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Neighbors Mourn L.A. Shopkeeper

Crime: People stunned by fatal holdup recall Silver Lake pet store co-owner's generosity.

November 16, 1996|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SILVER LAKE — As Ron Brooks drove to his Silver Lake home Tuesday evening, he saw the local pet store owner, Chuck Willard, standing on the corner waving hello to him.

What a great, small-town feel this neighborhood has, and that guy is one of the reasons, Brooks thought to himself.

An hour later, Willard, 64, was dead, murdered during an attempted robbery at his store.

The news was still sinking in Thursday as residents of the quiet neighborhood near Bill's Pet Shop--which Willard owned with best friend Bill Yurik--mourned the loss of a gentle and beloved man.

"He was the type of guy you would want as your father," said David Hind, who owns a hair salon next door to the pet shop at Rowena Avenue and West Silver Lake Drive. "He just did all the right things. He would give pet food to dogs of these homeless guys. He'd lend people money. He'd lend me his car when my truck was down. He worked his ass off and this is the reward he gets."

People came and went Thursday after placing dozens of flower bouquets and candles in front of the closed shop as a makeshift shrine.

Police said a man in his 20s entered the pet shop about 6 p.m. Tuesday while Willard was talking to a friend. The man pulled a handgun and demanded money. As Willard turned to get the money from the cash register, the gunman fired one round, killing Willard instantly.

Investigators said the gunman may have thought Willard was reaching for a weapon. The killer, who is still at large, fled without taking the $37 in the register.

Police described the gunman as a Latino, 5-foot-7, 130 pounds, with a thin mustache. They asked anyone with information to call (213) 847-4261.

On Thursday afternoon, Pat Blessing, who lives in the neighborhood but was unaware of the slaying, came to the store to get pet food.

"No, no, no, no," she moaned when a reporter told her of Willard's death.

Across the street from the store at Ivanhoe Elementary School, students were given a letter Wednesday explaining what had happened to "the store owner known throughout the community as Chuck."

Willard was born in South Carolina and raised in Whittier. After a stint in the Air Force, he became a production manager for revues in Las Vegas and Reno for nearly two decades, organizing shows for celebrities such as Pearl Bailey and Mitzi Gaynor. He enjoyed the glitz of show business, but animals were his true love.

His pal Yurik had been running Bill's Pet Shop for more than a decade when Willard became his business partner in 1979.

At the Silver Lake home they shared, Yurik laughed and cried as he spoke about his friend.

"I remember one time when Chuck started crying when one of the goldfish died," he said with a chuckle.

Another time, a raccoon got into a fish tank and killed Willard's prized koi. "I thought I was gonna have to take him to the hospital," Yurik said.

As Yurik talked, several dogs played in the backyard.

"Strays that Chuck picked up on the street," he said.

A celebration of Willard's life will take place at Hind's hair salon at noon Sunday.

In Los Angeles, 619 people were murdered during the first 10 months of this year, but in this quiet slice of northern Silver Lake, some residents who have lived here for more than a decade said Willard's was the first local homicide they could recall.

"He was such a beautiful person," said a tearful Pete Bunag, who owns the Thai American Express Cafe down the street from the pet shop. "I started crying when I heard about it. Look, at me. I'm still crying."

Yurik was on the phone to Willard's only survivor, his 92-year-old mother in South Carolina, making funeral arrangements Thursday.

"She wants to die now," he said, slowly shaking his head.

"I'm going to close the shop," he said. "I couldn't stand to be in there anymore."

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