Projectionist Held in Slaying of Theater Owner

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In a plot twist worthy of an L.A. mystery novel, police announced the arrest Tuesday of the man they say was responsible for killing popular Silent Movie theater owner Larry Austin.

The projectionist did it, they say.

James Van Sickle, 34, a paunchy ex-bodybuilder who showed up several years ago to help paint the Fairfax district theater and remained intertwined in Austin's life, was being held without bail on five felony charges, including one count of murder with special circumstances that could carry the death penalty.

Police said Van Sickle, who was arrested Saturday morning in Paramount, had put a contract out on the 74-year-old Austin to get control of the theater and its valuable old films. Austin's estate has been valued at more than $1 million. Police say Van Sickle is listed as the sole beneficiary.

Police also announced that the alleged gunman, 19-year-old Christian Rodriguez of South Gate, was arrested Saturday evening. He was also being held without bail on the same charges.

Austin was shot and killed in the lobby of his theater Jan. 17 as patrons watched a silent film inside.

Police, who became interested in Van Sickle after a citizen came forward with information, said he spent months planning the killing. They said he hired Rodriguez for a promised $25,000 but then failed to pay him the total amount.

Detectives outlined this plot Tuesday:

Rodriguez bought a ticket and sat through a half-hour's worth of short silent films. Van Sickle was also in the theater that night.

Rodriguez then went into the lobby and asked to see the manager. Once Austin appeared, Rodriguez drew a steel revolver and demanded money. Austin complied, but Rodriguez shot him in the face.

In an effort to make the contract killing appear to be a robbery, Rodriguez also shot a 19-year-old female clerk in the chest. Then he turned and pumped several more bullets into Austin's body as it lay on the floor. (The wounded clerk has left the hospital and helped police in their investigation.)

Saturday's arrests capped an odd and complicated partnership between Austin and Van Sickle.

The two met in 1990 and for most of the ensuing years Van Sickle was Austin's efficient projectionist, business partner and roommate, sharing the apartment above the theater, police said. One of Austin's friends, Michael Yakaitis, said Van Sickle told him he had been running the projection booth the night of the murder.

But in April 1996, Austin filed a police report accusing Van Sickle of assault and robbery. Later, he opted not to pursue the charges.

"They had an off-and-on relationship that was sometimes stormy," said Det. John Miller, one of two LAPD Hollywood Division detectives who investigated the case. "They argued, fought and left one another."

Some of Austin's friends and fellow film buffs knew of his turbulent relationship, but were confounded by Austin's actions toward Van Sickle. For instance, even after he told friends Van Sickle had robbed him, he allowed Van Sickle to hang around the theater.

In the aftermath of Austin's death, his friend Michael Yakaitis said Van Sickle came to see him.

"He was just broken up," said Yakaitis. "He told me he was at the theater that night and he was the one who actually hit the buzzer that sent out the alarm."

Yakaitis said Van Sickle told him he had found a handwritten will leaving Austin's estate to him. Police are investigating it.

Last Wednesday, only moments after Van Sickle finished eulogizing Austin at a fund-raiser for the Silent Movie theater at nearby Club Largo, police began surveillance of their suspect.

Van Sickle's past is checkered with criminal activity. In 1988, he was charged with attempted murder in Compton but the case was dismissed after the victim failed to appear for the trial. In 1989, Van Sickle was sentenced to four years in Orange County for transporting and selling narcotics. He served about half that time in state prison in Chino. Pending against him is a Torrance case in which he is accused of attempting to pass a fictitious check.

In his court file on the forgery charge is a letter from Austin, attesting to Van Sickle's good character.

Police said Van Sickle--who sometimes lived in Paramount when he wasn't staying with Austin--used several aliases as well as at least two California driver's licenses.

Van Sickle met his accomplice, Rodriguez, three years ago when the two worked at a Los Angeles company. Police were alerted to Rodriguez's whereabouts after an informant who saw the sketch in a newspaper came forward with information. The two men will be arraigned March 25.

Austin had a murky past. In 1983, he was convicted on one count of grand theft as a result of an embezzlement case involving a local company. He served 22 months in state prison, said Det. Alan Hamilton.

Meanwhile, there is a separate LAPD investigation into whether Austin illegally took control of the theater from Dorothy Hampton, the widow of John Hampton, who started the theater decades ago.

Police believe Dorothy Hampton may have signed over her husband's estate to Austin while she was in a convalescent home, without receiving any money in return. But here, as in so many of Austin's relationships, there is a contradiction: When Austin reopened the theater after John Hampton's death, he appeared to have Dorothy Hampton's blessing. She worked, taking tickets in the lobby until a few years ago.

The theater and the rest of Austin's assets have been frozen by the IRS and the LAPD and placed in a conservatorship.

Friends continue to remember Austin as an aging gay man who weathered decades of antagonism toward his lifestyle. "His main goal was to build a house in Hesperia," said Yakaitis. "He eventually wanted to sell the theater and the films and build this home."

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