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2 Lives Shattered in a Moment at the Castle

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

He loved the Castle. Five stories of domed ceilings and glass walls, perched on a slender stem of a street in the hills of Benedict Canyon. It was five miles and a million dollars from his little box of an apartment in Van Nuys.

Of course, Anthony Dwain Lee was at the Halloween costume party at the Castle. One of his friends lived there. That night, a deejay spun house music. Bartenders posed as Catholic schoolgirls. Actors, dot-commers, producers and lawyers dressed up as pirates, politicians, angels, even a cop or two. Lee, 39, wore a long black cape and a devil’s mask, homage to a gang life abandoned many years earlier.

In the early morning on Saturday, Oct. 28, after most of the guests had moved on and the music had died down, Lee stood in the ground-floor bedroom of his friend, actor Jeff Denton. They were laughing with another actor whom Denton had introduced to Lee. A flashlight beam from outside caught their attention.

Then a confluence of bad luck, bad timing and a sudden movement turned the party into a disaster.

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In seconds, Lee, a 6-foot-4 man carrying a rubber replica of a .357 magnum Desert Eagle, lay dying on the floor, shot by a Los Angeles police officer who stood on the other side of a glass door, no more than six feet away. The officers were responding to a noise complaint called in nearly an hour earlier.

Is this a joke? sputtered Lee’s friend, Denton. Is this a joke? he repeated. He was looking away when the first shot was fired. The other man was so close that pieces of glass struck him in the eye and ear. A third witness was outside.

When Officer Tarriel Hopper, 27, had shone his flashlight into the room, he thought Lee was pointing a real gun at him, police say.

Hopper didn’t see the Buddhist who believed in nonviolence or the actor who turned down superficial roles he thought stereotyped black men. He didn’t see the charismatic man who so enchanted women that his former lovers sat nearly shoulder to shoulder at a memorial service.

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What Hopper saw was a man with a gun.

Lee had carried the replica gun before, and he apparently knew its power. His friend, playwright Mitch Hale, had fretted over that. “I had a little bit of trouble with Anthony driving around with any kind of a gun,” said Hale. “He said, ‘No, I’ll be cool. I know exactly what you’re talking about.’ Anthony would never point a gun at a police officer.”

In the week since the shooting, Los Angeles police and the district attorney’s office have begun separate investigations. The FBI is planning its own inquiry. Lee’s sister, Tina Lee-Vogt, has hired attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who is directing a private investigation.

One eyewitness, Eric “Rick” Schuberg, told police he was outside and saw Lee produce a gun and point it in the direction of the officer.

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“That’s what he told us, too--that he saw everything, and that the gun was out,” Schuberg’s mother, Mary, said Saturday.

Others say it is not so simple.

“It comes down to two witnesses. Both say he had a gun in his hand and there was movement. How much movement we don’t know. We may never know,” said Donald Steier, a lawyer representing the tenants of the Castle.

A reconstruction of the days leading up to the shooting is based on interviews with family, friends, witnesses, police and investigators.

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At Lee’s memorial Wednesday, Dan Arden, an official of the Buddhist group to which Lee belonged, addressed a packed room of mourners: “The question for each of us is, how will we spend our last hours?”

A Day of Being Himself

On his last day, Lee was all the things he had prided himself on being--actor, friend, Buddhist.

In the morning, he called his manager, Christopher Wright, to tell him he wasn’t going to make an audition. He had an upset stomach. In the late afternoon, he talked to Lonnie Sheinart and made plans to go to her house on Halloween night and help her pass out candy. He called an actress friend, Jessica Watson, who had just filmed a small part on the TV show “Dawson’s Creek.”

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“Who’s a movie star?” he boomed over the phone.

He told her he had just finished filming an “ER” episode in which he played a homeless man. “He was very conscious of the roles he chose,” said Watson. “He didn’t want to do fluff. He wanted it to be meaningful.”

He wouldn’t tell her much about the “ER” episode. “I can’t spoil it for you,” he told her. “You’ll have to watch it for yourself.”

In Lee’s kitchen hangs a poster for “Buffalo Soldier,” the play that brought him to Los Angeles from Seattle. It was set in the 1870s and written by Hale. Lee had a lead role as a former slave who joins the U.S. Cavalry. It landed him a local theater award, a manager and an L.A. apartment.

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Lee was far from a star, but he was a working actor, making guest appearances on “NYPD Blue,” earning a recurring role on the now-defunct show “Brooklyn South” and winning a part as a lawyer in the Jim Carrey movie “Liar, Liar.” Last season, he taped an episode of the Lifetime cable show “Any Day Now.”

As Wright, his manager, said, “He was in the game.”

At 7 p.m., before the party, Lee went to a Buddhist meeting at a friend’s house in Van Nuys. Although raised a Baptist, about 15 years ago Lee began practicing a form of Buddhism with a group called Soka Gakkai International.

Dressed in khakis, a maroon T-shirt and a white button-down shirt, he gave an inspirational talk that night, speaking of his career and encouraging others to keep seeking their goals.

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“I remember him feeling victorious and excited because he had been in a dry spell,” said his friend Sophie Anderson. “He had been up for [roles] that he thought were sure and he didn’t get them. Then the ‘ER’ thing happened.”

About an hour before Lee attended the meeting in Van Nuys, Tarriel Hopper was coming on duty. In his youth, he had been a 6-foot-3, 220-pound football star at Carson High School, a perennial city powerhouse. When asked by a prep sports reporter in 1991 what he liked best about football, he answered: “Violence.”

