A Los Angeles police detective who during almost two decades worked some of the most sensational murder cases in Hollywood was shot to death in a fierce gun battle that erupted when he tried to calm an angry, armed man inside a Hollywood restaurant, authorities said Wednesday.
In a strange twist of fate, Detective Russell Kuster had booked his assailant on suspicion of murder eight years ago, and some police officials, grappling with the loss of one of their most experienced homicide detectives, wondered whether Kuster and Bela L. Marko recognized one another in the seconds before they killed each other Tuesday night in the darkened lounge of the Hilltop Hungarian Restaurant.
Kuster was struck by four bullets fired from a 9-millimeter pistol equipped with a special laser that illuminates the target. Marko, an illegal alien from Hungary and a parolee with a long criminal record, was shot at seven times by Kuster.
"Who knows?" said Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, wondering if Kuster remembered Marko when the assailant shot him in the chest. "When you have your heart blown apart like that, you have maybe six seconds to react."
Gates and other fellow officers found it especially difficult to accept the irony that Kuster, who worked on such notorious cases as the Laurel Canyon murders, the Skid Row slasher and the drug-related death of comedian John Belushi, should himself become a murder statistic in the very precinct he had worked for 19 years.
Hollywood homicide Detective Dennis Kilcoyne, too overcome with grief to discuss his respect for Kuster, managed only to say: "He's probably the last person on this job you'd think this would happen to."
David Lambkin, a Hollywood sex crimes detective, said he and Kuster, a Cincinnati Reds fan, watched the baseball playoffs together at another Hollywood nightspot on Tuesday evening, splitting up about 6 p.m. Seven hours later, Lambkin was at the Hilltop Hungarian Restaurant, joining other homicide detectives at the scene of the city's most recent double shooting.
"There was nothing I could really do," he said. "I just wanted to find out what happened."
According to police, the 50-year-old Kuster, who with 24 years on the police force was planning to retire next year and move to Indiana, often patronized the restaurant and was a close friend of its manager-owner, Jeno Bencze. Several officers said birthday parties for Kuster had been held at the Barham Boulevard restaurant, and Kuster went there Tuesday night to see friends who worked at the establishment.
Officials said Marko, 37, who was on parole from Nevada, also occasionally visited the restaurant and was acquainted with some of the employees.
Kuster was off duty when he sat in the lounge area about 9:30 p.m. and heard Marko arguing with Bencze about service in the bar, police said. "The suspect appeared to be under the influence of alcohol and was asked to leave by Bencze," said Lt. William Hall.
Marko left through a side door, then returned a few minutes later. He immediately began threatening the half-dozen people inside. "The suspect brandished the pistol at patrons in the lounge area, illuminating them with the laser beam," Hall said.
Kuster rose from his seat and tried to calm the man, police said. He identified himself as a police officer and Marko spun around and began firing, Hall said.
Said Gates: "It happened so quickly. He simply stood up and was trying to reason with this individual."
Kuster was taken to St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, where he died an hour later. Marko was dead at the scene. He collapsed near the doorway, police said, in an apparent attempt to make it to his car. He had been shot three times with a 9-millimeter pistol; one bullet tore through his head.
Gates described Marko as a career criminal who came to this country illegally in 1981. He said Marko was convicted in 1983 of a narcotics offense solved by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Marko was sent to prison and later paroled and went to Nevada, where he was convicted in December, 1985, for sexual assault, Gates said.
The chief said Marko's name last surfaced in January, after he again won parole, returned to California and was arrested for burglary in Santa Monica. That case was pending, Gates said.
Most ironic, though, was an October, 1982, murder case in Hollywood in which Kuster approved and signed the booking papers for Marko in the slaying of Steve Szendro, also an illegal alien, police said.
Police Cmdr. William Booth said that Marko and Szendro apparently pulled guns on each other in a Hollywood Hills home, and that Szendro was shot in the head. Marko surrendered the next day, Booth said, and pleaded self-defense.
Exactly how involved Kuster was in the case was uncertain Wednesday. But police said Kuster did read the investigative reports and sign the booking slips approving the case for review by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.