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Community Beset by Tragedies : Palisades High Counts Its Dead and Wonders Why

November 08, 1988|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

Some brought flowers and others scribbled notes saying "We love you" and placed them at the base of the battered coral tree on San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica. Billy, a 16-year-old Palisades High School student, brought a T-shirt from a concert of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band.

"It was Cal's favorite group," he said.

Days earlier, Calvin Hoftyzer, Lisa Goldberg, Russell Kantor and Reid Mangels, all 17, had been killed in a fiery crash when their 1985 Dodge Diplomat struck a light pole along the boulevard, veered across its park-like median and hit the coral tree at the intersection of 11th Street.

Three of the teen-age victims were seniors at Palisades High School. Since the accident Oct. 28, hundreds of their schoolmates, relatives and curiosity seekers have made a pilgrimage to the site of the crash.

For many in Pacific Palisades, an affluent community of rambling canyons and ocean-view estates that once was home to President Reagan, it is becoming an all-too-familiar ritual. In the last 16 months, 10 young residents of the community--seven of them students at "Pali High"--have suffered violent deaths, most involving alcohol or drugs.

Alarmed by the series of incidents, about 200 parents held a meeting earlier this year to discuss what was happening to their children. Students at the high school, in turn, have established a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, the only such group anywhere on a high school campus, a spokesman for the organization said.

"People are surprised that this has happened again, but I'm not," said school psychologist Linda Levine. "These children are living in the fast lane."

The number of deaths is unusual not only for a school in an affluent area, but for those in inner-city neighborhoods plagued by gang violence. Officials of several such Los Angeles-area high schools--Locke, Jordan and Compton--said they knew of no more than one death among their students over the same period.

Earlier Losses

The toll in Pacific Palisades, meanwhile, had been mounting well before the San Vicente Boulevard crash:

- Clinton D. Heilemann, a 15-year-old sophomore, was shot to death by a drifter after midnight on July 3, 1987, as he was drinking beer with a group of friends in a church parking lot.

- David deKernion, 17, who lived in the Palisades but attended a private school, was killed Nov. 7, 1987, when his car collided with another on Sunset Boulevard. DeKernion had been drinking, authorities said.

- Twelve days later, Michele Friedlander, 20, a recent graduate of Palisades High, was killed along with three companions when their car plunged over a cliff and into the ocean along the Pacific Coast Highway near Point Mugu. Friedlander was returning to UC Santa Barbara, where she was a sophomore.

- Alvaro Velasquez, 15, who had just transferred to the high school, was killed in a drive-by shooting March 25 in a West Los Angeles park. Police attributed the incident to gang rivalry.

- John Liberti, 19, a former student at Pali High who had been transferred to a "continuation school" for students having problems, was killed about 2 a.m. July 21 when he drove his car on the wrong side of Sunset Boulevard and collided with an oncoming vehicle.

- Jose Williams, 19, a senior, was shot to death by his grandmother in a family dispute in Venice on May 29.

- And, in a highly publicized incident, Teak Dyer, an 18-year-old senior, was found beaten and shot to death in a Pacific Palisades office building June 22, the eve of her graduation. Security guard Rodney Darnell Garmanian has been charged with her murder and rape. According to a toxicology report, Dyer had a .15% alcohol level and traces of cocaine in her system.

Palisades Principal Gerald Dodd said he is well aware of a "sickening feeling" around the school in the wake of the "unusual cluster of deaths," but he downplayed the incidents as unrelated.

"It is more an unfortunate coincidence, but I don't believe there is a sickness in this community," he said.

To students, however, the events go beyond mere coincidence, according to psychologist Levine. The deaths have taken an emotional toll at the high school, she said, some students becoming physically sick while others have become hardened.

Levine said one student complained to her, "We must be jinxed. There is something wrong here."

And she agrees that there is something wrong, with the root of the trouble being "a tradition in the community of celebrating everything with a drink. It is a community of drinkers."

The night of the most recent tragedy, the four 17-year-olds attended an annual "Midnight Madness" celebration sponsored by Palisades merchants, who keep their doors open late and have sidewalk displays. Later, the teen-agers had dinner together.

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