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STEVE LOPEZ

Pondering a brutal killing as the risk of violence rises

Lily Burk's senseless death occurs as California is cutting funding to programs that help transients, the disabled and the mentally ill, and thousands of prison inmates could potentially be released.

July 29, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

In East L.A., in the Palisades, in Watts, in Pasadena and Long Beach, if you're a parent, you tell yourself a lie.

You tell yourself that your child is safe.

No car accident will take them, no illness, no violence.

You know it's not true because the news is filled with the deaths of young people, but you close your eyes and put your faith in the percentages.

But then there's a horrible story in your own neighborhood, and it punches holes in your shield. There's the child cut down by stray bullets while walking home from school or the store. There's the careening truck that takes out a bookstore and kills a toddler and her father.

Or there's the story of Lily Burk, 17, the Los Feliz girl killed Friday while running an errand for her mother.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 31, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Steve Lopez column: The Steve Lopez column in Wednesday's Section A reported that Skid Row Housing Trust would not be able to place tenants in 74 supportive housing units scheduled to be completed in December because there is no money for the services. Tenants will in fact be moved into the apartments, but there is currently no money available for the services they will require.

Reading that story, I ached for the victim and wondered how her parents could breathe under such crushing news. I also did something a little selfish but human. I looked at the details to see if perhaps Burk was doing anything she shouldn't have been doing, or if she was in a place where she shouldn't have been. I wanted something, anything, that might reinforce the illusion that we can steer our children clear of danger.

Instead, the police account is a chilling tale of random, unpreventable violence. Police allege that on a relatively safe street near Wilshire Boulevard west of downtown, Burk was the victim of an abduction and robbery attempt by a transient and former prison inmate -- Charles Samuel. She was later found dead in her car on the edge of skid row.

We don't know Samuel's full story yet -- whether he is in fact the killer and what he was doing back on the streets. We do know that he had a lot of arrests, that he was in and out of prison and was recently in a residential treatment program for drug abuse. We do know that after Burk was killed, her head beaten and her neck slashed, Samuel was picked up by police on skid row. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, he was drinking beer and had a crack pipe. He also had Burk's cellphone and a key to her car.

So there it is, the brief narrative of a nightmare. You're left cold, sad, angry, and as you try to find any sense or meaning in it, you end up flailing.

Maybe we should build bigger prisons.

Maybe we should raise our children in a bubble.

Maybe we should move to a safer place.

None of that's realistic, though, and none of it could bring the security we know is beyond our reach. You have to remind yourself that this crime was an anomaly, and that the job of parents isn't to shield their children but to encourage their curiosity and independence.

It's worth noting that Lily Burk believed she could make a difference in the world, having volunteered at a downtown harm-reduction and rehabilitation agency where her mother had served as a board member.

"She was following in her mother's footsteps," said Mark Casanova, director of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles.

Casanova's agency tries to reel in and help those who are physically or mentally ill, addicted, broke or all of the above. Having done that kind of work, Lily Burk would have learned that not everyone can be saved, but that most transients in the area where she was killed are sick or destitute rather than sociopathic. She also would have learned there are some genuinely dangerous people out there.

Casanova's agency, by the way, and countless others are being hammered by a combination of budget cuts and dwindling private donations at a time when demand for their services is growing. There's also the possibility the state will release 27,000 prison inmates to help balance the budget, even as the programs that might keep them out of trouble go begging.

In other words, as we cast about in the aftermath of a senseless killing for ways to make us feel safer, we're instead raising the level of risk.

"We're just completely dismantling the social safety net," said Molly Rysman of the Skid Row Housing Trust, which is about to complete 74 supportive housing units that will remain empty.

Why? There's no money for the supportive services.

Project 50, an L.A. County-initiated program, found the sickest and most frequently arrested people on skid row and brought them in off the street. They were given apartments and the support they need to quit churning through hospitals, courts and jails at great public expense. The program has been extremely successful and could save money as participants become more self-sufficient, yet a proposal to increase the number of participants to 500 has hit a wall because foot-dragging county supervisors won't fund an expansion without further study.

"We're talking about . . . budgetary considerations that cut from programs in the immediate but wind up costing society so much more in the long run," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, just back in L.A. after working to close a $26-billion budget gap.

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