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Couple's Ice Cream Dream Ends in Gunfire : Crime: Customers and friends mourn the Rusitanontas, who were robbed and slain on the way home from the View Park store they managed and hoped to buy. A 15-year-old suspect is in custody.

April 04, 1993|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Preecha Rusitanonta and his wife, Adelina, arrived in California in 1991 to work in their friends' ice cream store, they came with the intention of fulfilling an American Dream--owning their own business.

A year and a half after starting work at a Baskin-Robbins outlet in View Park, they seemed well on their way to realizing that goal. Preecha (Chuck) Rusitanonta, 44, who was a banquet manager at the Watergate Hotel in Washington before he moved to Los Angeles, had been trained as a Baskin-Robbins store manager by owner Paul Injarusorn, his longtime friend and fellow native of Thailand.

Chuck and Adelina (Mia) Rusitanonta, 45, who managed the store with her husband, did well in their new positions, quickly building a rapport with neighbors and customers who said the couple always had ready smiles and kind words to go with the ice cream they dished up in generous amounts.

But the Rusitanontas' dream ended March 11. They were shot in their car as they drove home from the store with the day's receipts.

Paul and Judy Injarusorn say the 15-year-old boy arrested in connection with the slayings worked at the store for the Rusitanontas, who were giving him a ride home.

Sheriff's Lt. Tom Johnson said that the couple was robbed. Investigators are also looking into a report that the Rusitanontas were about to dismiss the youth from his job, which may have been a motive in the slayings, Johnson said. The youth was not identified because he is a minor.

"(Rusitanonta) was a very nice man, so positive," said Paul Injarusorn, shaking his head sadly on a recent afternoon at the store. "I don't think I can find anyone to replace him."

When word of the slayings reached the Injarusorns in Hong Kong, they cut short the first vacation they had taken in 15 years to return to Los Angeles and once again mind their store in a strip mall on Stocker Street near the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Paul Injarusorn said he had discussed the possibility of the Rusitanontas buying the View Park shop, which the Injarusorns have owned more than 16 years and have considered selling so they could spend more time with their three children.

The Rusitanontas, they said, were eager to take over the business. Judy Injarusorn said she and her husband first met Chuck Rusitanonta in 1970 at a Santa Monica fish business where they worked, and the couple were immediately struck by his industriousness and sunny personality. A few years later, Chuck and Adelina, a friend of the Injarusorns', were married and went east to Maryland to visit another friend.

The Rusitanontas settled there and raised a son and daughter, but they remained "like brother and sister" to the Injarusorns and frequently visited them in California. Their children, ages 10 and 12, are now being cared for by relatives.

It was during Chuck Rusitanonta's last stay nearly two years ago that he decided to send for his family and join his friends in business at the Baskin-Robbins.

The Rusitanontas had worked hard to save enough money to buy the store, Judy Injarusorn said.

Though the store remains in business, the Injarusorns say it is hardly the same. "It's terrible what happened," said Judy Injarusorn. "We miss him so much."

Friends and customers echoed the sentiment, which they perhaps expressed most eloquently by dropping off dozens of wreaths and bouquets in front of the store. V. Berthelma Nolen, who owns a beauty salon near the ice cream shop, started the outpouring when she placed roses accompanied by a note at the store.

"They were the nicest people you'd ever want to meet," Nolen said. "Chuck gave you old-style service, always saying 'Good morning, sir' or 'Good evening, ma'am' when people came in. They were always giving kids (free) ice cream for their birthdays. When they got in new flavors, they would give you some free."

Since the deaths, Nolen said, she hasn't had the heart to buy ice cream at the store, something she had done daily. "They never charged me more than a dollar for anything," she said. "They were good people, always taking the time to talk to you. . . . In Los Angeles, we tend to have stereotypes about how Asian people are, how they do business. Chuck and Mia were very different.

"They were just decent and expected everyone else to be," she said. "Maybe it was because they had lived in Maryland, but they didn't take this city seriously."

Charles Pitman, a 30-year View Park resident buying ice cream on a recent afternoon, said the Rusitanontas made an impression that would likely be a lasting one in the community.

"They really went out of their way to be nice to you," he said. "They didn't deserve what happened to them."

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