A Granada Hills art dealer died Thursday after he was shot in his driveway in a "follow-home robbery," Los Angeles police reported, the latest of 13 such crimes in the northern San Fernando Valley that detectives suspect are the work of the same robber or criminal group.
In all cases, residents of well-to-do suburbs near the Simi Valley Freeway, driving expensive cars, were followed home and robbed as they emerged from their vehicles, police said.
Three similar cases have also been reported in Van Nuys, but police said it was not known if they were related to the north Valley incidents.
None of the victims was harmed, however, until Fritz Herbert (Bert) Waninger, 39, a self-employed art dealer, was shot once in a robbery attempt about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday at his house in the 12100 block of Elnora Place, police said.
Waninger was pronounced dead about 6:30 a.m. Thursday at Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, where he underwent surgery, Police Lt. Kyle Jackson said.
"He was returning home from a business meeting," Jackson said. "When he exited his vehicle, he was confronted by a suspect in his driveway and shot."
"We heard the gunshot, ran outside and found him bleeding in the driveway," said Jaan, 32, a neighbor who declined to give his full name. "He told us what happened. We just couldn't believe it."
Although apparently nothing was stolen from Waninger, who lived alone, Detective Wayne Newton said the killing appeared to have been a robbery attempt that went awry.
"We're not 100% sure he wasn't robbed," Newton said, but "it doesn't appear that he is missing anything."
Newton said the robber must have followed Waninger home and shot him when he resisted, then fled. It was unclear whether the assailant had accomplices.
Newton said police believe that the killing is linked to a dozen other robberies since December in Granada Hills, Porter Ranch and Northridge.
"I've had 12 robberies in the past three months that are very similar in nature and that appear to have been committed by the same suspects or group of suspects," said Newton, who works in the Devonshire Division.
There have also been three follow-home robberies in the Van Nuys Division since December, Lt. Harvie Eubank said.
Police in the three other Valley divisions said they have seen no reports of similar crimes in their areas.
Officers said the slaying and the recent robberies are similar to a series of follow-home robberies that plagued the Valley and Westside in 1988 and 1989. At that time, many drivers of luxury cars were robbed as they returned home to Beverly Hills, Sherman Oaks or Encino. Those crimes ended after a series of arrests, including one involving a 15-man ring.
In November, police in several west San Gabriel Valley cities began advising drivers of Mercedes-Benz 300 series automobiles to take extra precautions after a series of follow-home robberies in Monterey Park, Alhambra, Pasadena and Arcadia.
"In the past, we've seen victims followed home from places like markets and shopping centers," Newton said. "You're generally not followed home from work."
Waninger's neighbors said the slaying has stunned many residents of the quiet neighborhood of single-family houses north and west of El Oro Way.
A Korean family of four was found stabbed to death in their home on Wish Street about eight blocks away Nov. 20.
"There's no evidence that the two are connected," Newton said, but residents said the series of crimes have made them fearful.
"We're all on edge," Jaan said. "An unwanted intruder has made their mark on us and it will never be the same."
"I don't feel safe in my own driveway," said a 69-year-old woman who declined to give her name. She said she had lived on Elnora Street for more than 30 years and knew Waninger since he moved there 14 years ago.
Waninger's neighbors wondered why the Austrian immigrant, who loved to talk about art and travel, would end up as a crime victim.
"He was a real gentleman, a nice guy who never bothered anyone," said Dave Tschappat, 43, who lives across the street. "I don't get it."
"Did they do it because he drives a Mercedes?" Jaan asked.
Jaan and the woman saw Waninger's death as symbolic of violent crime coming to the farthest suburbs of Los Angeles.
"Year after year after year, it has gotten worse and worse and worse," the woman said, crying. "And now they have killed this nice man, our friend, for nothing. Absolutely nothing."
Times staff writer Leslie Berger contributed to this story.