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A Clos-Up Look At People Who Matter : Rescuer Pays High Price but Has No Regrets

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The saying that no good deed goes unpunished may seem to apply to James A. Clark, the man who broke his wrist when he came to the aid of a California Highway Patrol officer as she struggled with a suspect over her gun. But that’s not the way he sees it.

“It’s just that people need help,” said Clark, 41, who was injured when he slipped and fell during the scuffle.

The injury prevented the unemployed Clark from taking a job with the U.S. Postal Service the following week, he said. “I believe everyone has a mission in life, maybe this was mine.”

On the morning of Aug. 1, just after 8 a.m., Clark was headed north on the Antelope Valley Freeway driving a limousine for a friend who had offered him a one-trip job. He had dropped off a client at Burbank Airport and was on his way home to Lancaster when he saw CHP Officer Amy Bonilla struggling with a man later identified as Ronald A. Coleman, 33, of Palmdale.

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The man was punching Bonilla in the face while trying to wrench her gun out of her hands, authorities said. Clark stopped the limo about 80 feet past the scene and ran back to Bonilla’s aid.

Five other motorists--including two off-duty Burbank police officers--also stopped. But for a few crucial seconds Clark was the only one who could reach Bonilla.

“I saw he was pounding on her, pounding on her face. I thought he was going to kill her,” said Clark, who has a brown belt in tae kwon do. So, he put a chokehold on the man and pulled him off Bonilla. But then he slipped.

“As I was falling back, I was thinking I should get up as fast as I can,” Clark said.

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At the time, Clark thought he was the only one who had stopped. But three other motorists--two brothers who run a helicopter parts company and an auto glass installer--reached the scene a few seconds later and subdued Coleman with the help of the two off-duty officers.

At first, Clark thought his right wrist was only sprained, but later found out it was broken so severely that it may have cut off the needed blood flow into the bone. His cast may have to stay on for as long as six months, doctors have told him.

“The post office called the day after that,” Clark said. All he needed to do to get a job as a night clerk was pass a physical. Postal officials have told him they may try to hold the job open for him, he said.

Stepping in to balance the scales when someone is being victimized is something Clark has done since he was a boy in San Fernando, relatives say.

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Once while driving through Lancaster with his wife, Elisa, Clark saw a man roughly pulling a woman out of a car. He broke up the confrontation to find out what it was about. It was a marital dispute. Satisfied, Clark left, but his wife was upset that he had intervened so quickly.

Stepping into disputes used to be Clark’s job. He worked for three years as a bouncer at O’Hara’s Cantina in Lancaster. He quit in May after five patrons jumped him during a fight.

Although his 6-foot, 5-inch, 220-pound frame can make him seem intimidating, Clark said he prefers to talk his way out of a fight. “It’s not that I like to fight.”

“He’s good with people,” said Alberto Lucera, a manager at O’Hara’s. “He can handle things before they get too bad.”

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Clark’s wife was not in the least surprised about her husband’s action. “He’s always doing this sort of thing,” she said Monday after Clark and the other motorists who came to Bonilla’s aid were given CHP commendations.

“At least we know when someone does something good it gets recognized,” she said.

“I’m not a hero,” he said, although the CHP has dubbed him one. To Clark, a real hero is his 24-year-old son, Anthony, who fought in the Persian Gulf War.

And despite his broken wrist, Clark said he has no regrets about stopping to help the CHP officer. “Oh, no, I’d do it again,” he said. “I’d be more than happy to.”

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Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please address prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, 91311. Or fax them to (818) 772-3338 .


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