By Duane Preimsberger
It was one o’clock and I’d just come home from riding the waves near the Seal Beach Pier on a warm mid-August day. As I came through the front door of our 15th Street home, my wife looked a little upset as she told me that a Sergeant Webber had called from Firestone Sheriff’s Station, where I worked for a couple years as a Deputy Sheriff, and his message was to call him immediately!
Moments later, after talking to Sgt. Webber I was dressed and heading to the Station to help put down what was described to me as a huge riot, with looting, shooting, burning and general chaos. I kissed my wife and two little girl’s goodbye, hoping to see them again and cranked up my 1961 Volkswagen van. It was not exactly a sports car and holding it in a lane against the breeze at close to 65 mph was about the best I could do on the north-bound Long Beach Freeway. As I looked ahead I could see a dirty brown haze in the air that was way too thick to be Los Angeles smog and I knew that Webber’s comments about burning had been right! Parts of my patrol area were on fire!
As I drove west on Firestone Blvd. approaching Alameda St. the haze grew denser and I was passed by fire engines and police cars heading the same way. At Alameda St. the South Gate Police Dept. had erected a road block and I pulled my badge case out of my back pocket, hoping to get through quickly. After showing my identification the South Gate officers let me through with an unusual warning; “Drive with your gun in your hand and don’t stop until you get to your station, they're pulling whites out of their cars and beating the shit out of them!"
As I travelled the dozen or so blocks to the station at 7901 S. Compton Ave. I began to think that I was cast into some kind of weird movie. There were dozens, if not hundreds of people on the streets, some of them were carrying loot from stores others had filled shopping carts with stolen items and were pushing them home. A pickup truck raced by with its bed filled with brand new television sets. A group of black males tossed rocks and bottles at passing cars, including mine! A used clothing store was being set ablaze while a group of rioters enjoying the flames screamed, "Burn Baby Burn!"
As I pulled into the station parking lot, I was greeted by a welcoming group of station detectives, carrying shotguns as they watched for rioters who might again attack Firestone Sheriff’s Station! Gravel voiced Detective Shad Hedrick yelled to me, "get suited up Duane and get out there and kick some ass!" The first thing I saw in the station parking lot was a large Sheriff's Department bus that was quickly being filled up with looters. A field booking team seated at portable tables hurried the booking process along so that the arresting deputies could quickly return to the streets. The Pie Wagon, so called because it resembled a large Helms Bakery Van, had been set up as a field command post and its staff tried to keep up with the hundreds of incidents occurring in the area.
By four in the afternoon on Thursday Augusr12th I was in uniform and in a patrol car with two other deputies. We were assigned to the north end of the patrol area and were advised to act as a "bomber car" backing up and assisting other cars who were directly dispatched to incidents. It only took a few minutes to confirm how badly outnumbered we were
compared to the looters and rioters. Additionally, getting fire equipment and ambulances into the area was very difficult. Fire trucks were blocked by rioters from arriving at fires and ambulance crews refused to enter the riot zone unless they were provided with a police escort. A brass hat from the Pie Wagon told someone that Los Angeles Police Chief William
Parker and Sheriff Peter Pitchess had asked for assistance from the National Guard but that the folks in Sacramento had been slow to respond. Fortunately, by Friday August 13th, the initial deployment of Guard troops began and resulted in 14,000 of them being in the riot area. Initially, although they carried weapons, they had no ammunition and it wasn't until a Guard General saw some of his troops almost run down by near homicidal rioters that they were given ammo and told to fix bayonets!
County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and one of his aides were on South Avalon Blvd. surveying the riot zone when their car was rocked and bottled. Hahn received a cut on the head and went into a private residence to call the Watch Commander at Firestone Station to ask for immediate assistance. A crew arrived and took him safely to the station where he was patched up.
