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Car Kills Crossing Guard : Children Offer Sad Salute to Protector

December 04, 1987|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

With a tenderness not usually found on a school playground, Darren Elm, 13, tucked eight red roses into a chain-link fence near a sign that read: "In loving memory of our guard, Tony Panico. We will miss you."

His was one of 500 small bouquets left by children Thursday in Woodland Hills as a tribute to a popular school-crossing guard who was struck by a car and killed as horrified children looked on.

Anthony T. Panico, 70, died four hours after being hit Monday by an auto that swerved to avoid another car on Serrania Avenue outside St. Mel Elementary School. About 100 children on the Catholic school's playground witnessed the accident.

"It was horrible," said Darren, an eighth-grader. "We wanted to bring flowers to show we remember him. And to tell people to drive more carefully."

Los Angeles police were continuing Thursday to investigate the accident, interviewing witnesses and waiting for a mechanic to inspect the Mercedes-Benz sports car that jumped a curb and hit Panico, said Detective Gus Ruiz.

Officers will decide next week whether to seek criminal charges against the driver, Leslie Hoffman, 52, of Woodland Hills, or the driver of another Mercedes-Benz that allegedly pulled into traffic and caused Hoffman to swerve, Ruiz said.

Christine Hunter, assistant principal of St. Mel, said a special counselor is working with the school's 593 pupils to help them deal with their grief.

"The children are talking now about Tony being in heaven and still watching over them," Hunter said. "They loved him. He was like a grandfather to so many of them. He was a nice man, so warm and caring."

Vanessa Giglio, 12, said Panico would sit on the curb with her and talk about school work when she waited for her ride home every afternoon.

"Tony would greet you every morning and every afternoon," said 13-year-old Robert Trulik, one of the witnesses to the accident. "He'd wave his big red sign to people who were speeding and tell them that the speed limit is 25, not 55."

Parents said Thursday that speeding has been a growing problem along Serrania Avenue. A public school is also located on the street, which is a main route between a nearby hillside residential area and the Ventura Freeway.

Panico would "tap cars on the hood that wouldn't stop," said Sue Theule, whose three children attend St. Mel School. "He had a lot of concern for children. He took his job seriously."

Panico, a retired school-operations official from New York, often worried about the traffic problem, said his son, John Panico of Canyon Country.

"We told him to get a school closer to where he lived in Granada Hills," said Panico, 36. "He said no, he wanted to protect the kids over there. He told me many stories about how he had to yell at people that there were schools over there, and they should drive more carefully."

Because of his father's devotion to the Woodland Hills children, a funeral service will be held at St. Mel Catholic Church at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Panico said. Church officials said schoolchildren will sing at the service.

The death sparked a request for a city traffic-safety study and a police crackdown on Serrania Avenue speeders, said Kathie Lunbeck, an aide to City Councilman Marvin Braude.

At the crash site, homeowner Martha Hebblethwaite sobbed Thursday as she watched children place flowers on the school fence. Panico was thrown next to her porch by the car, which crashed into her living room wall.

"I'm not the crying type," Hebblethwaite said. "But Tony was so kind to the children. He was so nice to everybody. This is such a tragedy."

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