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Skid Row Deaths Stun City Council

Police announce four fatalities in a single day as the panel votes to create a committee on combating problems among the homeless.

December 21, 2005|Cara Mia DiMassa and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

Four people were found dead on skid row Monday, a toll that shocked even veteran police and social workers who are used to seeing routine misfortune.

None of the dead appeared to have been the victims of foul play. Three of the deaths were suspected to be the results of overdoses; the fourth victim wore a hospital band on one of his wrists and may have died of complications from stomach cancer.

The overdose deaths prompted police to warn skid row health agencies about the possibility of a particularly dangerous batch of heroin that might be making its way through the community.

Capt. Andrew Smith of the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division said the deaths were the most that he could remember in one day on skid row -- an area that is notorious for drug use and homelessness and where the LAPD says suburban law enforcement agencies and some hospitals have routinely dumped homeless people, criminals and drug addicts.

Smith delivered the news to stunned silence at the City Council meeting Tuesday, moments before the council voted unanimously to set up an ad hoc committee on homelessness, consisting of council members, to launch a new effort to combat the problem.

"It's heartbreaking," said Council President Alex Padilla, who toured skid row two weeks ago. "It's worse than anyone can imagine."

City officials estimate that there are as many as 9,000 homeless people on skid row, many of whom have mental problems and are drug addicts. Smith said his officers see several deaths a week on the streets -- often from overdoses. But Monday's series of deaths was particularly hard to take.

The first body was found by downtown workers about 6:10 a.m. in the alleyway behind 530 S. Main St.

Ernest Calderon was a 41-year-old man who appeared to live in East Los Angeles, and officials don't know how he happened to be downtown. According to police, there were no signs of trauma, but he bore a fresh puncture mark on his left arm, and several balloons of heroin were found in his rectum.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office ruled that Calderon's death was an apparent overdose.

Just before noon, a maintenance worker hired by the Central City East Assn. saw a 53-year-old man fall to the ground near East 6th Street and South Towne Avenue.

The worker could not detect the man's pulse, so he radioed his dispatch unit to call paramedics. They took him to County-USC Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Authorities said the man, who wore a hospital bracelet, had been a patient of Serrano Convalescent Hospital-South Los Angeles as recently as Nov. 30 and had a history of stomach cancer. Sources provided the name of the victim to The Times. When a reporter called the convalescent home, an employee first denied that the patient was on skid row, then declined to comment, as did the acting administrator.

An hour after the man was found on the sidewalk, a repairman in the King Edward Hotel a few blocks away alerted authorities to a foul odor in one of the units. Police officers discovered a 44-year-old man, lying face down, who had apparently been dead for some time.

They found insulin syringes and vials as well as bottles of prescription medicine on the floor.

The final victim was a 75-year-old woman found lying on her bed in an apartment at 111 W. 5th St. about 4 p.m. The coroner's office said that there were no signs of trauma or struggle but that hypodermic needles, heroin balloons and cooking tins were found in the apartment.

In an interview Tuesday, Smith said the apparent overdose deaths underscore the need to do something about the huge drug trade downtown. Central Division, the smallest police division geographically, accounts for about 20% of all drug arrests in the city, mostly concentrated in the 50-square block skid row area.

"It just gives me more of a reason to try to do something about the narcotics down here," he said. "Clearly, three of these people are dead because of the ready availability of dope down here. I see overdose reports on my desk all the time: of people in the outhouses, or lying on the streets, with puncture wounds on their arms."

Police Chief William J. Bratton announced last month that he was increasing patrols on skid row and assigning undercover officers to focus on breaking up drug dealing.

Smith said he is concerned that an extra strong batch of heroin was for sale in the area, one that could cause overdoses in people used to the drug at a particular strength.

He said his officers were already notifying service providers in the area of a potential problem.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes part of skid row, said the deaths offer tragic evidence that skid row must be cleaned up.

"I'm horrified by the news," Perry said. "This is a national disgrace, and it's time we took a hard look at the growing crisis and begin to organize ourselves at all levels of government to do a far better job."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told reporters at City Hall that he witnessed firsthand the drug dealing and other lawlessness that run rampant on skid row when he toured the area recently with Times columnist Steve Lopez.

"I'm very concerned about the level of violence and criminal activity on skid row," Villaraigosa said. "I can tell you when I was there ... you saw right in front of your very eyes, fighting and drug activity. There was just a complete breakdown of respect for the law."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Four deaths

Four people were found dead at various locations in skid row Monday. The deaths do not appear to be related.

1. 4:10 p.m.: 111 W. 5th St., 75-year-old woman (apparent overdose)

2. 6:10 a.m.: 530 S. Main St.. 41-year-old male (apparent overdose)

3. 1 p.m.: King Edward Hotel, 121 E. 5th St., 44-year-old male (apparent overdose)

4. 11:50 a.m.: 6th Street and Towne Ave., 53-year-old male (cause of death is under investigation, but appears to be natural causes)

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