LA Times

Monday, October 30, 2000

Despite Many Precautions, Party Ended in Tragedy
Shooting: Security was hired, neighbors informed of event. Yet police responding to complaint kill a guest.


     The Halloween party's hosts hired security and shuttle buses to ferry guests up and down the winding canyon roads that led to the house known as the Castle. They even planned to move the festivities to an artist's loft after midnight to minimize late-night noise.

     But the sequence of events that unfolded early Saturday morning after a neighbor's complaint call rendered all of those precautions tragically meaningless.

 When two police officers walked around the side of the Benedict Canyon mansion, one of them looked through a window and fired several shots at a guest he thought was armed with a pistol.

   On Sunday, friends and relatives mourned the death of Anthony Dwain Lee, questioning whether the actor even saw police out the window and saying the toy gun he turned out to be carrying was part of a costume he regularly donned.

     They described the 39-year-old actor as making steady strides in a career that he began pursuing 20 years ago as a path away from gang violence.

     Poised on the cusp of what fellow actors said were bigger things, Lee had a recurring role in the TV series "Brooklyn South" as a minister objecting to police abuse. Friend said he was a devout Buddhist and the antithesis of violence.

     As a fuller portrait of Lee emerged Sunday, more mysteries than answers remained about his death.

     Neighbors of the five-story mansion where Lee was killed said they were puzzled why anyone called police to complain about what they said was an orderly gathering of 100 to 200 that was breaking up at 1 a.m. Saturday, and that they were appalled at the tactics of the police once they arrived.

     "It's a nuisance call," said Nancy Clement, who lives across the street. "It's about noise," not a robbery or a domestic problem where police would have reason to suspect violence.

     Police refused Sunday to expand on their statements that Lee's death was tragic but justified, saying he was shot to death by a three-year veteran, Officer Tarriel Hopper, 27, who feared for his life because he believed Lee was pointing a pistol at him.

     The coroner's office would only say Sunday that Lee had died of multiple gunshot wounds.

     Police said Hopper and his partner had gone around the side of the house to look for its owner when they spotted Lee pointing a gun at them through a window.

   The house's absentee owner and builder, Warren Lipson, wondered why the police had ventured behind the house: "They walked up the open driveway and passed by several kitchen windows and other large windows in the living room, all of which were full of people in costume," he said. "There were several doors they could have gone in, but they didn't do that. They continued to walk on, peering through windows."

     Neighbors had trouble understanding the decision to shoot. "The assumption that someone is pointing a loaded gun at you, at a costume party, is totally nuts to me," said Nancy Clement's husband, Dick. "How about flinging yourself below the window rather than ending someone's life?" Clement asked.

     Several friends wondered whether Lee's race played a role in his death. "He's a black man who died in a white neighborhood," said Mary Lin, one of Lee's friends. The officer who killed Lee was also black.

     Steve Sims, a nurse attending the party who tried to save Lee's life, recalled that Hopper was distraught after shooting Lee, asking repeatedly as they waited for an ambulance: "Why did he have to pull that gun?"

     Sims said that Hopper initially blocked his access to the room in which Lee lay but relented when Sims insisted he had to check on Lee's condition.

     Sims said he could not find a pulse.

     He saw a toy gun that looked real inches from Lee's hand, Sims said.

     Another partygoer, Erik Quisling, said that a friend on Sunday visited the scene of the shooting and found five bullet holes through the window and in a wall.

     Quisling raised questions about whether Lee could have even seen police standing in a dark area outside a brightly lighted room.

     Barbara Berkowitz, a screenwriter neighbor who attended the party, described the five young men who rented the house--known as the Castle because it resembles one--as "model citizens."

     "This is not a house that has a lot of parties; these are young adults who are extremely considerate, to a fault, and respectful," said Berkowitz, who described the party as being well in hand when she left soon after midnight.

     Berkowitz and other neighbors said the men went door to door to tell residents they were having a party, promising to try to keep the noise and traffic to a minimum.

     Mitch Hagerman, who attended the party and whose brother is one of the housemates, said the planning had been "well organized, really responsible, with shuttles, taxis, a rented loft so people would be out before midnight."

     The party-throwers also offered to put some neighbors up in hotel rooms to make sure they weren't bothered by noise, according to one neighbor, Drew Snyder.

     Friends described Lee as a serious actor with an interest in helping youngsters find alternatives to criminal activities through Buddhist practices.

