘have-nots’ . . . stealing the basics,” Mack said, others may simply have been “joining the party. . . . But it’s overly simplistic to attribute this to the work of criminals, thugs, gangbangers.”
The 10,000-plus pages of court records studied by The Times reflect disorder that does not lend itself to easy characterizations. In one case, gang members hurled looted TVs off the back of a truck at a police car pursuing them. In another, a lone transient, when refused a glass of water at a McDonald’s, used his lighter and a can of hair spray to create a makeshift flamethrower.
Reality often clashed with rhetoric.
The thieves included a woman who told police she was seeking “milk for her baby” and a man who said he wanted “toys for his kids.”
The woman, however, turned out to have a record of drug convictions--and no baby. The man, Hector Hernandez, 27, rammed his car into the rear door of a medical clinic, then took “boxes of medical vaccines plus vials of tetanus, diphtheria and measles virus,” according to court records.
Then there was the only incident in hundreds of files in which a suspect invoked the name “Rodney King.”
The utterance did not come from an African-American infuriated by the verdicts. It came from an Anglo and a Latino trying to rob an African-American merchant.
Last May 1, the pair stormed into a San Fernando Valley grocery store. They knocked over displays and seized 12-packs of beer.
“F--- Rodney King!” one shouted. Then, as they prepared to leave, the Latino shouted again, “Shoot the black mother------!” His partner, standing in the door, lifted the rifle.
But the storekeeper, Donald Johnson, 52, had been a machine-gunner in Vietnam. From behind the counter, he emerged with a .357 magnum.
“I kind of flashed back (to) my first firefight,” Johnson recalled.
He wounded the white robber in the chest. The Latino fled but was captured later.
“This was far more senseless and stupid than anything I saw in the war,” Johnson said, “because it happened in supposed civilized society.”
The Times’ study was based on the reports written before convicted felons are sentenced in Superior Court. The reports by probation officers remain public record for 60 days after sentencing.
About 1,600 adults have been convicted of felonies stemming from the riots. The Times reviewed 694 of these case files, 43%.
The files give intimate glimpses of the rioting, as told to probation officers:
A teen-age Wilmington gang member recalls standing outside his apartment when a friend said: “Let’s make this place look like South L.A.” A pregnant Long Beach woman pleads: “I don’t want my baby to be born in jail.” And a crack addict explains that he had to steal a car because he would otherwise have to walk and “did not want to get shot” by the National Guard.
Who They Were
The Kerner Commission, which studied the 1967 riots around the nation, described a “typical rioter” then as “a teen-ager or young adult, a lifelong resident of the city in which he rioted, a high school dropout . . . underemployed or employed in a menial job.”
With the exception of the residency finding, the profile was similar in 1992.
Of the Times’ sample, 89% were men. Half were 25 or younger; only five were 50 or older. One of those was an Inglewood woman who looted with her daughter at a Ralphs market.
The Ozzie and Harriet family was a rarity here. Few (11%) were married and their children (59%) were likely to be born out of wedlock. One transient looter told of having six children with six women. Those still staying at home were twice as likely to be living with one parent as with both.
They were poor: Only 13% earned $1,000 a month. One out of five got some government assistance, but a third reported having no income at all.
There were a few quirky exceptions. Garland Rhaul Spencer, 19, of Culver City was convicted of receiving electronic goods looted from a Fedco. Spencer, who had no prior record, is an actor who earned $40,000 for a three-month job in 1991, according to his probation report.
Despite widespread reports of “yuppie looters,” including “a Jeepload” at a Melrose Avenue clothing store, not a single person fitting that profile emerged from the data.
A silver BMW was spotted outside an Inglewood pet shop, being loaded with, among other things, a fish tank. But the looters included a mother receiving Social Security and her daughter on welfare.
Those with jobs tended to be street-corner or construction laborers, factory workers, short-order cooks, janitors and gardeners.
Pedro Romero, 38, caught at a Pico Boulevard furniture store, said he dropped out of the first grade and “does not read and write well.” A former Mexican field hand who came to Los Angeles in 1991, he worked as “a self-employed peddler of corn-on-the-cob,” earning $20 a day.
Those arrested included a Marine veteran of Operation Desert Storm, a flower deliveryman, a school cafeteria worker, an ice cream truck vendor, a former Mexican policeman, a racetrack groom, a termite inspector, a phone beeper distributor, a Dodger Stadium usher and a cat sitter who charged $1.75 an hour--and who previously worked as a “fish skinner.”
A former golf pro from Italy, working as a Bel-Air Country Club caddy, was caught stealing auto parts. A Hollywood bartender was caught looting liquor. A Pizza Hut employee was caught in a Taco Bell--in the office alongside a battered safe, a pickax nearby.
