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COLUMN ONE

A Murder That Woke Up L.A.

A random slaying in Westwood forced the city to confront gang violence head-on. Now, 10 years later, Karen Toshima's death still evokes emotions.

January 30, 1998|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now and then, when a dark mood strikes, Kevin Toshima returns to the Westwood Village street where his older sister was killed and tries to envision the last moments of one of Los Angeles' most famous innocent bystanders.

He thinks about how Karen never saw the young South L.A. gunman who fired twice into a crowd of Saturday night strollers 10 years ago today while trying to shoot a rival gangster.

In his mind's eye, Toshima sees his 27-year-old sister sprawled on the sidewalk of Broxton Avenue, a bullet wound in her temple, struck down as she celebrated a big promotion at her Studio City ad agency with a dinner on the town.

"She would have been married by now, with kids," he says softly. "I'd be an uncle. Going there makes me think of all the things in life she never got to celebrate."

He isn't the only one who can't forget Karen Toshima.

A decade after her death, a prosecutor in her murder trial still keeps a photo of her on his office wall as a symbol of wasted innocence. A lawyer who defended her killer can't help but think about her each time he walks through Westwood. To some police and politicians, the young graphic artist remains the most stunning image of random street violence.

"I don't know how many times we've said it: 'We don't want another Karen Toshima,' " said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The Westwood killing hit Los Angeles in its living room, shattering the naivete of Angelenos who assumed that gangs were confined to inner-city minority neighborhoods. It forced people to acknowledge that gang violence, which had jumped 50% since the late 1970s, was out of control. It opened a window on the stark terrorist logic of gang members, who were increasingly firing on crowds without regard to who they hit.

The killing also triggered increases in anti-gang programs by police and prosecutors--and sparked resentment in black and Latino communities, which grew outraged that one gang-related murder in Westwood seemed to matter more than the thousands that had occurred in South and East Los Angeles.

The murder was the first of a series of incidents--including the Rodney King beating, the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trials--that weakened the city's fragile psyche and made many residents feel more vulnerable and uncertain about the future than ever before.

Karen Toshima's death also jolted the nation, generating a flood of telephone calls from other cities that were beginning to see Los Angeles-style gang graffiti and gang attacks. The violence reflected national trafficking in crack cocaine by loose confederations of L.A. street gang members, who realized that crack--then at its peak of popularity--was an easy source of wealth and power.

"After the Toshima case hit the papers, I got calls from places like Tulsa, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. There were civic officials saying, 'Who the hell are these Crips, and why is their graffiti going up on the walls around town?' " said Michael Genelin, who for 13 years has headed the Los Angeles County district attorney's hard-core gang division. "Within two or three years, we had 50 cities reporting some kind of dangerous gang activity."

Within days of Toshima's death, authorities called a "gang summit" attended by 16 local police departments, which collectively termed 1988 "The Year of the Gang." Police patrols were tripled and 30 officers were assigned to the murder investigation. Yaroslavsky, then a city councilman whose district included Westwood, prodded the council to offer a $25,000 reward for information leading to the killer's arrest.

Then came the backlash.

"The black community has known for years that a problem is not a problem until it hits the white community," complained then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters. "There is a deep feeling in the black community that the philosophy of the police department was, 'Let 'em kill each other in South-Central L.A.' "

Many Asian Americans watched this debate uncomfortably, awkward about seeing themselves lumped in with "whites" and not used to seeing an Asian as the victim in a spectacular case.

"It woke everybody up, even people in the Asian community, where safety is such an important factor," said Kevin Toshima, a 35-year-old partner in a Santa Fe Springs importing company. "People realized that a shooting like this could have happened even to them."

Police said they were painfully aware of the spread of gangs but were unable to forcefully respond because politicians had not given them sufficient personnel.

That changed quickly. Within months of the slaying, more than 650 police officers were hired as the city pumped $6 million in emergency funds into the anti-gang effort. There was also a surge in patrols, especially in South-Central L.A., where then-Police Chief Darryl F. Gates launched Operation Hammer--massive sweeps aimed at interrogating and arresting thousands of alleged gang members.

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