When I knocked on a door in Torrance on Tuesday afternoon, I had just about given up on finding Fidel Lopez.
Twenty years ago, at the corner of Florence and Normandie, the self-employed construction worker was dragged from his truck and viciously beaten just minutes after the same vengeance was served on Reginald Denny during the L.A. riots. Both assaults were captured on video that was played over and over, nauseating for the sheer brutality and the inhumane, triumphant swagger of the attackers.
Lopez was knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked. As he lay on the pavement, one man hoisted a car stereo over his head and smashed it down on Lopez’s skull. Lopez was doused with gasoline, his ear was nearly severed and he was stripped and spray-painted black as he lay semi-conscious. He might well have died if not for the arrival of the Rev. Bennie Newton, who appeared on the hellish scene like an angel, raised a Bible and warned the rioters: “Kill him, and you have to kill me too.”
For all that, it’s Denny who remains in the collective consciousness when we think about Florence and Normandie. We know Denny was nearly killed, that his recovery was long and painful and that he has chosen to keep to himself. But with all the riot coverage lately, I wondered what had become of Fidel Lopez and why I couldn’t find a single story about him after 1993. I began calling Fidel Lopezes and F. Lopezes, striking out every time.
Sandy Pina and Joe Ortiz, both of whom helped raise money for Lopez’s family just after the riots, told me they had no idea where he was. Another person who helped with fundraising back then told me she thought Lopez might have died.
With help from Times researchers Robin Mayper and Kent Coloma, I got hold of some possible addresses and knocked on a door in San Pedro early Tuesday. There was no answer, and the neighbors had never heard of Fidel. I had two more addresses to try, the first in Torrance. I knocked, and a gray-haired gentleman promptly answered.
“Fidel?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Fidel Lopez, from the riots?”
“Please come in,” he said, smiling, as if he’d been waiting a long time for a visit.
Lopez, 67, was wearing an “Old Glory” T-shirt with an American flag on it, and he apologized for the mess in his living room. Because of financial problems, he told me, he’s doing some work on the house in case he and his wife, Coralia, need to take in boarders.
Over the next couple of hours, Lopez filled me in on his difficult recovery and the years-long challenge of reestablishing his business. Not only was he badly injured on that day in 1992, but his truck was torched and his tools stolen by thugs who also made off with $2,000 Lopez had intended to deposit at a bank. Lopez made no appeal for sympathy as he told his story, but he still finds it unfathomable that LAPD commanders ordered officers not to intervene, leaving him and others at the mercy of mobs that pounded and plundered at will.
Lopez believes he would have been set ablaze, after being drenched with gas, if not for Newton. He and the pastor, an ex-convict whose own redemption had led him to minister to wayward souls, would later become friends.
“I even went to his church,” said Lopez, who attended regularly before Newton became ill and died just a year after the riots.
Lopez’s wife joined our conversation after returning from an errand. She confessed to her husband that their gas and electricity might be cut off, and she was trying to string out the deadline for a payment. Coralia, who wears the enduring trauma of the riots more visibly than her husband, was more forthcoming about Fidel’s ongoing challenges than he was.
“I can’t sleep close to him,” Coralia said, showing me how her husband flails his arms during the nightmare that recurs all too frequently. “It’s always the same. They’re chasing after him.”
Lopez still has a U-shaped scar and dent at the top of his forehead, his ribs still hurt from the kicks he took and he still gets the occasional dizzy spell. He said doctors long ago told him there could be permanent loss of equilibrium from the rattling of his brain.
But he was determined, after his random misfortune, to make a fresh start, as he had before. Lopez moved to the U.S. from Guatemala in 1967, after his father, a coffee grower, died of cancer in his 50s. As a boy, Fidel had known Coralia in Guatemala, and although they came to the U.S. separately, they reconnected and were married here. They became U.S. citizens and worked hard as they raised three lovely daughters: Vanessa, Melissa and Aileen. They bought a house in South L.A., and Fidel was returning home after repairs at a rental property when his truck got boxed in by rioters at Florence and Normandie.
“I was stuck there and ooh, I remember their faces. They threw gasoline into my pickup and I tried to run, but I couldn’t get away. Oh, man! Bop! Bop! Bop! Bop! One of these guys picked up a big piece of metal and threw it at my face. After that I only saw very bright lights.”
