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Unlikely Sleuths Help Catch Rape Suspect

Hancock Park: Police believe man committed multiple attacks. Jewish volunteers spotted him on street.

August 17, 2002|MARTHA GROVES and ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Quick thinking and clever sleuthing by members of an Orthodox Jewish group, including two rabbis, led to the arrest Thursday of a man police suspect is the serial rapist who has attacked elderly women in Hancock Park and surrounding areas.

Los Angeles police arrested Gary David Johnson, 41, about 8 p.m. after they were alerted by members of Hatzolah, a nonprofit group that is the city's only volunteer emergency medical service.

Members of the year-old organization, which goes by the Hebrew word for rescue, have become known for being the first to respond to medical emergencies in the heavily Jewish Mid-Wilshire and Fairfax districts.

They and others in the neighborhood had been on heightened alert for days as fliers and composite drawings circulated in the area.

Abraham Matyas, a Hatzolah volunteer, was driving on South Formosa Avenue about 7:30 p.m. when he noticed a man who matched the composite drawing of the suspect.

"I saw him talking on an intercom at a residence in the 100 block of South Formosa," Matyas said. "It seemed that something was not right."

As the man began walking, Matyas followed him in his car. After the man looked directly at Matyas, the volunteer called two friends, asking one to pick up the pursuit so the man would not become suspicious. That friend followed the man to a nail salon in a 3rd Street mini-mall three blocks west of La Brea Avenue.

At that point, Matyas switched cars and joined Rabbis Shmuel Manne and Chaim Kolodny at the mini-mall. They watched the man as he ordered ice cream, sat on a bus bench and then began walking up Poinsettia Place, north of 3rd Street. Matyas then left because he feared he would be recognized by the man.

Manne and Kolodny followed the suspect in their cars and saw him ring a doorbell. No one answered.

At this time, Kolodny quickly returned to his office at Los Angeles Cheder day school, where he is director, to pick up a copy of the police flier that he had gotten from Los Angeles Deputy Chief David Kalish the day before, because he wanted to make sure the suspect matched the description.

He had spent much of Thursday scanning the flier into his computer, distributing it by e-mail and running off 1,000 copies that were handed out in the neighborhood.

Kolodny drove back to the area, where Manne had continued to watch the suspect. Now feeling confident he had the right man, Kolodny called police from his cell phone.

Several minutes passed, during which Kolodny saw the man go to a house at Poinsettia and 1st Street. When no one responded, the man walked south and looked directly at Kolodny before walking on.

Kolodny made a U-turn, and the man "charged toward my truck," Kolodny said.

Kolodny drove on and, looking in his rear-view mirror, "saw the prettiest sight." Police vehicles were descending on the suspect and "taking him down."

On Friday afternoon, sporting dark suits and yarmulkes and standing in the mini-mall parking area where their drama had begun the evening before, Kolodny, 31, and Manne, 34, were basking in the glow of television and newspaper cameras. They seemed to relish repeating the tale of how they--the unlikeliest of gumshoes--trailed a possible rapist.

The rabbis credited a strong relationship with police for the smooth apprehension.

"We're pretty much attuned to what's going on in the community, and neighbor watches out for neighbor," Manne said.

"I don't feel like a hero, but I'm happy for all the bubbies in the area," Kolodny said, using the Yiddish endearment for grandmother.

The case was one of three ongoing investigations in the region involving serial rapists. The others are in Torrance and Long Beach.

On Thursday, police had announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to the serial rapist's arrest and conviction. If Johnson is charged and convicted, Kolodny and Manne will use the reward money to buy defibrillators for Hatzolah, they said.

Authorities said Johnson has a criminal record in California, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina. In California, he served a two-year prison term for a Santa Monica burglary, according to the Department of Corrections. He was paroled in 1995, department officials said.

Kalish called the arrest "the epitome of community policing."

The police had mobilized the community by employing senior lead officers from area divisions to distribute information at Neighborhood Watch meetings and senior centers.

Detectives said they believe that, since July 27, Johnson committed four sexual assaults and attempted four others in Hollywood and the Mid-Wilshire area, bounded by La Cienega Boulevard and June Street, and Beverly and Olympic boulevards.

The attacks typically took place between midafternoon and early evening. The attacker would knock on a victim's door, engage her in conversation and urge her to let him inside. In some instances, he forced his way into residences and sexually assaulted the victims before taking jewelry and cash.

Some victims refused to let the man in but were attacked after he entered through an unlocked back or side door, Kalish said.

*

Times staff writers Anna Gorman and Nerissa Pacio contributed to this report.

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