Incident at Lola’s

                                         INCIDENT  AT LOLA’S

By Paul Morantz


On a late Friday evening in April, David Vinje, a round man with big glasses and a shirt that bulged slightly over his trousers, walked into a San Fernando Valley called Lola’s Place. He nodded to his fellow patrons and sat down at the bar next to his friend Slim Bergman. The two appellee had a few beers and talked of families and Vietnam.

It was a peaceful, it usually was at Lola’s, a small, obscure place hidden away between a beauty salon and a closed-down gas station north of the railroad tracks on Chandler Boulevard. Inside, the sounds were typical pub sounds: the rattle of ice cubes, the clink of pool balls, and the mellow hum of Dean Martin’s voice on the jukebox.

Two strangers to Lola’s , sloppily dressed in old shirts, blue jeans and tennis shoes, entered and took seats around the corner from Vinje and Bergman. The young bartender, Mike Stranger, approached them and asked, “Are you guys vice?” The strangers just laughed. Their names were Peter Aude and Richard Carr. Both were 29. Aude, who lived in Van Nuys, had been in the neighborhood playing in a church softball game. When the game was over he had looked up Carr, a friend who worked with him at the Zellerbach Paper Company, and suggested that they have a few beers. Neither had been to Lola’s before.

“Are you guys really cops?” asked Vinje, overhearing the question to the strangers. “No,” said Carr (who had been doing an inventory all day at Zellerbach), “why?” Vinje reached into his wallet and showed the newcomers the card that identified him as a public defender. Then he smiled and invited the paper salesman into the conversation at the bar.

Stanger, whose short-cropped hair gave him a GI image, argued pro-Vietnam. He believed the Asians had to be saved from the Communists. As a debater, however, he was no match for Vinje, whose articulations had been developed by 15 years of trial experience. Vinje said he didn’t want to see kids being killed there anymore. He felt it was a waste of men and money. He said he hoped his three year-old son, Eric, would never end up in a war with no stated policy and no reason for being fought.

A little after midnight, Aude and Carr started to leave. Aude explained that his wife, a Morman, disapproved of drinking; he wanted to get home before she became suspicious of where he was. But Vinje coaxed them into staying a little longer by offering to pay for the last round of beers.

Jim Rankin, 50, another Lola’s regular, arrived and took the empty stool on Vinje’s left. A short, stocky man, he was on his way home from Ralph’s grocery in West Los Angeles, where he worked as a meat cutter. A World War II Veteran, Rankin added his comment on the subject of war. “I was shot once,” he said. “I never want to be shot again. I’ve had enough.”

Slightly before 1 a.m., a male Caucasian, about 40 years old, of medium build, weighing approximately 170 pounds, with sandy blonde hair, dressed in a white short-sleeved sport shirt and slacks, entered the pub. He ordered a beer, cased the place, downed his drink in two gulps and left.

A few minutes later, just as Carr was preparing to change the subject of the conversation to law and order, Vinje, Bergman, Stanger, Rankin, Aude and Carr looked up from their drinks and saw three men standing in the bar with stockings over their faces. One carried a .22 revolver; another had a shotgun.

Four years ago David Vinje left private practice to join the public defender’s office, explaining that he believed indigents, like wealthy people, were entitled to the best defense possible. Recently he had been assigned to the special trial division. More often than not, his cases involved senseless murders.

One of the masked men, who wore a gray shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, issued an order: “Faces down, hands out on the bar.” At first, Carr thought it was a joke; he couldn’t believe it, it seemed like something out of a TV western. Then the pistol pointed his way, and he complied with the order. So did Vinje, Bergman, Rankin and Aude, who like Carr, had consumed six beers by this time.

Only Stranger, who perhaps was not yet a believer, stood erect. “You mind if I finish my drink first?” he quipped from behind the bar. For a reply, he received a whack on the skull with a shotgun.

All were now believers.