Coralia said she was cowering in their home with the girls, watching the news on TV
“I said, ‘Look at this poor man, they’re beating him,’” Coralia said. “I didn’t know it was Fidel. I couldn’t tell it was him.”
She heard people gathering on the street outside their house near 84th and Normandie and ordered the girls to turn off the lights, push the furniture against the door and stay quiet. She was terrified and so were the girls, especially 7-year-old Aileen. Suddenly, there was a loud banging at the door.
Should she risk answering it?
Cautiously, she opened the door just a crack and saw the Rev. Newton on her doorstep with another man. Together, they were holding up a third man, who slumped under them, barely moving.
“I didn’t even recognize him,” Coralia said. Her husband’s head was bloody and hideously swollen. His ear and a chunk of his chin dangled by flaps of skin.
“He smelled of gasoline and they’d painted him completely black,” said Coralia, as horrified, all these years later, as if it were yesterday. Wiping away tears, she said, “Bennie Newton wanted to leave Fidel there. He said he had to go save other people, and I begged him to take Fidel to the hospital.”
Getting there might be too dangerous, Newton told her, but Coralia looked at her husband and worried that if he didn’t see a doctor immediately, he might not survive. Newton relented and Vanessa, 17 at the time, insisted on going to the hospital to watch over her father and report back to the family.
“I sat in the back seat with my father’s head on my lap, and we put a towel and blanket over us so nobody would see us,” Vanessa said. “I remember the car being stopped and they asked Bennie Newton what was back there. He just said he was trying to help the community and they let us go. When we drove away, I peeked out and saw that one of the men had a shotgun.”
At Daniel Freeman Hospital, doctors sutured Lopez’s gashes — and then, to the surprise of Vanessa, he was released.
“He didn’t look right,” Vanessa said, and he got worse at the home of a relative outside the riot zone. “He was disoriented and he kept throwing up. I told my uncle, ‘This isn’t right.’ He’d try to get up, but he was dizzy and incoherent.”
Another trip to the hospital, and an MRI, revealed a brain injury, and Lopez said it took about two years before he was well enough to return to full-time work. He did well enough to buy a couple more rental properties, but unreliable tenants, failing health, lack of work, declining real estate values and difficulty refinancing bank loans have left Fidel struggling financially.
Coralia sat next to Fidel on their living room sofa and wept as she talked about a daughter whose boyfriend was just diagnosed with cancer, and about the damaged credit Fidel suffered after co-signing a car loan for a relative who didn’t make the payments.
“Twenty years later, we’re worse off,” said Coralia, who’s looking for work as a clerk, a maid, anything. “There’s so much bad luck in this family.”
It’s as if they’re still haunted by that night, she said — by the unimaginable madness of a city gone wild, with Fidel caught in the middle of it.
“We’re all crazy,” Coralia said, “because we never got therapy.”
They’re all fine, Fidel countered, but Coralia reminded him of his nightmares.
He nodded, but didn’t give much ground. And he seemed to harbor no lingering hatred toward Damian Williams, the leader of the mob that set upon him, Denny and others without mercy. Williams was sentenced to 10 years and served just four, his assault of Lopez reduced to a misdemeanor. He is now serving time in state prison for aiding in a murder at a drug house in 2000.
To some, Williams’ sentence for his part in the rioting was so light, it seemed as great an injustice as the beatings themselves. But Fidel Lopez said that a harsher sentence, after the exoneration of the cops who pummeled Rodney King, might only have caused more violence. He said he understood the contained rage that cracked open after the acquittal of those officers. He told me he had African American friends before and after the riots, and he lives with the firm conviction that good and bad people come in all colors.
“This is a beautiful country,” he told me several times.
Her father is a proud man, Vanessa told me, and she admires him for the way he has handled his involuntary role in one of the city’s darkest dramas. He does things his way, she said, doesn’t like asking for help, and is more interested in providing for his family than revisiting the past.
This begins to explain why we haven’t heard anything about Fidel Lopez for almost 20 years. He decided long ago that he could consider himself an unfortunate soul or a lucky guy who — at a horrible moment in history — was saved by a good man.
He chose the latter.
One in a series of stories about the 1992 riots and how they reshaped Southern California.