A helicopter circled over Venice Beach, its searchlight jittering across the cobblestones of Ocean Front Walk. A woman frantically waved. She was on the phone to 911 and screaming to anyone who could hear: “Get the license plate! GET THE LICENSE PLATE!!!”
Under the pagodas, across from the Cadillac Hotel, a young man was taking his last breaths. Shakespeare, as he was known, had bullet holes in his torso and legs. He was 26 years old and homeless, and he died surrounded by other homeless people.
“I said, ‘Don’t die on me, don’t die on me,’” says Derick “Biggs” Noralez, who has lived on the beach for three years. “When the police came, my boy was dead. I had to close his eyes.”
The shooter had fired wildly into the group that camped at the pagodas, and then with deadly precision at Shakespeare. For a few moments, he lingered with the gun at his side, and then fled in an SUV.
Witnesses said the shooter was a security guard at the Cadillac, an aging four-story hotel that caters to foreign tourists. He had arrived with Sris Sinnathamby, the hotel owner, just before 2 a.m. on Aug. 30. Together they rousted a homeless man who was sleeping on the sidewalk. Shakespeare, a rapper known for his verbal skills and his sense of justice, was watching from the pagodas. He protested.
“Shakespeare is a rebel just like me,” says Ras Whitelion, a homeless man who was in the pagodas at the time. “You say something to us, we say something back.”
Now Shakespeare lay dead on the ground. The shooter was gone, Sinnathamby was left behind, and the crowd was angry. Noralez, a large man, grabbed Sinnathamby and threw him to the pavement.
“I take him to the pagodas to whip his ass,” says Noralez, who speaks with the Caribbean lilt of his native Belize.
When Sinnathamby was on the ground, a homeless man in a wheelchair swung at him several times with a metal object. Sinnathamby managed to get away, but not before suffering a broken eye socket.
In the days that followed, a story took hold about what happened in the moments leading up to Shakespeare’s death. It grew out of tensions between property owners and the homeless, and between the new Venice and the old Venice. Sinnathamby, a 54-year-old immigrant businessman who enjoys good food, drink and company, became the villain.
According to the witnesses, Sinnathamby had ordered the security guard to fire. They said he did it in a way that summoned a painful debate about the value of black lives. Kiva Blount, a homeless woman who was nearby, says he shouted: “Shoot those niggers.”
Noralez remembered it slightly differently. “The owner said, ‘Kill that nigger,’” he said.
Whitelion reiterated that account. “The guy that owns the hotel said, ‘Kill that nigger.’ As soon as he said that, (the shooter) squeezed the trigger and emptied the clip into my people’s chest.”
At dawn, police tape circled the pagodas. Detectives collected surveillance footage from shops along the boardwalk — footage that, when it finally came to light, would cast doubt on Sinnathamby's guilt.
Soon after, LAPD made an arrest. The shooter was still on the run, but Sinnathamby was booked for murder.
Shakespeare isn’t the first homeless person to be killed this year in Venice, where one of the city’s largest homeless populations exists in the shadows of $2 million bungalows and boutiques hawking $600 distressed sneakers.
Tourists come to Venice by the millions to see artists and street performers, get henna tattoos, rent surfboards, drink wine and have their fortunes told. As tech companies flood into the area, it is quickly gentrifying. But it can still be a violent place, especially for the homeless people who live there.
Two other homeless men were killed there earlier in the summer. Both were shot by police. Brendon Glenn, 29, was killed outside a bar after security guards called police to report him for panhandling. Jason Davis, 41, was killed on Rose Avenue. He was behaving erratically and holding a knife, and had been scaring customers at Groundwork Coffee.
Shakespeare’s death added to the feeling within the Venice Beach homeless community that it is being forced out.
“They’ve been targeting homeless people,” says one man, who asks to be referred to as Jay. “We’ve been targeted because we don’t live their lifestyle. We don’t want to be part of the monetary system.”
Blount says it comes down to jealousy. “They don’t want us out here not paying rent,” she says. “When I open my tent, I have a beautiful ocean view. They don’t like that they have to do whatever they have to do every day to keep their possessions.”
She says she has no interest in leaving Venice. “It’s a magical place.”
