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Man Kills Self as City Watches

A motorist unfurls anti-HMO banner on freeway. He sets truck on fire and then commits suicide.

May 01, 1998|ALAN ABRAHAMSON and MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In one of the most graphic and bizarre events ever to unfold on a Los Angeles freeway, a man with a gripe against HMOs parked his pickup truck on a busy freeway intersection Thursday afternoon, set it ablaze and then committed suicide--on live television--creating a nightmarish, miles-long traffic jam during the evening commute.

The incident at first appeared to be yet another of Southern California's now prosaic freeway chases. But as the situation developed, it soon became apparent that this was an anomalous, quintessentially Los Angeles story because so many disparate elements of life here had suddenly coalesced on that smoking freeway overpass.

The story had guns, traffic jams, cellular phones, swarms of news helicopters, desperate self-promotion--and a sudden, tragic, cinematic conclusion. And all of it caught on live television.

Authorities suspect that the man at the center of this maelstrom was Daniel V. Jones, 40, a maintenance worker at the Renaissance Hotel in Long Beach.

And Jones' neighbors, who witnessed the incident on television, confirmed that it was him.

Jones lived in a tiny, two-bedroom bungalow off an alleyway in Long Beach. The wood house is cloistered behind a tall wooden fence, with a sign on the gate that reads "Beware of dog." A dog accompanied him on his final journey and perished when the truck caught fire.

Long Beach police who entered the home looking for leads on any next of kin and clues as to how he came to this violent end said the house was a "typical bachelor's home," adequately furnished but cluttered. Although Jones was obviously agitated about HMOs shortly before his death, his Long Beach neighbors and fellow workers were not aware that he had any health problems.

But one friend, who asked not to be identified, said that Jones confided in him that three weeks ago he found a flesh-colored growth on his neck that continued to grow. He told his friend that doctors were unsure of its cause at first, but within the last week confirmed that it was cancer. The friend also said that Jones thought he was getting the runaround from his health insurer.

Jones' sister, Janet Jones, 38, told Associated Press that it was only at the time of the suicide that Jones' best friend told her Jones was HIV-positive.

Joachim H. Ortmayer, general manager of the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, where Jones had been employed for about three years, said everyone at the hotel has health insurance, but it was not known which of several available plans the maintenance worker had been using.

Calls From Motorists

The incident began about 3 p.m., when the man parked his dark gray pickup on the transition loop from the Harbor Freeway to the Century Freeway.

Frantic motorists called authorities after the man, whose dog was sitting beside him, pointed his shotgun at passing cars. Authorities then closed the two freeways, creating a mammoth traffic tie-up and an eerily empty swath of lanes.

Jones, who was parked in the carpool lane, pulled out a cellular telephone, called 911, reached a California Highway Patrol dispatcher and indicated that he was emotionally distraught, said LAPD Lt. Hanns Ruth.

"He was just rambling," Ruth said. "He mentioned he was unhappy about HMOs."

During the call, he fired several rounds, one of them through the roof of his pickup truck.

Jones remained in his truck as police helicopters monitored his movements and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Special Weapons Team began to assemble.

He pulled from a knapsack, and displayed, what appeared to be some clothing and a videotape before throwing it all over the freeway wall.

He then calmly walked out onto the empty freeway and unfurled a large, square banner with white hand-lettering that read: "HMO's are in it for the money!! Live free, love safe or die."

He made a few obscene gestures before nonchalantly returning to his truck, occasionally petting his dog and sipping from a can.

SWAT team negotiators were about to try to persuade him to give up when a violent, graphic series of events quickly unfolded, ending in a startling suicide.

Jones had several Molotov cocktails in the cab of his truck and he suddenly ignited one. His truck burst into flames.

"He purposely set the fire," said LAPD Lt. Anthony Alba.

Jones ran out of the vehicle engulfed in a shower of flame and smoke, his hair, pants and socks on fire. He writhed in pain, frantically tried to pat out the flames and finally managed to peel off his pants, socks and underwear.

He wandered about, naked from the waist, looking dazed and disoriented. He then walked to the edge of the freeway gesturing angrily. It appeared as if he was about to jump.

But he backed away from the edge and, moments later, at about 3:50 p.m., retrieved his shotgun from the back of his truck. He then placed the shotgun beneath his chin, pulled the trigger and crumpled to the ground.

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