     "He was what we call in Buddhism a bodhisattva, a person whose life is devoted to serving others," said grief-stricken friend Mitch Hale.

     Hale said that Lee chanted morning and evening at his Van Nuys garden apartment and was active as a men's and youth leader at a Buddhist community center in North Hollywood.

     Annie Esty, a former girlfriend, neighbor and one of many people he introduced to Buddhism, wept as she read from a pamphlet he had given her: "It is the promise of . . . Buddhism that we can attain a state of freedom and unshakable happiness for ourselves while creating harmony with others."

     Born in Redding, in Northern California, and raised in Sacramento, Lee had a troubled adolescence.

     His sister, Tina Vogt, said Lee was enterprising enough to get other students to deliver him his homework and smart enough to get A's even though he seldom attended classes.

     "I was his biggest fan," said Vogt, who works as a civilian assistant to the Sacramento chief of police. "To be really honest, there's no way to really understand it."

     Hale portrayed Lee's youth in harsher terms. "He was a gangster in his adolescence," Hale said Lee had told him. "He was stabbed in a street fight. His mother wanted to get him off the streets and enrolled him in an acting class."

     He eventually moved to Oregon, then to Seattle, where he became one of the top actors in a thriving theater scene, said friend and fellow actor John DiFusco.

     Lee understudied for the lead role in "Two Trains Running," and acted in "Raisin in the Sun." "Anthony did not have to look for work as an actor in Seattle. It looked for him," said Hale, who met him there.

     He moved to Los Angeles to play the part of a former slave serving as a U.S. Cavalry scout in the play "Buffalo Soldier." A Times review called the cast "uniformly superlative" and, Hale, said, Lee's performance won him the Los Angeles Weekly best actor award that year. It also won him the interest of a manager and launched him into television and movie work.

     Among his credits, friends said, were an appearance as a paraplegic criminal in the film "American Strays," a role in several episodes of the cable television series "Any Day Now," and a small part in the Jim Carrey hit movie "Liar Liar." Lee played a lawyer who would not lie. He recently taped several guest appearances that have not yet aired of the television show "ER."

     Friends are planning a vigil at 7 p.m. today outside the West Los Angeles police station where Hopper is assigned.

     They said they will remember a man who had a towering presence, both physically and spiritually. Lee stood 6 feet, 4 inches and radiated charm, energy and an expansive love for the people around him, they said, so much so that one friend said 20 others probably considered him their best friend.

     "He was the biggest person I had ever met," said his former wife, Serena Scholl of Sherman Oaks, who was married to Lee for almost eight years, divorcing in 1996. "He had a personality the size of the Taj Mahal."

Tuesday, October 31, 2000

LA Times

Fake Gun Held by Victim Falls Under Replica Laws
Safety: Actor killed by an officer should not have had the realistic copy off a set, union official says.

By SUE FOX, JAMES BATES, Times Staff Writers

     The fake gun held by Anthony Dwain Lee was an exact black rubber copy, the kind allowed on movie and TV sets but illegal to sell or brandish in a threatening manner under local and state laws.
     In 1987, Los Angeles became the first major U.S. city to outlaw the manufacture and sale of realistic toy guns after KNBC-TV consumer reporter David Horowitz was held hostage on the air by a man wielding a toy pistol.
     Since then, a succession of municipal, state and federal laws have increasingly restricted the sale of realistic fake guns, reserving them for ceremonial and theatrical use. The laws were prompted by the shootings of children and other innocent people by police officers who mistook toys for real weapons.
     A study conducted this year by the state Assembly Committee on Public Safety found at least five cases of children or teenagers in California who were shot in such situations by police since 1988. Three died.
     Federal and state laws require that toy guns feature brightly colored markings to distinguish them from real weapons.
     This year, California lawmakers approved a stricter measure mandating that "imitation firearms" made or sold in the state be entirely bright orange or green. The new law, which will take effect in January, exempts imitation firearms used in theatrical productions.
     Although it's against state law to use a fake gun in a threatening way--such as pointing it at someone--it is not illegal to carry one, an LAPD spokesperson said.
     Los Angeles police said Tuesday they were still unsure how Lee obtained the fake gun. A friend, Mitch Hale, said it was a stage prop. But even within the theatrical community, the rental and use of deadly looking fake guns are tightly controlled.
     There are only a handful of local companies that rent prop guns, and executives in the industry said people not involved in theatrical production cannot rent them. When the guns are not in use, they are supposed to be kept secured.
     Wally Keske, secretary-treasurer of Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, which includes prop masters, said Lee should not have had a prop gun off the set. "It should be controlled by the property master," he said.
     A spokesman for Independent Studio Services in Sun Valley said that all prop gun renters have to show proof that they are working for a production company. "We verify who they are and who their bank is before we turn this stuff over," said the prop shop owner.
     Rental shops usually stock hundreds of guns. Some are real, modified to shoot blanks. Others are replicas, which are metal or plastic. Others are rubber, used mostly for stunt work.
     Prop houses get their guns from a variety of sources, including firearm manufacturers and gun dealers, as well as replica gun makers, mostly in Japan and China.
     Times staff writers Claudia Eller and Carla Hall contributed to this story.

Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Cochran Plans Suit in Police Slaying of Actor
Death: He calls shooting reckless. LAPD officials say witnesses confirm that victim pointed fake gun at officer.

By JOSH MEYER, Times Staff Writer

     Actor Anthony Dwain Lee and others were laughing at a joke near the end of a Halloween party when a police officer shined his flashlight at them through a glass door and fired nine shots as Lee turned toward the light, holding a fake gun, lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said Tuesday, based on witness interviews.
     Cochran said Los Angeles Police Officer Tarriel Hopper acted recklessly in the fatal shooting of Lee, and announced Tuesday that he was representing Lee's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the department.
     Cochran said he based his allegations on extensive interviews with two men who saw the shooting. Both were standing next to Lee in the small ground-floor bedroom of the Benedict Canyon mansion just after 1 a.m. Saturday when Officer Hopper came around the back of the house and looked in on them through a door with glass windows, Cochran said.
     Hopper, 27, who has been an LAPD officer for three years, told authorities he saw Lee pointing what appeared to be a semiautomatic handgun at him, and shot the 39-year-old actor out of fear for his life.
     On Tuesday, police officials said investigators have interviewed several partygoers who corroborated Hopper's contention that Lee was pointing a gun at the officer.
     LAPD officials declined to respond to Cochran's allegations that Hopper was acting recklessly or that he helped to precipitate the shooting, saying it was too early in the investigation. But officials did not contradict Cochran's description of Hopper's actions preceding the shooting.
     Cochran said the witnesses, whom he declined to identify or make available, told his legal investigator that they were laughing and joking with Lee when they suddenly saw a blinding beam of light coming from outside the house.
     Along with Lee, they turned toward the light to see who was pointing the flashlight at them. One witness heard Lee say, "Hey, what's up?" right before gunfire punctured the glass and struck Lee, who slumped to the floor, Cochran said.
     "You shine a light and when people turn, you start firing. That's what happened," Cochran said, describing Hopper's actions. "These other people are blessed. With nine shots being fired, they're blessed all of them weren't killed."
     "I'm not saying this [officer] went there to kill someone," Cochran added. But, he said, "This is certainly a case of gross negligence."
     Since the weekend shooting, LAPD officials have disclosed few details. They have said Lee was aiming an exact replica of a Desert Eagle semiautomatic .357 magnum at Hopper when he was killed.
     LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish confirmed that Hopper was using a flashlight--as all officers do when patrolling at night--in the moments before the shooting. He said he couldn't comment on whether any witnesses told police the flashlight beam might have prompted Lee to make a sudden movement.
     "The bottom line is the individual pointed a gun at the officer. Whether he did because he saw a flashlight or not, we may never know," said Kalish, commanding officer of LAPD's West Bureau, which patrols the Benedict Canyon neighborhood.
     "Any time there is an event and there are different witnesses there are different perceptions of the events that occurred," said Kalish.
     Cmdr. Sharon Papa, an LAPD spokeswoman, said she hoped the witnesses cited by Cochran "are telling the same thing to our investigators, because the goal of our department and Mr. Cochran is the same, to find out what happened."
     Legal observers said that Cochran's involvement in the case--and his plans to sue--raise the stakes in the unfolding controversy.
     Cochran and the LAPD have clashed in a number of high-profile cases, most recently during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, when the veteran trial lawyer helped to shred the reputation of the department's homicide detectives and its crime lab.
     Cochran said he was called into this case by Lee's sister, Tina Lee-Vogt. Lee's relatives "feel this should not have happened," Cochran said. "Most people feel this should not have happened." After conducting a preliminary inquiry, Cochran said, he agreed.
     The veteran trial lawyer, who recently battled the New York Police Department in the Abner Louima case, said he expects to once again shine a national spotlight on the LAPD.
     This time, Cochran said, he expects to examine the training and tactics of Hopper and all LAPD officers, saying Hopper's actions on the night of the shooting helped propel him into the fatal shooting.
     At an afternoon news conference, Cochran said Hopper and his partner, Officer Natalie Humphreys, were brought into the house shortly before 1 a.m. Saturday by a security guard who told them to wait in the kitchen while he retrieved the party hosts.
     Humphreys stayed in the kitchen area, Cochran said, but Hopper left shortly after, going outside to the back of the house. Cochran said witnesses told his legal team that Hopper never identified himself as a police officer when he shined his flashlight into the room where Lee and the others were standing.
     Chief Bernard C. Parks said earlier this week that Hopper did not have time to give a warning or identify himself before shooting.
     Cochran said the party was winding down, and questioned why Hopper insisted on going into the backyard "on a noise complaint" when the guard was bringing the hosts to him.
     Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said Cochran's involvement brings even more pressure on the LAPD to aggressively investigate the nationally publicized case.

