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NASA enlisted in hunt for a killer

Mother of a 24-year-old gunned down in Pomona turns to a space agency astronomer, who enhances surveillance video of the crime.

January 26, 2007|Angie Green | Times Staff Writer

Mary Laurent-Barela of San Dimas was desperately trying to find anything to solve her son's murder. It had been almost a year since his death when a family friend suggested she contact NASA, which has worked with the FBI to improve video images of crime scenes.

She searched the NASA website and came across David H. Hathaway, a NASA astronomer who in his spare time works on high-profile cases for law enforcement. Laurent-Barela called Hathaway immediately. And kept calling.

"He was my whole life," Laurent said of her only child. "I'm just doing whatever it takes to help the police."

On Thursday, the Pomona Police Department released Hathaway's improved still image of a passenger in a bright blue SUV who shot 24-year-old Andre Laurent on Jan. 4, 2006.

"I'm just so thankful he helped us," said Laurent-Barela, 53. "He probably thinks I'm crazy because I would call him every day to find out how the enhancement was going."

Hathaway, who worked on the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in Utah and the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, developed a computer imaging program that enhances fuzzy images.

Hathaway, 55, receives no compensation for his work on crime scene images but has done it willingly for 10 years. He is approaching 100 cases, including three profiled on television's "America's Most Wanted."

"I do it because of the thing in everyone that likes to see justice done," said Hathaway from his office at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "I have a hard time saying no to people like Mary Laurent."

Hathaway, who is accustomed to being sought out by victims' family members, got a call from Laurent-Barela just before Christmas. He asked her to have the Pomona Police Department contact him about the video.

Recruiting Hathaway was the latest effort in Laurent-Barela's dogged pursuit of justice for her son.

Since Andre Laurent's death, his mother has attended City Council meetings and news conferences, established a scholarship and built a memorial website for her son.

"If I was murdered," Hathaway said, "I would hope my mother was her."

Andre Laurent was fatally shot after he and a friend stopped for gas at an AM-PM mini-mart on South Reservoir Street in Pomona.

Laurent-Barela said her son was on his way to the movies and they had spoken 30 minutes earlier.

The mini-mart surveillance video shows a bright blue SUV circling the parking lot and parking near Laurent's vehicle. Laurent is seen walking to his vehicle with his hands in his pockets when a passenger in the SUV shoots Laurent and he collapses.

Pomona Police Chief Joe Romero said Laurent did nothing to provoke the gunman. He said the gunman appears to be a male between 20 and 25.

Police officials said the improved image may shed light on the year-long investigation.

"The clearer the image is, the greater the chance that someone in the public or law enforcement might recognize him," Romero said.

Laurent had graduated from San Dimas High School and attended Santa Barbara City College, then worked at an auto shop while acting as a full-time caregiver to his 87-year-old grandfather, who has heart problems. AM-PM is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the killer, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is offering a $10,000 reward.

Laurent-Barela said she hasn't been able to return to her work as a supervisor at a utility company since her son's death. She spends most days on the computer, looking for ways to help solve the case.

"People forget, but I will never forget," she said. On her son's memorial website, she wrote this month: "Hi Andre: This year has been very difficult and sad for me without you. My resolution for this year and all the coming years is to get the people that murder you. I love you and miss you so much."

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angie.green@latimes.com

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