Peggy Lee Kennedy, an activist for the homeless, says Venice is undergoing “extreme gentrification,” and the hiring of private security is sending a message. “There is a trend toward using deadly force to remove unhoused people,” she says.
Los Angeles’ homeless have gathered on the Venice boardwalk for decades, making it the second largest concentration after Skid Row. More than 700 people were counted in the last homeless census, most of them occupying the boardwalk that runs 1.5 miles from Marina del Rey to the Santa Monica line. Venice is undergoing a tech boom and home prices are skyrocketing, creating more pressure to address the issue.
In recent years, the city redesignated the boardwalk as part of the beach, meaning it closes at night. That has pushed homeless encampments onto the side streets.
“The beach ends at the white line,” Blount says, pointing out a line a few inches from the storefronts. “It’s just like in prison — as long as you’re behind the white line, you’re OK.”
Councilman Mike Bonin has recently increased cleanups from once a month to once a week. The homeless are given a 72-hour warning to remove their belongings from the boardwalk. Every Friday morning, a crew in hazmat suits throws abandoned belongings into the garbage and sprays the dirt with disinfectant.
And the homeless population is growing, both here and across the city. “I’ve never seen it this bad,” says City Attorney Mike Feuer, speaking at a Venice clinic that his office set up to help homeless people resolve their legal issues. “There has been an abdication of responsibility for far too long.”
In recent weeks, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council declared a “state of emergency,” pledging $100 million a year on an as-yet-undefined plan to address the problem.
[pullquote-2]Over the years, the city’s various initiatives have foundered due to legal challenges, or lack of money, or the pure intractability of the problem itself. Among the homeless population are many who do not want help. Many also suffer from addiction or mental illness, which themselves would be hard enough to solve.
In the absence of any grand strategy from the city, the issue gets worked out through daily interactions on the boardwalk between the homeless, the police, the gangs, the business owners, the bouncers, the hazmat teams, the tourists, the tech companies and their security guards, and the residents in multimillion-dollar homes.
For the business owners on the boardwalk, there is growing frustration and fear. A few days before Shakespeare was shot, a homeless man threw a chair at a cafe owner, Clabe Hartley, giving him a concussion. Hartley’s fingertip was bitten off by another homeless man in an altercation earlier in the summer.
Even as their property values climb, some proprietors worry that Hartley and Sinnathamby are cautionary examples of how quickly tensions can escalate and become violent.
“What is happening to Sris strikes fear in all the business owners along the boardwalk,” says Carl Lambert, a Venice property owner. “We all know we could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and either end up dead or maimed or being charged unjustly.”
Shakespeare was born Jascent-Jamal Warren, the youngest of three boys, in Chicago. His parents split up and he spent time with both of them, living in Tacoma, Washington, and Atlanta, and finishing high school in San Diego.
As a teenager, he loved basketball. But at 5-foot-8, there was only so far that could go. He decided to dedicate himself to music, hoping to become a star. For a while he went by Jay Prince, until a lawyer contacted him and told him the name was taken. So he switched to Shakespeare, liking the poetic ring to it.
When he was 19, his girlfriend had a baby boy, Isaiah. The relationship was difficult, and they often broke up only to get together again. He proposed in 2009, but it didn’t last.
“I wanted him to be a family man,” says the girlfriend, Natalie Solomon. “I didn’t like the music lifestyle. He’s more the type to pursue his dreams. I’m more, like, realistic.”
Solomon ended up moving to Texas to take a nursing job, which paid well. The move meant that Shakespeare would no longer be able to see his son in person.
“I told Jay, ‘You can’t support us the way we need it,’” Solomon says. “He cried — he did. He cried. I let him keep Isaiah the last night I was there. Then I picked him up and we moved that morning.”
Shakespeare found his way to Venice, where he stayed with friends and girlfriends until he ended up living on Ocean Front Walk. Like a lot of people who live at the beach, he didn’t really consider himself homeless. He was a charmer — gregarious, with a big smile. Friends say he always had a place to stay if need be. But usually he preferred to be outside. He had done the same thing when he was younger in San Diego. He didn’t tell his loved ones, to keep them from worrying.