An unemployed construction worker, convicted of looting a TV set, said he hoped to pick up jobs after the riots “working for Mayor Tom Bradley and Peter Ueberroth’s office . . . to help Rebuild Los Angeles.”
Then there were the security guards--3% listed that as their current profession, and another 5% formerly worked as guards.
One, employed in Encino, was videotaped downtown April 30 throwing a trash can into the guard shack at the police parking lot near Parker Center. He then jumped on the shack and yelled “‘Torch it!” until someone did.
When another guard, Otis L. Skinner, 31, was being sentenced for looting a cart of malt liquor and cola in Long Beach, he asked: “How long will it be before I get my gun permit back?”
Judge Arthur Jean replied, “I hope never.”
During the riots, one prosecutor theorized that the “criminal element” would be overrepresented on the streets. “This will draw them out like honey would draw bears,” he said. “This is something they cannot watch on TV without getting up and participating.”
It is not a new phenomenon. The McCone Commission, which examined the 1965 Watts riots, found that 62% of the people arrested had criminal records.
Files reviewed by The Times indicated that 60% of the 1992 riot felons had prior records. The actual number is probably higher because authorities could not check immigrants for offenses in other countries.
One looter had 32 prior arrests. Another had 31 aliases. And others had recently been paroled.
Ernest Williams, 36, was released from prison on April 29, 1992, after doing time for commercial burglary. The former Crips gang member told his probation officer he “stayed the night with a woman he met and was arrested the following day” in the riots. Picked up at an Adams Boulevard market with a bag of looted groceries, he got 16 more months in state prison.
Many of the looters lived in a violent world. Several still had bullets in their bodies from drive-by shootings.
Willie Edward Williams, 43, picked up at a liquor store on South Compton Avenue, said that his father, a longshoreman, had been stabbed to death “over a nickel in a gambling game” and that he himself had been stabbed twice in 1991. During surgery, “he ‘died’ for approximately 30 seconds,” he said.
For many, drugs were the driving force in their lives.
Debra Pickett, 34, of Long Beach said she began freebasing cocaine in 1985, and “got involved in prostitution to get drugs and to support her (three) children because she would spend her (welfare) benefits,” her report said. “Finally she had to give up custody of her children, was homeless for five years. . . . She has known she has had AIDS since 1988.” Caught carrying a stereo through the broken window of an electronics store, she said: “I’m sorry.”
While two-thirds of all rioters reported regular drug or alcohol use, the figure climbed to 82% for the white looters. Two-fifths of them were homeless or transient.
A 27-year-old, arrested in Venice, had been sniffing airplane glue since he was 11 because “it helps him escape from his problems.” He once was stabbed at a Grateful Dead concert.
Another white transient, Stanley Wiseman, 21, produced one of the most startling contrasts between a looter and his victim.
He had wandered to Los Angeles from Vancouver two days before the riots. He was picked up in Hollywood with a plastic bag containing methamphetamine and goods from a burned-out entertainment company, including “an AT&T; calling card, six blank checks . . . (and) a calendar date book.”
They were the possessions of Chris Baumgart, then chairman of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. The ransacking of his Shoreline Professional Video Systems was videotaped by his own customers. “I (could) watch the looters wipe out 11 years of my efforts to build a business,” Baumgart noted.
A white looter from Long Beach, Timothy R. Teegarden, inspired an angry commentary from his probation officer.
A 22-year-old with long, jet-black hair who said he “loves to smoke crystal every day,” Teegarden stole two car stereo speakers. The evaluating officer wrote: “He was not angered by the Rodney King decision, nor did he feel troubled by any prejudice or sense of oppression. The defendant simply was an opportunistic parasite.”
But a judge called the officer’s recommendation of a state prison term “utterly out of line.” He sentenced Teegarden to the 35 days he had spent in jail since his arrest, ordered him to perform three weeks community service, then sent him home with a “good luck to you.”
It was not an unusual outcome.
Though then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner called for minimum one-year prison terms for looters, The Times found that only 19%--invariably the veteran criminals--received sentences that long.
The median sentence was 62 days. Judges often gave those with clean records time served, three years probation and community service--if they pleaded guilty or no contest.
Although some prosecutors protested that the terms were too light, others said the sentences seemed appropriate in many cases. The riot defendants looked much like the people usually found in Municipal Courts, where petty theft and misdemeanor drug cases prevail, said Deputy Dist. Atty. John F. Lynch, who supervised riot prosecutions.
“You did not see the crimes of violence (in their backgrounds),” he said. “It would seem to me that a lot of people . . . were thieves of opportunity.”
The probation reports identify 20% as unlikely looters--otherwise law-abiding people who got caught in “the fever of anarchy,” as one probation officer termed it.
Women often were in this group. So were students, such as an 18-year-old about to enter UCLA who stole stereo speakers and a metal baseball bat, and a Compton Community College criminal justice major who headed a Young People for Christ group.
