A Tale of Two Deaths: University Park v. Highland Park

This morning Claudia Cabrera is due to appear at the Criminal Courts Building to set the date for a preliminary hearing regarding the hit and run accident that killed USC student Adrianna Bachan and seriously injured fellow student Marcus Garfinkle. Today's L.A. Times reports on the inevitable discrepancies separating that alleged crime and the hit and run accident that claimed the life of Agapito Gaspar Nicolas, a 55-year-old Guatemalan national and U.S. resident of Highland Park. Nicolas was fatally struck by a hit and run driver the same day as Bachan and Garfinkle; his case remains unsolved.

Somewhat melodramatically titled "For Her an Uproar, for Him a Whisper," Joel Rubin and Ari B. Bloomekatz's front-page feature contrasts the media frenzy and high-voltage political energy that led to the apparent solving of the Bachan-Garfinkle case in one week's time, with the shoebox-budget attempt of one detective to learn who may have killed Nicolas. It's a niece piece, with the best parts following Det. Michael Kaden's dogged yet fruitless efforts to piece together Nicolas' lonely death on Figueroa St.

Still, the story tends to speak in code to explain the vastly different way the two cases were handled by the media, police and city government. Instead of stating the obvious, that Bachan and Garfinkle were young and white, while Nicolas was middle-aged and Latino, the authors note that USC is "an enclave of privilege and wealth surrounded by poverty and violence," while Bachan was a "rosy-cheeked young woman with dirty-blond hair."

The accident, in fact, triggered a firestorm of posted comments to both the Times and L.A. Weekly,

with readers venting over whether race had anything to do with the

attention the USC accident got (and even whether Bachan, whose

parentage is Croatian and Cuban, could be considered white), along with

questions about whether Claudia Cabrera and her husband, Josue Luna,

are illegal aliens, the availability to illegal immigrants of fake

drivers licenses and conspiracy theories about why the media or police

weren't releasing the suspects' photos.

Still, race wasn't the

only issue to play a role in the amount of media attention the USC

crime received. It was the very setting -- that "enclave of privilege,"

along with widespread perceptions that death in the form of hit and run

accidents or driveby shootings are routine in places like Highland

Park. Nearly every recent crime that's committed around the USC campus

rates heightened media attention -- as long as it involves students.

(These, recently, have included last September's sexual assaults on and

off campus, and that month's stabbing death of a film student near

Fraternity Row.) 

Then, there are the details of the crimes

themselves. Little is known about the circumstances of Nicolas' death,

but nearly everyone in town read or heard about how a passenger in

Cabrera's car, presumably Luna, allegedly got out to roll Garfinkle's

bleeding body off the car's windshield so that the couple, with their

five-month-old baby, could continue their drive home. This cold-blooded

act came to define the accident almost as much as Bachan's death and

provoked expressions of unapologetic outrage across the city.

Marty Kaplan, who holds the Norman Lear Chair at USC's Annenberg School

for Communication, wrote an opinion piece called "The Virtue of Hate"

for the Jewish Journal

explaining that he understood the hatred of Bachan's mother, Carmen,

toward, as she called them, "the animals" who killed her daughter.

Kaplan cited biblical references to condone the hatred of enemies: "As

Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, pointed out in his 2003 essay, 'The Virtue

of Hate,' the Hebrew Bible

brims with examples of perfect, righteous hatred."


though, there is the simple sex appeal of an attractive young woman cut

down before she reached her prime. There was one photograph of Bachan

that continually appeared in the media, in which she beams at the

viewer. Bachan's innocent smile is frozen in time, like the doomed

Laura Palmer's yearbook picture in Twin Peaks. Compare that

with the weathered, gap-toothed visage of Agapito Nicolas and suddenly

there's no question about which one is going to sell newspapers, stop

channel surfing for a few moments or draw Web hits.

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