But his high school defensive coach, Jim D’Amore, recalled that Hopper was religious and had the disposition of a “puppy dog.” D’Amore said he advised Hopper not to go into police work because he didn’t think he had enough of a mean streak.

Hopper began USC in the fall of 1991 and played linebacker and safety for three seasons. His coaches remember him less for his aggressive play than for his positive attitude in the face of injuries. He was never good enough to reach the pros, like his older brother, Darrel.

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“There are the guys who, when you coach them, you just know they’re going to be something special,” said Keith Burns, the defensive coach during Hopper’s USC years and now the head coach at the University of Tulsa. “And then there are the guys who you know aren’t going to go on but are going to be a real positive example to society. And Tarriel was one of them. These are the ones who are going to work with kids and do stuff that matters in the community.”

Almost five months ago, Hopper became a hero. On June 15, he and his partner, Dave Orozco, were called to a “jumper” incident in Westwood--a suicidal man hanging off the side of an eight-story parking garage.

Minutes later, Hopper and Orozco were up on the building, edging toward a despondent 42-year-old Marine Corps veteran. Orozco talked while Hopper crept closer. The man let go, but Hopper and Orozco, leaning far over a railing, caught an arm and jacket, pulling the man to safety, said LAPD Capt. Mike Hillmann, who has nominated the officers for commendations.

Soft-spoken and professional to a fault is the way Hillman describes Hopper.

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When Lee left the Buddhist gathering shortly before 9:30 p.m. that night, the Halloween party at the Castle was already underway.

The party had been meticulously planned. E-mail invitations told guests they were forbidden to park on narrow Yoakum Drive. Carpooling and taxis were encouraged. Shuttle buses had been hired to ferry people to and from a spot in Benedict Canyon. “NO HANGING OUT IN THE STREET IN FRONT OF THE CASTLE,” the e-mail said.

The five party hosts, all in their 20s and 30s, lived in the house. They had met with neighbors earlier in the week, and had even taken the rope out of the mansion’s bell tower so no guest could engage in any impromptu bell-ringing.

For hours, the planning seemed to pay off. Music played while 150 to 200 guests schmoozed and danced. A costumed George W. Bush walked hand in hand with a costumed Al Gore. Anthony Lee was roaming around in his black cape and devil’s mask.

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At 12:15 a.m., a caller to the West L.A. police station complained that there was a loud party at 9701 Yoakum.

In fact, the party was slowly breaking up. Partygoers were invited to leave the house by 12:30 a.m. to go to a club on La Brea Avenue that had been rented until 5 a.m. Some guests were taking shuttle buses to the club. Others were walking down the street to their cars. A few remember the LAPD squad car coming up the street shortly before 1 a.m.

Hopper and Officer Natalie Humpherys were met by a private security guard hired for the party. He showed them to the kitchen and said he would fetch one of the hosts. After the security guard left, Hopper left the kitchen and walked out through a side door.

He walked on a narrow path between the side of the house and a stone ledge. Beyond the ledge was a water-filled grotto. Hopper passed the windows of the kitchen and the living room. He was coming up on a dead-end. A party guest was urinating in the darkness nearby.

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Hopper came upon the window and then the glass door of Jeff Denton’s 12-foot by 12-foot bedroom. He stood about a foot from the glass door, his flashlight in hand.

Inside the dimly lighted room, Denton and Lee were chatting up another actor, new to Hollywood and eager to work. Denton, who had dressed in a costume inspired by the “Saturday Night Live” character the Ladies’ Man, had worked with Lee in Your Own Sky Ensemble Theater. Lee stood at the wall near a velvet armchair in Denton’s room, his mask off at this late hour. They were laughing and Lee was holding up his large, elegant hands.

Suddenly, Lee and the others turned toward a bright light coming from outside the glass door. What Lee did with his replica gun is in some dispute. His friend Mitch Hale said Lee was respectful of guns.

As he turned, Denton heard Lee say, “Hey, what’s up?” Then there was a pop of gunfire and Lee’s lanky frame fell against a stereo table, knocking it over. The other actor, standing even closer to the glass door, was hit with shards of glass.

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“Is this a joke?” said Denton, disbelieving, as Lee lay on the floor.

Guests who were outside in the hallway rushed to the bedroom door, some of them thinking too that this was a mere prank.

Party guest Robert Hull walked into the room and could see the back of Lee’s head and his torso on the floor, as if he were sleeping on his side. Hull then looked at Denton, whose face was filled with shock.

“You could see it in his eyes, he was looking for answers,” said Hull. “He was looking for someone to yell, ‘Cut.’ ”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Halloween Party

Shooting

These are the events leading up to the shooting of Anthony Dwain Lee on Oct. 28, according to interviews with witnesses and police.

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Chronology

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1. Police get a call at 12:15 a.m. about loud noise at a Halloween costume party in Benedict Canyon.

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2. Officers Tarriel Hopper and Natalie Humpherys respond and approach the party house in the 9700 block of Yoakum Drive shortly before 1 a.m.

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3. A security guard takes them into the kitchen and tells them to wait there while he gets one or more of the five tenants throwing the party.

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4. Hopper goes out a door and around to the back of the house, turns his flashlight on and walks down the narrow pathway that runs along the back. As he swings his flashlight in the darkened pathway, he passes the kitchen, living room and bar area. He comes to the bedroom and looks in, seeing Lee, house tenant Jeff Denton and another man. Police say Hopper has told them Lee was pointing a gun at him; the gun was later determined to be a replica of a .357 magnum Desert Eagle semiautomatic handgun.

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Researched by JOSH MEYER / Los Angeles Times

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