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Killer on the loose

Community leads investigation of man killed at Pan American Park, as family demands LBPD classify murder as hate crime

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Photos by Sebastian Echeverry | Signal Tribune
Pictured in the distance, family and friends of Fred Taft, who was shot and killed in a restroom at Pan American Park on July 21, question residents about the murder during a community investigation on Saturday, Aug. 18. The Long Beach Police Department has not identified the suspect by press time.

When family and friends of Fred Taft, who was shot and killed in a restroom at Pan American Park on July 21, questioned nearby residents about the murder, most of the comments collected were that of shock, confusion and worry.

The investigative party met on Saturday, Aug. 18, at the same park where the killing took place– just feet away from the restroom where Taft was shot in the upper torso– to gather more information pertaining to the murder.

Shortly after residents began to congregate at the park, members of the Black Lives Matter Long Beach group held hands with those in attendance and prayed for Taft, before they ventured into the nearby streets to question residents around the park.

Dawn Modkins, a Lakewood resident, said the purpose of the community investigation was to support the family, reach out to the community and make sure people are aware of the shooting.

There was concern from Taft’s family, and the volunteer investigators, that perhaps some residents near the park were not aware of the shooting.

Taft’s family said they believe the murder should be investigated as a hate crime, which the police department has not done. Many echoed the demand to view the situation as a hate crime during a community meeting between residents, police and city officials on July 28.

Arantxa Chavarria, LBPD public information officer, wrote in an email to the Signal Tribune Wednesday morning that “at this point, there is no indication this murder was a hate crime. The department does not have a criteria per [se] (regarding what makes a hate crime). This is not discretionary to the police department. Elements of the crime must meet the criteria outline in the California Penal Code 422.55.”

During a community investigation on Saturday, Aug. 18, volunteers Miles Haisley (left) and Allison Flanagan (right) approach a house near Pan American Park in Lakewood to question residents about the shooting of Fred Taft that took place on July 21. Community members who took part in the investigation said most residents did not know about the murder.

According to a State legislation website (leginfo.legislature.ca.gov), penal code 422.55 states that a hate crime means a criminal act was committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim: disability, gender, nationality, race, religion or sexual orientation.

In that same email, Chavarria sent a press release to the Signal Tribune that states, “Investigations Deputy Chief Richard Conant and East Division Commander Erik Herzog met with the Ministers Alliance on July 26 regarding unsubstantiated claims made by outside sources that the murder was racially motivated. The motive of the murder remains under investigation.”

On Aug. 16, the LBPD issued a press release requesting the public’s help in searching for the suspect, and on Aug. 17– a day before the community-led investigation– police conducted an investigation of their own and asked nearby residents about the murder.

The shooting took place at a time when numerous people were in the surrounding area of the park, the Aug. 16 press release reads.

The only current description of the suspect is that he is an adult white male in his 50s, 6-feet tall and of medium build.

During the shooting, he was possibly wearing a dark shirt with light-colored shorts and a hat, according to the description.

Detectives believe there are individuals who might have information regarding the incident but have yet to come forward.

Although it appears to be an isolated incident, the motive for the murder has not been determined and remains under investigation, according to the press release.

Modkins said that any valuable information gathered during the community’s investigation on Aug. 18 would be passed on to the authorities.

Chavaria mentioned in her email that information the public gathers would be used at the detectives’ discretion.

“We have asked anyone who may have information to please come forward and contact homicide detectives at (562) 570-7244,” she wrote in the email.

After a few words of condolences, prayers and instructions, the volunteer investigators broke off into separate parties, each assigned with a specific set of streets to visit.

Lakewood Village and Long Beach residents converge at Pan American Park on Saturday, Aug. 18, to conduct a community investigation into the murder of Fred Taft, who was shot and killed in the park’s restroom on July 21. Friends and family of Taft believe the Long Beach Police Department should investigate the murder as a hate crime, however, authorities have not categorized the shooting as such.

The Signal Tribune followed the group to whom Fred’s daughter, Corie Taft, was assigned.

Corie and her group marched door-to-door down Charlemagne Avenue, asking residents near the park if they had seen anything suspicious that may have related to the shooting.

The group also questioned residents if they had noticed racist symbols such as the Nazi swastika, the Aryan fist or SS bolts at or around the park.

“There have been a series of hate messages and white-supremacist type messages that have surrounded this murder,” Modkins said. “The family has [collected] testimonies from neighbors who have experienced some of these things on the day of, before and right after the murder.”

The hateful rhetoric discovered online on sites such as NextDoor, and heard in person around the park, is leading Taft’s family and other Lakewood Village residents to believe that racial tension was indeed the reason for the murder.

A few Port of Long Beach longshoremen, friends of Fred, walked close behind the group, acting as security in case the investigators were ever in danger. LBPD patrol cars also circled around the streets where the community investigation was taking place, as it was mentioned in the Aug. 16 press release that law enforcement was increasing their surveillance of the neighborhood.

One longshoreman, who refused to be identified, told the Signal Tribune he was close to Fred, but that he had never met his daughter until that Saturday.

The port worker said his group of friends would take trips to Las Vegas, and Fred would always call Corie to check on her.

The investigation ended around noon, and everyone involved returned to the park to discuss what they had collected from surveying the neighborhood.

“I’m feeling kind of hopeless because the killer is still at large,” Corie told the Signal Tribune. “It’s an investigation, so of course they limit what they can tell me. I don’t know too much about the suspect myself, and I’m reaching out to the community– hopefully, they can help me.”

During the walk, Corie said neighbors were surprised when she told them about the shooting.

“A lot of people haven’t heard about what happened,” she said, “They didn’t even know a description of the suspect, and a lot of people didn’t hear about this killing that took place, July 21, until yesterday (Aug. 17).”

Modkins said that some of the feedback collected was “interesting.”

“We were hearing a lot of different stories from everybody who went out on the walk,” she said. “In one neighborhood, a lady said, ‘No, I haven’t seen these newer type of hate symbols, but I hear a lot of hateful words towards black people and about this incident at the park.’ She’s from Nebraska, she’ s lived here for 15 years in the Lakewood Village and she, a white woman, feels disgusted by how they are talking about this incident.”

Modkins reflected on Corie’s comments and said some residents were not fully aware that a man was shot and killed at the park.

“People are wondering, ‘Why did it take you a month?’ That’s a huge question, and it took the community to do the work,” Modkins said. “It seems like it put the police on defense, or the City on defense, for them to come out after the fact. It doesn’t give a sense of comfort to the community, specifically the people of color in this Long Beach area.”

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Killer on the loose