Beating Victim a Familiar Figure to Many
Ernest Adams, one of two homeless men who were beaten this week with aluminum baseball bats while they slept, lived on a downtown street. But he was not anonymous.
He would sit in his chair near the 3rd Street tunnel, greeting passersby. People knew him as a friendly, optimistic man.
“He hangs out right under the tunnel, on the edge of the sidewalk,” said Leo Tolano, an outreach worker with the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. “That’s where he kicks back all the time. He’s a cool guy. Every day, he’s there.”
Associate Justice Robert Mallano, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals, first encountered Adams on Mallano’s morning walk to work about five years ago and has seen him regularly on the corner ever since.
“I never saw him ask for money,” Mallano said Wednesday. “He would talk to people and smile. He was always polite and smiling. I never saw him in a black mood or anything. He was always groomed. He had dignity.”
Adams remained in critical condition Wednesday at County-USC Medical Center. The two 19-year-old suspects in the beatings said they were inspired by “Bumfights,” a video showing homeless people fighting each other, according to Los Angeles police. They remained in custody Wednesday, a day after their arrest on suspicion of attempted murder.
Adams had feared leaving his spot for 90-day transitional housing that Tolano had arranged in a complex downtown, Tolano said.
“He wouldn’t go there,” Tolano said. “He said people were after him. He thought he’d get jumped or they’d go after him and murder him. I asked him why they would murder him and he said, ‘In my younger days, I used to hang out with bad people.’ ”
Adams kept within a self-imposed safety zone roughly bordered by 1st Street, Los Angeles Street, Olympic Boulevard and Figueroa Street. The transitional housing was outside that area.
“Maybe in the past he had a bad drug relation with somebody,” Tolano said. “Maybe he owed them money. Maybe that’s why he was afraid.”
Brady Westwater, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Council, said he came across Adams six months ago and encouraged him to move to the housing that had been found for him. Adams, who slept, ate and read the newspaper in his chair at the entrance to the 3rd Street tunnel, always declined.
“He was a sweet, wonderful, old man,” Westwater said. “He would kiss his fingers and touch my shoes as a way of greeting me. I would tell him to get into housing, but he said he couldn’t go to that part of town.”
Westwater said Adams told him he had lost his room at a residential hotel because he went to jail, but he offered no details and Westwater didn’t press him.
But Adams had completed a 30-day stay at the Union Rescue Mission on July 29, the only record the homeless shelter has of him staying there, said President Andy Bales.
“It breaks my heart,” Bales said Wednesday. “Everyone here is talking about it and they’re concerned. They’re all prone to attacks from people because they’re out there sleeping unprotected.”
The other man injured in the attacks, Gerald McHenry, 38, had stayed at the Rescue Mission three times in the last year. His most recent three-day stay ended Aug. 11. McHenry was hit on the arm while sleeping but did not require hospitalization.
Bales said he believed McHenry ate meals at the mission regularly, but he wasn’t there Wednesday.
If any good comes of the attacks that Police Chief William J. Bratton called “vicious,” it would be getting more homeless people to seek shelter, Bales said.
“We’re utilizing it to encourage folks that they don’t need to stay outside,” Bales said. “We’re saying, ‘Please come in our mission, please come in our program and please stay off the streets.’ ”
Frank Tamborello, an organizer with the L.A. Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, which held a protest last year against distribution of “Bumfights,” said the attacks reflect an attitude toward homeless people that “their lives are worthless, their lives are meaningless.”
In the video, which sold on the Internet for $20, two self-described alcoholics punch each other and ram their heads into walls. They later said they agreed to be in the video in exchange for liquor.
The filmmakers were fined $500 each by a judge after pleading guilty to conspiring to stage an illegal fight.
Tamborello said he worried that a new Internet video game called “Bad Day L.A.” that features an African American man, referred to in the game as a “homeless wacko” and a “bum,” could ignite additional violence against people living on the street.
“The game is racist, sexist and very violent,” he said.
Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a homeless advocacy group, said news of the beatings was reverberating through the homeless community downtown.
“People are facing stuff like this all the time,” she said. “They’re at risk of harassment and beatings. It just shows that we’re going to have to regroup and come up with new ways to protect them.”
On Wednesday, the entrance to the tunnel where Adams had spent his time was littered with a plastic bag, old food, a bedroll, a small piece of cardboard and bits of clothing that appeared to be splattered with dried blood.
Mallano said he last saw Adams on Monday and slipped him a few dollars, something the judge said he did occasionally even though Adams never asked for a handout.
“I said, ‘How you doing, Ernest?’ and he said, ‘Well, you know ... ' He was not in his usual upbeat mood,” Mallano said. “Then I read what happened to him in the paper, and I was just sick about it.
“I wanted to put a face with the name. He’s not a statistic.”
Times staff writer Carla Rivera contributed to this report.