Lily Burk’s neck was slashed, coroner says
Lily Burk and Charles Samuel walked in separate worlds.
Burk was a bright, bookish 17-year-old, whose future was ahead of her. After a summer in which she was to appear on stage as the lead in a play and volunteer at a skid row needle exchange program, she was to have started her final year of high school.
Samuel, 50, had been in and out of prisons for decades. He was a transient with a long record of criminal activities and drug abuse.
Friday, on a hot, bright afternoon, chance brought the two together on a quiet, tree-lined street.
Burk walked down Wilshire Place about 3 p.m., leaving the former Bullock’s Wilshire department store that today is home to Southwestern University School of Law. Under her arm, she carried a box of paperwork that her mother, who taught at the school, had asked her to pick up.
Samuel had walked out of a nearby residential drug treatment program earlier in the afternoon. He had been ordered there after a recent arrest but had been given permission to leave for the day.
As Burk approached her Volvo sedan near 7th Street, Samuel confronted her. Moments later the car drove off -- a security video shows Samuel behind the wheel and Burk in the passenger seat, but it does not capture the exact moment of the alleged abduction.
By dusk, Burk was dead, her body left in her car in a downtown parking lot -- her head beaten and her neck slashed, according to Los Angeles police and other law enforcement officials. Samuel killed her, police suspect, during a botched robbery. He was arrested within 90 minutes of her death on an unrelated charge and was held in custody.
On Sunday, fingerprints linked him to the young woman’s death, and he was arrested again late that night on suspicion of murder and is being held without bail.
The alleged abduction and killing of a teenage girl, rare for its apparent randomness even in a metropolis like Los Angeles, jolted the city over the weekend, leaving parents to second-guess when they can ever fully trust that their children are safe.
“This could have been you, it could have been your daughter, and that is what drives it home,” said Los Angeles Police Department First Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell. Veteran LAPD homicide detectives could not recall the last time a teen in the city was abducted by a stranger and killed.
Police detectives pieced together their preliminary account of Burk’s slaying from security camera footage that captured the teenager and man at several points as they moved from the law school into the maze of streets in downtown’s Little Tokyo and skid row.
With Samuel standing by her side “and in control of her body,” Burk tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to withdraw cash at a downtown ATM using a credit card. The attempts began a little more than 30 minutes after she was abducted, said Det. Thayer Lake, one of the investigators on the case.
Over the next 25 minutes, Burk made a call to her mother and then to her father, telling them she needed money to buy a pair of shoes. After her father told Burk that the credit card was not set up for cash withdrawals, she told him she would come home soon. The parents did not hear panic or fear in their daughter’s voice, a spokesman for the family and police said.
Sometime over the next 50 minutes Samuel killed the girl, police allege. They do not know where the killing took place or how exactly, but at 4:52 p.m., Samuel pulled the Volvo into a parking lot surrounded by industrial buildings near Alameda and 5th streets. Because he left the car immediately, detectives believe Burk was already dead.
Samuel walked for nearly a mile through the heart of skid row, gripping a beer can partly concealed in a brown paper bag. As he approached 3rd and Los Angeles streets, two officers patrolling on horseback stopped him for drinking in public.
Samuel told them that he was on parole for a previous offense and agreed to be searched, police said. When a search revealed a pipe for smoking crack cocaine in his pocket, the officers arrested him.
At a news conference Monday, one of the officers described the arrest as “routine as routine could be.” Law enforcement sources involved in the case, who spoke on the condition that their names not be used because of the continuing investigation, confirmed that the officers found a key to a Volvo and a cellphone on Samuel. They turned out to be Burk’s. The officers thought it suspicious, and they searched the area for the car.
Blood was also visible on Samuel’s clothing when he was detained, the sources said, although it was unclear whether the arresting officers saw it.
Burk’s parents, meanwhile, grew increasingly concerned and frantic Friday evening when their daughter did not return home. They placed calls to the girl’s friends, hoping she had stopped for a visit. About 7 p.m., they contacted police to report her missing.
A detective reviewed Burk’s cellphone use and ATM activity, then searched in the skid row area for her until 3 the next morning, while family friends conducted their own search in the area of her last phone call.
At dawn Saturday, a worker from a business on Alameda Street approached the Volvo to tell the driver to move the car. He found Burk’s body, and a co-worker called 911.
By Sunday morning, fingerprints lifted from the car were matched to Samuel. Authorities checked his name against law enforcement databases and were surprised to see he was already in custody on drug charges. Police declined to release a photo of Samuel, citing concerns it could taint interviews with possible witnesses.
The charges, if true, would mark a serious escalation in violence for a man who has had several run-ins with the law, mostly in the Inland Empire.
In July 1987, Samuel was sentenced to six years in prison for robbing a residence in San Bernardino County, according to the California Department of Corrections. In the years that followed, Samuel was paroled several times and repeatedly returned to prison when he committed other crimes or otherwise violated the terms of his release, records show.
Most recently, in late April he was rearrested in North Hollywood for an unspecified parole violation. In early June he was released from prison and entered the court-ordered drug treatment program on Menlo Avenue, a mile and a half from the law school where he allegedly abducted Burk.
As the legal case against Samuel took shape, family and friends of Burk continued to mourn her. A production of a David Mamet play that was to have opened this week with her as one of the stars was canceled. And the staff at Homeless Health Care Los Angeles in downtown, where Burk worked last summer in the group’s drug outreach and needle exchange program, struggled to come to grips with her death. Burk planned to return to work at the program.
“Loving,” said James Hundley, the program coordinator, when asked to recall the girl. “When I’d look at her, that’s what came to mind. That was just her.”