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School Official Won't Be Charged in Shooting

Violence: Harvard-Westlake's Frank Hedge critically wounded a burglary suspect, but prosecutors lack proof it was not an accident.

November 09, 1996|MARTHA L. WILLMAN and BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

VAN NUYS — A Harvard-Westlake School official who shot a teenage burglary suspect on the campus of the exclusive private school will not be charged in the incident, the district attorney's office said Friday.

The decision ends the investigation of Frank Hedge, the school's director of construction and planning, who had armed himself on Oct. 19 after hearing of a suspected early-morning break-in at the Studio City campus.

Hedge, who lives a short distance away in a school-owned house, shot and critically wounded the intruder during the ensuing confrontation. The youth apparently was unarmed.

Officials said they concluded on Friday that the shooting occurred during or immediately after the youth slammed a door on the 54-year-old Hedge as he entered a computer classroom.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert L. Cohen said accounts of the incident by both Hedge and the youth were strikingly similar except for the firing of the gun. Hedge, whose arm was injured as it was slammed by the door, told investigators he did not intend to fire. The youth claimed he was shot after he shoved the door and turned to flee, Cohen said.

"There is insufficient evidence to show that the gun did not go off accidentally," said Cohen. "We can't prove that it was not an accidental discharge."

Ralph Peretz, a lawyer for the youth, declined to comment, saying he had not seen the evidence or Hedge's statement to authorities.

Laboratory tests of the youth's clothing indicate the shot was fired anywhere from 18 inches to eight feet from the teenager, Cohen said, which would support either account. Cohen said a key factor in the decision was that only one shot, which struck the youth in the lower back, was fired. A volley of gunfire would have indicated an intentional shooting, leading to a possible charge of assault with a deadly weapon.

The incident occurred after a series of break-ins at the school following completion of a $13-million biology lab and other improvements. Despite beefed-up security measures, the school had been hit by more than half a dozen burglaries, including the loss of $41,000 in computer equipment in August and $35,000 worth of equipment taken in March, police said.

Hedge was in charge of construction projects that were underway on campus when neighbors called him before 6 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19, saying they heard noises coming from the campus. There were no security officials on the grounds at the time of the incident, school officials said.

Cohen said Hedge took a semiautomatic handgun and a flashlight with him to investigate, crossing over a bridge the school built between his house and the campus. His carrying a gun was not against the law because Hedge was not on public property, Cohen said.

Hedge's attorney, Michael Magnesen, on Friday described the prosecutors' conclusion as a "good call." He said the three-week investigation had been particularly hard on his client, who had never before been involved in a shooting and was not aware until after the incident that the suspected intruder was a teenager.

"Frank was very concerned for the well-being of the young man," Magnesen said.

The teenager, who underwent emergency surgery following the shooting, is still hospitalized but is expected to recover, his attorney and officials said.

An investigation is continuing into the youth--a resident of the San Fernando Valley but not a Harvard-Westlake student--although charges have not yet been filed. Police said they have not determined if there is any link between the Oct. 19 incident and earlier break-ins at the school.

Police also have not concluded whether other individuals were involved in the incident. Witnesses reported seeing other suspects running from the school at about the same time.

Headmaster Thomas Hudnut said Friday that "the school is continuing to review its security measures." He added: "We have clarified our procedures so that there would not be a repeat occurrence."

Hudnut declined to state how procedures had been changed, particularly concerning weapons on campus. One parent has expressed concern that Hedge was armed while on campus.

Security measures implemented in the past year include the installation of unbreakable glass in windows and gates limiting access on nights and weekends. The Oct. 19 break-in included doors that were smashed with an ax, investigators said.

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