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Manslaughter Charge Filed in Carjacking : Crime: Prosecutors say they lack evidence to seek murder count in death of highway worker. The victim's family is outraged.

April 24, 1993|THOM MROZEK and JULIE TAMAKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a move that infuriated the victim's family, the Los Angeles district attorney's office Friday filed only an involuntary manslaughter charge--not a murder complaint--against a man arrested on suspicion of causing the death of a highway worker during a carjacking.

There is not enough evidence to prove that Leshawn Cummings intended to kill William Edward Fliehmann of Whittier when Cummings stole Fliehmann's truck, nor that Cummings even knew that Fliehmann had been killed, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald H. (Mike) Carroll, chief prosecutor in Van Nuys, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard F. Walmark, who will prosecute the case.

There is no evidence Cummings was intending to commit a carjacking or acted with "conscious disregard for human life," the prosecutors said.

First-degree murder carries a mandatory prison term of 25 years to life; involuntary manslaughter is punishable by no more than four years in state prison.

Cummings pleaded not guilty Friday afternoon to the charges of involuntary manslaughter and the unlawful taking of a vehicle. Municipal Court Commissioner Nori Anne Walla set bail at $100,000 and scheduled a preliminary hearing for May 4.

Fliehmann, 41, an employee of Starlight Safety Supply Co. of La Mirada, was working under a Caltrans contract about 3 a.m. Wednesday, setting up traffic cones. He was found dead on the Victory Boulevard on-ramp to the southbound Hollywood Freeway of head injuries received when he fell from his moving truck, authorities said.

Investigators now believe Cummings found the truck with the engine running and merely drove away, unaware that Fliehmann either grabbed hold of the truck or jumped into the truck bed to halt the robbery, the prosecutors said.

Cummings, 29, of South Los Angeles, "was loitering in the area and wanted a ride over the hill to the South Hollywood area," Carroll said. Carroll would provide no further details about what Cummings was doing in the San Fernando Valley during the early morning hours.

Cummings "observed the truck nearby had the engine running," Carroll said. "He seized that opportunity to jump in the truck and drive away."

Cummings was arrested in Hollywood about 12 hours later after he attempted to sell the truck's battery to several people.

"His conduct was inconsistent with him having knowledge of the death," Carroll said.

Pam Fliehmann, the victim's sister-in-law, expressed shock at the prosecutors' decision.

"They can go to hell . . . that was murder, not involuntary manslaughter," she said. "It was just like he died for no reason at all. He is just another statistic."

"What the D.A. has decided to do is not acceptable to this family," reacted Fliehmann's brother-in-law, Mike McCaskell, who said he called Gov. Pete Wilson's office Friday to urge lawmakers "to get off their duff" and make crimes like the one that took Fliehmann's life "an automatic Murder 1 situation."

Prosecutors said that if the auto theft had been accomplished by violence or the threat of force, the taking of Fliehmann's 1989 Ford one-ton truck would have been considered a robbery and Cummings could have been charged with first-degree murder. California law holds defendants liable for murder when someone dies for any reason during the commission of certain serious felonies--but auto theft is not one of those crimes.

"This is going to keep going on and they're going to tell people they can get away with it," Pam Fliehmann said.

"If this guy gets off with a slap on the wrist, there's not going to be a Caltrans worker safe anywhere in the state," McCaskell said.

A memorial service for the unmarried Fliehmann, founder and popular coach of a Pony League baseball team in Whittier, is scheduled for Monday afternoon at McCormick Whittier Mortuary.

While authorities no longer believe Fliehmann was the victim of a carjacking, he was the fourth person to die in the San Fernando Valley in a violent auto theft in the past two months.

On the same day Fliehmann died, Thomas Martin MacDowell of Chatsworth, an aspiring actor, was gunned down less than two miles away as he parked his car near his girlfriend's apartment. Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs and Deputy Police Chief Mark A. Kroeker announced a $25,000 reward Friday for information leading to the conviction of MacDowell's killer.

MacDowell's friends and family--who had earlier offered a $5,000 reward--joined Wachs and Kroeker in a news conference at the corner of Hesby Street and Laurel Canyon Boulevard where MacDowell was slain.

"The killing of Thomas MacDowell was a senseless, cowardly act . . . we really want his murderer to come to justice," Wachs said.

Los Angeles Police Lt. Ron LaRue said that no motive has been established in the MacDowell slaying.

At Friday's news conference, Detective Mike Coffey said that carjacking was one of several motives being investigated. Coffey declined to elaborate on other possible motives, except to say they may have been "business-related or other things that MacDowell was involved with."

Coffey also said that police had been contacted by the FBI, but was unsure what role the federal agents would play in the investigation.

FBI spokesman Steven Berry said it was "typical" for the FBI to check "in cases where there is a possibility that a suspect has violated the federal carjack statute . . . but we're still reviewing facts related to the incident."

Thom Mrozek is a special correspondent and Julie Tamaki is a Times staff writer.

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