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The forgotten victim from Florence and Normandie

Fidel Lopez's skull was smashed that fateful day in 1992. Yet it was Reginald Denny, beaten just minutes before, who entered the collective consciousness.

May 06, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Fidel Lopez, who 20 years ago was savagely beaten at Florence and Normandie avenues shortly after the infamous assault on truck driver Reginald Denny, plays with granddaughers Rachael, 2, and Summer, 4, outside his Torrance home. The Rev. Bennie Newton appeared on the hellish scene like an angel, raising a Bible and warning the rioters who attacked Lopez: "Kill him, and you have to kill me too."
Fidel Lopez, who 20 years ago was savagely beaten at Florence and Normandie… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

When I knocked on a door in Torrance on Tuesday afternoon, I had just about given up on finding Fidel Lopez.

Twenty years ago, at the corner of Florence and Normandie, the self-employed construction worker was dragged from his truck and viciously beaten just minutes after the same vengeance was served on Reginald Denny during the L.A. riots. Both assaults were captured on video that was played over and over, nauseating for the sheer brutality and the inhumane, triumphant swagger of the attackers.

Lopez was knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked. As he lay on the pavement, one man hoisted a car stereo over his head and smashed it down on Lopez's skull. Lopez was doused with gasoline, his ear was nearly severed and he was stripped and spray-painted black as he lay semi-conscious. He might well have died if not for the arrival of the Rev. Bennie Newton, who appeared on the hellish scene like an angel, raised a Bible and warned the rioters: "Kill him, and you have to kill me too."

For all that, it's Denny who remains in the collective consciousness when we think about Florence and Normandie. We know Denny was nearly killed, that his recovery was long and painful and that he has chosen to keep to himself. But with all the riot coverage lately, I wondered what had become of Fidel Lopez and why I couldn't find a single story about him after 1993. I began calling Fidel Lopezes and F. Lopezes, striking out every time.

Sandy Pina and Joe Ortiz, both of whom helped raise money for Lopez's family just after the riots, told me they had no idea where he was. Another person who helped with fundraising back then told me she thought Lopez might have died.

With help from Times researchers Robin Mayper and Kent Coloma, I got hold of some possible addresses and knocked on a door in San Pedro early Tuesday. There was no answer, and the neighbors had never heard of Fidel. I had two more addresses to try, the first in Torrance. I knocked, and a gray-haired gentleman promptly answered.

"Fidel?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"Fidel Lopez, from the riots?"

"Please come in," he said, smiling, as if he'd been waiting a long time for a visit.

Lopez, 67, was wearing an "Old Glory" T-shirt with an American flag on it, and he apologized for the mess in his living room. Because of financial problems, he told me, he's doing some work on the house in case he and his wife, Coralia, need to take in boarders.

Over the next couple of hours, Lopez filled me in on his difficult recovery and the years-long challenge of reestablishing his business. Not only was he badly injured on that day in 1992, but his truck was torched and his tools stolen by thugs who also made off with $2,000 Lopez had intended to deposit at a bank. Lopez made no appeal for sympathy as he told his story, but he still finds it unfathomable that LAPD commanders ordered officers not to intervene, leaving him and others at the mercy of mobs that pounded and plundered at will.

Lopez believes he would have been set ablaze, after being drenched with gas, if not for Newton. He and the pastor, an ex-convict whose own redemption had led him to minister to wayward souls, would later become friends.

"I even went to his church," said Lopez, who attended regularly before Newton became ill and died just a year after the riots.

Lopez's wife joined our conversation after returning from an errand. She confessed to her husband that their gas and electricity might be cut off, and she was trying to string out the deadline for a payment. Coralia, who wears the enduring trauma of the riots more visibly than her husband, was more forthcoming about Fidel's ongoing challenges than he was.

"I can't sleep close to him," Coralia said, showing me how her husband flails his arms during the nightmare that recurs all too frequently. "It's always the same. They're chasing after him."

Lopez still has a U-shaped scar and dent at the top of his forehead, his ribs still hurt from the kicks he took and he still gets the occasional dizzy spell. He said doctors long ago told him there could be permanent loss of equilibrium from the rattling of his brain.

But he was determined, after his random misfortune, to make a fresh start, as he had before. Lopez moved to the U.S. from Guatemala in 1967, after his father, a coffee grower, died of cancer in his 50s. As a boy, Fidel had known Coralia in Guatemala, and although they came to the U.S. separately, they reconnected and were married here. They became U.S. citizens and worked hard as they raised three lovely daughters: Vanessa, Melissa and Aileen. They bought a house in South L.A., and Fidel was returning home after repairs at a rental property when his truck got boxed in by rioters at Florence and Normandie.

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