LOS ANGELES – Betty Sugiyama and her elderly sister were rushing to catch a train for a shopping trip when authorities say the unthinkable happened: A homeless woman leapt from a bench and shoved the 84-year-old Little Tokyo resident onto the tracks.
Witnesses said the woman then calmly returned to her seat as Sugiyama lay on the tracks with a cracked skull. She died soon after, and the suspect was arrested on murder charges.
Sugiyama's sister who witnessed the attack remained stunned Tuesday that anyone would want to harm her friendly younger sibling, a Japanese-American who had grown up in the shadow of World War II and was sent to an internment camp as a child.
"I didn't see any anger or expression on her face," Mary Sugiyama said as she recalled how the woman in a black dress jumped up from a bench and rushed her sister. "She didn't look like she was upset or anything."
Sheriff's deputies arrived moments after the attack and arrested Jackkqueline Pogue. Prosecutors on Tuesday charged her with murder. Pogue pleaded not guilty at her arraignment later Tuesday. She was being held on $1 million bail.
Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. David Coleman said investigators were trying to establish a motive. He said it was unclear if Pogue, 44, is mentally ill or if she had been using drugs, but she seemed coherent when detectives spoke with her.
Family member Elmer Pogue told KCAL-TV that Jackkqueline had recently been released from a psychiatric hospital and had been taking powerful medications.
"(She) needs to be at a hospital and not a jail," Elmer Pogue said. "She was ... just out of her mind with all this psychiatric medication that she took for five days, and I want to apologize."
Mary Sugiyama, 86, said she and her sister had been trying to catch a downtown train then make a connection and ultimately head to Long Beach, where they planned on spending the day shopping.
The sisters grew up in a family of six kids, the children of Japanese immigrants. Their father worked in and around Seattle in the fish-canning business and came to Los Angeles in the late 1930s to accept an offer of a job in a bookstore run by a relative.
Little Tokyo was once a humming center of Japanese culture where Japanese was the main language spoken by its 30,000 or so residents and numerous markets selling tofu, miso paste and other traditional foods pulled customers from around the region.
At the start of the U.S. involvement in World War II, much of Little Tokyo's population was sent to internment camps. The Sugiyama family was sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.
"It was just a bleak place with barracks and a lot of sand, towers with soldiers guarding us," Mary recalled.
After returning to Los Angeles at the end of the war, Betty Sugiyama went on to work for several Japanese bookstores up until she retired a few years ago.
"She would work seven days a week," Mary said. "After she retired, she loved to go shopping and go out as early as she could and make me go with her. She would always want to be on the go and would always make a lot friends."
Today, Little Tokyo has shrunk to an area of just three blocks squared, and immigrants from other Asian countries, as well as gentrification, have shrunk the Japanese population to just 2,000 Japanese residents, said Bill Watanabe, president of the Little Tokyo Services Center, a social services agency.
The train station at Little Tokyo was opened last year as part of a mass-transit expansion. Sheriff's Capt. Patrick Jordan said homicides on the county's sprawling bus and rail network are extremely rare — there were none last year — though other nuisance crimes such as graffiti tagging persist.
Little Tokyo is a few blocks north of Skid Row, where thousands of homeless residents live or visit. Watanabe said Little Tokyo is a generally safe neighborhood, though it occasionally sees purse snatchings and other crimes.