LAPD Officer's Gunfire Kills Actor at Party

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Los Angeles police officer responding to a loud Halloween costume party at a Benedict Canyon mansion early Saturday morning shot and killed an actor, who authorities said pointed what turned out to be a fake handgun at him.

Anthony Dwain Lee, 39, of Van Nuys, who appeared in the movie "Liar, Liar" and on such television shows as "ER" and "NYPD Blue," was shot at multiple times by Officer Tarriel Hopper, who fired from outside through a window, authorities said.

Scores of costumed party-goers, many of them actors and other entertainment industry professionals, were inside the mansion--known to some as "the Castle" for its extravagant design, spires and stained-glass windows--when the shooting occurred about 1 a.m.

"He was a Buddhist. He hated violence. It is amazing he died this way," said Mitch Hale, a writer friend whose play "Buffalo Soldier" starred Lee and earned him a local acting award. "He was an incredibly gifted actor and person. It's devastating. . . . Why did they shoot someone at a Halloween party?"

Police said Hopper and Officer Natalie Humphreys were attempting to locate the owner of the home in the 9700 block of Yoakum Drive after neighbors complained about the noise. The officers were walking along an exterior walkway at the rear of the house when Hopper looked into a small room that appeared to contain three people, police said.

"When one of the individuals observed the officers, he suddenly produced what appeared to be a handgun and pointed it directly at Officer Hopper," Officer Charlotte Broughton said. "Officer Hopper, in fear for his life, fired several rounds from his service pistol, wounding the suspect."

It was not clear whether the victim knew that Hopper was a real police officer. One guest said some party-goers were dressed as police officers.

Upon examination, Broughton said, the alleged weapon was determined to be "a replica semiautomatic pistol, dark in color."

Lee, who was identified by the county coroner's office, died at the scene.

"This is a tragedy," said Broughton. "It's a very unfortunate incident.'

The shooting is being investigated by the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division and a team from the district attorney's office. Hopper, 27, has been with the department three years, while Humphreys, 25, joined the force two years ago, police said.

Erik Quisling, 29, a party-goer, said a friend of his, who is a nurse, tried to revive Lee. "He was wedged up against the bed on his side," Quisling added.

Quisling said he was standing in the doorway of the bedroom where Lee was shot. He said he did not witness the moments before the shooting or the shooting itself. He also said he did not hear police officers give a warning, although there was music blaring at the time.

"I heard this 'pop pop,' saw the holes in the glass, smelled the smoke, and then there was this guy on the floor totally dead," he said. "The cop shot from outside through a window to inside the house and kills this guy four feet from me. One minute he was talking; the next minute he was dead."

Quisling said the small room looked out onto a dimly lit grotto with a small pool. The officers, he said, were standing in a paved area by the pool.

At the time of the shooting, Quisling said, many people had left by shuttle because the party was moving to an artist's studio. The mansion is on a narrow canyon road, home to an eclectic array of houses.

Another party-goer, Robert Hull, 28, who works in movie production, said he did not see the shooting because he was in an adjacent hallway. "It was a shock that an officer would shoot at such a party," he said.

"This was an exclusive party with security," he said. "Some of these people are making six figures, and this officer saw a toy gun at a Halloween costume party and opened fire."

Victim Turned Life Around, Friend Says

Hale, 44, who had known the victim for 15 years, said Lee usually wore a devil mask costume with a hood and carried a replica gun to Halloween parties. Hale was not at the party.

Authorities did not say whether the victim was in costume at the time of the shooting.

Lee's costume and gun, Hale said, were "a symbol of the past he had left behind him." As a youth in Northern California, Lee had followed the gangster life before becoming a stage actor, first in Ashland, Ore., then Seattle and eventually Los Angeles, Hale said.

"He was dressed as a devil, not a gangster," he said. "How could this happen?"

Hale said his friend was committed to peace and had even persuaded him to become a Buddhist.

Kirsten Blackburn, Hale's wife, said the Lee she knew would never point a gun at anyone. She said his friends are planning a candlelight vigil in front of the LAPD's West Los Angeles station.

"We are going to try for Monday night. We're going to invite everyone who knew and loved Anthony," she said. "We're devastated, and we're not alone by any means."

Lee's former girlfriend, Annie Esty, 40, who lived across the hall from him, described the actor as a compassionate, reflective person whose apartment was filled with books on acting and directing.

As she talked, she leafed through old pictures and newspaper clippings of him and was comforted by another friend, Mary Lin.

"His biggest fear was getting killed by cops, because he's a tall black man. He said that before," recalled Lin, of Burbank.

The light was still on at Lee's apartment late Saturday. Lin said that when she walked into the apartment complex and "saw the light coming out, I just felt his presence. It was everywhere, a positive feeling, like him saying, 'I'm still here.' "

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