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Office Workers Grapple With Their Fears in Wake of Shooting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jimmy Valentine gives his head a rueful shake and slowly motions to his cramped Mid-Wilshire mortgage office--the newest Los Angeles workplace to lose its sense of sanctuary.

The small cluster of rooms erupted in violence Monday, leaving one man wounded by gunfire and 500 workers at the Wilshire Serrano office building with some serious second thoughts about their safety.

Like Valentine, many workers took pause Tuesday before returning to the high-rise where a shot was fired Monday morning. The violence, which followed an argument with an irate customer in Valentine’s office, brought police to the scene and forced the evacuation of the entire eighth floor of the busy office building.

The customer was shot in the leg after what mortgage office workers described as a scuffle that took place when the man was refused a loan. Police have a different theory of what happened Monday and say they are still trying to sort things out.

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“It’s a terrible, terrible feeling to have to come in here the day after something like that,” said Valentine, manager of California Mortgage Bankers & Associates. “It makes you wonder whether the place you work is really so safe and secure after all.”

At Valentine’s tiny company, some workers apparently had already made up their minds: Of the firm’s 13 employees, only five showed up for work Tuesday morning.

In the wake of Monday’s shooting, the buzz was throughout the building: People talked about the shooting in elevators, in restrooms and at the little snack bar on the first floor. It was a reminder, some said, that deadly flash-fire violence was no longer confined to post offices, high schools or the blue-collar world.

Some office mates told jokes, trying to pass off the violence like a bad television show: All you had to do was laugh out loud and turn the channel and it would all go away.

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“My first joke was that maybe I should start frisking other people in my office, to make sure they aren’t armed and dangerous,” said Mike Sprague, a legal secretary who works on the ninth floor. “People are laughing, but I’m sure many of them are laughing just a little too hard.”

One problem, Valentine said, is that nerves were being rubbed raw by contradictory versions of what occurred.

Valentine, who was not present Monday, said employees told him that the 47-year-old customer came to the office with two female companions. After being refused a loan, the man got irate.

“He was asked again and again to leave,” Valentine said. “But he wouldn’t go. He wanted us to make that loan work.”

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At one point, one of the women drew a gun and an unidentified office worker made a grab for the weapon, Valentine said. The gun fell to the floor and discharged, striking the male customer in the leg.

Police said Tuesday that the gun could well have belonged to the worker, a contract employee who fled the building Monday and did not return to work Tuesday, frustrating investigators’ attempts to talk to him.

“There might be more to this story than what meets the eye,” said Det. Supervisor Raymond Futami of the department’s Crimes Against Persons Unit.

A secretary in an adjacent office who witnessed the shooting remained shaken. She remembered how the wounded man ran down the hall, calling, “I’ve been shot!”

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On Tuesday, blood still stained the carpet where the woman looked up to see the wounded man limping toward her. “I just stared at him, thinking, ‘This isn’t supposed to happen in my office.’ I even dreamed about it. I didn’t really want to come to work today.”

California Mortgage employee Lynn Ivie chose to see the shooting as an isolated incident. “When I came to work today, I said, ‘Well, at least it’s not Friday the 13th.’ ” Ivie said that when he got on the elevator Tuesday and pressed the button for the eighth floor, a woman said: “You’re going to the eighth floor? I wouldn’t go there if I were you.”

He added: “It’s like the place is haunted or something.” Sprague knows one thing: He has often smoked cigarettes with the independent contractor in question. He calls him a nice guy. Which makes him think, who’s the next nice guy at the office who is suddenly going to become the subject of a police manhunt?

“To me it’s the tip of the iceberg of the violence that could erupt in this city,” he said. “You see them all the time, people who won’t talk to you, who are always angry, with their shoulders up around their ears. And all it takes is one thing to make then snap.”

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