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3 Injured as Gunfire Erupts Inside Theater

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Just a block away from a sheriff’s station and Lakewood City Hall, gunfire erupted in a crowded multiplex theater late Wednesday night, setting off pandemonium that resulted in three injuries and hundreds of screaming patrons ducking or running for cover.

About 600 people were inside the Pacific Lakewood Theater for the opening night showing of “Set It Off,” a movie about a crime spree starring rap artist Queen Latifah, when the gunfire broke out.

No arrests were made.

Witnesses and a sheriff’s investigator said the fight developed between members of rival Crips and Bloods gangs.

“It was really horrible,” said moviegoer Michelle Storey, 19, who despite the violence returned to the theater Thursday to see a matinee showing of the movie. “There was a lot of screaming.”

“There was nowhere to run,” said Lola Holt, 32, from Long Beach. “People were running over each other to get out. People were stepping over each other to get out.”

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Both Storey and Holt were among a steady stream of patrons who returned to the theater to get refunds or see a complete showing of the film. Sheriff’s deputies emptied the four-screen theater complex after the shooting broke out at 10 p.m.

One of those injured, identified by deputies as Daryl Tillotson, 27, of Compton, was taken to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, where he was admitted for treatment of a head injury and was in stable condition. Initial reports stated that he was hit by a bullet, but the hospital said Thursday that he was not struck by gunfire.

Deputies said a pregnant woman who tried to take cover also complained of pain, possibly related to her pregnancy. Another woman complained of ankle pain.

Although gang activity is not unknown in Lakewood, it is relatively rare in a city known for its tree-lined streets and precisely plotted post-World War II housing tracts.

“The crime patterns have been so unremarkable here for so long that it is difficult to put this in any kind of context,” said Donald Waldie, the city’s spokesman who earlier this year published a memoir on Lakewood titled “Holy Land.”

However, movies about gangs, drugs and youth violence have occasionally led to violent incidents at movie theaters nationwide.

The 1979 opening of “The Warriors,” about white gangs in New York City, was marred by three murders and several theater brawls. Nine years later, gang-related scuffles and a fatal shooting occurred in Stockton with the release of “Colors,” a film set in Los Angeles.

In March 1991, Mann’s Theaters pulled “New Jack City"--about a Harlem drug lord--from its Westwood theater after a riot at the movie’s premiere in which hundreds of youths went on a rampage through Westwood Village.

That summer, two died and 33 were injured nationwide and some audiences fled in panic as violence marred the opening of director John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood,” a critically acclaimed film depicting life in South-Central Los Angeles. The violence was largely blamed on street hoodlums.

Investigators said the violence in Lakewood appeared to be triggered by the rival gangs who showed up to see “Set if Off,” a movie about four inner-city women who join together and begin robbing banks.

“We had a couple of rival gangs in the show,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Windrim. “Words were exchanged, hand signs flashed, and a challenge was made, at which time it moved out into the lobby, and eventually out into the parking lot. We know at least one shot was fired inside the movie theater. Other shots were fired in the parking lot.”

Windrim said there have been other violent incidents over the years at the theater complex, a magnet for residents of surrounding communities such as Compton, Carson and north Long Beach.

Several patrons in the audience said harsh words and threats were first exchanged in the ticket line.

“They were gangbangin’,” said Lola Holt’s sister, Lisa, 31, of Signal Hill, referring to the threatening talk, hand gestures, even the waving of weapons that she saw. “They were standing up and wouldn’t sit down after the movie started, throwing things, talking trash, like, ‘What’s up, cuz? What’s up, blood?’ She said some patrons complained to the ushers but were largely ignored.

Chan Wood, an executive of Pacific Theaters, said he was not aware of a buildup of tensions or complaints.

“I am not aware of any complaints, not that it didn’t happen,” Wood said.

Times correspondent John Cox also contributed to this story.


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