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Venice Anti-Gang Activist Killed in His Driveway

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Venice anti-gang activist who published controversial weekly reports that detailed local crime was shot to death in front of his home early Wednesday in what neighbors and a Los Angeles City Council member described as an assassination.

James Richards, 55--who usually slept next to a police scanner and had photographed drug deals in his troubled Oakwood neighborhood--was shot numerous times near his driveway in the 500 block of Vernon Avenue around 4:15 a.m., police said.

Detectives at the scene said that they are investigating retribution as a possible motive but that they have not identified any suspects. However, Richards’ friends and neighbors in Oakwood said they are certain Richards was shot as a payback for his very public anti-crime activities and writings.

“He believed in law and order. I agreed with him totally,” Cynthia Jean Moore, Richards’ longtime companion, said Wednesday in the doorway of the house they shared. “The crime out here in the neighborhood is rampant, just ridiculous. They took his life to show that they are the winner.”

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Moore and neighbors said they heard nine or 10 shots as Richards was returning from a workout session at an all-night gym in Marina del Rey.

“I ran out to him, and I knew something had happened to him. I’m horrified. He was my life,” Moore, 47, said.

His gym bag lay on the ground next to his body, clad in a sweatsuit, witnesses recalled. According to a neighbor who requested anonymity, even before an ambulance arrived, some onlookers were heard to say: “I’m glad he’s dead.”

A small, gray-haired, wiry man who often dressed in white T-shirt and white painter pants, Richards was viewed by some as a crusading community activist, intent on driving out violence. Other people called Richards a “snitch” and said he overstepped his role as block captain and police-community liaison.

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Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents Venice, said she was “saddened and outraged” by the murder. “It is a heinous act meant to intimidate the community and threaten residents into staying quiet in the face of a criminal takeover of their community by gang members and drug dealers. We cannot let that happen.”

“Jim was a brave and dedicated man,” Galanter added. “The city and the community owe a debt of gratitude to him. . . . Those who believe they can intimidate this community have sorely underestimated the good people of Oakwood.”

His detractors said Richards sometimes reported inaccurate information to detectives and unfairly harassed young men. Some residents thought he was part of an alleged attempt to force out lower-income black families and make room for affluent whites.

His newsletter, which was distributed via e-mail, covered a broad span of community issues, especially crime. Richards often was first on the scene of a shooting, arriving ahead of paramedics and police, and prowled the neighborhood at odd hours, watching for crime.

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Richards also criticized social agencies for not doing enough to prevent youngsters from turning to violence. “I see kids barely four feet high hanging with older gang members. The intervention is not effective in keeping these kids from throwing away their lives,” he recently said.

“He was the neighborhood watch guy, the guy who would tell you every bit of news that was going on--the burglaries, the robberies, if anyone had gotten raped,” said next-door neighbor Tanya Townes, 30, who was crying in sorrow.

Vanessa Celentano, 29, who moved onto Richards’ block in February, said the murder has frightened many. “People are going to be more worried now than ever. The fact that the block captain got shot to death, I mean, where does that leave us? It’s scary.” But she said she planned to stay.

Richards grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and went to Catholic schools. He wanted to be a Franciscan monk and spent some time in a seminary, Moore said. He remained religious and read from the Bible every day. He studied business at Ohio State and earned a master’s degree in business from UC Berkeley, she said. After moving to Venice in 1969, he worked as a house painter, property manager and real estate agent.

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Galanter promised to ask her City Council colleagues this week to approve a motion offering a $25,000 reward for information on Richards’ killer or killers.

At a community meeting Wednesday night at the LAPD’s Pacific Division, police talked to about 20 neighborhood activists upset by the murder.

Lt. Thomas E. Kirk, of the Pacific Division detectives, asked the community’s help in solving the case and discussed citizens’ roles in fighting crime. While Kirk did not say that Richards had been too aggressive, the officer warned other block captains and activists to be careful.

“People should be the eyes and ears, be in the shadows,” Kirk said. “And don’t let the bad guys know you’re there.”

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Times correspondent Laura Wides also contributed to this story.


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