Along a pretty tree-lined street in the Mid-Wilshire area, a small group of students and a law professor lit candles and wrote passages on a makeshift memorial sign near the gates of Southwestern University School of Law, where police believe 17-year-old Lily Burk was abducted by her alleged killer, parolee Charlie Samuel, last Friday.
Burk’s mother, law professor Deborah Drooz “would brag about Lily in class,” recalls second-year law student Margo Arnold, “how great [Lily] was with computers and putting assignments on the Internet.” Arnold plans to intern this fall at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s L.A. law offices, where professor Drooz has represented many public figures in defamation cases. Drooz’s clients include Martha Stewart, Kevin Costner, Rodney Dangerfield, Berry Gordy, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Steve Wynn.
Arnold fondly remembers how Drooz told her law class at Southwestern that she didn’t know if she wanted her daughter to travel to Mexico for an exchange program during the swine flu epidemic, and Drooz “was going to meet up with the PTA about it.”
Sara Barrett, who’d never met Burk, organized the July 27 memorial for her at the location from which she was abducted. Barrett can’t shake the fact that on the terrible day the teenager was killed, she had planned to arrive at the school at about the same time as Burk, to pick up her student financial aid check. But she got a call from the school telling her the check wasn’t ready. “I was complaining to them, why they didn’t have my check.” Barrett never went.
The two women wondered how Burk, whose father is well-known music writer Greg Burk, could be abducted at midday across the street from the Korea Daily News, near two bustling boulevards, and just outside a law school that offers 24-hour security. “To know it happened at the school where I spend a lot of my time is heartbreaking,” says Arnold.
Some wonder if the suspect was able to approach Burk without causing concern because it was the day after final exams, so very few students were around. The school parking lot was all but closed for repairs, with only a few open spots, and cars were directed by an attendant to park on the street. Lily Burk parked on the street — where Charlie Samuel allegedly approached her and somehow got control of her Volvo, abducting the girl.
Barrett regularly parks on the street outside, because, she says, “I couldn’t afford a parking pass. … I always thought broad daylight was when I was safe.”
Burk, who was about to enter her senior year at Oakwood School in North Hollywood, left her Los Feliz home around 2:30 p.m. on July 24 to pick up some papers from the law school for her mother, Drooz, an adjunct professor who teaches defamation law during the summer.
People say the area around the law school is not nearly as crime-ridden as it once was. “It is much safer now than 20 years ago,” says Professor Warren Grimes. In a sad irony, Grimes’ cousin was murdered at an ATM three months ago in North Carolina. “I am sure she thought it was safe,” he said of Burk. “This area is on the uptick.”
But law student Ryan Hogaboam notes that it’s still not “the greatest neighborhood. I would avoid a few parks” — notably, Lafayette and MacArthur parks on nearby Wilshire Boulevard. Senior Lead Officer Matthew Zeigler says the area is not plagued with crime. But years ago, Lafayette Park, about two blocks away “used to be run by MS13” — a violent El Salvadoran gang that has since been driven out of the area. “It kind of blows my mind,” he says of the tragic murder. “I have a daughter. It scares the heck out of me.”
Samuel, a career criminal from San Bernardino, is believed to have approached Burk at her Volvo outside the school. A security video shows Samuel behind the wheel, and Burk in the passenger seat, as the Volvo leaves the vicinity of the school.
Margo Arnold wonders if Burk pulled into the school parking lot on Wilshire Place but was turned away because of parking lot construction under way since May. This summer, security guards “were turning away students,” she says. After Burk’s murder, Arnold says she received an e-mail from the university saying it is “upping the security” and warning students against parking on the street.
At the vigil, Barrett, sitting on a blanket with her 6-year-old daughter Lynzi near a photo of Burk and an arrangement of lit candles, says, “Maybe this will open eyes. I hope the school takes from this that security is not at the level it should be.”
The law school has not returned the L.A. Weekly’s call for comments.
Samuel was arrested at 5:25 p.m. on Friday, July 24, less than an hour after police believe he killed Burk, by LAPD horseback officer Gary Copeland. Copeland, assistant squad leader with Metro Division’s Mounted Platoon, arrested Samuel for being in possession of a crack pipe at Third and Los Angeles streets in Skid Row.
Copeland had no idea of the horrible crime Samuel allegedly had just committed. Riding his LAPD horse, Pepper, Copeland says he stopped Samuel for openly drinking a beer in public. Samuel gave the officer his name and agreed to a search, he says. Copeland found a crack pipe, a cell phone — and a key to a Volvo — in Samuel’s pockets. “Some people think these [lesser] arrests are meaningless, but sometimes this is a piece of a puzzle that puts it all together,” Copeland says.
Samuel told Copeland he had been living at a court-ordered drug-treatment facility south of downtown since June as part of his parole from prison, where he did time for robbery, burglary and petty theft. The Los Angeles Times reported that Samuel received a day pass from the drug-rehab house hours before the car-jacking.
Detectives told the Weekly they don’t know how Samuel ended up at the law school, but one obvious possibility is the Red Line subway with a Vermont Avenue entrance, which is just two blocks from the law school — and is a popular hangout for panhandlers.
Was the career criminal a panhandler at the Metro Red Line subway station at Vermont Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard? Or did he score dope at nearby MacArthur Park, where crack and other drugs are still sold despite major inroads by police? Nobody knows.
What police do know, based on video footage taken from a building in Little Tokyo downtown, is that at 3:35 p.m., about 30 minutes after her abduction from the school, Burk walked with Samuel up to a Union Bank on Second and San Pedro streets, where Burk tried, but failed, to extract money from an ATM using a credit card.
Deeply troubling to police and many others is the fact that the video — taken from a building near the bank — shows people walking past Burk and Samuel, and even shows a customer using the ATM as both walk away — yet Burk does not call out to them for help.
“Apparently nobody suspected anything,” says homicide Detective Al Marengo. Samuel did not appear to be dirty or homeless, Marengo says. In fact, from the video, “I can see [that] no one paid them any attention. … You would have thought it was [just] two people walking up to the ATM.”
Marengo notes that during a robbery, “Most parents tell their kids to cooperate and do what they say and comply with what they want — and they will leave you alone. … I don’t know what her parents instructed her to do in a situation like that.”
Close to 4 p.m., Burk called her parents, asking how to withdraw ATM money using a credit card. Burk’s parents told her that her card could not be used to get cash. At 4:52 p.m., police say Samuel parked Burk’s Volvo at 458 S. Alameda St., about five minutes away from the Little Tokyo Union Bank. Police believe that Burk, who was about to star in her school’s production of David Mamet’s The Boston Marriage, was already dead.