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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Party Shooting a Tragedy With No Clear Culprit

November 01, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

You shouldn't stand with a realistic-

looking gun in your hand. Any child would know that. Even a little squirt carrying a water pistol or a silly silver Lone Ranger cowboy's six-shooter to a masquerade party would be told repeatedly by many a grown-up: "Now don't go pointing that at anybody."

And Anthony Lee was no kid. He was 39. He was a good man, by most accounts, with a bad past--a Sacramento gang member as a youth, stabbed once in a street fight.

So maybe he should have known better.

But there is such a thing as benefit of the doubt, and nobody gave Lee that Saturday morning.

He got shot indoors by a cop standing outdoors. He got shot at with nine real bullets, possibly for pointing a fake gun that he may have picked up by chance.

Halloween party or no Halloween party, it isn't smart to brandish a prop .357 magnum that looks exactly like the real thing and expect every living soul you encounter to know it's just a "toy."

Whoever brought that gag gun to the party is as responsible for Anthony Lee's death as the person who killed him. No gun, no shooting.

Nevertheless, the young L.A. police officer who shot Lee last weekend is going to have some point-blank questions to answer--like why nine shots were necessary to stop a guy who'd fired none.

When a grown man with a gun is standing before you at 1 o'clock in the morning, you might not have time to yell: "Halt! Is that thing rubber or real?" But if you take a life, you'd better guess right.

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A lot of kind words are being spoken on behalf of Lee, an actor who had roles in "ER" and other TV shows. He was said to be a devout Buddhist who preached and practiced peace, after a not-so-charming childhood.

"I can say with absolute confidence that it wasn't in his nature," a neighbor of Lee's was quoted, as if law enforcement officers should be mind-readers if a civilian aims a gun in their general direction.

Are police supposed to assume that just because it's a costume party, it's not in a guest's nature to possess a genuine gun? If a pirate held a sword, or a devil a pitchfork, several feet from you, you'd flinch, but you probably wouldn't shoot.

A couple of cops had gone to the party to check out reports of loud noise. One reportedly looked through a rear window of the private home, spotted Lee with the gun and opened fire, taking the actor's life.

"He's a black man who died in a white neighborhood," one friend of Lee's said. "Unnecessary . . . another black man killed by police," added a Seattle actress who had worked with Lee.

Theirs is a volatile reaction, particularly in light of the fact that the policeman himself is black.

Let's consider this officer briefly.

He is clearly not the injured party here. A man is dead. A thorough investigation is essential. Johnnie Cochran is already at work representing the slain man's family. And, understandably, nobody these days is overly eager to portray any cop from the City of Angels as an angel.

The LAPD's chief does defend the actions of a trained officer who sees a gun and "can't take for granted that it's a replica."

Indeed, this was no typical toy, no Dick Tracy plastic pistol. No one--cop, crook or law-abiding citizen--would automatically identify this rubber weapon as anything but real.

The officer in question is Tarriel Hopper, 27, once a Southern California football hero.

He was a star on a 1990 Carson High team that won 12 of 13 games, including the Class 4-A city championship. His older brother Darrel had been a prep sensation, intercepting a city-record 21 passes in one season, and later playing professionally for the Chargers and Raiders.

In his sophomore year at USC, as a linebacker, Tarriel Hopper recovered a fumble against Notre Dame and appeared in 11 games. A few months earlier, he helped out voluntarily as L.A. cleaned up from 1992's riots, after four cops were found innocent in the beating of Rodney King.

USC's 1992 football media guide includes a comment from Coach Larry Smith.

"Tarriel has excellent speed and size," Smith said. "And he can really pop you."

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Hopper has a lot of explaining to do. Self-defense is all a cop has in some situations, but it doesn't cover every situation.

Unloading multiple gunshots at someone holding a toy inside a private residence is not going to be easy to justify.

But he too--for now--deserves exactly what Anthony Lee deserved.

Benefit of the doubt.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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