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Despondent Man Takes Fatal Leap Into Burning Home in Hollywood

February 17, 1988|PENELOPE McMILLAN and BORIS YARO | Times Staff Writers

While his house burned behind him Monday night, a 28-year-old Hollywood man threatened: "Don't come near me, or I'll jump in."

Then, while firefighters and other witnesses watched in horror, Brian E. Morgan crashed through the front window and was consumed by flames.

According to Los Angeles police, witnesses said that after the house began to burn they saw Morgan try to set fire to the gas meter of the white stucco home on Chula Vista Way. Then, before he took his life, he stood on the porch in the nude and shouted to a neighbor: "It's OK. I have to die."

"Apparently he was despondent about an argument he had had with his girlfriend," said Hollywood Division Police Sgt. Ruben Whittington. Morgan several months ago had broken up with his girlfriend, who is also the daughter of the owner of the house, which Morgan rented.

Neighbors said Tuesday that on Sunday morning, Morgan started hurling belongings onto the front yard and sidewalk.

Phil Deicher, a lifelong friend, said the short, dark-haired man seemed to undergo "a total personality change" that day. Later, Deicher said, he wondered if the fact that it was Valentine's Day had precipitated the crisis.

Police, responding to a call about Morgan's "strange" behavior, surrounded the house and closed the street to traffic. At first, they believed Morgan had a weapon, Whittington said, but then left after deciding that Morgan was not armed and "was not a danger" to himself or others.

On Tuesday, neighbors who gathered on the street just below the Hollywood Hills wondered if the tragedy could have been averted if police had held Morgan for psychiatric observation.

"He was crying for help," said Paul McConnell, who lives nearby.

But Whittington said Morgan had refused to come out of the house, or speak with officers. "We were thinking about going in after him but the fact was we didn't have a crime," he said.

Morgan's landlady, who asked that her name not be used, said she went to the house after the police left and Morgan seemed terrified.

"He crawled out of a closet, across the floor, saying, 'They're not going to kill me, are they?' " she said.

The next day, the landlady said, she brought him some groceries and thought he seemed "normal."

On Tuesday, as the landlady stood in front of the house, Morgan's mother, Lorraine Marue, arrived, and they hugged each other for several seconds as Marue blinked back tears.

"He was sensitive," Marue said. "He was just scared."

Morgan liked to restore antique furniture and, Marue said, "wanted to be an antique dealer."

Deicher said that Morgan was not currently working and seemed to be supporting himself with an insurance settlement from an automobile accident.

Deicher said he was not aware of Morgan using drugs other than "some pot." Arson investigators said they detected an odor resembling burned marijuana at the rear of the house.

According to police, Morgan's parents said he was known to use narcotics. Toxicological tests will be included in an autopsy scheduled for today, the Los Angeles County coroner's office said.

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Jim Williamson said the blaze, which was extinguished in 16 minutes, caused about $15,000 damage to the home.

There was no way to save Morgan once he jumped into the flames, Battalion Chief Thomas McMaster said. "That man was dead the moment he took a breath," McMaster said. "His lungs had to have been seared by the heat."

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