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L.A. Rioters Set Fires, Loot Stores; 4 Die in Violence

By Marc Lacey
and Shawn Hubler

Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles

Rioting mobs ignited fires, beat motorists and looted stores and offices Wednesday night throughout Los Angeles as fears of race-related violence came to pass following the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney G. King.

Initial reports linked four deaths to the rioting, and at least 106 others were treated at area hospitals for gunshot wounds and other injuries believed to related to the rioting. Among the injured was a firefighter who was shot in the face.

Gov. Pete Wilson ordered the National Guard to report for duty as scattered demonstrations evolved into the city's largest riot since Watts erupted in flames in 1965.

In a drama that unfolded on live television, violence erupted first at the intersection of Florence Boulevard and Normandie Avenue in South Central Los Angeles and radiated to areas throughout the city.

Before the night's end, more than 150 fires raged in the city and sporadic gunfire flared in the streets.

Mayor Tom Bradley, in a grim televised address shortly after 11 p.m., said the city will "take whatever resources needed" to quell the violence. He said the city was receiving assistance from the county Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol and police and fire departments from neighboring cities.

"We believe that the situation is now simmering down, pretty much under control," Bradley said. "Stay off the streets. It's anticipated that a curfew will be put into effect tomorrow night."

At least 25 arrests were reported by 11:45 p.m.

The vast majority of the fires occurred in neighborhoods south of downtown, said Fire Department spokesman Bob Collis. On a normal night, Collis said, there are only about two to three structure fires reported an hour citywide.

"They're coming in about one a minute," Collis said. "... And I think it's going to go on like that all night."

Smoke was so thick in South Los Angeles that the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the rerouting of flights into Los Angeles International Airport over the ocean.

The view from a helicopter flying 600 feet above the city south of the Santa Monica Freeway just after 10 p.m. was an odd mixture of scattered infernos and eerie normalcy. Funnels of black smoke rose like slow-moving tornadoes. One of the worst appeared to be at a store next to the Golden State Mutual Building on West Adams Boulevard at Western Avenue, a few blocks from First A.M.E. Church, where African-American community leaders hosted an emotional peace rally earlier in the evening.

"It's a throwback to 1965," said District Attorney Ira Reiner. "It's Watts all over again."

Downtown, a racially mixed group of protesters massed outside Parker Center police headquarters, eventually hurling rocks and setting fire to a small kiosk. The demonstration turned into a rampage, as rioters moved onto City Hall, the Los Angeles Times, courthouses and federal and state office buildings, smashing windows and igniting small blazes along the way.

A police car was set aflame, as were four palm trees lining the Hollywood Freeway, shooting flames a hundred feet into the air. Several people ran onto the freeway or hurled objects, stopping traffic for about 15 minutes. Some motorists panicked and made U-turns, heading the wrong direction on the freeway in search of an exit.

Looting and vandalism were reported at points across Los Angeles County, from Pasadena to Compton, from South Los Angeles to Westwood Village.

Violence also erupted at the Lake View Terrace location in the San Fernando Valley where King was beaten 14 months ago. Demonstrators there later marched on the Foothill Division headquarters, the home station of the officers who were tried in the beating of King. Gunshots were heard in Lake View Terrace at 9:15 p.m., prompting protesters, police and bystanders to duck for cover. No one was reported injured.

Bradley called a local state of emergency shortly before 9 p.m. and Gov. Wilson ordered the National Guard to report for duty minutes later. Bus service was halted and Los Angeles Unified School District officials ordered that dozens of schools on the city's south side be shut today.

A spokesman for Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center said that between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., the emergency room admitted 22 people with injuries, including five gunshot victims. The spokesman said the admissions were "a very high number," and the injuries ranged from minor to critical. Two operating rooms were in use to handle the flow, he said.

At Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, two men were reported dead. Mary Schnack, a hospital spokeswoman, said a Latino man died at 9:37 p.m. of traumatic injuries and a gunshot to the chest. The second fatality, a black man who was thrown from a car, died of head and internal injuries, Schnack said. Hospital workers attributed both deaths to the riots.

