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Fatal Shooting of Youth Being Held at Gunpoint

May 18, 1985

On Saturday, April 20, Robert Cooper caught 17-year-old Henry Velasquez breaking into a car. He held Velasquez at gunpoint for several minutes waiting for the police, but seconds before they arrived he fired three rounds into the boy, killing him.

On Sunday a Times reporter interviewed a few people on Descanso Drive in Silverlake where the killing occurred. The consensus seemed to be that justice had finally been meted out. The Chicanos of the community, however, were calling it racism and a coldblooded murder. In the meantime, Cooper, now admiringly heralded as the Los Angeles Vigilante, has been freed on bail and is apparently "laying low" out of the state, because he knows a similar fate awaits him if he returns.

Television crews have focused media attention on the event by filming the Neighborhood Watch signs posted on the trees, subjectively linking in the minds of viewers the Neighborhood Watch program and the killing. They also interviewed the Chicano kids at the bottom of the street probing for the reasons why the others, as the Times article suggested, should be so frightened of them. As a resident of Descanso living just steps from where the boy was killed, I want to register a few complaints.

First, my heart goes out to the boy; breaking into a car does not warrant the supreme sacrifice with bullet holes in the chest. It can be nothing less than a moral outrage for people to applaud a killing, whatever the reason, even in the name of justice. It expresses the depravity of any person who would balance replaceable, material objects equally with human life. And I feel shame for anybody who sees Cooper in heroic terms.

If it was not murder, then at least Cooper must be charged with overly zealous defense of a car stereo, lack of restraint with his emotions, casual attitude with a deadly weapon, and inability to moderate a volatile situation. But, too, I sympathize with him. He lives in and owns apartments on Descanso, and I can almost sense his anger pent up after months and years of cleaning graffiti off the walls, sweeping up other people's garbage, or waking to the sound of cars getting their windows smashed. I wonder how I would respond under similar circumstances.

Those who would believe it was a coldblooded murder, inspired by racism, only inflame the issue, because it does not square with the facts. Why did he call the police if he intended murder? Why did he shoot just as they were arriving? A more likely scenario was that the boy panicked when he heard the police helicopter overhead and made a move to flee, perhaps first by moving toward Cooper. Cooper then panicked by firing the gun. Why three bullets into the boy, then, and not one? It may indicate that the situation had run out of control between two frightened people. One bullet neatly placed, like a flesh wound in the arm to subdue him, would suggest very rational behavior by a person, not to mention good marksmanship. There was none of that here.

The police added to the problem. After arriving at the scene, the police helicopter was unable to find Cooper and Velasquez with its spotlight. They seemed to traverse the entire area with the light, shining it on everything, including me standing on my terrace, but they missed where the action was. A police car raced down the winding and bumpy street, failing entirely to see Cooper training his gun on Velasquez, though they were but a yard or two away and despite the fact that somebody jumped into the street waving his arms to attract their attention. Had they stopped the situation could have been resolved using standard police procedures.

The Times performed a disservice to the residents of the street with an April 22 article that has gone only to heighten tensions in the area. It did no good to print people's remarks about those at the bottom of the street, because the remarks were vicious and unfair and already have led to claims of racism (though the street is mixed), and because they are taken as feelings representative of everyone on the street about those near Sunset. My comments, had I been interviewed, would not have fit in with the tone of the article.

Furthermore, although one may smile to read that "the trees are plastered with 'Neighborhood Watch' stickers," it is unobjective and inaccurate; the innuendo behind the phrasing is also insulting. Cooper, by the way, was not a member of Neighborhood Watch.

Television crews responded with equally cheap reporting. They rounded up a bunch of kids at the bottom of the street, most of whom are not even remotely associated with the problem, and tried to explore why the street feels so terrified of them. But it was the wrong bunch of kids and the wrong question. Rightfully, they were indignant.

The way this "law-abiding citizen" has vanquished a petty thief, and the follow-up of it, has not resulted in my feeling any safer. It behooves all of us, the would-be vigilante, the residents, and the news media, not to pull the trigger too quickly.

MARK BROWN

Los Angeles

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