Slaying by Officer Is Ruled Justified

October 23, 2001

* LAPD: Board finds no fault with deadly force after man at Halloween party allegedly pointed replica gun at police.


The police shooting of an actor who allegedly pointed a replica handgun at an officer at a Halloween party last year was justified because the officer believed the gun was real and feared for his life, a Los Angeles Police Department internal review board has found.

The board recommended to Police Chief Bernard C. Parks that the shooting by Officer Tarriel Hopper be found "in policy," meaning Hopper should not be disciplined for firing the shots that killed 39-year-old Anthony Dwain Lee, according to police officials familiar with the board's findings. Lee was shot in the back as he stood with two other men in a Benedict Canyon mansion.

While the board found no fault with Hopper's use of deadly force, members recommended that the officer undergo additional training to improve his tactics, according to the police officials. Parks has since taken the case to the Los Angeles Police Commission, whose members have the final word on whether a shooting was within department rules. Parks has the options of either adopting the findings of the LAPD's Use of Force Review Board or drafting findings of his own.

LAPD and commission officials declined to comment, saying the matter remained under review. The five-member civilian panel is expected to debate the shooting, and likely issue a ruling, during a closed-door session today.

According to police, Hopper and his partner were responding to complaints about noise when they arrived at the house on Halloween night. They were walking down an exterior walkway searching for the owners of the house in the 9700 block of Yoakum Drive when Hopper shined a flashlight into a room at the rear of the house and saw Lee pointing a gun at him, police have said.

Alcohol, Cocaine in Victim's System

Hopper, a three-year officer at the time of the shooting, fired nine shots at Lee. According to an autopsy report, he hit the actor once in the back of the head and three times in the back. Tests also revealed the presence of alcohol and cocaine in Lee's system.

Parks called a news conference after the release of the autopsy report, at which he sought to reconcile Lee's wounds with the officer's account that the actor was facing him and pointing a gun at him when he fired in self-defense.

Parks said Lee may have ducked or turned as Hopper began firing. "It's clear from the angle of the shots there was movement by Mr. Lee," the chief said. Parks also cited an unnamed witness who purportedly backed Hopper's claim.

Some friends of Lee and neighbors of the party house questioned whether Hopper and his partner helped precipitate the shooting by going into the backyard instead of waiting by the front door for the hosts of the party.

Lee's sister, Tina Lee-Vogt, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Hopper and the LAPD in June, charging that Hopper's shooting was unjustified.

Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who successfully defended O.J. Simpson largely by challenging the competency and honesty of LAPD officers who investigated Simpson's ex-wife's slaying, said he plans to take on the department's handling of the Lee shooting.

Cochran said last year that he plans to scrutinize the tactics and training of Hopper, and all LAPD officers. He argued that Hopper's actions leading up to the shooting contributed to what all sides agree was a tragic outcome.

Neither Cochran nor an associate handling the case could be reached for comment Monday.

As part of their review of the shooting, LAPD officials hired an expert to create a computer reenactment of the incident based on the physical evidence. That reenactment supported the officer's version, police said.