There were a handful of young Korean-Americans, an immigrant group often victimized in the riots. They were caught at 3:30 a.m. running out of a liquor store on West Pico Boulevard with four paper bags of Marlboro cigarettes and 12-packs of Budweiser.
And many Latinos were classified as unlikely looters too. Although the role of illegal immigrants became a controversial issue in the riots, the probation officers noted that many Latinos had made efforts to build lives in Los Angeles. Forty percent had jobs, contrasted with 29% of the African-American looters and 21% of the Anglos.
In the United States only two months, a 20-year-old had already been hired as a dishwasher in Chinatown, earning $600 a month.
Ricardo Rodriguez, 30, arrested at 4:30 a.m. inside a supermarket, had held jobs doing asbestos removal and as a machine operator to support his wife, three children and a sister-in-law. Termed a “family man” by his probation officer, he was rare among riot suspects--only 6% lived with a spouse and their own children. He spent four days in custody.
Latinos looted closer to home than others. Nearly two-thirds were arrested within half a mile of their address, reflecting heavy rioting in dense new immigrant communities--such as Pico-Union--while middle-class Mexican-American neighborhoods were spared.
Gilberto B. Mercado, 20, a laborer at a wire company, got 80 items from a Pep Boys auto store just blocks from his apartment, but he too was spotlighted for light treatment: 25 days in jail. That is because he called police to turn himself in. “He was ‘feeling badly,’ ” his probation report explained.
In the reports, the voices of the victims are intermingled with those of the offenders. They reflect the city’s divided views.
Christopher Kane, manager of a graffiti-marred auto stereo business, asked that the looters only be made to repaint the place, because “incarceration would . . . simply embitter (them).”
But John Stapleton, manager of a Hollywood music store, noted that looters picked out the “high profile product"--the expensive cassettes. He called them “scum (who should) do a lot of time.”
Joel Mendleson, meanwhile, regretted that he fired his gun at the straggler in a group that wrecked his South Los Angeles pawnshop. “I’m sorry I scared the man,” he said of a 29-year-old defendant who insisted he went in the shop to see “if the things I had pawned were still there.”
The records are full of on-the-edge encounters, many serving as reminders that amid the scramble for loot, some carried rage.
On Normandie Avenue, a 22-year-old black man--never before in trouble--hurled a metal trash can into a passing patrol car. In Pico-Union, a Latino drunkenly yelled out a window: “Down with the police!” and fired five errant rounds at his apartment manager. In Hollywood, a deranged white drug addict, 35, only weeks out of prison, hurled a looted TV at officers.
But most suspects simply ran. There were numerous car chases, some more harrowing than the one in March, 1991, in which Rodney G. King tried to elude police.
When LAPD officers pursued a pickup seen at a Wilshire Boulevard Adray’s, the truck sped away. With a police helicopter overhead, the vehicle swerved through oncoming traffic, over sidewalks and across medians. From the truck bed, a pair of San Pedro gang members threw a gun, 10 bottles of bourbon, a spare tire, a computer--whatever they had--at the windshield of the police car.
Later, one of the gang members, nicknamed Maniac, told his probation officer that going to jail would be a blessing in disguise. The reason? “He cannot get near drugs.”
Who Were the Looters?
The looters were poor, uneducated and usually had criminal records. Here are highlights of a Times computer study of 694 people convicted of felonies, mostly looting offenses, for last year’s rioting in Los Angeles County.
Birthplace L.A. County: 32% Other U.S.: 29% Mexico: 24% Central America: 12% Other foreign: 3% NOTE: Among Latinos, 79% are foreign-born.
Employed? No: 66% Yes: 34% *
Residency patterns Homeless/transient: 11% Short-term tenants (at address for less than one year): 41% Well-settled (at same address for 10 years): 14% *
Criminal records? Yes: 60% No: 40% *
Race Black: 50% Latino: 43% Anglo: 4% Other: 3% *
Educational level High school dropout: 60% High school degree: 23% Completed some college: 10% None graduated from college *
Age 21 or younger: 26% 25 or younger: 50% Only five looters were 50 or older *
Distance from home when arrested At home or within a few blocks: 37% A few blocks to 1/2 mile: 19% 1/2 to five miles: 23% More than five miles: 21% *
Location of arrest Inside store: 34% Outside store: 35% In car: 10% On street: 13% In a residence: 8% *
Favored stores Liquor: 16% Electronics: 14% Discount/swap meets: 12% Grocery: 12% Auto parts: 7% Furniture: 6% *
Favored loot Electronics: 21% Liquor: 17% Clothing: 10% Auto parts: 9% Food: 8% Guns: 4% Snacks/beverages: 3% Baby goods: 1% *
Time of arrest Midnight to 6 a.m.: 28% 6 p.m. to midnight: 38% 6 a.m. to noon: 16% Noon to 6 p.m.: 18% *
Occupation Laborer: 14% Construction: 9% Restaurant/food service: 8% Janitorial: 6% Factory: 6% Crime*: 6% Security guard: 3% * Probation officers’ appraisal.
