Aftermath of Killer's Fury

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The fuse was lit when Caltrans fired Arturo Reyes Torres in June for stealing highway scrap metal worth $106.50 after a supervisor warned him it was against the rules.

The 41-year-old former Marine, a proud, jovial man who fixed roads and bridges, had never been disciplined in 12 years on the job. He kept the firing secret from his family, even as he unsuccessfully appealed the case to state authorities.

The fuse kept burning as Torres cast about for other jobs. A friend said he almost landed one with the U.S. Postal Service before getting turned down after a background check. Finally, he found a job cleaning sewers on Dec. 1. But the county sanitation district said he failed to meet physical standards and let him go Dec. 11.

One week later, Torres exploded.

About an hour after visiting his parents at their Santa Ana home Thursday, Torres drove his brown 1977 Mercedes 300D sedan through the front gate of a Caltrans maintenance yard in Orange, walked into the rain and started firing with an AK47 assault rifle.

First he went for the supervisor whom he believed unfairly targeted him for dismissal in a crackdown earlier this year on illicit scrap metal salvaging.

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Then he apparently walked around a suite of trailer offices and fired more than 70 bullets, police said, fatally wounding three men inside. It is unclear whether Torres had specific victims in mind, although police say he had a clear view through the windows of workers as they scrambled for cover.

At 3:10 p.m., the first 911 call came from a woman across the street from the yard at 1808 N. Batavia St. Other calls soon came from cowering Caltrans employees. One man whispered from under his desk, "Help, help, there's gunfire everywhere."

Torres was driving away as the first police officer walked into the yard, Orange Police Lt. Art Romo said. Torres fired at the officer, missing, and hit a truck window that blew shards of glass into the officer's face. "Shots fired!" the officer shouted into his radio.

Minutes later, police cornered Torres at Batavia and West Taft Avenue. A running battle ended when officers shot Torres twice in the head, once in the arm and once in the chest. Torres' arsenal included a shotgun and handgun, in addition to the AK47 he bought in 1988, a year before a California law was passed to regulate military-style weapons.

More than 300 bullets were fired in all, police say. The toll: two people wounded, including a police officer, and four killed besides Torres. The rampage devastated the offices of the state transportation agency and proved another shattering example of the power of a disgruntled ex-employee with a big gun.

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So what provoked him?

The person who knows the answer best is dead.

James H. Torres, no relation, a co-worker, was fired at the same time as Torres. They appealed the case, James Torres said, because Caltrans had made them "scapegoats." But, he said he couldn't fathom what his friend was thinking Thursday. "I wish I knew. Caltrans is like a big family. It shouldn't have happened. I feel bad for the people who were killed. No one deserves to die."

Said Romo: "If you stop and think about what happened, it appears that revenge was the motive in that particular gentleman [Bierlein] being killed. Then maybe he decided to go after the other people."

The record indicates that before Thursday, Torres was generally a responsible man.

He was discharged as a corporal after three years in the Marines. He owned a four-bedroom, two-story house on a cul-de-sac in Huntington Beach and kept his lawn, to his last day, neatly mowed. He was liked by neighbors on Daytona Circle. Maria Giovinetti called him a "mellow, friendly" man who enjoyed deep-sea fishing and bicycling to the beach.

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He was a loyal son. He worried about his wife's cancer. Holder of an Immigration and Naturalization Service registration card for many years, the Mexican-born Torres had recently become a U.S. citizen, his father said. And in more than 12 years at Caltrans, records show, he had never been punished for breaking a rule. Listed at 5-foot-4 and 160 pounds on his driver's license, with a bushy mustache, Torres cut an unimposing figure.

Interviews Friday with friends, family, employers and former co-workers and a review of public records show Torres was a man who, though ready with a smile, had grown increasingly embittered, distressed and unemployable.

Caltrans spokesman Albert Miranda declined to speak in detail Friday about Torres' firing. He referred reporters to a complaint argued before the State Personnel Board.

