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Killings Turn Screwdriver Into Unlikely Tool of Death

October 03, 1993|TRACEY KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like many battered wives who live in fear for themselves and their children, Graciela Galvan had hidden the kitchen knives, police said. But she overlooked the screwdriver.

Her enraged husband held the tool to their 7-year-old son's throat last week, relinquishing it only as he lay dying in his North Hills apartment from a single gunshot fired by a police officer who thought Galvan's screwdriver was a knife.

The officer was dismayed to discover that it was actually a screwdriver but was not surprised or remorseful, a police spokesman said. Ordinary screwdrivers have long been used as deadly weapons, they said. Three cases involving their use occurred in the San Fernando Valley in the past two weeks alone.

Last Tuesday, a woman was arrested in North Hills on suspicion of stabbing another woman in the neck with a screwdriver in a dispute over a man. The day before, Galvan's husband, who police said had been arrested at least twice before for wife-beating, was killed. And the previous week, a 25-year-old Van Nuys man fatally shot a panhandler who witnesses say came at him with a screwdriver.

Their use puts police in a quandary.

"A screwdriver can certainly be as deadly as a knife," said Chuck Morton, director of the Institute of Forensic Sciences, a private crime lab based in San Francisco. "I've seen deep puncture wounds from a Phillips head as well as a slotted screwdriver."

But unlike carrying a concealed knife or gun without a permit, possession of a screwdriver is not a crime, prosecutors and detectives said. Some wily crooks and transients have taken advantage of that fact, they said.

"If they carry a knife, it's a concealed weapon, but a screwdriver is just a tool unless you use it against somebody," said homicide detective Dan Dejarnette of the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys Division.

"It certainly is a way around the law," said Lt. William Hall, head of the LAPD team that investigates officer-involved shootings.

Screwdrivers also serve a dual purpose in the hands of burglars, who use them to break into cars and houses, and to threaten or injure people, Hall said.

"They're very versatile," he said dryly.

Transients sometimes carry them for protection against assaults from other street people, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Carroll, head prosecutor in the Van Nuys office.

A Van Nuys man who killed a panhandler last week at a local gas station has not been charged with a crime because witnesses said the panhandler borrowed a screwdriver from a fellow transient to attack Charles Hoyle. Detectives said Hoyle told them he believed that Reggie Brian MacKay was coming at him with a knife, so he pulled a gun out of his back pocket and shot him twice.

No weapon was ever found.

"Somebody could have taken the screwdriver before we got there--it's worth about $5 on the street," said homicide detective John Edwards of the Van Nuys Division.

Prosecutors have succeeded in obtaining convictions in some cases involving the violent use of screwdrivers.

Last year, a 35-year-old Woodland Hills man was sentenced to 735 days in jail for attacking a store owner with a screwdriver in a confrontation over a bad check; a 19-year-old Panorama City man was sentenced to 29 years to life for killing a man by stabbing him in the eye with a screwdriver.

But the public sometimes appears to balk at the notion that a tool used to tighten screws can be a dangerous weapon. Earlier this year in a Ventura County case, a jury convicted a man of robbery, but acquitted him of using a screwdriver to commit the crime.

The acquittal could mean jurors did not consider the screwdriver a deadly weapon or did not believe it was used in the crime because they doubted the victim's credibility, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Patricia M. Murphy.

"It was a very small screwdriver," Murphy said, adding that she was unable to interview the jurors after the verdict.

Some experts regard the violent use of screwdrivers as ominous.

"It's scary stuff," said Carroll, the head prosecutor in Van Nuys.

But others view the trend more optimistically--or as much as one can on such a violent topic. Frank Zimring, a professor of criminal law at UC Berkeley, said studies have shown that gunshot victims are five times more likely to die than are those stabbed with knives, which he compared to screwdrivers for their deadly potential.

"I think their use is a terribly hopeful thing," Zimring said. "If somebody was going to rob me, I'd take a screwdriver over a gun any time."

The Screwdriver as a Weapon

Despite their utilitarian purpose, screwdrivers are frequently used as weapons, police say. Recent screwdriver-involved crimes include:

Sept. 28, 1993: A woman is arrested in North Hills on suspicion of stabbing another woman in the neck with a screwdriver in a dispute over a man.

Sept. 27, 1993: A police officer kills a 35-year-old North Hills man who was holding a screwdriver to his 7-year-old son's throat.

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