“He was a free spirit, but he was very conscious as well,” says his brother, Herb Warren.
Warren was concerned about him, and suggested that he come stay with him in Washington State and make music there. Shakespeare said he had found his calling in Venice.
“He’s a man, and as a man you gotta find your own lane,” Warren says. “The road he was taking to become a better man was the road he had to take.”
[pullquote-3]Shakespeare took his music seriously. His tracks, which he posted on SoundCloud, have decent flow, with an old-school East Coast vibe. He saw himself using music to advocate for the homeless. In one song, he said his plan was to “fall off on purpose just to come back with purpose.”
He followed the Black Lives Matter movement, posting on social media about the deaths of Sandra Bland and Michael Brown. On an Instagram video, he said that rioting would not work. “Boycott — hitting them in they pockets,” he said. “White people care about money. It’s as simple as that.”
After the decision not to file charges in the Brown case, Shakespeare posted another video: “Long story short, they killing us without any kind of regard. What’s the solution? We know the problems. What’s the solution?”
The problem came to his doorstep when Glenn was killed. Shakespeare had seen Glenn around on the boardwalk and posted on Facebook about the shooting.
“Please! please! please! share this,” he wrote. “We have to hold the police accountable for their killings. I want footage released to the public.”
He sensed that some Facebook friends didn’t approve of his political posts, but stated that he would keep posting them anyway.
“I’m being the change I wish to see,” he wrote. “I’m speaking the words that need to be said and taking the actions necessary to bring an end to this bullshit that’s surrounding us. Whether you like my statuses or not I don’t care… I’m on a mission. I’m on my Own mission.”
Shakespeare’s death struck a deep blow to his family. Solomon says she feels hurt and angry on behalf of her son, who will grow up without his father. She also feels guilty because they had not talked in recent months. Warren feels angry, in part because his brother never had a chance to redeem himself in his son’s eyes.
“Nobody in the family is the same,” he says. “What them people did, they made a martyr out of my brother. They made him legendary. But my brother — he wasn’t finished. He had plenty more to give.”
Warren says he knows that Sinnathamby has money to pay for a good lawyer.
“As of right now, I just want justice to be served,” Warren says. “I don’t want this to be a thing where it’s an O.J. situation.”
On Oct. 5, more than a month after the shooting, LAPD arrested the alleged gunman, Francisco Cardenaz Guzman. He was charged with murder and held on $3 million bail.
Guzman, 28, was known to LAPD as a methamphetamine dealer for the Venice 13 gang. According to court records, he was first arrested when he was 13, for dealing marijuana. He also had been arrested for gun possession, robberies and car theft, doing stints at a juvenile probation camp and in jail.
Last year, he was arrested for methamphetamine possession. His attorney, Garrett Zelen, said in a motion that Guzman was pulled over because he was wanted for questioning in an “alleged murder investigation.” Zelen argued that the search was improper, and the drug case was dropped.
Zelen declined to comment for this story. According to the complaint in the Shakespeare case, Guzman had fired the fatal shots in furtherance of his gang. In fact, some witnesses say they heard him call out “Venice 13” during the confrontation.
That raised a question about his motive. Was he shooting on behalf of his gang, or on behalf of Sinnathamby, his employer? Could it be both?
Further, it turns out the police were not convinced that Sinnathamby was Guzman’s employer.
“Factually, we don’t know yet,” says LAPD Det. John Skaggs. “We’ve heard the same stories (you have) and all variations of it, from (being) friends, to just met, to knew each other, to kind of knew each other. We’re still trying to figure that out.”
Guzman and Sinnathamby appeared in court together on Oct. 14. Sinnathamby, out on bail, was wearing a suit and an ankle monitor. Guzman, who’s pudgy, with glasses and a beard, was in custody. Zelen indicated that he will offer a mistaken-identity defense.
In the hallway outside, prosecutor John McKinney said the case was still developing.
“There is an ongoing evaluation about the extent to which Mr. Sinnathamby was involved,” he said.
For Sinnathamby’s friends, there is no doubt. They say there is no way he could have been involved in a murder. For one thing, he was not remotely racist. Nor was he some late-coming gentrifier trying to shoo away the homeless.
