VAN NUYS — In what police said they are investigating as a possible hate crime, a 35-year-old white motorist was arrested for allegedly striking and killing a Latino pedestrian with her car early Friday outside a bagel bakery.
Police said Marie E. West of Redondo Beach ran over Jesus Plascencia, 66, because he is Latino, and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office has assigned a special hate crimes prosecutor to the case.
"She was heard making comments about her hatred of people of Hispanic origin," said Det. Al Aldaz of the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys homicide unit.
A hate crime is defined as any crime committed against a victim because of that person's race, gender, religion, national background or sexual orientation, said Sandi Gibbons, a district attorney's spokeswoman.
Plascencia was walking to his car in the parking lot of the Western Bagel bakery and corporate offices on Sepulveda Boulevard at 4 a.m. when West ran over him at least twice and dragged his body into the middle of the street where it remained until after dawn, amid dozens of bagels he had been carrying, Aldaz said.
Then, according to Western Bagel employees, West drove back into the lot, parked her car and walked into the bagel shop to place an order.
"Somebody called the police," said Chuck Jones, Western Bagel's director of human resources. "By the time they came, she had her hood up for some reason. When she saw them she got in her car and locked the doors. They had to forcibly remove her."
West's husband, Al Bowman, said his wife suffers from a manic-depressive disorder and can sometimes be confrontational, but he has never known her to be violent.
"She's susceptible to nervous breakdowns," Bowman said. "She is not a racist. I know because I am half Mexican. She doesn't hate Mexicans. This is just another manifestation of her illness."
Aldaz said several people saw West's car strike Plascencia. At least six Western Bagel employees were questioned Friday. The Volvo had front and rear auto body damage.
West refused to answer detectives' questions, Aldaz said, and requested her attorney.
"I have no clue why she did this," said Aldaz, who added that West did not know Plascencia.
Aldaz said he also could not determine why she was driving in the area Friday morning.
"She won't talk to us, and that makes everything a lot harder," he said.
Bowman said he last saw his wife, who takes lithium and other medications to control her mental illness, on Thursday night. Using a set of car keys he did not know she had, West left the couple's home about 11 p.m.
"I've cried so many times today," he said.
Police shut down a stretch of Sepulveda between Stagg and Raymer streets for most of the morning as they conducted their investigation.
On most mornings Plascencia picked up bagels at the bakery for Weiler's Deli and Restaurant in Northridge, where he had worked as a busboy for the past decade.
"He was a regular," said Jones, who described Plascencia as a frail, quiet man.
Co-workers at the deli said Plascencia was an immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, a bachelor who worked hard and lived in a Canoga Park apartment.
"He was a very sweet, shy man," said Irene Khoudian, 16, who works at the restaurant. "The customers loved him."
The number of hate crimes in Los Angeles County increased 11.7% in 1999 over the previous year, according to a recent report by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.
The LAPD's Van Nuys Station had 56 hate crimes in 1999, ranking it second in the number of hate crimes behind the LAPD's Hollywood Division, which had 93 incidents, according to department statistics.
Times Community News correspondent Greg Risling contributed to this story.