Earlier that day, Vinje had become uneasy after his secretary reported that she had witnessed a fight on the bus on her way to work. He complained to Stuart Rappaport, his supervisor, that there was too much wanton violence in society, that people were getting killed for nothing. He mentioned that ever since his house had been burglarized one Sunday while he and his family were at church, he worried about his wife househi and kids, and became nervous whenever he came home and saw an unfamiliar car parked in front of his house.

Vinje, who was sitting on his stool with his head tucked between his folded arms and his eyes shut tightly, began to breathe heavily and loudly. The breathing turned into a moaning sound. “Shut that mother up,” yelled one of the masked men. Vinje’s friends remained silent, remembering the sound of the shotgun stock bouncing off Stanger’s head. Vinje continued to moan and babble incoherently. “Shut him up,” he repeated the gunman.

Stanger was led out from behind the bar and ordered to lie down on the floor near the pool table at the north end of the bar, in front of the rear exit. The other patrons remained on the bar stools. One of the robbers began to search the customers for money and valuables. Vinje moaned louder.

“Hey, we better hurry up,” one of the gunmen said. “I think this guy is having a heart attack.”

His partner’s reply was blunt: “Why don’t you just put him out of his misery.”

There was a moment of silence, and then a sound Carr thought resembled the firing of a cap pistol.

Stanger tensed himself for a second shot. If the robbers were going to make the rounds and shoot everybody, he was prepared to make a run for the back door. He saw no reason to be shot while lying on the floor waiting for a bullet.

Bergman, Carr, and Aude thought a shot had been fired into the ceiling. Carr reassured himself; after all, he thought, nobody had offered resistance, and he couldn’t believe anyone would be shot in cold blood.

Then Vinje whispered to Bergman, “Slim, I’ve been shot.”

“I’m against the death penalty because I don’t like participating in the killing of someone else. The death penalty is a state action; we are the state; we pull the switches. One hour after I learned what happened to Vinje I might have pulled the switch, but when I calmed down I still felt the same.”

–Harry Anderson, public defender

Vinje was pushed off the stool and onto the floor, where he was made to lie face down. He was soon joined in that position by Bergman. Their hands were tied behind their backs and their ankles bound with clothesline. Carr, a small man, was searched as he sat on the barstool. His watch was removed; then he, too, was tied up face down on the floor. Aude, a former Van Nuys High School football star, was directed to lie on the floor with his head almost touching the rubber soles of Carr’s tennis shoes. “Any money?” Aude was asked. “No,” he answered (Carr had been buying the beers.). “I’ll turn over if you like,” Aude offered. “No, that’s all right,” said the robber.

Outside, a tow-truck pulled up in front of Lola’s. The driver, Jesse Perez, got out and started to go inside the tavern, then changed his mind and turned back towards the truck. A man standing alone on the sidewalk, unmasked and well dressed-perhaps the man who had gone inside Lola’s earlier and gulped down his beer in two swallows- called to Perez and said someone inside the bar had battery trouble with his car. Perez then entered the bar and was invited to join the party on the floor, getting a spot of his own for his six-foot, 280-pound frame near the jukebox on the south side of the bar.

The robbers searched each victim a second time. Aude noted the shoe of one: it was black, cheap, beat-up; it had a pointed toe. Vinje started to moan once more, and again one of the gunmen suggested putting him out of his misery. “No, no, I’ll be quite,” Vinje begged.

David Vinje once defended a man accused of murdering a U.S. attorney. The attorney had picked up a female hitchhiker and accompanied her to her apartment, where he was robbed and murdered, allegedly by her boyfriend. When the defendant took his seat in court, he asked Vinje if the victim’s family was present in court. When Vinje replied in the affirmative, the defendant straightened his tie, placed his hand on the lapel of his coat and said, “I wonder if they recognize his clothes.” Vinje got the defendant off with a second degree murder conviction.

One of the robbers knelt beside Stranger on the floor by the pool table and said, “If you’re holding back, Mac, I’ll blow your head off.” The man with the shotgun went behind the bar and began making a shambles of it looking for valuables. Trophies for bowling and pool were knocked around and the cash register was forced open. For their evening’s work, the robbers earned, all told, approximately $800, a wristwatch, several credit cards, a used collector TV set and a couple of bottles of Coors.

