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Friends, Kin Bury Shooting Victim

Some see the Sylmar killing as a gang's racial payback, but LAPD says it has no such evidence.

August 05, 2003|Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Seventeen years ago, on the morning of his first day at Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima, third-grader Art Rodriguez saw something he had never seen and it scared him so much he ditched school. He saw black students.

"I had never seen a black person before," said Rodriguez, 25. "I had heard about them, and what I heard wasn't good." But the next day he went to school and met Rasheed Coleman, an African American third-grader.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

"Rasheed showed me all around school that day," said Rodriguez. "He showed me where the bathrooms were. He showed me the handball and basketball courts. He showed me a lot. And he showed me in one day how wrong I was about black people."

Monday, Rodriguez, dressed in black, his eyes red and his legs shaky, as he and about 300 others laid Coleman, 25, to rest.

A UPS sorter who also worked as a veterinarian's assistant, Coleman was the victim of gang violence, gunned down by what eyewitnesses said were members of one of the largest Latino street gangs in the San Fernando Valley. No arrests have been made.

On July 27, shortly after 1 a.m., Coleman, Rodriguez and a few other friends were leaving a party in Sylmar. Several members of the San Fers street gang allegedly drove up in a light-colored Toyota Camry and began yelling gang slogans. One shot Coleman in the chest, according to eyewitnesses and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Someone called 911, but while they were waiting, Rodriguez decided to drive his friend to Olive View-UCLA Medical Center less than two miles away.

"He was just struggling to breathe and I decided to take him to the hospital myself," said a distraught Rodriguez, a recent Cal State Northridge graduate who plans to become a teacher. "My best friend was dying right there. I had to do something."

On the way, Rodriguez spotted a police car.

"I thought the wise thing to do was to stop and they could rush Rasheed to the hospital," said Rodriguez. "It was the worst thing I ever did."

Rodriguez said the police instead handcuffed him and his friends and questioned them about the shooting, then waited at least 15 minutes before paramedics showed up and transported Coleman to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The LAPD's general policy is that officers do not transport the injured but wait for paramedics to arrive, according to Sgt. Catherine Plows of the media relations office.

Rumors quickly spread through the streets of Sylmar that Coleman's killing was racially motivated, a payback for an unsolved June 30 homicide in which Steven Yuhasz was gunned down on a basketball court by a young black man. Yuhasz had been involved with the San Fers but was recently getting out of active gang life, his relatives and friends said.

LAPD Det. Jim Freund, investigating the Coleman killing, said he has no evidence to link it with the Yuhasz homicide.

But at Monday's funeral for Coleman at Calvary Baptist Church of Pacoima and his burial at Eternal Valley Cemetery in Newhall, grief was mixed with talk about a racial payback killing.

"I know this was a racial killing," said Gerrit McGreggor, one of Coleman's closest friends. "The whole background on this is what happened at the basketball court."

Rodriguez also insisted that the two killings were related.

Meanwhile, Coleman's father said he had lost his best friend and that Rasheed was a father's dream.

"He was the most beautiful kid in the world," said Rodney Coleman, 49, a former professional musician. "If the angels were looking for someone, they could not find anyone better than Rasheed. What a beautiful smile he had."

Adding to the family's woes was news the same day as Rasheed's death that his brother, Malik, 21, had been critically injured in a car accident in Florida. He remains hospitalized.

At Monday's burial, no one was as visibly upset as Rodriguez.

"I think Art is taking it as bad as anyone," said Betty Coleman, Rasheed's aunt.

Coleman and Rodriguez had worked together at UPS. They played basketball. They played video games.

"I'd come over and tell Rasheed about a party and he'd say he just wanted to stay home and play PlayStation with his dad," said Rodriguez. "So we'd forget about the party, and I come in and play that John Madden game with them all night long.

"Man, I'm gonna miss him."

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