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Death for Death : Youth Had Minor Scrapes With Law but Didn't Fit Image of a Cop Killer

June 09, 1988|MICHAEL CONNELLY | Times Staff Writer

Bobby Steele was swinging the bat well, and by Sunday was on a nine-game hitting streak with a city youth league baseball team, the Sun Valley Park Pirates.

On Monday, the 16-year-old was able to parlay a morning dental appointment into a whole day off from school. The grandparents who raised him didn't mind that he spent the rest of the day around the house.

But by 9 p.m. he was ready to get out of the North Hollywood home where he had lived his entire life. He baked himself a batch of cookies and then left to meet a friend. When he walked out the door, he left behind everything that appeared to be routine about his life.

A few hours later and a few blocks away, Robert Jay Steele killed a cop, Los Angeles police say. A few hours after that, police killed him.

"It doesn't make sense," his grandmother, Pauline Steele, said Wednesday as she sat on the dead youth's bed and looked at the collection of baseball trophies on his bureau.

"It seems like we are talking about two separate people," said his sister, Lori Lyn Steele.

To his family, Steele may have been a mischievous youth, someone who had his troubles in school and with authorities, but he did not fit the picture of a cop killer.

At 12:20 a.m. Tuesday, however, according to police, the teen-ager grappled with a rookie police officer for control of the officer's gun. Within seconds, Officer James Beyea, 24, fell to the ground, fatally shot in the head.

Cornered and Killed

Steele, suspected of having just burglarized a nearby electronics store, then fired the weapon at the policeman's approaching partner and ran off. He was later cornered in the attic of a vacant home and shot to death by officers when, according to authorities, he repeatedly tried to pick up the gun.

"He had been in trouble before but never anything like this," his 23-year-old sister said. "I feel that what happened was that he was scared. He got in with the wrong people, did something wrong and got scared."

Police declined to say whether Steele had a juvenile record. His family said he had minor scrapes with authorities in the last year, including a fight with a teacher and an arrest when a police officer found a pair of brass knuckles in a car in which he was riding. Details of the incidents were unavailable Wednesday.

Steele was a student at North Hollywood High School, where he frequently missed classes, until May 9, administrators said. Then he was placed in a school program supervised by Los Angeles County juvenile authorities, but officials declined to say what prompted the transfer.

"He liked sports and to goof around. But there was a little bit of a mystery about him," said Ricardo Davis, recreation leader at Sun Valley Park, who knew Steele for eight years. "He came to the park right before his games and he left right after. I don't know if the friends he had on the team were his really close friends or just friends while he was here."

Police said a friend away from the park was Alberto Hernandez, 19, of North Hollywood. After Steele left his home Monday night, investigators said, he and Hernandez broke into Alpha Electronics, about six blocks from Steele's home.

A burglar alarm touched off at 12:20 a.m. Tuesday brought Officer Beyea and his partner, Officer Ignacio Gonzalez, to the shop. After searching the premises, they saw someone running away and gave chase.

The officers split up, Beyea on foot and Gonzalez in the car. Soon after, Gonzales saw Beyea struggling with someone in the street, police said. From a block away, he heard two gunshots and saw his partner fall.

Steele then exchanged gunfire with Gonzalez, police said, and ran through the neighborhood to an abandoned house. A police dog tracked him there at 4:30 a.m.

Police said the K-9 officer, Jon Hall, and Sgt. Gary Nanson, one of dozens of policemen who by then were searching for the suspect, took a ladder from the garage of the vacant home, propped it in the attic entrance in the hallway ceiling and climbed up.

Using flashlights, they spotted Steele between two rafters near a corner of the attic. Steele began to comply with an order to surrender and told the officers that another suspect was in the house, police said, then suddenly attempted to grab a gun that was by his side. Hall fired once, hitting Steele in the face.

According to police, Hall and Nanson crawled over to Steele and, after examining him, believed that he was dead. They left the gun next to him and backed away so the scene would be undisturbed for investigators,.

Police said Hall then climbed out of the attic to search the house. About three minutes after the first shot, police said, Steele stirred and reached for the weapon again despite a warning from Nanson.

Nanson fired his gun, hitting Steele in the face again, police said. Two other officers heard the second shot and quickly climbed into the attic, police said, and both fired their guns when they saw Steele still grabbing for the gun. One shot hit Steele in the face for the third time and the other shot missed.

The officers found Beyea's service revolver at the dead youth's side.

Hernandez, who was found hiding in some bushes nearby, is scheduled to be arraigned today on a murder charge.

A funeral with full police honors is scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday for Beyea, the grandson of a traffic officer, at the Praiswater Funeral Home in Van Nuys, with interment to following at Oakwood Memorial Park.

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