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Life in prison without parole for barber who set homeless man on fire

April 28, 2010 | 10:44 am

A man who prosecutors said had a grudge against the homeless was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing a homeless man in the Mid-Wilshire area by setting him on fire with an emergency flare.

The murder committed by Ben Martin, 31, two years ago horrified the densely populated area where John McGraham was a well-liked figure and spotlighted the vulnerability of the homeless to violent attack.

BenMartin "My brother had a life -- he was a human being," Susanne McGraham Paisley, the victim's sister, told the court through sobs. "Even in a state of homelessness, he managed to touch so many lives."

Martin reportedly disliked homeless people lingering near the barber shop where he worked. A co-worker later told police he had seen Martin shout at the homeless to move away from the shop, sometimes striking out at them.

A customer said that he saw Martin on a separate occasion chasing McGraham down 3rd Street, hitting him with a bag of towels and kicking him in the back. The barber yelled, “I don’t want to see you around here again,” according to the customer. 

When the manager of the barber shop learned of the attack, Martin was fired. Three months later, prosecutors said, Martin returned to the area with revenge on his mind.

Carrying a bucket of gasoline and an emergency road flare, he found McGraham standing in the driveway of a parking lot. Martin soaked the homeless man with the gasoline, prosecutors said, then lighted the flare and set him on fire.

As Martin fled, passersby desperately tried to douse the flames, but McGraham, 55, was burned alive.

McGraham, who once worked nearby as a bellman at the Ambassador Hotel, suffered from depression. For two decades he repeatedly spurned efforts of family members and others to remove him from the streets and obtain treatment for him. Those around 3rd and Berendo streets fed him daily and provided him with clothing.

Authorities said they tied Martin to the murder through witnesses and forensic evidence collected at the crime scene.

-- Jack Leonard at L.A. County Superior Court downtown

Upper photo: Ben Martin is led out of Los Angeles County Superior Court after being sentenced to life in prison in the slaying of John McGraham. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: Martin during the sentencing hearing. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times