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Double-slaying continues to haunt a Vernon lumberyard

Two men were fatally shot May 18 at Bohnhoff Lumber Co. The business treated its workers like family. Now one of their own is suspected in the killings.

October 07, 2009|Hector Becerra

From their perch on a forklift, two men wave their arms and call out to Charlie Bohnhoff as he walks into the lumberyard his family has owned for nearly a century.

Getting his attention, the two workers greet their boss with a military salute. Bohnhoff, returning from a delivery, smiles in fake exasperation and yells: "That's it. You guys are out of here!"

On the surface at least, Bohnhoff Lumber Co. in Vernon is returning to normal. The floral memorials are gone. The letters and condolence cards have stopped pouring in. The awkward phone calls from customers asking for people no longer there have ceased.

But as Bohnhoff, 79, walks into the office, he passes a reminder: A picture of a middle-aged man, smiling genially, his hands locked behind his head as he leans back in a chair.

Charles "Alan" Bohnhoff. October 29, 1953-May 18, 2009, the inscription reads.

On May 18, gunshots echoed, people ran and bodies fell at the lumber company that Bohnhoff's grandfather, C.W. Bohnhoff, a German immigrant, founded in 1910. The gunman killed the yard's foreman, Marine veteran Jaime Sanchez, 31, and Bohnhoff's son Alan, 55.

The alleged assailant, Saul Moreno, was an employee who seemed to love Charlie Bohnhoff like a father and who, by all accounts, Bohnhoff had treated like a member of the family. Moreno, 51, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

The elder Bohnhoff tries to keep his mind off what happened that day. Working with his hands, lifting and loading lumber, taking long road trips to make deliveries -- all this helps distract him from gnawing questions: Why here? Were there signs he missed? Could he have prevented it?

Situated amid a warren of factories and warehouses on 26th Street, hard against the Hobart rail yard in Vernon, Bohnhoff Lumber Co. is known for selling lumber from all over the world -- Africa, Asia, South America.

A woodworker's heaven, it has been called.

Employees are treated like family. Workers who retired long ago often come in to help, or just hang out. Like his father and grandfather, Charlie Bohnhoff helped pay for funerals or lent employees money for emergencies, always trusting them to pay him back when they could.

He called everyone "buddy" and seemed more concerned about their problems than his own.

Employees said they couldn't remember Charlie or Alan ever yelling at anyone. That wasn't the Bohnhoff way.

During the Depression, C.W. and his son Clarence Carl Bohnhoff kept the lumberyard afloat without laying anyone off. It has been the same during the current economic downturn, a point of pride for the family.

Charlie went to work for the family business in 1949, between high school and a stint in the Navy. In 1964, the lumberyard was destroyed in a fire. Rival lumberyards pitched in with equipment, lumber and office space.

Many of their owners had gotten their start with the Bohnhoffs and were repaying their kindness.

Like his father, Alan Bohnhoff joined the business straight out of high school, sweeping the yard and driving. He had an even keel and shared with his father a love of the outdoors and hot rods, and an enduring patience.

"Alan never yelled at you. He always kept cool," said worker Jimmy Contreras, 28. "He treated us with respect. That's one of the things we loved about him."

Charlie never worried about what would happen to the business after he died. His son would take over.

Over the years, Bohnhoff Lumber took on a quirky vibe. Dick Bubier, 73, was among a handful of retired lumbermen who spent their time there. One day, as he worked the table saw, he felt something land on his back.

It was a green parrot, famished and thirsty. It became a company pet, just like Elsie, the short-legged Corgi mix that walked in from the industrial neighborhood. And Chief, the black and white cat that Alan had rescued as a kitten.

"Just about everything here is rescued," Bubier said.

Saul Moreno was a certified lumber grader with more than 30 years' experience and a knack for quickly measuring pieces of lumber. Charlie Bohnhoff met him at a yard in Orange County and hired him about six years ago.

Moreno could be solemn and distant, but employees said he spoke of the elder Bohnhoff with affection. Bohnhoff would include Moreno in trips to Angels games. When Moreno said he wanted to learn about Christ, Bohnhoff, a devout Lutheran, gave him a King James Bible.

"I treated him very well," Bohnhoff said. "I think he wished I was his father."

Moreno's wife, Dolores, said her husband of more than 30 years had endured a string of heartbreaks. Nine years ago, she said, their 17-year-old daughter died from a brain tumor. More recently, she said, her husband lost his mother in Mexico and a brother-in-law.

On both occasions, Charlie Bohnhoff said, he lent Moreno money for the funerals. He also lent Moreno $1,700 to buy a used Cadillac.

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