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'Skateboard Murder' Stuns Town

San Luis Obispo reacts with disbelief after the arrest of boy, 13, in the slaying of elderly man.

March 07, 2005|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Horrified residents call it the "Skateboard Murder," a description chilling enough for its reference to the object allegedly used to kill 87-year-old Gerald O'Malley.

But the label's combination of youthful plaything and mortal violence also summons a ghastlier element of the case: that the suspect is just 13.

And to pile shock upon shock, authorities in this Central Coast town say they are investigating whether other children might have learned of the slaying and remained silent about it until after the police found the body last Monday night.

"It's awful," said San Luis Obispo Police Capt. Dan Blanke. "I've been here 24 years, and I don't recall a crime even close to this."

The circumstances hint at an infamous 1981 murder in Milpitas, 190 miles up the coast. A teenager had killed his girlfriend, then took his closed-mouthed friends on sightseeing tours of the body. The events were fictionalized in the movie "River's Edge."

San Luis Obispo has buzzed with rumors that some children might have viewed O'Malley's corpse as it lay for hours, or perhaps a full day, in his trailer park home. Police say they have no solid evidence of that but are trying to determine who knew or saw what and when.

As details of the investigation filled local news pages -- and airwaves -- people of all ages struggled to make sense of it.

"I don't know how something like that could happen," said Katherine Kwid, 24, a San Luis Obispo native who was standing outside a cafe on Garden Street, a downtown gathering spot for young people. "It's disgusting."

Sal Garza, another resident, nodded. He said the city hadn't been prepared for such a crime.

"This town is an isolated egg," said Garza, 42, a violinist. "Parents can turn their kids loose."

David Ruckman, a wide-eyed 14-year-old, ran errands for O'Malley, his neighbor at the Village Mobile Home Park. The property is a sprawl of weathered trailers and wooden bungalows, across a busy street from the Greyhound bus station. David said he knew the suspect.

"It's not even believable that someone that age could do this," he said, his thin arms draped over the handlebars of his bicycle.

O'Malley, a slight and hobbled man who used a walker on bad days and a cane on good ones, was attacked in his trailer sometime during the 24 hours or more before police discovered the body, authorities said. His 1995 Ford Explorer had been stolen.

David said the 13-year-old suspect and a 12-year-old companion taunted him about stealing a car. "They seemed like big troublemakers, up to no good," he said. "They'd say, 'Hey, you wouldn't say anything if we stole somebody's car, would you?' "

David said he later heard the car's alarm go off and was surprised that O'Malley didn't emerge from the trailer to check on it.

On Monday evening, a motorist and passenger noticed the Explorer being driven erratically on U.S. 101, followed it for a while, then flagged down a police officer.

The officer found the Explorer abandoned, but its registration led the police to O'Malley's trailer. Children at the trailer park told the investigating officers that they had heard about the crime, police say.

David said a young girl at the park told him she learned of the killing shortly after it occurred. "They hit him on the back of the head twice, and that didn't do him in, so they hit him three more times," David said, relating the girl's account.

About 1 a.m. Tuesday, the two boys were arrested after officers spotted them near an Amtrak station.

They were known to the police. The boys had been arrested Feb. 20 on suspicion of stealing a small tractor and riding around town on it, also in the early morning hours.

The 13-year-old has been charged with murder, elder abuse, burglary and car theft. The 12-year-old is accused only of stealing the Explorer. Police say they are investigating whether others were involved in the killing.

The suspects' names have been withheld because of their ages. If a juvenile court finds the 13-year-old responsible for the killing, he would face a maximum sentence of imprisonment until he turns 25. Under California law, defendants younger than 14 cannot be tried as adults.

Citing court records, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported that the fathers of the two suspects were convicted felons, which the police confirmed. The boys were believed to have been home-schooled or enrolled in a continuation program, according to neighbors and the police.

Ed Valentine, superintendent of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, said counselors were on hand to help children cope with any emotional trauma brought by the killing.

"Everybody is shocked," he said.

San Luis Obispo, population 44,000, is a safe city. Last year, there was one murder.

The town and county of the same name are home to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and rolling expanses of vineyards and cattle pastures.

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