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Cruel end for a man who asked for little

'John,' homeless and unassuming, is doused with gas and set ablaze.

October 11, 2008|Hector Becerra and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

He had called the multi-ethnic Mid-Wilshire neighborhood home for more than a decade. Sitting outside a shuttered dental office near Berendo and 3rd streets, the homeless man with the Buddha-like frame rarely asked for money. But he got it anyway.

Regulars at the California Donut shop bought him coffee and doughnuts in the mornings, a couple of Asian men took him for showers and a haircut, and poor Central American and Mexican immigrants would give him spare change or food.

"His priorities were cigarettes, Dr Pepper, hot Cheetos and, once a week, he would buy C batteries" for his radio, said Asit Bhowmick, the Bangledeshi owner of the Bengal Liquor store.

The homeless man, whom many in the neighborood knew simply as "John," never bothered anybody, said Jorge Garcia, owner of La Morenita Oaxaquena restaurant.

About 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Garcia said he was at work when a woman ran inside the restaurant, screaming for a fire extinguisher. He ran outside to find the man lying on his back in a nearby parking lot, his body still ablaze.

The man's clothes had been burned off, his face blackened and swollen, the tips of his clenched fingers sloughed off. The smell of gasoline hung in the air.

"There's no name for what they did to him," Garcia said.

Los Angeles police said that someone splashed gasoline on the man and set him on fire. No arrests have been made, and investigators are still puzzling over a motive for the grisly attack.

"This is one of the cruelest crimes you can imagine," said Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz, who oversees the LAPD's Central Bureau. "As an officer who has responded to many murders over the years, this is amongst the most horrific."

The victim has not been identified.

Capt. Dennis Cremins said police were looking for at least one man who was seen running from the scene. He was described as a Latino in his 20s, with short brown hair and a large black T-shirt. Cremins said police believe the man may have bought gasoline in the neighborhood and used it in the attack. A red plastic gas container was found at the scene.

One resident, who did not want to be identified out of fear for his safety, said he spoke to someone who reportedly saw the crime. He said he told him several young men got out of a Honda Civic, doused the man with a flammable liquid and set him on fire. Police could not confirm this account.

Residents and merchants in the working-class neighborhood knew the man either as "John" or "Grimley." They described him as a white man in his 50s, with a beard and blue eyes. He may have lived in the neighborhood for as long as 20 years.

Some heard rumors that he had once been a successful businessman.

Danette Kuoch, 29, said the man was a regular at her mother's California Donut shop at the corner of 3rd Street and New Hampshire Avenue. When he was especially dirty, he would keep his distance -- aware that his smell might be bothersome. Regulars would buy him coffee and doughnuts. "He never asked for money, but people gave him money," said Joel Sandoval, 45, a Guatemalan immigrant and a regular customer. "Poor man, may he rest in peace."

Kuoch said that two years ago, she saw a group of people stop by to visit the man. She thought it may have been his family.

"They visited for a while, then just left," she said. "They parked in the shopping center, but they didn't stop at any of the shops. It was like they specifically came to see him."

The man would have been a defenseless target, residents said. His girth limited his movement.

Dinora Morales, 30, a baker at the doughnut shop, said she was standing at the corner with her husband and friends when she heard the woman screaming Thursday night. Her voice cracking, Morales said her husband and others ran in the direction of the homeless man.

But it was too late. He was foaming at the mouth, and his body was charred. Garcia, the restaurant owner, said he sprayed the man with a fire extinguisher. A bystander threw water on him.

On Friday, some of the homeless man's belongings remained at the scene, including a bag of food from McDonald's, a yellow pear and a gray sweat shirt and shorts. A charred jacket lay on a white cardboard box nearby. "This is one of the jackets that someone used to try to put the flames out," Morales said.

An elderly woman sobbed as she walked by.

"He was Mr. John," she cried out in Spanish. "I don't even speak English, but I would say, 'Hi, Mr. John, happy today?' "

The homeless man would smile and nod, she said.

"Ah, no! God take care of him -- Mr. John," cried the woman, who out of fear did not want to give her name. "He wasn't a bother to anyone. We used to give him whatever we could, a few coins or a little bit of food."

Luis Ortega, who works in the neighborhood, looked along the street full of botanical shops, ethnic restaurants and cigar shops. He said justice would prevail.

"Karma is coming," Ortega said. "Karma is going to come and get whoever did this."

--

hector.becerra@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

Times staff writer Cara Mia Dimassa contributed to this report.

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