It was an easy crime--the simple act of swiping a pocketbook from the arm of a 67-year-old lady--that cost Derek Pillares his life.
He never got to open the red-and-white bag to find out how little cash there was inside. Before he could, several young men who had seen the theft and some others who had not, pummeled him senseless in the parking lot of a South-Central Los Angeles elementary school Wednesday evening.
Some of his assailants, apparently spent by the effort it took to kick and pummel his head and stomach, took rest breaks before resuming the mayhem, witnesses said.
When it was over--the assailants gone and Pillares dying on the ground--a man drove up South Harvard Street and stopped his car. He got out, witnesses said, and approached the still body, stomped on Pillares' head, walked back to his car and drove off.
"You don't kill someone for stealing a purse," one witness said later. "But we don't know if it was that. Maybe it was just meanness."
Or maybe it was, as Police Lt. Joe Freia of the 77th Street Division surmised Thursday, that in a section of Los Angeles where crime is pervasive--where their parents are as vulnerable as the 67-year-old lady--the assailants decided they had had enough.
Whatever their motives, the assailants remained unknown Thursday, their descriptions vague: young, strong and angry.
Pillares, 28, was pronounced dead at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital. The coroner's office said he died of blunt force trauma to the head and torso. Toxicology tests were under way to determine if Pillares, who police said had a record of narcotics possession and thefts, had taken drugs that might have contributed to his death.
It began, police said, when Pillares ran across the corner of 89th Street and Western Avenue, past the elderly lady and her husband, who were bound for a nearby market at 4:40 p.m.
Screamed for Help
Pillares grabbed her purse and she screamed for help, Freia said. The thief ran north on Western Avenue, and four teen-agers took off after him.
Pillares apparently slipped between some homes and was cornered briefly near the now-abandoned Morningside Hospital on South Harvard, just across the street from La Salle Avenue Elementary School, Freia said.
Phil, as one witness asked to be called, walked outside and saw Pillares crouched between two cars in his driveway, a red-and-white purse clutched under his arm like a football.
"I said, 'What's up?' " Phil recalled asking the man. "I leaned over on the car door and said, 'Is there a problem?' "
Pillares stopped long enough for Phil to catch a glimpse of his gold earring. Then Pillares looked up to the roof of the old hospital and walked away stealthily, "like a cat watching a fly," Phil recalled.
He had made it nearly across Harvard Street when there was a shout that rang from the rooftop. "Stop before I blow your ass away," ordered one man who stood with a companion atop the roof, another witness said.
And then, from the rooftop, a gunshot rang out. Across the street, Pillares fell to the ground. Then, apparently unhurt, he got up and ran toward the elementary school parking lot, witnesses said.
Grabbed Teacher's Keys
He ran toward a schoolteacher, knocked her down, grabbed a ring of keys from her hand and rushed toward her car. Witnesses said several men playing basketball on a nearby court hopped over a fence to come to the teacher's aid. The two men from the rooftop also approached. There were at least seven men who cornered Pillares, witnesses said.
"They were jumping on him," Phil said. "It was like sending seven pit bulls on a 9-year-old kid. They were just plowing him."
At least one shot rang out during the battle; one witness heard two bursts. It was not known who did the shooting or the intended target.
Across the street, a neighbor called the 911 emergency number. When no rescuers came, she called again. Finally, later still, Phil called a third time.
Meanwhile, Pillares, on the parking lot asphalt, was offering no resistance.
"He was laying there," Phil said. "There was no movement whatsoever."
Phil and another witness watched as the assailants took turns stomping Pillares and kicking him in the sides. They watched when some left to resume their basketball game, when they disappeared altogether and, finally, when the man dressed in gray bounded from his car to give Pillares one last kick.
Unbeknown to the witnesses, some of the assailants who left the parking lot walked back to Western Avenue, where they found the purse-snatching victim.
"They told her they had captured the guy and told her where he was," Freia said.
She was standing in the lot when police finally arrived.
On Thursday, the well-tended homes on Harvard Street, guarded by ever-present iron security bars, showed no sign of distress. The same could not be said for the witnesses who lived inside them.
'How Do You Explain It?'
"Two little boys on skateboards saw the whole thing," said one resident, obviously disturbed. "How do you explain it? Bad men beat up another bad man and now he's dead? How do you explain that?"
"It was just for no reason at all," said another. "The guys wanted to have something to talk about."
"There was no indication this was a gang activity," Freia said. "They were helping this lady. . . . They were upset too, I guess."
Police declined to identify the schoolteacher who was assaulted in the parking lot.
The purse, found by police in the parking lot, was returned to its owner, whom police also declined to identify. It contained $27.03--the price of Derek Pillares' life.