In one of the most graphic and bizarre events ever to unfold on a Los Angeles freeway, a man with a gripe against HMOs parked his pickup truck on a busy freeway intersection Thursday afternoon, set it ablaze and then committed suicide--on live television--creating a nightmarish, miles-long traffic jam during the evening commute.
The incident at first appeared to be yet another of Southern California’s now prosaic freeway chases. But as the situation developed, it soon became apparent that this was an anomalous, quintessentially Los Angeles story because so many disparate elements of life here had suddenly coalesced on that smoking freeway overpass.
The story had guns, traffic jams, cellular phones, swarms of news helicopters, desperate self-promotion--and a sudden, tragic, cinematic conclusion. And all of it caught on live television.
Authorities suspect that the man at the center of this maelstrom was Daniel V. Jones, 40, a maintenance worker at the Renaissance Hotel in Long Beach.
And Jones’ neighbors, who witnessed the incident on television, confirmed that it was him.
Jones lived in a tiny, two-bedroom bungalow off an alleyway in Long Beach. The wood house is cloistered behind a tall wooden fence, with a sign on the gate that reads “Beware of dog.” A dog accompanied him on his final journey and perished when the truck caught fire.
Long Beach police who entered the home looking for leads on any next of kin and clues as to how he came to this violent end said the house was a “typical bachelor’s home,” adequately furnished but cluttered. Although Jones was obviously agitated about HMOs shortly before his death, his Long Beach neighbors and fellow workers were not aware that he had any health problems.
But one friend, who asked not to be identified, said that Jones confided in him that three weeks ago he found a flesh-colored growth on his neck that continued to grow. He told his friend that doctors were unsure of its cause at first, but within the last week confirmed that it was cancer. The friend also said that Jones thought he was getting the runaround from his health insurer.
Jones’ sister, Janet Jones, 38, told Associated Press that it was only at the time of the suicide that Jones’ best friend told her Jones was HIV-positive.
Joachim H. Ortmayer, general manager of the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, where Jones had been employed for about three years, said everyone at the hotel has health insurance, but it was not known which of several available plans the maintenance worker had been using.
Calls From Motorists
The incident began about 3 p.m., when the man parked his dark gray pickup on the transition loop from the Harbor Freeway to the Century Freeway.
Frantic motorists called authorities after the man, whose dog was sitting beside him, pointed his shotgun at passing cars. Authorities then closed the two freeways, creating a mammoth traffic tie-up and an eerily empty swath of lanes.
Jones, who was parked in the carpool lane, pulled out a cellular telephone, called 911, reached a California Highway Patrol dispatcher and indicated that he was emotionally distraught, said LAPD Lt. Hanns Ruth.
“He was just rambling,” Ruth said. “He mentioned he was unhappy about HMOs.”
During the call, he fired several rounds, one of them through the roof of his pickup truck.
Jones remained in his truck as police helicopters monitored his movements and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Special Weapons Team began to assemble.
He pulled from a knapsack, and displayed, what appeared to be some clothing and a videotape before throwing it all over the freeway wall.
He then calmly walked out onto the empty freeway and unfurled a large, square banner with white hand-lettering that read: “HMO’s are in it for the money!! Live free, love safe or die.”
He made a few obscene gestures before nonchalantly returning to his truck, occasionally petting his dog and sipping from a can.
SWAT team negotiators were about to try to persuade him to give up when a violent, graphic series of events quickly unfolded, ending in a startling suicide.
Jones had several Molotov cocktails in the cab of his truck and he suddenly ignited one. His truck burst into flames.
“He purposely set the fire,” said LAPD Lt. Anthony Alba.
Jones ran out of the vehicle engulfed in a shower of flame and smoke, his hair, pants and socks on fire. He writhed in pain, frantically tried to pat out the flames and finally managed to peel off his pants, socks and underwear.
He wandered about, naked from the waist, looking dazed and disoriented. He then walked to the edge of the freeway gesturing angrily. It appeared as if he was about to jump.
But he backed away from the edge and, moments later, at about 3:50 p.m., retrieved his shotgun from the back of his truck. He then placed the shotgun beneath his chin, pulled the trigger and crumpled to the ground.
Police, concerned there might still be a bomb in the truck or boobie traps, hesitated to move in. The truck continued to burn--with the dog inside--and the man remained splayed out in the middle of the freeway, blood pooling and smoke billowing around him.
Police later found the remnants of several Molotov cocktails, a number of shotgun shells and the charred remains of the dog inside the truck.
