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Neighbors Shaken After Double Slaying

An upscale Hollywood neighborhood's sense of safety is shattered by violent, random killings. Police try to assuage fears.

June 20, 2004|Nikki Usher | Times Staff Writer

The random slayings of two neighbors -- allegedly committed by a mentally ill destitute man -- have challenged attitudes about homelessness in the Hollywood neighborhood where the crimes occurred.

Many residents pride themselves on living in the heart of the city, even if that sometimes means sharing the sidewalk with homeless people, drug users and the occasional prostitute.

But the slayings of a screenwriter and a retired doctor have shaken the neighborhood of tree-lined streets often dotted with people jogging and walking their dogs. Signs of the homeless living among them -- pillows, blankets, clothing scattered on the street -- that were once accepted as part of urban life are being seen in a different light.

Betsy Wenner was walking around the neighborhood when the slayings occurred. She said she must keep telling herself that the crimes were random.

"People here feel compassion for those who are less fortunate, but now it's making me a little more unsure of who I may run across," Wenner said.

John Gile, a resident who runs an organization that provides free meals to people with AIDS, said he hoped the crime wouldn't cause a backlash against the homeless.

"This is a neighborhood with a good liberal sense, but with this crime it's making some people less tolerant," he said. "People are scared, but it's still a good neighborhood."

The killings occurred June 13 in an area of vintage Craftsman and European revival homes at the base of the Hollywood Hills between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards.

It's a neighborhood of retirees, entertainment executives and young families.

Although homes in the area can fetch $1 million or more, they are close to more seedy parts of Hollywood.

Police said Keven Lee Graff, 27, attacked and beheaded 91-year-old screenwriter Robert Lees at his home in the 1600 block of Courtney Avenue between 1 and 10 a.m. Later that morning, Graff allegedly scaled the backyard fence, taking Lee's head with him, and fatally stabbed physician Morley Engelson, 69, in his home on Stanley Avenue.

A security guard recognized Graff after his picture was shown at a televised news conference. Police arrested him Monday outside Paramount Studios.

At a community meeting organized by police and city officials Wednesday, many who live in the area expressed fear of the large transient population living nearby.

For many residents, the crimes were a reminder that they live in an urban environment, despite the peaceful feel of the neighborhood.

"We're in the center of the city in Hollywood, and within a few blocks we have so much," Gile said. "But we also have the problems that come with that, like crime and homelessness."

Added resident Michael Woods, "This could have happened anywhere in California, but it was more likely to happen here."

Capt. Mike Downing of the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollywood Division stressed to residents that being homeless wasn't a crime but that some of the homeless could pose a public safety threat.

He encouraged residents to be more vigilant about reporting homeless people who appeared to be on drugs, who were acting odd or who went onto private property uninvited.

"If someone is trespassing, that's illegal and we can arrest them. Just call us," he said, putting a few more people at ease.

But local advocates for the homeless said that, although the backlash against transients was understandable, it would be unfair to stereotype homeless people because of this isolated incident.

Although almost half of transients have a substance abuse problem, a recent survey found that only 10% had criminal records, according to Bob Erlenbusch, head of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness.

There's no reason for people to call the police just because they see a homeless person lingering on the block, he said. "The reality is that they are probably more scared of you than you are of them."

Downing, along with other police officers and Councilman Tom LaBonge, stressed the importance of creating a strong Neighborhood Watch organization.

LaBonge told residents that it might have taken a tragedy to bring them together but that he expected them to be a stronger and more cohesive community in the aftermath.

To calm residents' fears that calling 911 would just leave them with a busy signal or a long wait, the LAPD's senior lead officer for the area gave out his cellphone number.

Neighbors used the meeting as an opportunity to exchange phone numbers and expressed their commitment to creating a better environment for community policing.

"We're all going to work on coming together as a neighborhood, with a Neighborhood Watch," said resident Karen Scales. "It's something that affected all of us."

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