In fact, they said, he had owned the Cadillac Hotel for more than 20 years. And he had long since learned that you had to make peace with the homeless in order to do business on the boardwalk.
“There’s been a big mistake,” says Vittorio Viotti, who co-owns the Piccolo Restaurant, across Dudley Avenue from the Cadillac. “Sris is being used as a scapegoat.”
A bit like Shakespeare, Sinnathamby had traveled far and wide before winding up in Venice Beach. He was born in Sri Lanka but grew up in Australia. In his 20s he took a world tour. According to friends who heard the story, he ran out of money in Venice and ended up cleaning rooms at the Cadillac in order to pay his board. The job became permanent, and he worked his way up to driver and then manager. When the owner decided to retire, Sinnathamby had enough saved to buy him out.
“He did very well for himself,” Viotti says. “He came from a poor family. He didn’t have anything. Now he’s living very comfortably. … Everything came from nothing.”
The hotel is still nothing fancy. Yelp reviews warn about the dirty carpets and stained sheets. The guests are mostly European and South American travelers who want to experience the grit of Venice Beach up close.
“He always maintained that Venice is Venice,” says Matt Geller, a lifelong Venetian. “Some people are going to really appreciate it and some aren’t. Part of it was the homeless population and the freeness of that.”
Vincent “Enzo” DiGaetano is one of the fixtures of Ocean Front Walk. He wears shredded jeans, carries a guitar and paints clowns on walls of businesses and apartments. He painted the front of the Cadillac Hotel and says Sinnathamby has treated him well.
“He knows who I am,” DiGaetano says. “He respects what I do.”
DiGaetano is a little annoyed about the way Venice is changing. There used to be a liquor store that took EBT cards at Dudley and Speedway, across from the Cadillac. It has closed and been replaced with the Dudley Market, which serves crab omelettes at breakfast and orata with caviar vinaigrette for dinner.
Sinnathamby supported the market at the Neighborhood Council. The owner, Jesse Barber, used to be the chef at the Tasting Kitchen on upscale Abbot Kinney. Barber says he understands why some on the boardwalk might resent the change.
“I’m 34. I’m white. I wear glasses. I’m skinny. I wear skinny jeans,” he says. “I fit the mold for hipster douchebag.”
He says Sinnathamby helped ease the transition. For one thing, he introduced Barber to DiGaetano. “He plays guitar,” Sinnathamby told Barber. “He’s harmless.” Sinnathamby asked DiGaetano not to tag Barber’s wall.
“All the homeless people know [Sinnathamby]. They have a rapport,” Barber says. “You have to coexist. He’s helped me figure out how to coexist a bit better.”
According to some nearby residents, some of the homeless have become more aggressive recently.
“It’s a little nutty,” says David Krintzman, who bought a house on Dudley, a few doors from the Cadillac, in 2002. “It feels like it’s gotten worse. It’s not as relaxed an environment as it used to be. It feels like you gotta be on guard.”
Krintzman says homeless people sleep all around his house every night. There have been home invasions in the area. A while ago, some residents thought about hiring a private security guard.
According to Viotti, Sinnathamby called a meeting at his hotel and argued against it.
“He said it’s not worth it to bring a security guard to ruin the feeling we have,” Viotti says.
Geller says that 30 years ago, when he was growing up, Venice was a rough community. It was working-class and more violent. There were wars between Venice 13 and the Shoreline Crips, and more police on the streets to keep order.
“We grew up kind of tough,” Geller says. “You were never going to get someone who was homeless being intimidating. That just never happened.”
That has changed. The gangs have been forced out by rising rents. There are fewer cops. While Venice 13 may still deal meth at the beach, its members have long since moved to Hawthorne or Inglewood or the San Fernando Valley.
The people moving into Venice come from more genteel backgrounds. They push BOB strollers and wear tech startup T-shirts. At the same time, the homeless have gotten younger and give off what Geller calls an “aggressive punker meth” vibe.
“My wife is scared to go running at a certain time,” he says. “It can be a scary place.”
There is a surveillance camera mounted on the exterior wall of the Candle Cafe, at Dudley and Ocean Front Walk, facing the boardwalk and the Cadillac Hotel. Though it does not have a microphone, the camera had a clear view of the shooting and the events before and after it.
