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4-Hour Standoff Chokes Freeways

Times Staff Writers

Thousands of hapless travelers were trapped Wednesday on the Long Beach Freeway, and a possibly related accident resulted in the death of one man, as police waited out a kidnapping suspect whose getaway car had stalled on the highway.

Drivers of cars and big rigs alike sat in their vehicles and stewed as the lines of traffic stretched farther than they could see.

One hour turned to another, and the stretch of freeway that carries 215,000 vehicles a day remained gridlocked as morning turned to afternoon. More than four hours later, a man in a white T-shirt wanted in the reported kidnapping of a young woman late last year emerged from a maroon Ford minivan in South Gate and gave himself up.

Just as the afternoon rush hour was getting into full swing about 4 p.m., traffic began to roll on the 710 Freeway, but it would be hours before the flow returned to normal on one of the region’s key arteries.

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The congestion spilled over to other freeways across southeastern Los Angeles County, particularly the Harbor, San Diego and 605, as motorists and trucks -- robbed of the main route between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and points inland -- searched for alternative routes.

Trips that normally took 30 minutes turned into hours-long ordeals, as the California Highway Patrol closed off about seven miles of the 710 in both directions between East Los Angeles and Lynwood.

“You have the largest concentration of trucks -- probably in the world -- on a very small footprint, between the ports and the rail yards,” said Patti Senecal, vice president of Transport Express, a trucking and distribution center in Rancho Dominguez struggling to cope with the gridlock. “So every freeway hiccup, we feel. Instantly.”

Trucker Vincent Bayliss, 42, was hauling a load for Whole Foods Market when he got caught in a traffic jam a few blocks from the standoff.

Congestion on surface streets was so bad that he could only get out of his truck and stand, frustrated, near Firestone Boulevard and Rayo Avenue in South Gate, unable to keep his delivery schedule.

“I am a bit upset,” he said. “I like to be on time.”

But a nearby trucker was more philosophical as he waited out the backup.

“I am cool,” said Ronnie Roush, 27, of Florence Food Delivery. “I get paid by the hour.”

More than two hours after the freeway was closed, a man was killed in an accident a few miles north of the blockage as vehicles slowed suddenly for traffic, according to the Highway Patrol.

The 34-year-old victim was in a car that had cut its speed from about 50 mph to 5 mph to avoid hitting the vehicle ahead. The car behind his did not slow and slammed into the victim’s, the CHP said.

CHP Sgt. Joanne Brooks said she could not verify whether the cars were slowing as they approached the traffic stalled by the police standoff or because of some unrelated traffic jam. But she said the CHP had no other reports of major freeway slowdowns at that time.

For residents in some of the small working-class cities along the 710, the freeway closure, which spilled thousands of vehicles onto surface streets, turned everyday errands into tests of patience.

Refueling her minivan at a Shell station on Atlantic Avenue, where traffic was diverted off the 710, South Gate resident Marcia Rodriguez said it had taken her two hours to drive to a local bank, usually a five- to 10-minute trip.

She said she had been stuck in traffic with her 1-year-old son strapped in the back seat. Between his crying and the traffic, she said, “It’s so bad.”

Police identified the object of the chase and standoff as Eduardo Medina, 33, an alleged Eastside gang member wanted in connection with a reported kidnapping in December.

The chase began about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in the 1000 block of Market Street in Long Beach when police tried to serve Medina with an arrest warrant.

He was wanted in connection with a scheme to kidnap the daughter of the owner of a Shakey’s restaurant in the San Fernando Valley.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Paul Vernon said Medina and an accomplice instead kidnapped a friend of their initial target Dec. 10 and held her for ransom.

The next day, during a money drop in South Los Angeles, Medina’s alleged accomplice was arrested, but Medina was able to flee, officials said.

An LAPD fugitive warrant team found him Wednesday morning driving the Ford minivan and tried to stop him.

His van was crippled during the ensuing chase when it hit another car, and Medina finally came to a stop on the 710 at Firestone.

Sheriff’s SWAT team members in two military-style vehicles known as BEARs sandwiched Medina’s minivan between them, making escape impossible.

As television helicopters overhead beamed images live to local stations and CNN, Medina shouted exchanges with negotiators from the van’s front driver’s side window.

Several of his relatives gathered at the Firestone onramp to plead with police to let them talk to him.

One woman, who identified herself as Medina’s sister-in-law, said: “I’m just worried, that’s all. The only reason we’re here is because we don’t want them to kill him.”

With the afternoon rush hour approaching, a third armored vehicle closed in on the driver’s side of the van but failed to break the impasse.

About 2 p.m. a sheriff’s robot delivered a phone with an attached line, allowing Medina to speak more easily with a crisis negotiator. He gave himself up an hour later.

The LAPD’s Vernon said that Medina is a member of a Hollenbeck-area gang and that his alleged accomplice was Roberto Alba, 18, whom authorities identified as a gang associate.

Medina “surrendered peacefully, and, given his history, that is good ending,” Vernon said. “He’s a convicted felon. He has been deported once to Mexico and reentered the country illegally after being deported. He has been arrested for concealed weapons charges; he’s been arrested for robbery.”

Alba had already been charged with kidnapping for ransom and second-degree robbery. He is being held in lieu of $2-million bail. Medina faces charges of kidnapping and attempted kidnapping and is being held in lieu of $2.2-million bail.

The woman who was reportedly kidnapped was released unharmed. Jane Robison, a spokeswoman, said a conviction in this case could be a third strike for Medina.

This marks the second time in a year that a lengthy police standoff has shut down a major Southern California freeway. Last June, the San Bernardino Freeway in Alhambra was closed for more than four hours as police surrounded a Ventura County man suspected in a kidnapping case. The standoff ended when a CHP officer shot and wounded the man.

After that incident, some people questioned why officials didn’t act sooner to get freeway traffic moving again.

Officials said they operated by the book Wednesday and proceeded with extra caution because they believed the driver might have been armed. After the arrest, they determined that he had no gun.

“When it comes to human life, traffic becomes secondary,” said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore.

The shutdown illustrated clearly how the 710 acts as a lifeline moving cargo out of the nation’s largest and second-largest seaports.

The freeway is the most direct route from the harbor to the rail yards east of downtown Los Angeles, and even on a normal day, truck traffic frequently slows to a crawl in northbound lanes near Firestone.

So Wednesday’s closure assumed nightmarish proportions for truckers and commuters alike.

Stuck in traffic near Atlantic and Firestone, Manuel Avila and Richard Mercado said their usual 10-minute drive to work at a distribution warehouse in South Gate had stretched into more than an hour.

“It’s messing with my program,” Avila said of the gridlock.

“I’m not happy, " Mercado chimed in.

Reijo Heiskanen of Finland stopped at a Vernon taco stand after his family experienced the traffic jam that left them in bumper-to-bumper traffic for five miles.

“This is kind of a new thing for us, being stuck in the car. We just got to Southern California a week ago,” Heiskanen said. “In our town there is no stuck.... It is quite rare even in our capital of Helsinki, which has 700,000 people.”

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Times staff writers Stephen Clark, Ronald D. White and Deborah Schoch contributed to this report.


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