Poor Communication Between Officers

The Use of Force Review Board, comprising several command staff members and an officer of Hopper's rank, expressed concern that there was poor communication between Hopper and his partner during the incident. The board members also noted that the officers' radios did not function properly because they were in a so-called "dead zone," according to police officials familiar with the board's review.

The city attorney's office, which is defending the department and Hopper in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Lee's family, commissioned a ballistics expert to review the evidence. That expert also concluded that the evidence supported the officer's version.

Deputy City Atty. Cory Brente said Hopper's actions were "lawful and reasonable." The fact that it was later determined that Lee was armed with a foam rubber replica handgun apparently used as a movie prop does not change the fact that Hopper's actions were reasonable, Brente said.

Brente said he has interviewed several of the witnesses and none has contradicted Hopper's account of the shooting.

October 24, 2001

LA Times
2nd Panel Says Police Slaying Was Justified

* Probe: Commission votes 4 to 1 that the officer had reason to fear for his life when actor brandished what turned out to be a replica gun.


In a split vote, the Los Angeles Police Commission ruled Tuesday that a police officer justifiably used deadly force last year when he fatally shot an actor who allegedly pointed a rubber replica handgun at him during a Halloween costume party.

The five-member civilian panel voted 4 to 1 to find the shooting of actor Anthony Dwain Lee by Officer Tarriel Hopper "in policy." The commission voted 3 to 2 that Hopper should undergo additional training to improve his tactics, but determined that he should not be disciplined over the shooting.

Commissioner Rose Ochi cast the sole vote against finding that the officer's use of force was within department rules. Ochi declined to publicly discuss the reasons why she dissented, a commission spokeswoman said. Lee was shot once in the back of the head and three times in the back as he stood with two men in a Benedict Canyon mansion. Hopper, who was investigating a noise complaint at the party, said he shot Lee because he feared for his life when the 39-year-old actor pointed what turned out to be a fake gun at him.

In a five-page report submitted to the commission, Chief Bernard C. Parks provided the most detailed public account to date of the night's events. According to the report, as Hopper searched for the owners of the home to contact them about the noise complaint, he shined his flashlight into a back bedroom of the home, where Lee and two men were standing.

"Officer Hopper observed what he believed was a narcotics transaction between Lee and [another man]," the report states. The other man, according to the report, "looked in the direction of Officer Hopper and raised his hands, simultaneously stepping rearward."

At the same time, Lee turned toward the officer and pulled what appeared to be a semiautomatic pistol from his waistband and pointed it at the officer. In fear for his life, Hopper emptied his own .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol, firing nine shots at Lee from about six feet away.

According to the report, as Hopper fired, he "observed Lee continually point the [replica] gun at him." According to the chief's report, investigators found the drug Ecstasy in the palm of Lee's hand after the shooting. The report also states that two witnesses back Hopper's account, to varying degrees.

An internal review board of the LAPD concluded the shooting was justified. The commission, which has the final word on whether a police shooting is within department rules, makes three distinct findings when evaluating shootings: whether the officer used appropriate tactics during the incident; whether the officer drew his weapon at the appropriate time; and whether the officer's use of deadly force was justified.

Though the majority of the board agreed with the chief that the shooting was within department policy, Ochi and Commissioner David Cunningham III apparently had concerns. Although Cunningham voted to find Hopper's actual pulling of the trigger in policy, he sided with Ochi in concluding that Hopper's tactics were more seriously deficient than to simply require additional training. He and Ochi also did not agree with the majority that Hopper's decision to draw his firearm was in policy.

"In this case, the dissenters based their decision on a different interpretation of the facts presented," said Commission President Rick Caruso. Speaking for the majority, Caruso said the toy gun was a realistic replica of a .357 magnum semiautomatic pistol. The case boiled down to the fact that Hopper could not distinguish that the gun was not real, and therefore legitimately feared for his life and defended himself, Caruso said.

Caruso declined further comment on the case, citing a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Lee's family. Lee's sister, Tina Lee-Vogt, said she was not surprised by the results of the LAPD probe or the commission's decision.

"Anthony's body was still in the house, and their initial statement was that the officer acted appropriately--that kind of says that 'we're going to make sure the story fits,' " said Lee-Vogt, a civilian assistant to the Sacramento police chief.

Lee-Vogt said she disagreed with the LAPD's assessment of Hopper's actions.

"To me, it appears that the officer went looking for trouble and made it," she said. "I don't think Anthony knew what hit him."

Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.