“I favor the death penalty. It deterrent, and there are a lot of sons-of-bitches who need execution.

-William Thornburg, public defender

It became quiet in Lola’s and Stanger lifted his head as high as he could, rolled his eyes upward and called out in a low voice, “Slim, are they gone?” Bergman did not answer.  “Bartender, you move and I’ll blow your head off,” was the reply. A minute later Vinje repeated Stanger’s question. This time no one answered. Stanger looked up and saw that the gunmen were gone. He wriggled his feet free, stood up, walked over behind the bar and picked up a knife with his bound hands. He then walked over to the jukebox area and placed the knife in Perez’ hands, which were tied behind his back, and sat on Perez’ rear end so that the driver’s strong hands could cut Stanger’s bonds.

When everyone had been cut free, Vinje cried out, “Slim, get me a doctor, I’m shot. I’m shot.” Bergman lifted up Vinje’s shirt and saw a hole in his side.

A year earlier, Bergman’s wife had died of breast cancer. Vinje had befriended and comforted Slim then, and helped bring him out of his depression. Now Vinje looked up at Bergman and said, “Help me, Slim.” “Dave, lie quiet,” Bergman said. “We’ll get an ambulance.”

Stanger went to the telephone and dialed the operator. The phone rang approximately 10 times and there was no answer. Stanger hung up and dialed “0” again; this time, after three rings, a voice answered. The call was transferred to the North Hollywood police station where a desk sergeant, who at first had difficulty comprehending the situation, sent an ambulance to Lola’s.

One of David Vinje’s clients was accused of shooting his tenet; another, of killing his drinking buddy, chopping him up and putting him in a car trunk; a third, of strangling his victim, placing him in a laundry bag and dumping the bag next to a laundry. The last case to which Vinje was assigned involved a Chicano gang fight in which an innocent 13-year-old girl was killed.

Carr and Aude, the newcomers to Lola’s stood dumbfounded, staring down at Vinje–an intelligent, successful attorney with a wife and four kids-who had been at Lola’s to be with buddies that evening. He didn’t know that Vinje ran a youth sensitivity class at his church, that he liked to talk, advise and help people of all stations in life, that he just plain liked being accepted by people. Acceptance, it has been said, was no something Vinje, being on the plump side, had not always been sure of. But at Lola’s, acceptance was never an issue. The respect Vinje received resembled worship. While the patrons of Lola’s were not, perhaps as affluent as Vinje, nor as prestigious, they were his friends. Together they shared the luxuries of a 30-cent beer. Vinje could be found at the tavern three or four times a week. Some afternoons he brought along his kids, brown-bagging sandwiches.

“Why did they shoot?” said Carr aloud.

“Why shouldn’t they?” answered one of the police officers who had arrived on the scene. “It’s not a capital offence anymore. There’s nothing to lose.”

Vinje began to stir on the floor and attempt to roll over onto his back. “Lie still,” said the officer.

“I have been opposed to the death penalty for years. Even the Vinje incident does not change my beliefs. The nature of the victim is not the relevant issue. The lesson to be remembered from Vinje, for public defenders, is that on the streets these are not our people. On the streets, we are their victims, not their friends.”

-Dale Gribow, public defender

The ambulance first drove to a hospital in North Hollywood but, like most such hospitals, it was not equipped to deal with an emergency. Vinje was put back into the ambulance and driven to the County-USC Hospital.

Early Saturday morning, public defenders Al Simon and Paul James drove up to the Vinje residence in Sherman Oaks. Gail Vinje watched as they approached, trying to stay calm, already knowing by her husband’s absence that something had been wrong. She had met Dave on a blind date to a UCLA football game when Vinje was in law school, and they had become engaged by Christmas. Now they had four kids: Clarice, 12; Valerie, 10; Cosette, 7; and Eric, 3.

