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Slayings at 2 marijuana dispensaries appear unrelated, LAPD officials say

June 25, 2010 |  2:13 pm

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Los Angeles police detectives on Friday continued to chase clues in two slayings at separate marijuana dispensaries that occurred within hours of each other Thursday.

Although it is early in the investigations, significant differences at the two crime scenes have led authorities to believe that the killings are not related, said two senior LAPD officials involved in the cases, who requested their names not be used because of the sensitivity of the ongoing inquiries. 

The first incident occurred around 4:15 p.m. on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park at Higher Path Holistic Care. Four suspects are thought to have entered the dispensary and at gunpoint ordered the two employees to lie face-down on the ground as the suspects ransacked the facility for marijuana and money, the police sources said.

Although the two workers did not resist, the attackers shot them, killing one and critically wounding the other, according to the police sources.  They said the account of the shooting came from the surviving victim, who has been able to speak with detectives from his hospital bed.

Before fleeing, the suspects removed the videotape from the facility's surveillance system, according to the police officials.

The slain man was 27-year-old Matt Butcher, the son of Julie Butcher, a well-known L.A. labor leader.  Butcher’s mother described the killing as “totally senseless,” saying her son was simply trying to cobble together part-time jobs in a tough economy.

“He was one of the most peaceful people,” said Julie Butcher, who works as a regional director of the Service Employees International Union Local 721. “He would have given them anything they wanted. There’s no reason for anyone to die over marijuana.”

About five hours after the shooting and a few miles away, the owner of the Hollywood Holistic II dispensary in the 1600 block of North El Centro Avenue walked into the store to find the body of his employee. The man, whom police have not yet publicly identified, had suffered stab wounds, the police sources said, although detectives are awaiting the results of the coroner’s initial investigation to determine whether he died from the stabbing or some other trauma.

Unlike the first incident, no drugs or money appeared to have been taken in the second attack, the sources said, leaving detectives to speculate that the killer or killers may have intended to rob the facility but panicked and fled after the killing, or perhaps had plotted to kill the man for some unrelated matter. It is not known how many suspects were involved in the Hollywood incident.

As with the first killing, the dispensary's surveillance tape was removed, the sources said.

In a brief interview as he entered Hollywood Holistic II, Billy Bones said he is the owner of the dispensary. (City records list the owner as William Colvin.) Open for two years, it had never been the target of any crimes or violence before Thursday, he said.

Bones said the slain employee "was a good guy. He didn't deserve this. He was really good with people. I'm pretty sure he would have given them anything they wanted."

Hollywood Holistic II is in a tan office building just off Sunset Boulevard. Upstairs is Hollyweed, another dispensary.

Higher Path Holistic Care is in a purple building, flanked on one side by apartments. Neighbors said there have been at least two prior robberies at the dispensary.

Kristin Dickson, 33, who owns a craft and clothing store nearby said she walked outside Thursday afternoon to get the mail and saw a security guard who appeared to have been shot bleeding and walking down the street.

"It's just really disturbing," she said. "There's families that live here. ... I don't have anything against marijuana pharmacies as a business. But because it’s created opportunities for crime, as a business owner, I want something that compliments my business. Not something that creates an opportunity for crime to happen.

Across the street at Hubbard Auto Repair, office manager Lorena Hubbard, 29, said she believes the police have responded twice before to robberies at the site. The first time, she said, owners installed cameras at the entrance. The second time, she said, the robbers tied up everyone in the store.

When asked whether he believed the dispensaries were targeted because they sold marijuana, LAPD Deputy Chief David Doan said: “It is because they have a lot of cash. It’s a cash-and-carry business. You don’t see a lot of people coming in with credit cards or writing checks. They come in with cash. That’s what’s attractive. Any business that does a lot of cash business has that risk.”

The deaths have rattled medical marijuana collective operators and patient advocates, who expressed fears that the two dispensaries were targeted by violent gangs.

Yamileth Bolanos, president of the Greater Los Angeles Collectives Alliance, criticized a provision in the city's new medical marijuana ordinance that will require dispensaries to have security guards who are not armed. “To me, that’s the scariest thing in the world,” she said. “We’re just sitting ducks, and everybody says that.”

Bolanos said several operators have told her business was extremely light. “Everybody’s scared,” she said. “Every time that something bad happens, the patients pull back for a day or so.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said the slayings could be linked to drug cartels.

“There’s a matter for us having to be on full alert as to what the reasons were for such brutal murders. It’s one thing to go in and put a gun in the face of a person whose running a commercial establishment and ask him for the money. It’s a totally different thing by assassinating the person that you’re robbing,” he said. “That, to me, is very cartelish in its style.”

Baca also said that there have been no robberies or violence at the dispensaries in the department’s jurisdiction. “Now we are starting to see the sinister side,” he said.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said the cash and marijuana at dispensaries made them magnets for crime. “I think it’s predictable gangs will get involved. They go where the money is,” he said.

Both spoke Friday morning at an event organized to oppose the marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot. Bishop Ron Allen, president of the International Faith Based Coalition, said the deaths answered the question of whether legalized marijuana would bring more crime.  “Will crime increase? Well, L.A., what happened last night?” he asked.

-- Joel Rubin, Paloma Esquivel and John Hoeffel

Staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report. 

Photo: Officers gather at the shooting scene. Credit: John W. Adkisson / Los Angeles Times

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