Twenty years ago, Los Angeles erupted in riots after four cops were acquitted in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, but during an uprising supposedly in the name of justice, some people got away with murder.
During the five "Days of Outrage," a disbelieving nation watched on television as looters broke store windows and emptied shelves, Korean grocers sat atop their stores with assault rifles and fires were set throughout South Central and other parts of the city. Beatings, including the brutal one administered to truck driver Reginald Denny, were captured on video by news crews.
“Can’t we all just get along?” pleaded King as the city was plunged into violent chaos. The phrase became a rallying cry for a city determined to heal after being torn apart by racial divisions.
The police were overwhelmed, and the National Guard was called in to help quell the violence. When the mayhem subsided five days later, nearly 1,600 buildings were destroyed or damaged and more than 2,300 people were hurt. The final cost of the riot was estimated at more than a billion dollars, including $735 million in property damage.
But the human toll is the most disturbing legacy of the riots. Some 53 people were killed in what police have classified as riot-related homicides and accidents. Of those, some 22 homicides remain classified as open and unsolved.
The dead for whom justice remains elusive include a 15-year-old boy shot as he stood on a corner, a Good Samaritan who tried to douse flames set by a crowd of angry looters, a hard-working immigrant who insisted on making grocery deliveries even as his neighborhood burned, a suburban man shot when he came to check on his store and John Doe No. 80, whose identity may never be known.
Here are their stories:
- Arturo Carlos Miranda, 23, was killed on April 29, 1992, at the intersection of 120th St. and Central Ave. Miranda, a Mexican-American, his nephew Valentin Moreno and another friend were driving back from a South Central park when an unidentified blue car pulled up next to theirs and someone fired a shot at the trio. Miranda was struck in the chest. Inexplicably, his nephew and friend first drove Miranda home before taking him to Martin Luther King Hospital, where he died.
- Dwight Taylor, a 43-year-old African-American, was walking home from work when he was shot in the neck and killed the same night, in a drive-by attack on W. Martin Luther King Boulevard.
- Eduardo Canedo Vela, a 33-year-old Mexican-American, was driving with two friends in the riot zone that night when their car broke down on Slauson Ave. Vela stayed with the car while his companions went to find a phone. When they returned, he’d been shot in the chest.
- Anthony Lamarr Netherly, 21, an African-American, was found between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. shot in the head at the intersection of 78th and San Pedro streets. The driver who found him loaded Netherly into his car and took him to Martin Luther King Hospital, where he died in the emergency room.
- John Henry Willers, 37, of Salt Lake City, stopped on a busy road in Mission Hills to help some people involved in a head-on collision and was gunned down.
- Elbert Ondra Wilkins, 33, was with pals just before midnight at 92nd St. and Western Ave. when shots rang out from an unidentified car driving by. One bullet hit Wilkins in the chest, ripping into his aorta. Wilkins’ friends drove him to Martin Luther King Hospital, where he later died.
- The body of Nissar Daoud Mustafa was found by demolition workers in the rubble of the J.J. Newberry department store on Aug. 12, months after rioters set it ablaze. The 20-year-old was classified as a John Doe, until the coroner, who determined he burned to death, identified him through dental records.
- Ira Frederick McCurry, 45, pleaded with looters not to burn down the store adjacent to his home on Avalon Blvd. He was shot through the right eye and died at the scene.
- Police believe Meeker Mardah Gibson, 35, had stopped to use a pay phone at a Pomona gas station when someone blasted him in the chest with a shotgun.
- William Anthony Ross was initially listed as John Doe No. 79, when his body was found in a looted and torched grocery store in Koreatown. The owner found the 25-year-old African-American’s body on May 1. He was curled up under a metal desk in the rear of the store, a large wad of cash stuffed in his pocket.
- Howard Epstein, a 45-year-old Orlanda resident, was driving through South Central to check on a business he owned in the riot zone on the afternoon of April 30 when a driver pulled up next to him and shot him once in the temple. His Ford Thunderbird careened into a tree and as he lay mortally wounded, rioters robbed him and looted his car. He died at the scene, and when police arrived the hostile crowd forced them to tow away the car with the body still inside.
- As the rioting raged on, Thanh Lam, 25, continued to make deliveries to customers of his family’s small grocery store in Compton. Police believe the Vietnamese-American was stopped at a red light on Alondra Blvd. when a late 1970s or early 1980s blue Cadillac pulled up alongside him. An African-American male in the passenger seat yelled a racial slur at Lam and then opened fire. Lam was shot four times, three hits to the chest and one to the back.
- One of the riot’s youngest victims was Gregory Davis Jr. The 15-year-old African-American boy was shot once in the forehead as he walked near Vermont and 43rd streets on April 30.
- Police found the knife that was used to stab Adolpho Morales to death, but they were unable to lift prints from it. The 37-year-old’s body was found on W. Pico Boulevard.
- Louis Amari Watson, 18, was with a group of people at the corner of Vernon and Normandie avenues when someone shot him in the head.
- John Doe No. 80, is a white male, approximately 35, who stood just under 5 feet tall and weighed 117 pounds. The only remaining unidentified victim from the riots, his body was found May 2 in a burned out Pep Boys on S. Vermont Ave. It appears he suffered a skull fracture, likely from a punch, before dying in the store of smoke inhalation.
- Police believe George Antonio Sosa was looting a store in Huntington Park when someone shot him in the chest.
- Ernest Neal Jr., 27, was standing on the corner of Western Ave. and 92nd St. during the rioting when a car rolled up and someone shot him in the head..
- Kevin Andrew Evanshen, 24, became known as “the Good Samaritan,” after he tried to douse a Venice store as it was being looted on May 1. He climbed onto the roof and was hosing down the flames when he fell through. Firefighters later recovered his charred body; whoever set the blaze is guilty of felony murder.
- Police believe Wilson Alvarez, 40, was beaten to death by a throng of stick-wielding looters after he threw stones at them.
- The body of Carol Ann Benson, a 43-year-old African-American woman, was found on Harbor Freeway near downtown L.A. Police believe a hit-and-run driver struck the South Central resident and that her body had been dragged underneath a car.
- It was three weeks after the riots ended that a worker from a nearby business found the body of Juan Veron Roberto Salgado, 20, in the rubble of a burned out clothing store, Collective Merchandise, on Main Street. The coroner reported the cause of death as smoke inhalation and burns and it was ruled a homicide.
Police say all the cases above remain open. But with the passage of time, evidence is lost forever and witnesses fade from the reach of prosecutors. Authorities privately acknowledge the possibility of solving these homicides, and bringing to justice the people who committed them, become more remote with every year that passes.
“With regards to the specific cases being handled by our division, I can tell you that we had a whole team of detectives that collected all the available video from the surrounding stores and from the news media after the riot was quelled,” said LAPD Detective Olivia Spendola of the Major Crimes Division.
“Our detectives combed through every piece of footage to try and identify suspects or vehicles and witnesses, but we never got any leads from that work and we still haven’t 20 years later,” she added. “But you never give up hope.”