One death in the riots is a study in irony

May 04, 1992|By Roxana Kopetman and Greg Krikorian | Roxana Kopetman and Greg Krikorian,Los Angeles Times

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- If his killers had known of his anger at the system, or that he shared their outrage at the Rodney King verdict, maybe, just maybe, Matt Haines of Long Beach might not have been murdered when the rioting in that city turned its streets into battlefields.

But the white 32-year-old mechanic never had a chance to talk with his murderers. Or to tell them where he was headed -- to the home of a black friend who could not start her van.

Of all the murders that marked last week's riots, none may have been as ironic as that of Mr. Haines, who was gunned down after he was stopped by a mob of black men and teen-agers as he and his nephew, Scott Coleman, 26, rode Mr. Haines' motorcycle to the friend's apartment in Long Beach.

Mr. Haines and Mr. Coleman, family and friends say, were best friends and roommates. They were inseparable. So when Mr. Haines' friend -- a woman named Skeeter -- called for help with her van, the two set out around 6 p.m. Thursday from their apartment near the Belmont Heights area of the city.

But after they left, the rioting grew fierce in Long Beach. And the woman who had called them tried desperately to reach them by phone to tell them not to come.

What happened after that is a brutal and tragic example of how violence flared uncontrolled.

Although Mr. Coleman declined to be interviewed, his family and friends said Saturday that he told them he and Mr. Haines were enroute to the woman's apartment when they were surrounded by about 15 men and teen-agers.

"Matt told them: 'Hey, we're on your side.' But the situation got out of hand," said Katrina Haines, the dead man's 21-year-old niece.

"They didn't try to escape," she said.

Troy Sheesley, who worked with Mr. Haines as a mechanic at Long Beach Toyota, said Mr. Coleman told him that Mr. Haines pushed his nephew off the bike so he could escape. "Matt told Scott to get off and run and he would meet him at home," Mr. Sheesley said.

But in an instant, he added, several in the crowd grabbed the front wheel of the motorcycle and tipped it backward, knocking Mr. Haines and Mr. Coleman to the street.

Beaten as they lay on the ground, the two men had no chance to escape. And soon, one of the mob pulled out a gun.

"A guy put his gun up to [Mr. Haines'] helmet and shot him," said the dead man's brother-in-law, Jeff Baldwin. The gunman shot ++ Mr. Coleman three times in the arm. Then he held the gun to Mr. Coleman's face and pulled the trigger. But the gun did not fire that time.

As the crowd scattered, Mr. Coleman later said, he dragged himself over to his dying uncle but could not make out his final words.

On Saturday, Mr. Haines' friends and family could not make sense of what happened.

"We believe that these guys were acting out their rage against the injustice of the [jury] decision, and my uncle and cousin just happened to be there," said Katrina Haines. "It's not rational. It's very senseless . . . but we definitely feel it was reaction against [the] Rodney King [verdicts]."

Those verdicts, she and others said, were ones that Mr. Haines and Mr. Coleman had decried in the hours before their attack.

"If this would have been a war, they would have signed up on the side of the guys who killed them," Ms. Haines said.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Houston, Mr. Haines moved to the Los Angeles area about five years ago. Retaining a slight Texas twang, his niece said, Mr. Haines was described as a "free spirit" and a skilled mechanic who always made time to help others with their cars -- even strangers on the highway.

Late Saturday, Long Beach Detective Tim Cable said that police had arrested five people, including two teen-agers, in connection with the killing of Mr. Haines and the attempted murder of his nephew. Charges were pending.

"I'm surprised and pleased," Mr. Haines' sister said late Saturday.

Since the shooting, she said, her son has been shattered by what occurred. She said he "can't believe this has happened."

Neither could friends who remembered what Matt Haines was like.

"He helped people out," Mr. Sheesley said to Doug Griffin, another longtime friend of Haines.

"Till the last minute," Mr. Griffin replied.

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