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Slain WWII veteran honored in Spokane

One teen is arrested in the widower's beating death and police are searching for another. Anger and confusion roil Spokane, Wash., after the attack on elderly veteran Delbert Belton.

August 23, 2013|By Rick Rojas and Matt Hamilton

SPOKANE, Wash. — When Glenn Longstorff's mind goes back to that room at the hospital a few nights ago, he hurts for his friend, the man people around here knew as Shorty.

He thinks of the kid drafted to war at 18. The soldier shot in the leg on the beach at Okinawa, who never cared to say too much about it. The fixture around town — at the Sportsman Cafe & Lounge for coffee almost every morning, and at the Eagles Lodge on many nights.

Delbert Belton, 88, was in his car outside the lodge watering hole Wednesday night, waiting for his girlfriend to meet him to shoot some pool, when he was robbed and beaten. Hours later, he died at the hospital. Longstorff was at his friend's side.

"The way they beat him and how they beat him — it's absolutely terrible," said the 62-year-old railroad worker who had rented a room from Belton for five years. "Everybody's just appalled. Man's not supposed to kill man."

The killing of the World War II veteran has struck a nerve in Spokane, close to Washington's eastern edge, where a homegrown memorial has sprouted and grows outside the lodge and where locals gathered Friday for a memorial service.

Feelings of anger and confusion have spread far beyond this neighborhood of faded storefronts and modest homes as people struggle to make sense of the apparently random but stunning act of violence, which police say was perpetrated by two teenagers.

"People keep coming during the day, and laying more stuff," said Roger Chinn, 52, a janitor at the Eagles Lodge.

Authorities here said that Belton was assaulted after 8 p.m. Wednesday. Found by his girlfriend, he was bloodied but still responsive. She ran for help, screaming.

Spokane police confirmed Friday that a 16-year-old boy was taken into custody in the case. Officials have also identified a second suspect, also 16, who remains at large.

"We would encourage [the suspect] to surrender immediately," Spokane Police Chief Francis Staub said in a statement, adding that police would tirelessly hunt the young man down.

On Friday night, scores of people — some friends, others just from around the neighborhood — huddled in the breeze in the parking lot outside the lodge.

They belted out Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American" and a verse of "Amazing Grace." They also swayed along to country music blaring through speakers, because, they said, Shorty loved to dance.

Belton had worked for 30 years at an aluminum-manufacturing plant. He stayed busy in retirement, often stopping by the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic, where he'd chat with patients and joke with staff. According to Longstorff, he enjoyed fixing up old cars and then just giving them away.

It was the company of his friends that helped him cope with the death of his wife, Myrtle, about six years ago, said Barbara Belton, his daughter-in-law.

She has struggled to make sense of Belton's death. For one, he certainly didn't look like a man of means. His car was anything but flashy: a '94 Ford Contour. "He didn't dress fancy," she said. "Why these kids thought he had some money, I don't know."

At the Friday night memorial, people were invited to come stand by the American flag and say a few words about their friend. They stood under the inky sky, holding candles burning in paper cups. They talked about his hobbies, his personality and how much they'd miss him.

"That man did right, he did it for his country and he made an impact on a lot of lives," one man told the crowd. "God bless Shorty!"

rick.rojas@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Rojas reported from Spokane, Hamilton from Los Angeles.

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