At California Medical Center near downtown, two other deaths were linked the rioting.

The anger over the King verdict simmered through the afternoon, then turned ugly as dusk started to fall over the city. At Parker Center, the downtown police headquarters, a line of police in riot gear faced off against protesters gathered outside. But when anarchy erupted at Florence and Normandie starting at about 5:30 p.m., police were nowhere to be seen. No signs of law enforcement were evident for hours as mobs dragged motorists from their vehicles and beat them, hurled rocks and bottles at passing cars and looted a nearby liquor store.

Officers responding to the violence retreated after the mob grew larger and angrier.

The lack of response puzzled even the county's chief prosecutor, District Attorney Ira Reiner.

"I would have thought they would have moved in immediately and quickly suppressed it," Reiner said. "The plan is a mystery to me."

TV reporters also expressed disbelief at the scene unfolding live before viewers. "I can't believe the cops are looking at this, and not doing something," one anchorwoman declared.

Police initially said they lacked sufficient forces to react to some specific trouble spots.

"We didn't have enough numbers to go in," Cmdr. Robert Gil, a police spokesman, said early in the evening. "You can't go in if you have only four or five officers. You have to have a sufficient number."

At about 7 p.m., as violence escalated, police commanders ordered all off-duty officers to report for duty.

The city's long-standing racial tensions, which many leaders have said were exacerbated by the beating of King, reached their hottest point on the streets following the verdicts. Many of perpetrators of the attacks were black; some victims were white and Asian.

"I'm glad people are raising hell," said Millie Feldman, a 28-year-old South Central resident who hurled a bottle at a late model Mercedes Benz driven by a white woman. "I don't think it's good but it's got to happen.

"We don't have to put up with this," Feldman added. "This is not the right way but it's the only way. This is just beginning."

A 20-year-old black resident who gave his name only as E.J. said anger simmered throughout the afternoon. After a crowd gathered at the corner of a South Central intersection, he said, police arrived at the scene. When patrol cars arrived and officers attempted to make arrests, the crowd got out of control, E.J. said.

After 15 or 20 minutes, he said, "the sergeant or whoever was in charge ... got on his loudspeaker and started saying, `It's not worth it, it's not worth it, let's get out of here.'

"And after that, man, they left. They just left. They shouldn't never have left."

After that, E.J. said, the mob surrounded and rocked cars that carried people "who were light skinned or white. ... There was one guy, a guy in a gray Volvo, who jumped out of his car and started taking pictures. But when the police left, the black people chased him back to his car, and jumped on him and jumped on his Volvo, stole his camera, his briefcase, pulled him out and started jump kicking him in the head. He just barely got away. If some black guy hadn't helped him, he probably would be dead right now. ...

"One Caucasian lady was driving down the street in a van with a whole bunch of little kids in the back. I told her, `Get out the neighborhood, you better get out of here -- look at all these people.' "

About 200 people lined the intersection, with many raised fists. Chunks of asphalt and concrete were thrown at cars.

Some yelled, "It's a black thing." Others shouted, "This is for Rodney King."

In gruesome scenes recorded by the TV news helicopters, an 18-wheel truck was stopped in the intersection, its driver dragged from the cab and beaten by the mob. He lay bleeding and motionless for several minutes. Cars were abandoned nearby, their windshields smashed and fenders battered.

Two cars were smashed in the intersection. A brown Ford Wrangler came to a stop when the driver -- who appeared to be an Asian male in his 30s or 40s -- was hit by a rock thrown through the front windshield. When he got out of the vehicle, he was smashed in the face with a bottle, leaving him bloodied and dazed.

A few people braved the mob to assist victims.

Meanwhile, looters declared open season on Tom's Liquor and Deli.

"They started looting, coming out with bottles and cases, anything they could grab," E.J. said.