That video has not been released publicly. The Weekly does not have a copy of it but was able to view it, and it appears to undermine the witness accounts that pinned the blame on Sinnathamby.
The video shows Sinnathamby and the shooter arriving together in a dark SUV. They pull into Dudley Avenue, and the SUV makes a U-turn, splashing its headlights on a homeless person sleeping next to the hotel. (A friend of Sinnathamby’s tells the Weekly that Sinnathamby had just met the shooter at James Beach, a popular restaurant on the boardwalk.)
As the two men get out of the SUV, both appear a little drunk. They walk over to the homeless person, who has now woken up, and gesture at him in an apparent effort to get him to move his sleeping bag.
Sinnathamby walks out to the boardwalk and appears to be talking to a group of homeless people sitting at the pagodas. He is dressed in shorts and casual shoes. DiGaetano walks by, pushing a cart, and they exchange greetings.
A few moments later, the shooter walks out to the boardwalk. He is wearing a jersey with the number 5 on the back. Sinnathamby talks with the homeless people, his back turned to the shooter. The shooter pulls his gun out of his waistband and fires four times, almost casually, toward the pagodas.
Nobody runs away. It is as if nothing has happened.
Shakespeare can be seen arguing with Sinnathamby. Shakespeare’s friends say he was standing up for the man in the sleeping bag, who had a right to sleep on the sidewalk.
Shakespeare also appears to be gesturing at the man with the gun, as if to challenge him. Sinnathamby is up close to Shakespeare, talking to him, his body between Shakespeare and the gunman. He seems to be trying to keep them apart.
The gunman flicks his gun, seeming to threaten Shakespeare. At a couple of points, Shakespeare ducks behind Sinnathamby, using him as a shield. As the argument continues, Sinnathamby seems to gesture with his arm at the shooter to go away.
According to Noralez, Shakespeare had been drinking that night. They had a party on Hippie Hill, a mound of grass behind the pagodas, to celebrate Shakespeare finishing some recordings.
Two women enter the frame and walk over to Sinnathamby and Shakespeare. The gunman draws closer as well and Shakespeare sees his opening. He runs around the women and lunges at the shooter, apparently trying to tackle him.
He almost succeeds, coming within an arm’s length of grabbing him. But the shooter reacts in time, dancing backwards and firing three shots at close range. Shakespeare hops awkwardly, one leg kicking up in the air, the other dragging behind. He stumbles out of the frame toward the pagodas.
Sinnathamby walks in that direction out of the frame. The shooter stands around for a moment, walks away, comes back, points the gun and walks away again. He gets into the SUV, backs down Dudley and drives off.
Then Noralez and the others attack Sinnathamby.
It takes seemingly forever for the police to arrive. The scene is eerily normal for 2 a.m. at Venice Beach. A man bicycles past with one hand on his handlebars and the other pushing a wheeled office chair. From the time the first shots are fired, more than 10 minutes pass before the first patrol car pulls up and officers begin clearing the scene.
The witnesses told detectives that Sinnathamby had ordered the gunman to “kill that nigger” and that the gunman fired “as soon as he said that.”
It’s clear from the video that the gunman fires when Shakespeare lunges at him. The instant that Shakespeare makes his move, Sinnathamby visibly flinches. He is not directing the action; he is reacting to it.
So where did the words “kill that nigger” come from? It’s possible Sinnathamby said it at some other point, and the witnesses remembered it as the proximate cause of the shooting. However, his demeanor in the video suggests that he is trying to defuse the situation.
Another possibility is that the witnesses made it up. In the long minutes before the police arrived, they had severely beaten Sinnathamby. If Sinnathamby had ordered a hit, that would provide some justification.
Among Sinnathamby’s supporters, there is a feeling that the police accepted the homeless witnesses’ story and arrested him quickly to quell a potential backlash.
“I respect the police department. They do a really good job,” Viotti says. “But we all know the police have an issue in Venice. They shot other people in Venice. So they wanted to cover their ass. They wanted to show, ‘We got it.’?”
He is confident that Sinnathamby will ultimately be exonerated.
“I’m sure he was there to stop that thing,” he says.