A security camera videotape that recorded the weekend shooting of a 15-year-old girl by a south Los Angeles grocer shows that the girl was not attempting to steal a bottle of orange juice, as the grocer apparently believed, police revealed Monday.
Police called a press conference to try to quell rumors that the shooting was racially motivated and that police were doing little about it.
The teen-ager, Westchester High School ninth-grader Latasha Harlins, was African-American; store owner Soon Ja Du, 51, immigrated from Korea 15 years ago.
Police Cmdr. Michael J. Bostic said that despite tension over the years between Korean immigrant grocers and black customers who frequent their stores, this incident did not have racial overtones.
"This was just a business dispute," Bostic said.
The videotape corroborates accounts by two young witnesses who said that even though the teen-ager had put the juice in her knapsack, she was approaching the store counter with money in her hand, according to Bostic. After a brief scuffle with Du over the knapsack, he said, Harlins gave up, threw the orange juice on the counter and was apparently trying to leave the store when she was shot.
"There was no attempt at shoplifting. There was no robbery. There was no crime at all," he said.
Du was arrested Saturday afternoon on suspicion of murder, Bostic said, just hours after she was treated at a hospital for what Bostic described as "superficial injuries" she sustained in the scuffle. She has been held without bail at the Sybil Brand Institute for Women, he said.
Joseph Du, the suspect's son, said Monday that the shooting was an accident, and that his mother believed the girl was attempting to shoplift the juice and rob the store of money.
The dead girl's aunt, Ahneva Harlins, who appeared at the press conference with other relatives, angrily declared that her niece was "shot in cold blood" in a confrontation that stemmed from a "disrespectful" way that she said Korean store owners in the southern section of the city treat customers.
Bostic consistently tried to de-emphasize any racial aspects. He said that there is no evidence to back up rumors that Du nudged the dead girl with her foot, kicked her after the shooting or that any racial epithets were uttered. He also denied an allegation by the girl's family that Du was injured by her husband, who they contended attacked her after arriving at the scene minutes after the shooting.
At the news conference, Harlins, obviously upset, disputed police contentions that the shooting was not racially motivated. She also was angry at Bostic for characterizing Latasha as a runaway.
"She had had some problems at home the night before and went to spend the night with a friend," Harlins said. "We knew where she was."
Bostic acknowledged that there has been well-publicized tensions between Korean grocers and black customers in the past, but said efforts to ease those tensions had been successful in recent months.
Joseph Du said his family's store, Empire Liquor Market, in the 9100 block of South Figueroa Street, had been plagued by thefts and occasional robberies since they began operating it two years ago. The family has operated convenience stores since 1981, and his mother had never before wielded the gun they kept under the counter for protection.
Soon Ja Du worked only on weekend mornings, when customers were few, said her son, to avoid frequent fighting with customers during busier periods.
After the incident Saturday, Soon Ja Du described the teen-ager to her family as "a woman in her mid-20s" who attempted to take money from the market register moments before Du grabbed the gun and fired.
Bostic said the videotape shows only "a scuffle" begun by Du over the knapsack, not an attack mounted by the teen-ager. He also said Du threw a stool at the girl before firing a single shot from a .38-caliber pistol.
Soon Ja Du's husband, Heung Ki Du, who was sleeping in front of the store in his delivery van, was roused by the gunfire, Joseph Du said. The husband entered the store and found the teen-ager shot and his wife passed out on the floor, Joseph Du said.
After five killings of Korean merchants in 1986, efforts have been made to mediate differences among Koreans and African-American and Latino customers in south Los Angeles, said Jan Sunoo, chairman of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission.
"I hope that both the African-American and Korean communities will look at this as a moment of overreaction, nervousness, and that the leadership in the communities will set a tone that will allow for healing rather than for vindictiveness or revenge.