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To CHP Officer Who Sparked Riots, It Was Just Another Arrest

WATTS: THEN AND NOW. First in an occasional series.

August 19, 1990|DARRELL DAWSEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Lee Minikus, it was just another arrest. On Aug. 11, 1965, the California Highway Patrol officer pulled over a 21-year-old Watts man whom he suspected of drunk driving and took him into custody.

Minikus had no inkling that it would spark one of the worst urban upheavals in U.S. history.

"That was all there was to it," said the now-retired officer, sitting in the living room of his Laguna Niguel home. "It was just a normal, routine traffic stop."

But that smoldering evening, as a CHP patrol car hauled away Marquette Frye, his brother and his mother, the tensions that had been mounting in the black community detonated. Outraged at these arrests and another moments afterward, small crowds of blacks poured into the streets and began laying siege to the world around them.

For the next six days, South Los Angeles burned as rioters fired on, looted and torched stores and cars in a 46.5-square-mile area. Even after the fires were doused, the community was left with a pain that the decades have only begun to soothe.

But for Minikus, it remains just another arrest.

A quarter of a century after the Los Angeles riots, the ex-motorcycle officer says he feels little regret or responsibility for the chaos that visited South Los Angeles that fateful night 25 years ago this month. Although he was saddened by the incident, Minikus said, he has never allowed himself to be cast as "the man who started the Watts riots."

"I was just doing my job," said Minikus, who took early retirement four years ago. "That's why we got paid: to arrest people breaking the law. Marquette was breaking the law."

Minikus said he had not noticed Frye until a man in a pickup truck alerted him to the 1955 Buick Special that Frye was driving.

"I was on my motorcycle, and (the driver) pulled up to me and said, 'See that man? I think he's drunk,' " Minikus recalled. "I noticed Marquette was speeding so I got behind him."

Minikus said he followed the Buick up El Segundo Boulevard and stopped Frye at 116th Place and Avalon Boulevard. When he walked over to the car, Minikus said, he noticed immediately that Frye appeared drunk.

When Frye climbed out of the automobile, Minikus said, the officer put him through a series of sobriety tests that Frye failed.

"I told him he was under arrest, but he was real nice about it," Minikus said. "He was joking around, putting on a show for the crowd that had started to gather. I was even laughing."

Minikus said the laughter swiftly turned to rage when Frye's mother, Rena, showed up. She scolded her son for being drunk, Minikus said, and suddenly Marquette became surly.

When Minikus tried to arrest Frye, he jumped back and verbally snapped at the officer for the first time. Minikus' partner, Bob Lewis, who had shown up as the crowd grew, called for backup officers.

"It might have been easier to have dropped it right there, but it's hard to back away at that point," Minikus said. "I had already told the guy he was under arrest."

Minikus said that, when the backup officers started arriving minutes later, one of them tried to stop Frye from disappearing into the crowd.

A backup officer tried to hit Marquette on the arm with a baton, Minikus said. "But Marquette bent over and was hit just above the eye."

Frye backed into Minikus, who grabbed him to place him in one of the patrol cars. Then Frye's brother punched Minikus in the kidney, the officer recalled, and their mother jumped on his back and tore his shirt.

"We put them all in the same car, and then the officers began leaving the scene," Minikus said. "But the crowd had gotten really angry by this time. I didn't stay around to see what happened."

The riots ensued. After an officer tried to arrest a woman he believed had spit on him during the Frye arrests, the crowd grew more enraged by what they believed was his abuse of the woman. They tossed bottles at the patrol car as the backup officers sped away, the woman in the back seat.

Minikus said he did not find out until later that night that the community had begun to burn.

"We had just finished booking Marquette when my partner and I stepped out into the parking lot to get our motorcycles," he said. "That's when there were reporters all over me, asking, 'Did you know they were rioting?' 'Did you know you started a riot?' "

Stunned, Minikus and his partner climbed into a CHP patrol car and rode back into South Los Angeles to join other law enforcement officers who were trying to quell the violence.

"I stayed there for five days," Minikus said. "People didn't recognize me as the officer who had made the arrest, but it was still hard to be an officer in that area. (Rioters) were going after any vehicle that was black and white."

When the riots ended, many lives had been drastically altered. Marquette Frye's was one of them.

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