In the document, Caltrans alleged that Arturo and James Torres had broken agency rules in a scrap-metal salvaging scheme. The agency said supervisors had videotaped the men on Feb. 24 as they sold aluminum they had taken from a bridge they had repaired.

That incident, the agency said, occurred three days after supervisor Hal Bierlein of Orange--the man Torres later shot in his Volkswagen--had read a statement to his crew specifically prohibiting the practice. Copies of the policy were handed out to the men.

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Arturo Torres and James Torres contended that the agency had long tacitly allowed employees to sell scrap metal to raise small amounts of money for employee barbecues and other staff events. They said they had given Bierlein the $106.50 they earned from the aluminum they sold.

An administrative law judge, Melvin R. Segal, heard the employees' appeal and found in favor of Caltrans. The state board ratified the judgment in October.

That judgment is not the only evidence of Arturo Torres' conflict with his boss. There is also the word of the supervisor's widow.

Melanie Bierlein said Friday that she and her husband spoke often about the problems he encountered with Arturo Torres. Bierlein said they grew fearful in the months after Arturo Torres and James Torres were caught selling the scrap.

The family suspected Arturo Torres of harassing and threatening them. One day a large rock was thrown through the window of a family car.

The other dead were identified as Paul Edward White, 30, of Lakewood; Wayne Allen Bowers, 43, of Murrietta; and Michael James Kelley, 49, of Fullerton.

Another Caltrans employee, Reginald T. Tennyson, was shot near the ankle. He was in good condition Friday at UCI Medical Center in Orange.

In addition, Orange Police Officer John Warde was struck in the abdomen by a bullet that pierced a protective vest. He was in stable condition at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange.

Torres' family gathered in Santa Ana on Friday, answering media questions cautiously and trying to square the image they had of their son with the television footage of the killer whose body lay Thursday afternoon in a rainy gutter.

"What's done is done," said Pedro Torres, 69, father of the gunman. "Of all our children, he looked after us most. He loved us, and we loved him. He wasn't a fighter. He was never a troublemaker."

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The second-oldest of six children, Torres was born in March 1956 in Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. His father, a migrant worker, brought his family to Orange County in about 1960.

The elder Torres said his son graduated from Saddleback High School in Santa Ana and served in Germany during a stint in the Marines from November 1979 to December 1982. A Marine spokesman said the discharge was not dishonorable.

Pedro Torres said his son had always been a hard worker whose hobbies included hunting deer in Alaska. He said that although his son kept in close touch with his parents, he never told them he had been fired from Caltrans.

On Thursday, Pedro Torres said, Arturo Torres stopped by his parents' house for a few hours in the morning and early afternoon. The son seemed pale, agitated and nervous. But he explained to his parents that he was simply worried about his wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer some years ago. A neighbor, however, said the cancer had been in remission for a number of years.

From the house, Arturo Torres sought to take care of some business before his deadly outburst. He called Renee Renz, who is buying a bar in Orange from Torres and his father. Renz said Friday that Torres called at 11:59 a.m.

"Hi Renee, it's Art Torres," the tape on the phone machine said. "Can you give me a call at my dad's phone number today? It's Thursday."

Torres then called Renz at the bar at 2 p.m., about an hour before the killing began. Renz said he should come over for a beer and talk business. "He said, 'Sure, I'll do that.' "

But Renz said Torres never took her up on the offer. "It's just weird," she said. "He's a nice, nice guy."

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Geoff Boucher, Steve Carney, Scott Martelle, Bob Ourlian, David Reyes, Lisa Richardson, Esther Schrader, Tini Tran and Janet Wilson, correspondent Liz Seymour and Times librarians Lois Hooker and Sheila Kern.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 31, 1997 Orange County Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction Caltrans shooting--A story Dec. 20 about a gunman who shot and killed four Caltrans workers in Orange and then was fatally wounded by police mistakenly described the assailant's military record because of incorrect information provided by a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman. The gunman, Arturo Reyes Torres, was a soldier in the U.S. Army. Records show he was on active duty from 1974 to 1976 and discharged in 1980.
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