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Pistol-Whipped : Shots in the Dark Land Confused Frenchman in L.A. Jail for Six Months

January 22, 1992|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — Patrick and Jacqueline Rombeau face each other along a scarred row of gray visitors' cubicles at Los Angeles County Jail. Separated by a glass panel, they talk on a telephone, speaking in the melodious accents of Provence.

The gentle region in the south of France, known for its unhurried life, is the country of Marcel Pagnol. And indeed, Pagnol could have created the Rombeaus as characters in his idyllic works.

Patrick, 31, has dancing eyes and a mustache like a small whisk broom. Jacqueline, 32, is coquettish, her blond hair tied back with a fluffy white bow.

But eight years ago the Rombeaus left their village in Provence for Los Angeles. The humor, the storytelling, the way of settling disputes amicably was abandoned for an impersonal city life, governed more often by law than by compassion.

And for the past three months they have been grappling with the nightmares of the U.S. judicial system.

A garage mechanic with no police record, Patrick is serving a six-month jail sentence, with three years' probation.

He fired one bullet from a pistol in his Northridge back yard, and another at a car in his driveway, the couple says. They also contend that there was no one in his line of fire, that he had no intention of harming anyone. And both admit that he was drunk.

Jacqueline called the police to help calm Patrick down, she says. He doesn't fault her for that. "She was scared," he says.

But, they say, they didn't realize the consequences of her action in Southern California.

Patrick is in jail because, his court papers attest, he "did willfully and unlawfully discharge a firearm in a grossly negligent manner which could result in injury and death to a person."

He pleaded guilty on his lawyer's advice. He would get a fine, he was told.

But things didn't work out that way.

For the Rombeaus, the affair is murky. They don't understand English well; Patrick required an interpreter in court. And like many immigrants in Los Angeles, they have led isolated lives, largely ignorant of the social conventions around them.

Faced with a crisis, they acted just as they would in their village in France.

Before moving to Los Angeles, the Rombeaus lived in the village of Septemes-les-Vallons, north of Marseilles. They rented a small house on the edge of a pine forest, and Patrick walked to the garage where he worked. In the spring, they picked wild asparagus for omelets and on weekends they went on picnics.

"It was the country," Jacqueline recalls wistfully.

But Jacqueline's father, Jacques Keumurian, a retired factory worker, had long dreamed of living in the United States. In 1982 he and his wife moved to Northridge, and the Rombeaus followed two years later.

All went well until one evening last October.

Upset by a difficult client, Patrick Rombeau says he got drunk at a local bar. He had been drinking sporadically for a couple of years, his wife adds: "He felt alone here. He didn't speak English well, he didn't have friends."

After dinner he took a pistol, which was registered, from a closet and fired a bullet into the back yard.

"He wasn't himself," says Jacqueline, who had sent the couple's three young children to bed.

Patrick later took the gun and pointed it at his head.

"He said, 'I'm going to kill myself.' He started to press the trigger. I was terrified," Jacqueline recalls. "Then, all of a sudden, he pointed the gun outside and shot (at a car parked in the driveway). When he (went outside), I locked the door and ran to the phone to call the police. I was scared he would kill himself." But, she states definitively: "He never would have hurt us."

Jacqueline has had only one experience with police, she says. Once in Septemes when her car stalled, a gendarme pushed it to a legal parking zone.

"They're very polite," she says.

In the incident last October, Los Angeles Police Department officers arrived with their pistols drawn, the Rombeaus say. (Detectives in charge of the case did not return repeated telephone calls from The Times.)

Patrick, who no longer held the gun, was outside waiting for Jacqueline to open the door.

"They said, 'Don't move,' " he recounts. "I put my hands up."

Patrick admitted firing the pistol and showed them where it was. Then he was taken into custody.

On Oct. 24, Patrick pleaded guilty to violation of penal code section 246.3 on the advice of his lawyer, Varoujan Agemian. Agemian, who charged a $500 fee instead of the $5,000 asked by some lawyers, did not appear in court, sending his sister instead.

Agemian, who apparently did not show the police report to the couple, says he told Patrick to plead guilty to the felony because "I did not believe he would be incarcerated." He cites the shooting death last March of a black teen-ager, Latasha Harlins, by Korean-born grocer Soon Ja Du. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter last October but was not sentenced to jail.

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