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Robber a Victim, Wife Says : Family at a Loss to Explain Crime Role

February 19, 1990|HECTOR TOBAR and MICHAEL CONNELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To his family and friends, Herbert Burgos was a responsible, intelligent man who rose through the ranks of McDonald's employees from a humble cook to the position of store manager at one of the chain's franchises.

Even now, days after Burgos, 27, was killed by police after he robbed a McDonald's in Sunland, framed diplomas and certificates from the fast-food company line one wall of his Venice duplex.

Burgos left McDonald's last year and enrolled full time at a Hollywood business school. His English teacher there, David Thomas, said: "He was probably the nicest person we've known at this school. I can't see anyone of his caliber deserving to be shot in the back."

Los Angeles police know Burgos as a very different man. They say he and his brother-in-law, Jesus Arango--also a former McDonald's employee--used their knowledge of the fast-food business to direct a ring that may have robbed at least nine other local fast-food restaurants since August.

The two men were shot and killed early last Monday by nine officers of the LAPD's Special Investigations Section, a controversial and secretive police surveillance unit.

The officers confronted Burgos, Arango, 25, and two other men as they fled the McDonald's on Foothill Boulevard. The officers fired 23 shotgun blasts and 12 shots from .45-caliber handguns at the robbers, who were carrying three pellet guns. In the early-morning darkness, the pellet guns appeared to be deadlier firearms, police said.

Burgos was killed as he tried to flee. Arango and 20-year-old Juan Bahena died inside the late-model Thunderbird they had driven to the McDonald's. Alfredo Olivas, 19, was seriously wounded.

A 1988 Times investigation found that SIS surveillances often ended with the criminals being killed or wounded. Police officials have defended the unit and its tactics. And they say no department regulations were violated in the unit's handling of the robbery at the Sunland McDonald's.

"We have got people who choose to be armed robbers," said Lt. William Hall, head of the department's officer-involved shooting unit. "They have chosen the game and all we tried to do was identify them and arrest them. And I don't think that in this case that there is really any reason for a lot of criticism to come up."

Family members are at a loss to explain why Burgos, whose future seemed to hold so much promise, would risk everything by robbing his former employer. And they are angered because they say he shouldn't have paid for his crime with his life.

"Why didn't they give him a chance to surrender?" asked Elizabeth Burgos-Arango, 23, Herbert's wife and Jesus' sister. "Even the worst human being deserves a chance, and they didn't give it to him."

Burgos was a Salvadoran immigrant who arrived in the United States about eight years ago, family members said. He hired Arango, then a teen-ager from a recently arrived Cuban immigrant family, to work at a Westside McDonald's about six years ago. The two men became friends and eventually Burgos married Arango's sister, Elizabeth.

Former McDonald's employees recall Burgos as an honest man and a caring supervisor.

"He was my manager and he always gave me a lot of advice," said Patricia Reyes, 21, who worked for Burgos at a McDonald's near Venice. "He always told me to stay in school. He helped me so much, I can't believe he's gone."

Family members said Burgos left McDonald's last year to study computer diagnostics at the United College of Business in Hollywood. School officials say he never missed a class.

On Friday, Feb. 16, the last school day before the shooting, Burgos had taken the first part of a high school equivalency examination.

"I'm going to pass that test," Burgos told one fellow student just before taking the exam. "And if I don't pass it, I'm going to take it again."

Burgos was apparently unaware that since early January, his home was being monitored by SIS. Police believed that Arango, who lived with Burgos and his wife in their Venice duplex, was connected to a string of robberies of nine fast-food restaurants, including eight McDonald's.

In each robbery, four Latino suspects wearing Halloween-style masks forced managers to open safes, either after the restaurants had closed or shortly before opening, detectives said.

Although police declined to provide the exact locations, dates and details of the robberies, they said that in each case the robbers appeared to have knowledge of the restaurants' layout and operations. During the holdups, they used handguns and sometimes sawed-off shotguns, police said.

In four instances, store managers were abducted shortly after arriving home from work and brought back to the closed restaurants. They were then forced to open the doors and safes.

On the Sunday evening before the Sunland robbery, SIS officers renewed their stakeout of Burgos' Venice duplex. Inside, Arango and Burgos were watching television with Burgos' wife and her mother, Julia Gomez.

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