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Requiem for a street person

Funeral for a man who was set on fire draws an impassioned crowd.

October 19, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Some pulled up in SUVs, others came pushing shopping carts containing all their worldly possessions.

But all of the more than 300 people who filled a Los Angeles church chapel Saturday to memorialize John Robert McGraham were puzzling over the same question: Why would anyone douse a homeless man with gasoline and burn him to death?

"John's life and death gives us a picture of how people in this life treat other people," said Rev. Frank M. Alton, pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard, where McGraham's funeral service was conducted in English and Spanish. "The institutions of this community may have failed John. But the people of this community did not."

McGraham, 55, who once worked nearby as a bellman at the Ambassador Hotel, suffered from depression. For two decades he repeatedly spurned efforts of family members and others to remove him from the streets and obtain treatment for him.

But those living and working in the densely populated, diverse neighborhood around 3rd and Berendo streets fed him daily and provided him with clothing. When he was set afire the evening of Oct. 9, residents and shopkeepers rushed to extinguish the flames but were unable to save his life.

McGraham's brother and two sisters were emotional as they thanked those who had befriended him.

"I'll never pass through this neighborhood without remembering what wonderful, wonderful people are here," David McGraham pledged.

Said Susanne McGraham-Paisley: "In a strange kind of way his death has become a lesson for us. This will make a difference in the way I live my life."

Sharon McGraham said her brother's difficult existence in public view was "a test of people's spiritual vision."

Pianist Edward Murray played "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" as photographs of McGraham as a young child, a teenager and an adult flashed on a screen at the front of the chapel. The final picture showed him sitting on the 3rd Street sidewalk where he later would die.

A former homeless woman, Lorraine Moreland, arrived early to help seat mourners. She said she spent eight years on the streets, afraid to go to a shelter until a nun persuaded her in 1994 to give it a try.

Some in the crowd carried bouquets. Several, including homeless Michelle Ray, wore T-shirts bearing the words "Justice for John" and "John was my friend."

Ray, 54, who sleeps between a nearby restaurant and a pharmacy, was one of those who parked a shopping cart full of possessions outside the church door. She said McGraham's slaying had left her and other street people shaken.

"I'm concerned about safety. I leave it to God. I say you have to stay 'prayed up' because you never know what's going to happen," she said.

Jay Brady, a street person who, like McGraham, suffers from clinical depression, said he had written a novel called "Home Sweet Homeless." He said he intended to revise it to include a character based on McGraham.

"We're the richest country in the world. What's wrong?" asked Brady, 58.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who attended the service, said Los Angeles police have made the arrest of McGraham's killer a priority. Council members Friday authorized a $75,000 reward in the case, he said.

College student Aufshar Llamas, 19, traveled from Pico Rivera to videotape the service for the McGraham family. He said he had never met them or their brother.

Llamas said he was struck by the large turnout and the crowd's wide age range.

"You wouldn't think that a homeless man would have such an impact," Llamas said. "But he did."

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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