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Police look for links in pot-shop killings

Owners, customers and neighbors of marijuana dispensaries are wary in the wake of two slayings.

June 26, 2010|By Joel Rubin and Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times

The killings of two pot dispensary workers just five hours and five miles apart — one shot in Echo Park, the other apparently stabbed in Hollywood — triggered a police investigation Friday to determine whether they were linked and rattled medical marijuana advocates.

Marijuana dispensary killings: A photo caption in Saturday's LATExtra section accompanying an article on the slayings of two pot dispensary workers misidentified the mother of victim Matthew Butcher as Jill. Her name is Julie Butcher. Also, the online version of the caption misstated the name of Higher Path Holistic Care Collective as Higher Patch Holistic Care.

Two senior Los Angeles Police officials who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation said Thursday's slayings appear to be unrelated. But the sheriff and district attorney said their brutality suggests the work of violent gangs.

The homicides could revive the debate over whether dispensaries make their neighborhoods unsafe, but police could recall only one other slaying at a dispensary. Thursday's killings occurred as the city is trying to shut down about 400 illegal dispensaries and exert control over approved outlets.

Police said dispensaries are lucrative targets. "They have a lot of cash," LAPD Deputy Chief David Doan said at a news conference. "That's what's attractive. Any business that does a lot of cash business has that risk."

The violence began about 4:15 p.m. at the Higher Path Holistic Care Collective on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.

Four suspects entered, ordered the two employees to lie face-down at gunpoint and ransacked the store for cash and marijuana, police sources said. Although the two did not resist, the attackers shot them, according to an account the critically wounded victim gave police.

Matthew Benjamin Butcher, 27, was killed. Julie Butcher, a regional director of the Service Employees International Union Local 721, said her son was trying to cobble together part-time jobs in a tough economy.

"He was one of the most peaceful people," she said, calling his death "totally senseless."

"He would have given them anything they wanted," she said. "There's no reason for anyone to die over marijuana."

About 9 p.m., the operator of Hollywood Holistic 2 on North El Centro Avenue off Sunset Boulevard walked in to find his employee dead. Police said the man was killed shortly before.

The victim suffered stab wounds, the police sources said, although detectives are awaiting the results of the coroner's initial investigation. Police have not released his name.

Police said crime at dispensaries does not appear to be on the rise. Citing preliminary data, Lt. Sean Malinowski said there have been 48 crimes at dispensaries so far this year. Last year at this time, he said, there were 49. In 2009, there were 115 crimes at dispensaries, mostly robberies and burglaries.

The killings rattled medical marijuana collective operators and patient advocates.

"I'm just a little bit worried that people in our community are being targeted," said Cheryl Aichele, a medical marijuana patient and advocate who organized an evening candlelight vigil outside the Higher Path.

Yamileth Bolanos, a dispensary operator and the president of the Greater Los Angeles Collectives Alliance, criticized a provision in the city's medical marijuana ordinance that will require dispensaries to have unarmed security guards. "To me, that's the scariest thing in the world," she said. "We're just sitting ducks, and everybody says that."

But Michael Backes, who runs Cornerstone Research Collective in Eagle Rock, said, "If you can't control the situation without a weapon, you're not going to be able to control it with a weapon."

Bolanos said several operators told her that business was extremely light Friday. "Everybody's scared," she said. "Every time that something bad happens, the patients pull back for a day or so."

Police detectives continue to investigate. Although it is early, investigators believe the killings are not related because of the significant differences at the crime scenes, police officials said.

No drugs or money appeared to have been taken in the attack at Hollywood Holistic 2, the sources said, leaving detectives to speculate that the killer may have panicked and fled after the slaying, or perhaps had intended to kill the man for another reason.

In both crimes, the suspects removed the surveillance videos, police said. The city's ordinance addresses that by requiring dispensaries to install Internet-based surveillance systems. The ordinance also requires dispensaries to make bank drops twice a day.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who were attending a news conference Friday to oppose the marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot, said the vicious nature of the crimes suggests they could be linked to drug gangs.

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