Source: Analysis of Los Angeles County Superior Court Records
How Study Was Conducted
The Times study was based on 694 probation reports prepared to help Superior Court judges sentence people convicted of felonies in last year’s Los Angeles riots.
The reports remain public records for 60 days after sentencing, then are sealed.
The sampling, collected last summer and fall at nine courthouses across Los Angeles County, covered 43% of the approximately 1,600 riot-related felony cases concluded as of last week.
Dozens of details, computerized by The Times, provided a portrait of the adult looters. The reports included basic demographic information, such as race and birthplace. They also described criminal histories, health, drug use, family and residency status, education and work records, gang affiliations and, sometimes, comments by relatives, employers, parole officers and crime victims.
The study does not cover the thousands of rioters who were not arrested, nor those arrested on misdemeanor charges, usually curfew violations.
During the riots, there were reports that 19,000 people had been arrested. But officials later placed the total at 8,000 to 10,000, mostly misdemeanors.
Three-quarters of the felony arrests were made the second and third days of the rioting, April 30 and May 1, after police were at full force and the National Guard was called in.
About 3,300 people were charged with felonies, the vast majority for looting offenses--commercial burglary or possession of stolen property. A variety of other charges, including arson, assault and gun charges, accounted for the rest.
Because mass arrests made prosecutions difficult, about a quarter of the felony cases were dismissed. Others were reduced to misdemeanors. Some are pending.
The files may undercount participation of Latinos because some were turned over to immigration authorities and not processed through the courts.
Gang members also may be underrepresented because many are juveniles, whose cases are not public.
Assisting in the project were Staff Writers Tim Chou, Alicia DiRado, Chris Heredia, Otto Strong and Stacy Wong, editorial researcher William A. Lawrence and free-lance researchers Carla Max-Ryan and Jon Menick.
Spaghetti to Samurai Swords
Electronics gear and liquor were the most popular items, but there was almost no limit to the goods found on people arrested for looting during last year’s riots. The widely divergent hauls reflect differing approaches to looting: Some acted as if it was a normal shopping day, picking out the items on their list. Others loaded up all they could find. The following samples of the loot were gleaned from probation reports:
At the home of Amibal Romero, 25:
Shotgun and rifle
Electronic, stereo equipment
1 box of fashion rings
8 leather jackets
24 pairs of shoes
8 beach towels
23 clothes hangers
2 pairs of pants
2 sweat shirts
12 men’s shorts
11 bottles of men’s cologne
3 pairs of sunglasses
1 shoeshine brush
1 pair of electric shears
1 thin leather strap
1 military duffel bag
1 suitcase with 72 pieces of children’s clothing
2 travel bags
On Jose Cruz Hernandez, 32, at a Long Beach market:
In the garage of Ocle Devis Martinez Del-Cid, 37, a carpenter, most believed taken from a Circuit City store on La Cienega Boulevard:
1 stereo headphone set
3 microwave ovens
2 stereo speakers
5 television sets
1 washing machine
1 stereo receiver
1 air conditioner
2 cellular phones
1 portable radio
3 Lego building block sets
1 audio unit
1 video game with five cartridges
1 sleeping bag
1 stereo component set with cabinet
On Eduardo Rosales, 39, of El Monte, arrested at a supermarket:
Several packages of razor blades
In a car with Calvin Andre Towns, 20, with stickers from the Fedco at La Cienega and Rodeo Road:
Chips Ahoy cookies
Laffy Taffy candy
1 package American Beauty spaghetti
1 box Sunshine saltine crackers
1 Oster blender
3 Black & Decker can openers
8 cassette tapes
16 bottles of liquor
1 can of paint
1 can of Raid
3 cans of Armour All
5 four-packs of Scott toilet paper
1 box of Tide
Econo Club car security device
On Christopher Demond Lee, 20, after leaving a Vermont Avenue pawnshop:
12 silver dollars
27 half-dollar pieces
356 pieces of costume jewelry
On Esteban Perez, 34, outside Hope’s Liquor store in Pico-Union:
1 can Pledge spray polish
1 can orange cappuccino coffee
In the Hawthorne apartment of Kerwin Washington, 30, who was still suffering from wounds from a drive-by shooting and a stabbing in 1991, 84 items including:
12 guns, either rifles or shotguns or sawed-off shotguns
Some movie cameras
Bottles of liquor
U.S. currency totaling $1,366.85
On Juan Polanco, 26, picked up walking in the Westlake area:
Two Samurai swords with the pawnshop price tag attached