By the left front door of the truck police found an exploded five-gallon gas tank and a burned propane tank. The charred roadway was littered with the remnants of Molotov cocktails and shotgun wadding.
Ruth said that Jones “wanted to make a statement. Basically, he achieved that.”
The 105 and the 110 freeways leading to the interchange remained closed for several hours after the incident, and a seemingly endless line of backed up cars was being routed onto surface streets.
In the early evening, with rush hour about to reach its peak, traffic on the southbound Harbor Freeway was backed up at least five miles, about halfway to the Civic Center, the California Department of Transportation reported.
CHP officials rerouted north-south traffic onto Figueroa, Main and San Pedro streets.
About 270,000 vehicles travel through the intersection each day. An unidentified, exasperated LAPD sergeant, trying to move cars along Figueroa, yelled out, “We’ve got the whole city at a standstill right now!”
Both sides of the Century Freeway reopened about 6 p.m., the CHP said. Southbound lanes of the Harbor Freeway reopened about 30 minutes later, and the northbound lane reopened shortly after 7 p.m.
The carpool lane, where the charred remains of Jones’ truck was still smoldering, remained closed to traffic late into the night.
Search for Explanations
Mental health experts cautioned against explaining the freeway suicide until more was known about the victim’s life; the circumstances surrounding the event; whether he had planned to commit suicide or did so only spontaneously, perhaps in response to police action; and whether he had a history of mental illness.
But counselors and researchers distinguish between public and private suicides. Generally, private suicides often reflect depression and isolation, whereas public ones are more likely to be motivated by frustrated anger, said psychologist Norman Farberow, former co-director of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center.
“In a case like this, the anger is much more evident and public, and the need to express himself is overriding, perhaps because he felt there was no other way to get an audience” for his grievance, Farberow said.
Jay Nagdimon, a psychologist and director of the suicide prevention service at Didi Hirsch Mental Center in Culver City, declined to speculate on the basic differences between public and private suicides. But he said the victim appeared to be someone “who felt no one would listen to him and felt an injustice had been done and he needed to make an extreme statement.”
“When people feel ineffectual and in crisis, they’re more likely to go to extremes to express themselves. The tragedy is that if someone could have listened to him, he might not have felt that suicide was the only option--and not necessarily fixed his problem but simply treated him with respect and really listened.”
After the incident, police were investigating what brought Jones to this end and why he had unfurled an anti-HMO banner.
Jamie Court, spokesman for Consumers for Quality of Care, an advocacy group that has been sharply critical of HMOs, said the suicide could be a galvanizing event in the debate over how to reform the managed-care industry.
Congressional Democrats and Republicans have endorsed proposed legislation to reform the managed-care industry, and many similar bills are pending in Sacramento.
“If this story turns out to be a tragic and legitimate story about stonewalled care at an HMO, it will translate into a new sense of urgency on the political front,” Court said. “This could spark a national debate about why people are driven to such madness and . . . are at wits end as they try to get timely care. We see so many HMO patients who feel they have no where to turn for help.”
Employees at several large HMOs in Southern California--home to some of the industry’s oldest and biggest companies, also watched the tragedy unfold on office televisions. “We’re all wondering if this guy was one of our members,” said one HMO spokesperson.
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Susan Abram, Matt Lait, John L. Mitchell, Terence Monmaney, Joe Mozingo, David Olmos, Ted Rohrlich, Hector Tobar and Daniel Yi, and Times correspondent Deborah Belgum.
* MEDIA RESPONSE: Most local newscasts broadcast shooting but expressed regret. A36
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Sequence of Events
(1) 3:05-3:38 p.m.: Driver stops pickup truck on transition from southbound Harbor Freeway to westbound Century Freeway. Calls 911, reaches CHP and is emotionally distraught. He is later identified as Daniel Jones.
(2) 3:38: Gets out, throws knapsack over freeway wall; it lands on freeway.
(3) Unfurls banner on pavement: “HMO’s are in it for the money. Live free, love safe or die.” Returns to vehicle.
(4) 3:48: Fire erupts in pickup.
(5) Man emerges, clothes on fire, rolls on roadway and removes burning clothing.
(6) 3:49: Steps on railing for several seconds.
(7) 3:50: Steps down, runs back to pickup, gets shotgun. Props shotgun against median; shoots himself.
4 p.m.: Freeways leading to interchange remain closed as LAPD bomb squad is dispatched to the scene.
6:05: Both sides of Century Freeway open.
6:35: Southbound lanes of Harbor Freeway reopen.
7:11: Northbound lanes reopen.