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Student Died 'Trying to Do Right Thing' : Crime: Robert Sapinoso was killed while recording the license number of a suspicious van. His friend recalls horror of the attack.

August 22, 1994|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — Robert Sapinoso's buddy said the two of them were merely "trying to do the right thing" when they followed a van whose occupants they believed were responsible for vandalism in the area.

"We were just trying to get a plate number," the friend said.

What they got instead Wednesday was a hail of bullets into their car, which left Sapinoso, 19, slumped behind the wheel, fatally shot.

As police continued searching for two people who drove off in a van, the 20-year-old friend, who asked that his name not be used, Sunday recalled the harrowing experience that claimed his friend, a computer whiz who was studying engineering at UC Irvine.

They were tinkering on their cars at the friend's house about 6:45 p.m. Wednesday when they spotted a passing silver Toyota van that matched the description of one used by vandals there the previous weekend. They hopped into Sapinoso's Honda CRX to follow it, the friend said.

With Sapinoso at the wheel, they managed to get all but one digit of the license plate on the van, which pulled over two blocks away, his friend said. But on their way home, as the pair stopped at a traffic light, a passenger emerged from the van and strode toward them, he said.

"The light was red. I told Robert, 'Run it, Robert!' By that time, the guy was coming up to the car," the friend said. "I thought he was going to kick the car. Then he pulled a gun from behind his back and started shooting."

The friend, a student at Cypress College, huddled near the floor of the tiny car amid a thunder of gunfire and splintering glass. Sapinoso doubled over too, but was blocked by the steering wheel from diving low. When the shooting ended moments later, the friend was unhurt. He said he called to his buddy.

"I go, 'Robert, are you OK?' I looked at his face and his chest and he looked OK. Then he said, 'Ed,' and his eyes rolled back in his head," the friend said.

When he spotted the wounds in Sapinoso's back, the friend jumped from the car and screamed for help, but "there was no one out there or anything," he said.

Sapinoso's friend decided that it would be quickest to take him to a hospital a mile away. He wrestled Sapinoso from the driver's seat and, with the shot-up driver's door flapping, sped to Vencor Hospital Orange County.

When they arrived, the friend's cries for help drew a nurse who began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. "I was just praying, 'Hold on, Robert. Hold on,' " his friend said. "I thought, 'Oh God, this isn't happening.' "

But at 7:16 p.m., Sapinoso was pronounced dead.

Police described the killer as Asian and aged 17 to 21. The gunman was bucktoothed and acne-scarred, Sapinoso's friend said. "If I saw him again, I'd know it," he said.

Throughout the weekend, Sapinoso's friends and relatives gathered around a simple gray casket and remembered him as a bashful and generous young man.

"He's a good Samaritan guy. He just wants to help anybody who needs help," said his father, Dan Sapinoso, flipping though a photo album for the pictures of Robert and the friends who were forever tinkering on the beloved white Honda. "That's the reason he got killed."

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