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Street Preacher Beaten in Riots Clings to Life

June 17, 1993|DIANA S. KIM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE REGION — This summer, the world is expected to tune in to the trial of the men accused of beating trucker Reginald O. Denny during the Los Angeles riots last year.

But far less attention is expected in another riot-related beating case that also is scheduled for trial this summer, even though the victim was more seriously injured.

Wally Tope, a street preacher from Pasadena who felt the sinners needed him on that day of violence and looting, is the last hospitalized victim of the riots. He is not expected to recover from his beating induced coma, but his friends refuse to give up. More than a year after his coma began, they still visit him regularly, massage him, talk to him, sing to him and work to raise money for his care and anything that might help his condition.

Some who still visit him daily say death may be the kindest option for Tope, 53, who grew up in Glendale.

"I go crazy when I see him like that. Maybe it's best if the good Lord takes him," said Tope's younger brother, Dennis Tope, an assistant principal in Kern County. "There are things that can't be explained. . . . I don't know if this is predestined. But God has a special place for my brother."

In hopes of sparing their octogenarian parents further pain, brothers Dennis and David Tope, of Tahoe, haven't shown them any photographs of their degenerated sibling. Helen and Wallace Tope of Nevada have not seen their son since he was hospitalized. They cannot bear the thought of him in his present state.

"We're still in shock, you know. Even after a year . . . it's too painful for us," said Helen Tope. "He was a very bright, very smart boy. He was very religious--he wrote quite a few books, you know," referring to religious books that were published by friends.

Tope became a born-again Christian while studying engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo during the mid-1960s. He finished his degree, then attended Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena during the early '70s.

He never finished at the seminary but became a self-appointed evangelist, traveling through the country and foreign nations to spread his word. He apparently made hundreds of friends among the Christian community during his travels; local friends found about 1,500 names in his address book.

For Tope, April 30, 1992, was a crucial day when the city of Los Angeles needed to hear the word of God. On the second day of the riots, Tope grew determined to save the souls of the wrongdoers. He shrugged off the warnings of his friends that the situation was too dangerous, saying God would protect him, and went alone to the parking lot of a strip mall at Western Avenue and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

There, he tried to stop Fidel Ortiz, 21, who was running out of a Sav-on store with stolen goods.

Ortiz later would tell police that Tope confronted him and told him he would go to hell if he did not repent his actions. Then, Ortiz said, Tope held up his arm as though to strike, so Ortiz hit him.

Ortiz's friend, Leonard Sosa, 24, who was carrying some looted Pampers, said that when he saw the two tussling, he leaped in to defend his pal. Witnesses said the two beat and kicked Tope about the head for three minutes. Hundreds saw the beating but made no move to help.

The two men, both of whom are in jail, are charged with attempted murder and aggravated mayhem. If convicted, they could serve from 12 years to life in prison. The trial is scheduled for Aug. 11.

Lawyers for the two men do not deny that their clients were involved in the beating, but they say the men did not intend to injure Tope so badly and hit him only once or twice.

"They did something stupid and wrong, and they ought to be punished. But these guys have never been in trouble with the law before and have worked all of their lives," said Marvin L. Part, attorney for Sosa. The two men used to work at the Dodger Stadium concession warehouse.

"They were not trying to kill the preacher despite his (present) condition. The right charge would really be assault to commit great bodily injury," Part said.

The chief injury was the bruising of Tope's brain, resulting in the coma from which doctors say he has little chance of awakening.

"He may live for months or years but I do not expect him to recover. He is living on his own now and doing better than we thought," said Dr. Armen Duma, the attending physician. Tope sometimes moves his eyes, he said.

"If he has any chance in the world (to recover), the stimulation he gets--the human contact--is good for his potential recovery. But don't misunderstand--I don't want to give false hope. His chance of recovery is very, very slim."

Tope's friends kept up the payments on his Pasadena apartment until October, when they could no longer afford to continue. Tope's belongings are stored, and a phone line remains in operation at friend Victor Marquis' home, where an answering machine updates his condition and his suspected assailants' legal status.

Friends visit Tope daily to massage his body, read the Bible, sing and pray at his bedside.

Marquis, 35, recently mailed out 1,500 newsletters to Tope's friends throughout the United States and 30 foreign countries, updating Tope's condition and seeking prayers of healing and financial support.

The friends hope to purchase a compact disc player so Tope can listen to Bible readings and Christian songs. They also want to hire a physical therapist and purchase rehabilitation equipment. Marquis said the friends also hope to raise funds to transport Tope to a hospital closer to them in Pasadena. Some, who are in their 50s and 60s, cannot drive.

Despite the dismal news from doctors, Tope's friends still cling to the hope for a miracle.

"Jesus said, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' If a year of my life will make a difference for the next 10 years of his life, it will really be worth it," Marquis said. "I haven't given up hope yet."

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