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Fatal stabbing a reminder of gussied-up Tinseltown's darker past

The death of 23-year-old Christine Calderon stunned the tourist district and prompted L.A.'s police chief and mayor-elect to call for increased patrols.

June 21, 2013|By Marisa Gerber, Andrew Blankstein and Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times
  • Pedestrians walk along Hollywood Boulevard in the famed tourist district, where the fatal stabbing of a 23-year-old woman has prompted Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti to call for increased patrols.
Pedestrians walk along Hollywood Boulevard in the famed tourist district,… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue offers a picture postcard view of the new, revitalized Tinseltown.

The boulevard is jammed with tourists, the streets lined with tour buses. Street performers dressed in colorful costumes entertain and panhandle on the sidewalk in front of chain stores such as Forever 21, Sephora, the Hard Rock Cafe and Express. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel films his late-night show across the street.

But this week, Hollywood got a stark reminder that for all the upscale development and trendy venues, the district hasn't fully shaken off its darker past. On Tuesday, in front of the American Eagle clothing store, a 23-year-old woman collapsed after being fatally stabbed. Police arrested a transient who had allegedly demanded $1 from her after she took his photo.

The death of Christine Calderon left the Hollywood tourist district stunned and on Friday prompted Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti to call for increased patrols, including by horse-mounted units.

We "don't want to lose any of the ground that's been gained in Hollywood," Beck said. "What we don't want is for this tragedy to go unrecognized."

Hollywood's transformation over the last decade or so has been dramatic. The once-glamorous district had been in steep decline for decades, bottoming out in the 1990s when crime reached new highs and many of the old theaters that once dominated the boulevard closed down.

The Hollywood & Highland complex where Calderon was found stabbed — an imposing shopping center that includes the theater where the Oscars take place each year — was the first of several mega-developments that transformed the area. The most recent is the luxury W Hotel development at the iconic corner of Hollywood and Vine.

These days, tourists dominate during the day. After the sun sets, Hollywood's nightclub scene kicks into high gear.

Few argue with how much Hollywood has changed. But those who live and work in the area said there are gritty remnants, with a sizable homeless population and plenty of opportunities for petty crime.

Despite its makeover, crime remains a daily occurrence in Hollywood, according to a Times analysis. Recent weeks show no unusual increases, but thefts are common in high-traffic areas and more than 300 major violent crimes were reported in the neighborhood over the last six months.

Adjusted for population, its violent crime rate ranked 30th and its property crime rate 33rd among more than 200 neighborhoods policed by the LAPD or the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

"You get some of everything here," said Dylan Watson, assistant manager of the American Eagle store at Hollywood & Highland. "Nothing is really surprising."

It's not uncommon, he said, for someone to approach him during a smoke break outside of the store and ask for cigarettes. If he refuses, he said, the response is often aggression.

"They always seem like they want to fight," he said. "Some of them are clearly crazy."

Officials in Hollywood said that they were discussing the need for a crackdown — especially on aggressive panhandlers — long before Calderon's death.

Garcetti, who represents part of Hollywood on the City Council, said some of the panhandling is more like extortion. In some cases, people hand out CDs and then demand money. Performers pose with tourists and do the same.

"I'll be damned if we're going to go back to where we were a decade and a half ago in Hollywood," he said in an interview Friday. "I want to have regular prosecutions that will send a clear signal."

Kerry Morrison, the head of the business improvement district in Hollywood, said one of the biggest concerns is aggressive panhandlers and some of the costumed characters. In the past, some of the actors have gotten into physical altercations with passersby.

Authorities said Calderon was strolling down the Walk of Fame with a co-worker at 8 p.m. Tuesday. She pulled out her cellphone to snap a picture of three transients displaying signs asking for money with four-letter insults and a smiley face.

Moments later, according to a law enforcement source, one of the men demanded she pay a dollar for the picture. When she refused, police say, two of the men allegedly pinned Calderon's co-worker against a wall. The third man, Dustin James Kinnear, 26, allegedly jumped on Calderon and fatally stabbed her.

A law enforcement source said Friday that Kinnear had been arrested about three dozen times over the last six years and was the target of a stay-away order at the W Hotel. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.

Morrison said Kinnear was also well-known to Hollywood officials. "He was not friendly. He was known in Hollywood," she said.

Kinnear has pleaded not guilty to one count of murder. Neither he nor his attorney could be reached for comment.

In an interview Friday, Beck said he had discussed the situation along Hollywood Boulevard with Garcetti and incoming City Atty. Mike Feuer. In addition to adding more police, Beck said there has been some discussion about how to better deal with the aggressive panhandling.

"The whole area has changed for the better, but all of that can be in jeopardy if you don't remain vigilant and set strong standards for behavior," Beck said.

Leron Gubler, president and chief executive of Hollywood's Chamber of Commerce, said Calderon's death needs to be a call for action.

"This is ground zero for L.A., not just for Hollywood," he said.

Times staff writers Richard Winton and David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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