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Shop owner's shooting of a South L.A. teenager is called a tragic mistake

June 13, 2007|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

The day after a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed by a shop owner in South Los Angeles, neighbors and police described the incident at Normandie Ranch Market as an unfortunate, tragic encounter.

Ruben Garcia Castillo had walked into the market in the 5300 block of South Normandie Avenue about 2:30 p.m. Monday and surprised Soloman Berhane, 38, who was absorbed in counting money, police said. Hearing a voice and believing that he was being robbed, Berhane grabbed his weapon from under the counter and fired, then "realized he had shot a longtime customer," said Det. Matt Mahoney of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Berhane called 911 and tried to aid Ruben, who died at the scene, police said. Berhane was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.

"The shopkeeper was beside himself with grief," said Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, head of the LAPD's South Bureau. "He didn't want a lawyer and was blaming himself and saying he would have to live with it for the rest of his life."

A video shot by the market's security camera confirmed the storekeeper's version of events, Beck said. Prosecutors, Beck said, will have to resolve how to handle the case. Investigators said late Tuesday that prosecutors are still deliberating whether to bring charges.

Ruben -- short in stature, playful and outgoing -- had moved to Los Angeles from Guanajuato state in Mexico about a year ago to work here and study English, said brother Saul Garcia Castillo, 34. The two worked together at a tire shop a block from the Normandie Ranch Market. Ruben was a regular customer at the market and had a friendly, bantering acquaintance with Berhane, the shop's owner, residents said.

On Monday, Ruben told his brother he was going to run down to the store to pick up some batteries, his brother said.

Ten minutes passed, the brother recalled. Garcia was tied up with a customer, fixing a tire, but wondered why Ruben was taking so long. Then he saw an ambulance and police cars at the market. Apprehensive, he sent a friend to see what happened while he continued working. The friend returned and told him his brother had been shot.

Police wouldn't allow Garcia inside the market. They questioned him, asking if Ruben was a gang member. "He worked in a tire shop," Garcia told them. Ruben, he noted, was wearing work coveralls.

It was half an hour before he realized Ruben was dead. Garcia said he is confused by what happened and is waiting for Berhane's first court appearance to get an explanation.

Garcia was back at work Tuesday, fixing tires between phone calls to various family members to make arrangements. One call he had not yet made was to the siblings' parents in Mexico. Ruben was the youngest of 15 children. Garcia said his heart constricted at the thought of making that call.

jill.leovy@latimes.com

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This article is adapted from the Homicide Report, latimes.com/homicidereport.

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