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Bullet-riddled Bentley the only clue in 101 Freeway shooting

December 13, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Nathan Olivarez-Giles | Hennessy-Fiske and Olivarez-Giles are Times staff writers.

It started as a drive-by shooting on a mostly deserted stretch of the 101 Freeway about 3:15 a.m.

Despite the early hour, the Los Angeles Police Department received several reports of shots fired. Officers found a car on a center median downtown, specked with bullet holes, its 25-year-old driver clinging to life. The southbound freeway was closed -- and remained closed for nearly eight hours, making the morning commute a nightmare.

"This is a real whodunit," Police Lt. Paul Vernon said. With no immediate witnesses to the shooting and the victim in critical condition, detectives are focusing on the victim's mysterious car.

It is a silver, two-door 2005 Bentley Continental GT with glittering silver rims valued at about $100,000, the ride of rap stars and other celebrities. Paris Hilton was arrested in hers. Jay-Z rapped about his. Shaq and Kobe had theirs customized.

Detectives checked the registration and asked downtown merchants if any Bentleys had been reported stolen. The Bentley was not registered to the victim and police do not believe it belonged to him, Vernon said. Police found temporary registration papers on the car and verified the owner through the vehicle identification number, but Vernon would not release the owner's name.

The car appeared to have been bought recently, since it still had a temporary paper license tag on the back that read "Dream." The tag was from Dream Motor Cars on La Cienega Boulevard just outside Beverly Hills. An employee, who declined to give his name, confirmed that it had sold the Bentley recently. He would not identify the buyer. He said the dealership's owner, Amir Fatemi, was on vacation. A similar car is listed on the company's website for $99,900.

Police searched the car but found no weapons, drugs or other illegal items, and were still trying to determine the motive for the shooting.

"We have not seen a freeway shooting in quite some time," Vernon said. "And this case really stands out in the number of rounds fired at the victim's car and the kind of car the victim was driving."

No surveillance cameras were visible along the stretch of freeway where the car was found, but as detectives canvassed for evidence, Vernon said police would also look for traffic cameras that may have captured images of the Bentley before the shooting.

A motorist spotted the Bentley about 3:15 a.m. after the car struck the freeway median near the Aliso Street exit. The motorist stopped to help and eventually broke the driver's window only to find the shooting victim slumped over the steering wheel with several gunshot wounds, Vernon said.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles police and the California Highway Patrol were receiving reports of shots fired between Olvera and Alameda streets, then reports that an erratic driver had struck the freeway median.

The victim, a Latino man from East Los Angeles whose name had not been released, was taken to County-USC Medical Center at 3:30 a.m. in critical condition.

"His prognosis is not good," Vernon said.

An LAPD firearms expert was sent to examine the Bentley for bullets and other debris to determine what type of weapon was used, police said. Detectives searching the freeway shoulder found several bullet casings near the Mission Road exit, Vernon said. There are at least 10 bullet holes visible, and possibly many more shell casings.

The investigation created a nightmare commute, closing the southbound 101 Freeway during the morning rush hour. Traffic was backed up for miles, and the gridlock spread to nearby freeways and surface streets.

Trina Unzicker was driving her two girls to school when she hit the traffic.

"As soon as I hit the I-5 off of Burbank Boulevard, it was pretty obvious there were problems," Unzicker said. "Traffic was barely moving. And I figured I'd beat the bad freeway traffic, get off on the 2 and then into Echo Park, but no -- it was all a mess."

Unzicker, 40, was making the trip downtown to drop her 2-year-old twins at preschool.

"They kept saying 'school, school' and we were so late we missed their morning snack so we had to dig into their lunches," she said. "I had to listen to this Elmo CD 2 1/2 times in a row and by the time I dropped my girls off I was ready to break that disc."

Normally, the drive from her Burbank home takes about 20 minutes, but "today it took an hour and 20 minutes," Unzicker said. "And I missed a doctor's appointment I had scheduled for two months."





Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Richard Winton and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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