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Riots’ Last Victim: Street Preacher Still in Coma as Trial Nears

September 16, 1993

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Justice may work slowly sometimes, but then Wally Tope isn’t going anywhere.

The street evangelist was beaten into a coma during the riots 16 months ago. A pie chart over his bed in a San Fernando Valley convalescent home divides up his day: right side, left side, back; two hours for each position.

Tope, 54, who tried to stop people looting a Hollywood strip mall, is the last of about 1,800 riot injured still hospitalized. He’ll also be one of the last to have his story heard in court.

″Our case has just been sitting dead in the water,″ said Deputy District Attorney David Augh, who is prosecuting charges of attempted murder and aggravated mayhem against Fidel Ortiz, 21, and Leonard Sosa, 24.

They have pleaded innocent, but scheduling conflicts have stalled the trial and they remain in jail. Attorneys expect a scheduled opening Wednesday to be pushed forward to a date between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Defense attorney Marvin L. Part said he has been involved in a separate jury case, ″a two-month trial that’s now in the seventh month winding down.″ The prosecutor said it would help if Tope could talk.

″Obviously in a case like this you want to call the victim to the stand and testify,″ Augh said. ″Barring some medical miracle, based on my conversations with the doctors, Mr. Tope may remain in what they call a ‘persistent vegetative state’ for the rest of his life.″

What would Tope tell the jury? He told friends God would take care of him on April 30, 1992, when he left his office to preach to looters.

Trained as an engineer, Tope became a fundamentalist Christian in the mid-′ 60s and attended a seminary in Pasadena. He left before graduation to evangelize on his own, sometimes working with street people in rough neighborhoods.

By the second day of the riots, friends said, he was distraught at what was happening to his beloved city.

Ortiz told police that Tope confronted him and told him to repent or go to hell. There was a scuffle. Sosa, who was carrying some looted Pampers, said he jumped in to help his friend, according to police reports.

Witnesses said the two beat Tope and kicked him in the head for about three minutes. Defense attorneys acknowledged the beating, but said the two never meant to kill the preacher.

Sosa’s attorney said authorities overfiled the charges because of Tope’s condition.

″He’s not a murderer,″ Part said. ″Attempted murder in reality means you decided you were going to kill them, murder them, and you fell short of it. The facts don’t show that at all. ... They feel terrible about what happened.″

The defendants, former Dodger Stadium employees, have never been in trouble before, Part said.

Tope’s brother, David, said justice is unlikely to prevail.

″I think these guys will walk. They’re going to work the system to their benefit and do it with verbiage, do it with words ...

″I’m pretty sure they wanted to (kill) him. He can’t defend himself, and they keep working his head. How long do they have to kick him?″

Tope, whose world is the middle bed of a three-patient room, can blink his eyes or keep them open. He breathes on his own, but takes nourishment from a tube and a bottle of liquid that looks like chocolate milk.

Sometimes he seems to respond when friends say something.

″He’s been having his eyes open, without really seeing anything, so that is a slight improvement, that one thing,″ said friend John Matlock. ″But his response level, some times it’s better than others. Sometimes people are encouraged by it, but I’m not sure about that.″

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