The death of a homeless man who was set on fire on a Los Angeles street corner last year does not appear to have been a gang initiation, as was originally speculated, but rather is suspected to be the work of a local barber with a personal hatred for the homeless. The Associated Press reports:
LOS ANGELES — Fresh graffiti declaring “Thank God! They caught the killer!” was scrawled Friday on an abandoned storefront that last fall was the scene of the horrifying murder of a mild-mannered homeless man set on fire as he sat on his familiar street corner.
The message was in response to the Los Angeles Police Department’s announcement the day before that Benjamin Martin, a barber who used to work in a shop near the murder scene, had been arrested for the Oct. 9 killing of John McGraham, 55.
Martin had “personal dislike for not only Mr. McGraham, but also homeless people in general,” Deputy Police Chief Charlie Beck said, adding: “It’s far too soon to ascribe a motive to this thing but it’s probably going to end up boiling down to the demons in this guy’s head.”
Police said they linked Martin, 30, through witness identification and DNA evidence at the scene. He was arrested Thursday in Rancho Mirage, about 120 miles east of Los Angeles. Arraignment was set for Monday.
A former co-worker said Martin briefly worked five years ago at a barbershop a block from the murder scene.
“He was a little bit crazy, and fighting — not hitting, but talking — fighting, fighting all the
time,” said the co-worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
Martin is accused of drenching McGraham with gasoline and setting him ablaze on a street corner in the multiethnic, largely working-class neighborhood west of downtown. Witnesses rushed to extinguish the flames but McGraham suffered burns over 90 percent of his body and died.
Though homeless, McGraham was not friendless. In the densely populated area where he wandered, people recalled him as mild-mannered, quiet and kind.
“He didn’t mess with anybody, he was such a nice guy,” said Samuel Escobar, a resident who has lived in the area for five years. “I’m amazed it happened the way it did. It’s just terrible, and makes us all look so bad.”
McGraham was a fixture on the block who befriended people and got regular visits from family
members. But for two decades, he rejected their efforts to get him off the streets.
Those who fed McGraham and gave him spare change and clothing said he liked to drink Dr Pepper and listen to a portable radio. He frequently hung around near a doughnut shop, where the owners gave him a cinnamon roll and cup of coffee every morning.
McGraham wasn’t always on the streets. As a young man he worked as a hotel bellman until he fell into a debilitating depression and lost his job.
David McGraham, his brother, said officers had promised him they would find the killer, but “as time passed, I thought it wasn’t going to happen. I just figured the killer got away with it,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Police said tips began pouring in after McGraham’s story aired on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.”