A footnote in history leaves grieving family behind

May 03, 1992|By David Freed and Frederick M. Muir | David Freed and Frederick M. Muir,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Years from now, when the riots of 1992 are remembered more for their body count than the communitywide anguish they spawned, Elbert Ondra Wilkins will be but a name included among many in a death toll of record proportion.

But to those who knew and loved him, Mr. Wilkins, 33, will always be known as the proverbial innocent victim, a self-employed stereo installer who didn't have an enemy in the world but who found himself in the wrong place at the worst time.

Whether his death during the first few hours of unrest Wednesday night was truly related to the riots, who can say? Mr. Wilkins was blocks away from any pillaging when he stepped out of a store and was shot by a gunman who witnesses said was wearing white gloves in a passing red car.

It could have been one of those random things, friends and relatives speculate. Maybe Mr. Wilkins, who went by his middle name, was mistaken for someone else.

"Maybe this whole [Rodney King] thing put a little more hate in everybody's mind," said his father, Joseph Wilkins. "Hell, maybe somebody just decided, 'Now I can shoot anybody I want to shoot,' and they went out and shot my boy."

Authorities could provide no immediate answers as to motive for the slaying nor any information about the victim.

With so many killings attributed to riot-related violence, Los Angeles detectives said they were struggling just to keep track of the new cases. Investigators said chances of solving many of the crimes are remote because witnesses have scattered amid the chaos and many crime scenes have not been preserved.

The Los Angeles County coroner reported that by noon Friday riot-related killings exceeded the 34 killings recorded in the six-day-long Watts riots in 1965. On Friday alone, 12 additional bodies were brought to the coroner's morgue.

The deaths ranged from opportunistic gang slayings to police shootouts with suspected thieves and snipers.

In all, 10 people were killed in encounters with police, four were burned, one beaten, one stabbed and the rest were slain by gunshots that rang out sporadically. Most victims were black, though at least 9 were Latino, three Anglo and one Asian.

Ondra Wilkins would have never been the kind to get involved in such activities, according to his father, a retired county maintenance worker.

"I saw to that," Joseph Wilkins said. "Every time a black man gets killed, in the paper it's always 'gang-related' or 'dope-related.' Not this time. Not all the time."

On Wednesday night, as lootings and beatings raged elsewhere in South-Central Los Angeles, Ondra Wilkins stopped for a soda with two friends, Ira Collins and Johnny Ray, at a store. Mr. Wilkins had just walked out with two sodas when gunfire rang out.

"I'm hit," he shouted as he received a serious back wound that punctured a lung. Mr. Ray was less seriously wounded in the back.

Mr. Collins piled his friends into a van and raced to Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center -- but crashed into another car. Only after Mr. Collins pleaded, he said, did two Los Angeles police officers agree to drive Mr. Wilkins the rest of the way.

When Joseph Wilkins arrived at the hospital a few minutes later, he was met by a social worker.

"How is he?" the elder Wilkins asked.

"Well," the social worker said, "he's gone."

If just one police officer had been found guilty in the Rodney King beating trial, maybe none of this would have happened, Joseph Wilkins speculated, and maybe his son would be alive today.

"You try to figure out why," he said, shaking his head. "I can't."

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