Simon, who had driven Vinje to and from work every day for four years, took Gail aside while James broke the news to the children, “Daddy was shot in the arm,” he said. “He’ll be alright.”

At the hospital, Mrs. Vinje, Simon and James were joined by a former indigent client of Vinje who had heard of the shooting on the radio. “Dave worked hard to help me start a new life,” he told Gail.

“What happened to Vinje confirms my theory that we should have a death penalty so people will think twice before they shoot somebody.”

-Richard Carr

The doctors, led by surgeon Lewis Cohen, battled valiantly around the clock trying to save Vinje’s life. Cohen found no evidence that Vinje had suffered a heart attack and Vinje had no history of such attacks. Thus the cause of the moaning that brought forth the bullet remained a mystery. Over the last 11 years, however, Vinje had experienced a few scattered attacks of a nervous reaction which resembled a seizure. That such attack occurred that night at Lola’s seems probable. Vinje, more than anyone else, had reasons to be frightened by the intruders: he had worked with people like them and knew what they were capable of doing.

“I’m for the death penalty; I believe when you screw around, you pay for it. Vinje believed in giving everyone a chance but I say if you’re caught, you’re caught; none of this Mickey Mousing around. Put them back on the streets and they’ll do it again. I think the whole system should be a little more brutal.”

-Frank Davis, Owner of Lola’s

At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, six days after his 45th birthday, 39 pints of blood after he was shot, David Vinje, a native of Oak Park, Illinois, passed away.

More than 600 people showed up for the funeral services. A former client brought flowers. A friend from Lola’s approached Gail Vinje. “I apologize,” he said, “for being from the other side of the tracks,” “Don’t say that,” Gail replied, “Dave wouldn’t.”

The minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Van Nuys, the Reverend Paul Aijian, paid tribute to the man who had once served as elder to the church.

Eric Vinje told Al Simon, “You won’t be taking my daddy to work anymore.” Simon told Eric, “Your daddy will always be riding with me.”

Aijian recalled how Vinje had once kept a local congregation from fragmenting during a controversy over a contribution to the Angela Davis defense fund, by writing letters to the church members explaining society’s need to guarantee justice for all. He thought the church should do more than just fill the pews on Sunday; he thought it should reach out and help society and expose society to religious values in a pragmatic way.

Slim Bergman, a Jew, began attending Sunday services at the First Presbyterian Church.

Vinje would have had a great compassion for those who shot him. If it were possible, he would defend them.”

-Stuart Rappaport, public defender

All of Vinje’s friends spoke of his honesty. They recalled that as an attorney, he never took kickbacks from bail bondsmen, never became involved in fee arrangements with doctors. When the man who did Vinje’s last income tax returns claimed a large deduction for business trip expenses, Vinje confessed that he had spent most of the money on himself, and paid the specialist another $25 to redo his tax forms leaving out the deduction. Vinje’s mother remembers that even as a boy he was almost painfully honest; how, on his 13th birthday, Dave left his seat in a motion picture theater at 4 o’clock, remembering it was the hour he was born, went back to the lady at the ticket booth and said, “I have to pay you more now because I’m 13.”

During the week that followed, Gail Vinje watched her children go into their daddy’s room and silently pick out some of his shorts to wear to school. One afternoon she was marveled at the coordination of three-year-old Eric as he swung a baseball bat, and realized that he was fatherless now. She opened a photo album and looked at the pictures of Dave and the children, taken on family holidays and vacations, and the tears began to run.

“No man has the right to take the life of another.”

-David Vinje, public defender

Shortly before noon that day, the Reverend Paul Aijian entered Lola’s for the first time. The patrons were practicing up on their dart throwing, tossing bull’s-eyes and triple 15s (Last year Lola’s placed second in the “B” division of the Southern California Dart Association).  Aijian walked up to the bar and showed his card to Frank Davis, the owner, who had been out of town during the shooting incident. Davis looked at the card, put his head down and began to cry. The patrons then formed a circle around the minister. A service was held that day in Lola’s.