After the riots: L.A.'s forgotten angels

Posted: Apr 26, 2002 12:00 AM
It's the 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. Everyone remembers the looting, the shooting, the beating, the chanting, the burning, and the total unraveling of the seams of a civilized society. Everyone remembers Rodney King and his rationalizers for urban "rebellion." Everyone remembers Rep. Maxine Waters spraying her rhetorical bullets of demagoguery. And everyone remembers Damian Williams, the young black thug who crushed white trucker Reginald Denny's head into a near-fatal pulp. But who remembers the heroes? One of the fearless angels who tried to lift up his fallen city was the Rev. Bennie Newton. I met him once, and I'll never forget him. Newton, himself an ex-con, ran an inner-city ministry for troubled black men. On April 29, 1992, he tuned in to the TV to see brutal animals assaulting Reginald Denny on the corner of Florence and Normandie. Newton rushed to the scene. When he arrived, Denny was gone. Four other good and humble Samaritans -- Lei Yuille, Titus Murphy, Terri Barnett and Bobby Green -- had come to Denny's aid. But a gang of young black males -- with Damian Williams still present -- was pummeling another innocent bystander. Fidel Lopez, a self-employed construction worker, had been ripped from his truck and robbed of nearly $2,000. Someone busted his forehead open with a car stereo; another rioter tried to slice his ear off. The mob stripped off Lopez's pants and underwear after he blacked out. Williams and others then spray painted the married father's chest, torso and genitals black. Newton daringly threw his body over Lopez's to stop the depravity. "Kill him and you have to kill me, too," Newton yelled while waving a Bible. The crowd dispersed. The minister prayed in the street as Lopez regained consciousness. When he could not get an ambulance, he drove Lopez to the hospital himself. I later attended a fund-raiser for Lopez; the Rev. Newton, who donated more than $3,000 from his congregation to Lopez, was there. He was an ebullient man, a man who lived the Word he preached and gave the strongest hugs to strangers. "The simplest description that I can use to describe what I've done is the word L-O-V-E," Newton later said. "It's not about being black, white, Korean or Latino." Newton, a married father of seven, died of leukemia a year after the riots. Lopez gave an emotional eulogy for the rescuer who became his close friend: "He's an example for everyone. Hopefully, we'll see each other again," he said, pointing up toward heaven. Another courageous preacher who risked his life was Wallace Tope Jr. I'll never forget him. His death was one of the first subjects I wrote about when I went to work in L.A. Tope passed away quietly in December 1993, 19 months after the riots had made headlines worldwide. The born-again Christian street evangelist had been in a coma since being beaten by a couple of Hispanic looters. Unlike Reginald Denny, Tope wasn't trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time. He deliberately chose to enter the riot zone. He wanted to save some souls. "He went up and confronted crowds of hundreds of people, spectators and looters, and started denouncing what they were doing and telling them how it was morally wrong," L.A. Police Detective Dennis Kilcoyne said at the time. "His religious beliefs were so strong, he believed that mission was his life." At a shopping mall near Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue, Tope, who was white, warned a Latino thief raiding a drugstore to repent. The man responded by punching him, chasing him down with a friend, and kicking his head for several minutes until he lapsed into bloody unconsciousness. Tope's family and friends recounted how the former engineer had given up a comfortable life to bravely smuggle Bibles into the Soviet Union and spread the Gospel in East Germany before the fall of communism. One friend, Regina Spencer Sipple, wrote: "Wally Tope wasn't a victim of the riots. Wally Tope lived what he believed and was willing to give his life for those beliefs." While L.A. self-destructed, two heroic men of faith -- one black, one white -- showed us the light of salvation. I will never forget.