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O.C. Slaying May Have Been a Hate Crime

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Police arrested three people in connection with the fatal beating in a strip mall parking lot of a 26-year-old mother of four, who police said may have been targeted because she was black.

Police said that during a shouting match Thursday evening over a traffic dispute, at least two of the suspects reportedly used racial slurs against the La Habra woman, Tina Roxanne Rodriguez, before pounding her head into the pavement as one of her children and shoppers looked on.

“At this time it’s being treated as a hate crime until proven otherwise. . . . There were words exchanged and there is some evidence that racial slurs may have taken place,” said La Habra Police Sgt. Keri Wilson.

An anonymous telephone tip Thursday evening, about two hours after the slaying, helped lead homicide investigators to an apartment on Ridgway Lane in La Habra, where they found John Richard Collins, 25, of El Monte and a 17-year-old La Habra girl, whose name was not released because of her age. Collins, on parole for a burglary conviction last year, and the teen-ager were arrested on suspicion of murder, police said.

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On Friday morning, officers arrested Rebecca Luker, 22, of Whittier in connection with the murder after she came to the Police Department front desk to talk to an investigator about an unrelated matter, said Wilson, who talked with the woman briefly. Luker was described as a friend of the other two suspects.

“I’ve been in this job for 13 years and . . . this was a pleasant surprise,” Wilson said of Luker’s unusual arrest at the police station. Luker wanted to pick up her brother’s belongings from officers. Police had arrested Daniel Luker, 25, for a parole violation on Thursday night, Wilson said.

Police believe that the two young women attacked Rodriguez, and then Collins drove them away from the scene in a Ford Taurus stolen from Los Angeles County last month.

The altercation began Thursday shortly before 5 p.m. at the strip mall parking lot at La Habra and Beach boulevards, police said. Rodriguez was a passenger in a car, and she and an unidentified friend got out after they were cut off by the Ford Taurus in the parking lot, police said. Rodriguez’s 3-year-old daughter remained in the car.

The two women got out of the Taurus, and the yelling started, police said. Then, the two women began beating Rodriguez, slamming her head into the pavement repeatedly, police said. Collins allegedly stayed in the car and drove off once the women had jumped back inside.

Police said 10 to 20 people witnessed the beating, but apparently no one intervened. Police said they are uncertain why no one stepped forward to help Rodriguez.

The three suspects are scheduled for arraignment Tuesday on murder charges. Collins also was booked on suspicion of auto theft, Wilson said. Luker and Collins were being held in the La Habra City Jail and the 17-year-old was taken to Orange County Juvenile Hall in Orange, police said.

Police on Thursday said initially that they did not think Rodriguez’s death was racially motivated. But after further interviews authorities changed their position on Friday, citing racial slurs allegedly used during the attack.

Police would not elaborate on what was said at the scene and said they are still interviewing witnesses and the suspects to see if anything else might have contributed to the slaying.

“They are looking at every possibility, that’s why they are working it so hard,” said Lt. John Buchholz. Police said they would not comment about whether any of the suspects is connected to organized hate groups.

“Obviously, I’m very concerned for the fact that someone was killed out there,” said Rusty Kennedy of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. “It’s something that strikes to the bone and terrorizes us all that such a seemingly minor incident can be blown up to someone dying.”

Officials with the Human Relations Commission and the district attorney’s office said they could not recall a racially motivated homicide in Orange County in the past several years. In 1991 a Santa Ana man was convicted of killing a man after an argument that may have been racially motivated because the killer, a Latino, made some racial slurs against the black victim.

Rodriguez, an unemployed fast-food cook, lived with her four children--ages 3 to 11--in an apartment on West Olive Avenue. Neighbors said she was separated from her husband of five years, Jorge Rodriguez, 25.

“I would hear them fight sometimes--a lot of screaming,” said neighbor Lilia Rodriguez, 16, who is not related to the woman. “I never heard her cry but they would be screaming at each other.”

Jorge Rodriguez could not be reached for comment Friday.

Tina Rodriguez was facing eviction from her apartment and had begun talking to friends about moving back to her native Kentucky, her landlord and friends said.

Apartment owner Samuel Onorato Agrusa, 55, said Tina Rodriguez at times displayed anger, cursed and would not back down from arguments.

Tina Rodriguez’s former boss in La Habra said she was a popular employee. Taco Cabana manager Frank Laurencio, 32, said Rodriguez worked for him from April until last month when she suddenly quit for another job. “Everybody liked her.”


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