The flashpoint for the riot initially occurred on Wednesday August 11, when California Highway Patrol Motor Officer Lee Minkus arrested drunk driving suspect Marquette Frye at 116 St. and Avalon Blvd. at around seven in the evening. It was warm and people were out of their homes hoping to feel a cool breeze. A crowd gathered to watch the arrest and it became hostile. CHP officers went into the crowd to arrest a young man and woman for inciting to riot and a false rumor began that the woman was pregnant and had been brutalized during that arrest. A deluge of rocks and bottles pelted the CHP officers who radioed for assistance and soon responding CHP and units from LAPD dispersed the crowd. When the officers left the area, the crowd returned and this happened several times. The crowd then broke into four groups that began harassing white motorists at several different locations. These groups expanded and grew and by the second day rioters had systematically burned 2 blocks of buildings on 103 St. in Watts and that area was now called "Charcoal Alley."
More and more fires were set and by the time the riot was over hundreds of buildings were destroyed, the focus was on food markets, liquor, clothing, furniture and department stores and pawn shops. Some business owners armed themselves and sat in the doorways of their stores trying to preserve them. Others painted the words "black owned" in an effort to save their businesses from the rioters sometimes that worked.
Major riots produce unique attributes for our senses. Our ears heard the constant ringing of hundreds of burglar alarms, sirens wail from dozens of emergency vehicles, the roar of fires fill the air as did the voices of the hundreds of rioters screaming curses or the mantra of this Watts event, "Burn, Baby Burn,"
Rocks, bottles, canned goods from the shelves of looted markets and an occasional Molotov cocktail land in the streets near us. All of these noises assailed our ears while in the background things exploded in the hundreds of fires and intermittent gunfire caused us to flinch in the hope it wasn't coming our way. We could smell and taste all of the things that burned and filled the air, our nostrils and throats with pungent and unforgettable aromas and tastes of violence, hatred smoke and ash.
Our eyes took in the damage done by the rioters and we saw the results of the violence as we came across the injured that number into the hundreds! Those of us in the midst of this chaos were worried about our personal safety but somehow we faced the challenges that restoring law and order brought to us and we moved toward our purpose with a sense of Courage and Caring and Commitment!
By Friday, August 13th flashpoints began elsewhere, in Pasadena, Long Beach, Pacoima San Pedro and Wilmington and as far away as San Diego. A curfew in effect covered 45 square miles and there were dozens of barricades limiting access to the riot area. Soon this riot became one of the largest, most violent and costliest in United States History. There were 34 deaths.136 firemen, 92 police and 10 guardsmen were injured and thousands of civilians were hurt by the rioting. As our bomber patrol unit passed 92 St. on Central Ave. we came upon a young, black man who had been victimized by the rioters They had flogged him with flexible aluminum electrical conduit and with each stroke the conduit had opened and expanded and created razor sharp edges that literally flayed the skin from the victim. We flagged down a passing fire truck and they began treating the suffering man. Two Deputies, Paul Wilson and Jack Innes were shot by a sniper as they confronted rioters on Florence Ave. near Miramonte St. Fortunately, they both survived.
Deputy Ron Ludlow was not so blessed. He and his partners were near the intersection of Imperial Highway just east of Wilmington Ave. confronting an ugly tempered group of rioters. One of the rioters made a grab for the shotgun that Deputy Bill Lauer was carrying and a fierce struggle for possession ensued. Deputy Ludlow moved to assist Deputy Lauer and as he approached, the weapon was discharged and the full force of a 12 gauge shotgun blast, loaded with heavy buckshot, hit Ron in the chest and abdomen. His fellow Deputies scooped him up, put him in the back seat of a patrol car and rolled Code 3 to St. Francis Hospital, the closest and best trauma care facility in the area. At 2118 hours, this caring, loving husband and father of 2 left this earth to be in a better place, where terror, violence and random killings don't occur. Ron and I were both graduates of Academy Class # 91. He'd been at Firestone Station for just over six months and his passing, just 18 minutes after he was shot, cast a pall of tears and sadness over Firestone Station as the men and women who had worked with Ron now grieved their loss! Somber faces with tear tracks on them were common-place that day!
