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Aftermath of Killer's Fury

Job Loss Sparks Gunman's Rage

December 20, 1997|NICK ANDERSON and LEE ROMNEY and DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The fuse was lit when Caltrans fired Arturo Reyes Torres in June for stealing highway scrap metal worth $106.50 after a supervisor warned him it was against the rules.

The 41-year-old former Marine, a proud, jovial man who fixed roads and bridges, had never been disciplined in 12 years on the job. He kept the firing secret from his family, even as he unsuccessfully appealed the case to state authorities.

The fuse kept burning as Torres cast about for other jobs. A friend said he almost landed one with the U.S. Postal Service before getting turned down after a background check. Finally, he found a job cleaning sewers on Dec. 1. But the county sanitation district said he failed to meet physical standards and let him go Dec. 11.

One week later, Torres exploded.

About an hour after visiting his parents at their Santa Ana home Thursday, Torres drove his brown 1977 Mercedes 300D sedan through the front gate of a Caltrans maintenance yard in Orange, walked into the rain and started firing with an AK47 assault rifle.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 31, 1997 Orange County Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Caltrans shooting--A story Dec. 20 about a gunman who shot and killed four Caltrans workers in Orange and then was fatally wounded by police mistakenly described the assailant's military record because of incorrect information provided by a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman. The gunman, Arturo Reyes Torres, was a soldier in the U.S. Army. Records show he was on active duty from 1974 to 1976 and discharged in 1980.

First he went for the supervisor whom he believed unfairly targeted him for dismissal in a crackdown earlier this year on illicit scrap metal salvaging.

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Then he apparently walked around a suite of trailer offices and fired more than 70 bullets, police said, fatally wounding three men inside. It is unclear whether Torres had specific victims in mind, although police say he had a clear view through the windows of workers as they scrambled for cover.

At 3:10 p.m., the first 911 call came from a woman across the street from the yard at 1808 N. Batavia St. Other calls soon came from cowering Caltrans employees. One man whispered from under his desk, "Help, help, there's gunfire everywhere."

Torres was driving away as the first police officer walked into the yard, Orange Police Lt. Art Romo said. Torres fired at the officer, missing, and hit a truck window that blew shards of glass into the officer's face. "Shots fired!" the officer shouted into his radio.

Minutes later, police cornered Torres at Batavia and West Taft Avenue. A running battle ended when officers shot Torres twice in the head, once in the arm and once in the chest. Torres' arsenal included a shotgun and handgun, in addition to the AK47 he bought in 1988, a year before a California law was passed to regulate military-style weapons.

More than 300 bullets were fired in all, police say. The toll: two people wounded, including a police officer, and four killed besides Torres. The rampage devastated the offices of the state transportation agency and proved another shattering example of the power of a disgruntled ex-employee with a big gun.

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So what provoked him?

The person who knows the answer best is dead.

James H. Torres, no relation, a co-worker, was fired at the same time as Torres. They appealed the case, James Torres said, because Caltrans had made them "scapegoats." But, he said he couldn't fathom what his friend was thinking Thursday. "I wish I knew. Caltrans is like a big family. It shouldn't have happened. I feel bad for the people who were killed. No one deserves to die."

Said Romo: "If you stop and think about what happened, it appears that revenge was the motive in that particular gentleman [Bierlein] being killed. Then maybe he decided to go after the other people."

The record indicates that before Thursday, Torres was generally a responsible man.

He was discharged as a corporal after three years in the Marines. He owned a four-bedroom, two-story house on a cul-de-sac in Huntington Beach and kept his lawn, to his last day, neatly mowed. He was liked by neighbors on Daytona Circle. Maria Giovinetti called him a "mellow, friendly" man who enjoyed deep-sea fishing and bicycling to the beach.

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He was a loyal son. He worried about his wife's cancer. Holder of an Immigration and Naturalization Service registration card for many years, the Mexican-born Torres had recently become a U.S. citizen, his father said. And in more than 12 years at Caltrans, records show, he had never been punished for breaking a rule. Listed at 5-foot-4 and 160 pounds on his driver's license, with a bushy mustache, Torres cut an unimposing figure.

Interviews Friday with friends, family, employers and former co-workers and a review of public records show Torres was a man who, though ready with a smile, had grown increasingly embittered, distressed and unemployable.

Caltrans spokesman Albert Miranda declined to speak in detail Friday about Torres' firing. He referred reporters to a complaint argued before the State Personnel Board.

In the document, Caltrans alleged that Arturo and James Torres had broken agency rules in a scrap-metal salvaging scheme. The agency said supervisors had videotaped the men on Feb. 24 as they sold aluminum they had taken from a bridge they had repaired.

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