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Student's slaying reveals two worlds in Berkeley

Social and economic divide between university area and flatlands can incite conflict.

May 05, 2008|Tim Reiterman and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

BERKELEY — The fatal stabbing of a UC Berkeley honors student from Bellflower left two families in anguish Sunday as they struggled to figure out how prefinals revelry had deteriorated into death and detention.

Although details of the fracas early Saturday were still being sorted out, the incident laid bare the two faces of this college town on San Francisco Bay -- the world-class university and multimillion-dollar hillside homes with sweeping views versus the poor and working-class bungalows and apartments of the flatlands.

Christopher Wootton, 21, an engineering student who was weeks from graduation, was supposed to spend Saturday with two of his closest friends, buying tickets for a summertime trip to Europe. Andrew Thomas Hoeft-Edenfield, 20, had planned to go car shopping with his dad.

Instead, Hoeft-Edenfield was arrested Saturday in connection with Wootton's death during an altercation under the broad trees of the university's fraternity row, and taken to Berkeley City Jail.

The victim, who lived in the Sigma Pi fraternity house at the base of the Berkeley hills, was about to graduate from one of the nation's top universities, and had his pick of full scholarships to pursue a master's degree in nuclear engineering.

His alleged assailant lived in a nondescript apartment with his divorced mother in the city's less affluent flatlands and attended Berkeley City College. His father said he had warned the young man to be wary of fraternity row, because of the availability of alcohol and the possibility of trouble.

For years, young people from the Berkeley flats and nearby Oakland have been drawn to the party scene of fraternity row, only to be rebuffed, setting up potential conflicts.

"Fraternities look down their noses at anyone from the flatlands," William Edenfield said in a Sunday afternoon interview outside his son's apartment building. "Lots of questions need answering. This is incomprehensible. I thought we were going car hunting Saturday morning. And instead I get a call from jail."

Still unclear Sunday was what exactly happened in Saturday's early hours, when Wootton was fatally stabbed in the chest with a knife in a sorority parking lot just blocks from campus.

According to a brief police statement, "Witnesses said that the suspect and victim were part of a larger group that was involved in a verbal exchange that quickly escalated to a physical fight. During the fight, the suspect stabbed Wootton, then fled. . . . He tossed a bloody knife that was later discovered by officers."

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said in a statement Saturday that "the Berkeley Police Department announced that it had a suspect in custody who had confessed to the killing," and that the campus police were aiding local authorities.

Police met with the victim's family Sunday, but did not return repeated telephone calls from Times reporters.

But competing versions of the incident came to light Sunday. Wootton's fraternity brothers and friends said members of his and a neighboring fraternity had been trading good-natured gibes along Warring Street in the early-morning hours after a party.

Hoeft-Edenfield and a few friends came along looking for a fight, they said. Words were exchanged. A knife and a rum bottle were brandished by the suspect and his friends, they said.

"Chris tried to calm them and got stabbed," said a tearful Steven Wulfsberg, 22, a close friend of Wootton's who was visiting from UC Santa Barbara. "I never experienced loss before. This is the first time. It is senseless. Who carries a knife?"

According to Edenfield, his son did that night. The young man had earned merit badges as a Boy Scout for the safe handling of knives and firearms. He had graduated from Berkeley High School, played football at a former high school in Alameda and was "trying to put his life together," his father said.

Hoeft-Edenfield didn't have an arrest record, wasn't a truant and didn't do drugs, Edenfield said. The only blot on his record was a traffic accident a year ago. He had a job, was attending city college and was looking for a car. "All was right in the world with him," his father said.

On Friday night, Edenfield said, he and his son had gone on an unsuccessful car-shopping trip, after which the young man hooked up with some friends and went to a party near Wootton's fraternity. They were returning to their car when angry words were exchanged with a group of fraternity members near Wootton's frat house, Edenfield said.

"There was a fight, and they were trying to get away," Edenfield said, recounting his son's version of the altercation. Hoeft-Edenfield and his friends "wanted to leave, and the frat people were pursuing them. . . . It is really sad.

"According to Andrew, he didn't know the kid's name and had never seen him," Edenfield said, adding that his son told him that although he was trying to evade his attackers, "they kept coming. He ended up getting stomped."

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