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Group gathers each year to memorialize their fallen friend

Almost 40 years after he was killed intruders at his parent's house, the friends and family of Norman Weitzman gather yearly to remember him.

August 18, 2009|Bob Pool

Norman Weitzman, your friends never forgot you.

Nearly 40 times since Weitzman was slain during a home-invasion robbery, his buddies have gathered to honor the memory of the vending-machine company executive who was a friend to all.

Weitzman was shot to death July 21, 1970, at his parents' home in the wealthy, gate-guarded enclave of Hidden Hills at the west end of the San Fernando Valley. Three hooded men had broken in looking for cash collected from the company's network of gum ball and peanut dispensing machines.

Weitzman's wide circle of friends were stunned by his death. Days afterward, high school buddy Ken Miller pledged that the group would remain intact. He decided he would try to round them all up for a backyard barbecue, the kind of get-together where the outgoing Weitzman would have been the life of the party.

By that first cookout's end, the sadness and tears had given way to smiles and laughter. The group pledged to do it again sometime in Norm's memory.

They've done just that every August since then.

"Norm was the leader of all of us guys," said Miller, who recently retired as head of the Los Angeles Dodgers' radio network. He was presiding over the burger grill Sunday evening in Woodland Hills as about 75 old friends and younger family members swam in the backyard pool or gathered in knots to talk.

"We were all from Fairfax or L.A. High. We'd known each other from the 10th grade in the late 1940s on. We referred to Norm as the Jewish Jack Kennedy. We revered him," Miller said.

On the patio, Ernie Skolnik, a retired architect and developer from Palm Desert, described Weitzman as "the smartest guy I ever knew, hands down."

Over by the pool, Bob Rosenbloom recalled Weitzman's killing as "one of the saddest days of my life -- I can remember it like it was yesterday."

Norman Weitzman died trying to protect his family. His parents were severely injured by the intruders. His father, Sam, 60, was shot in the neck, rolled up in a carpet and left for dead. Lillian, his 59-year-old mother, was badly pistol-whipped.

No one looks forward to the annual party more than Weitzman's son, 48-year-old David, and his sister Leanne Weitzman Helfman, 54. A third son, Gary Weitzman, 55, lives in Laguna Nigel.

"This group of people have kept us going," said David Weitzman, now an attorney who lives in Oak Park in eastern Ventura County. "The hardest thing in my life has been dealing with the death of our father."

David Weitzman was 9 and his family was at Lake Arrowhead when word of the killing was received. His father had decided to stay the night with his parents after a business meeting went late.

His grandparents survived their injuries and lived into the 1990s, as did Weitzman's widow. But none of them ever spoke of that night or its aftermath.

"We didn't talk about it. There was no therapy for any of us. We just dealt with it on our own," David Weitzman said. Years later, he would turn to a psychologist for help in dealing with the tragedy.

"The murder was a big deal in the West Valley," said Helfman, who was 15 at the time. "It was just a year after the Manson family murders. Our grandparents never went back to the Hidden Hills house."

Fifteen months after the home invasion, Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators arrested two men on suspicion of killing Weitzman and identified a third suspect. Two trials resulted in hung juries. A third ended with the acquittal of the first suspect to be tried.

After that, charges against the second suspect were not pursued. The third suspect subsequently died while in federal prison for another crime without facing charges in Weitzman's death.

Thirty-nine years later, the case is no longer being investigated since authorities feel the perpetrators were identified, said Det. Jim Gates of the sheriff's homicide bureau. But "we're still open to new evidence" that could lead to new charges against the second suspect, he said.

David Weitzman said his torment about the homicide led him eight years ago to meet with a retired sheriff's homicide detective who initially investigated the home invasion and shootings.

He said the detective related how one of the suspects apparently learned of the family vending machine business through someone who worked in the beauty salon where Lillian Weitzman had her hair done. The robbers had apparently bypassed Hidden Hills' gate guards by hiking in the darkness over a hill from nearby Valley Circle Drive. They probably were looking for what they assumed would be a safe full of vending machine money when they awakened the elder Weitzmans. Norman Weitzman heard the disturbance and rushed to his parents' aid, the retired detective related.

The killers fled empty-handed. It turned out there was no safe in the house. But behind them they left heartache that 39 years later Norman Weitzman's friends are still helping to heal.

Mitchell Gold, a retired attorney who lives in Westwood, said the annual August barbecues strengthen the original group's memories and have introduced two new generations to the legacy of Norman Weitzman.

"Norm is still in our minds constantly," he said. "I wonder what our lives would be like now if he were here. Would I be playing golf with him?"

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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