Ron had left a few home improvement projects underway and as things returned almost to normal, a group of Firestone Deputies voluntarily appeared at the Ludlow home and finished up his work so that his family had a few less concerns about which to worry. For months, Firestone Deputies looked after the Ludlow family so that if they needed help someone was there to assist ASAP.
On August 17, Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the riot torn area and began speaking to the rioters to cease the violence and his message helped to restore calm. Dr. King also spoke of the causes of the rioting including racial prejudice, lack of employment, poverty, limited health care facilities, poor educational opportunities and an overall feeling of helplessness. His comments helped restore calm.
It didn't take long for the 14,000 National Guardsman to be withdrawn from the area and many of LAPD's 900 officers and 700 Sheriff's Deputies went back to their regular duties. This exodus left those of us permanently assigned to the area to work very short- handed. Instead of being the local cops we were now looked upon as a negative force occupying what resembled a war torn area. I went back to work in a day watch car in the Willowbrook area immediately south of Watts. The rioting was over
but the effects were very, very visible. Burned out stores, the stench of rotting food in destroyed markets, broken glass and debris was everywhere. It truly did look like a war zone and the aroma and visible evidence took days, weeks, months and years to go away.
It was a difficult time for many of the cops and deputy sheriffs who worked in the area. Many of us had made friends with good people who lived in the area. They weren't among the hundreds and thousands, who had acted like predators in their own community, yet they were victimized. Suddenly they had no supermarkets, drug stores, convenience stores or clothing outlets in their neighborhood and they had to travel to unfamiliar neighborhoods miles away to shop and buy necessities. Transportation was difficult and the elderly who could once walk to a neighborhood store no longer had that availability.
Those who once had a job in a now burned out store were instantly unemployed in an area where few wanted to open facilities that could create new jobs. It was difficult to understand why the lawless element would want to hurt so many good folks in their own neighborhoods and many law enforcement officers were very troubled by the criminal actions of a minority within a minority community!
Things slowly returned to a semblance of normalcy. Perhaps it was the little things like being flagged down on a late Sunday morning at a church on Central Avenue and being invited to be a guest for a church sponsored barbeque or maybe it was passing by a grammar school and hearing the little kids yell, " Hi Mr. Police!" Little by little, year after year it got better. It was never perfect and the disturbances at the Watts Summer Festival in the mid-1970s kept us on our toes but generally there was a feeling of calm throughout the riot area. By 1991 I was now a Division Chief with the responsibility for the Sheriff's area in the riot zone. My counterpart in the Los Angeles Police Department was a Deputy Chief and he was totally convinced that LAPD now had such a good relationship with the Black community that another major riot was unthinkable. Some months later, in April of 1992, the arrest and use of force on Rodney King by LAPD officers triggered yet a more destructive riot. When it was over, there were 55 deaths and thousands of businesses burned to the ground and the list of injured has not been fully calculated. At the conclusion of that riot Rodney King came up with a question that seemed to puzzle and confound both blacks and whites, Rodney asked simply," Can't we all just get along?"
I knew Ron Ludlow, the man we remember here today, as a fellow Academy Cadet and later as a new Patrol Deputy assigned to Firestone Station and he loved his job. He was truly one of those who believed that he was a peacekeeper and I believe that if Ron were here today he would respond to Rodney Kings' question by hoping and praying that the final answer to that troubling question; can't we all just get along? will someday be a warm, caring, meaningful "Yes, We Can, We Can Get Along! Let's do it for ourselves but more importantly for our children, our grand children and the generations yet to follow."
Thanks for listening, thanks for being here to remember Ron Ludlow. May God bless and protect us all- especially those Peace Keepers who police our neighborhoods, streets, roads and freeways. Those men and women, wearing a Badge of Honor, stand ready, if necessary to give their all to assure that we can live in peace, in dignity and in harmony and sometimes that is a very, very difficult and sometimes a deadly task.