by Laylan Connelly and Paul Teetor

It was a Friday morning at the start of a long Labor Day weekend when Jesus Plascencia pulled into the parking lot of the Western Bagel Shop in Van Nuys at 4:35 a.m., driving a dark maroon 1983 Chevrolet Monte Carlo with customized wheels, flared fenders and black racing stripes.

Moments after Plascencia pulled into the parking lot, Marie Elise West, driving a green 1989 Volvo 240 DL sedan, pulled in behind him. West was at the tail end of a five-day bi-polar manic depressive episode that had taken her from her home in Hermosa Beach to the bars on Sunset Strip and finally to Van Nuys.

West remained in her car in a loading zone, where she was repeatedly asked to move by the Mexican-American employees carrying bagels out of the factory.

Feeling harassed and convinced her car was overheating, she became more and more agitated when Plascencia took the only available parking spot and went in to get his bagels.

According to police reports, court documents, eyewitness accounts, and interviews with bagel shop employees and detectives working the case, when Plascencia came out and walked behind her car, his arms filled with bags of bagels, West put her car in reverse.

Without warning, she suddenly backed into him with the right side of her car and knocked him to his knees. Bagels scattered on the oil-stained concrete parking lot.

West stopped drove her car forward, and hit Plascencia again, catching his clothes on the Volvo’s underside. She dragged him to the middle of Sepulveda Boulevard, approximately 30 yards from where he had first been hit. In the street, he was dislodged from the car and run over.

West left Plascencia dead in the street, re-parked her Volvo in the bagel shop parking lot, got out of her car, went in the bagel shop and asked an employee for a cup so that she could put water in her car’s radiator.

When the employee asked her if she realized what she had done to Plascencia, West replied: "Oh him? He’s road kill."

The shop employee called 911as West stormed out to her car.

Hate crime or preventable tragedy?

When police arrived on the scene, West locked her car doors and turned up the radio full-blast, singing along with her favorite CD: "Jesus Christ Superstar."

She would not acknowledge the presence of the police officers when they told her to get out of her car. Finally, a fireman broke her window. As she was being pulled from the car she kicked one of the officers.

Twenty minutes later, as she was being brought into the Van Nuys Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, Detective Al Aldez remembers her shouting racial slurs as she kicked at police officers. And he remembers her having the presence of mind to ask for a lawyer.

He also said that initial news reports that West had referred to Plascencia as "Mexican road kill" were not accurate. Eyewitnesses interviewed by Aldez reported that she had called him "road kill," not "Mexican road kill." However, other reporters later recycled the initial error in the media echo chamber and often paraphrased it as "West, hurling racial epithets at the man she killed…"

Even though it wasn’t true, the image of the blond-haired West callously referring to Plascencia as "Mexican road kill" took hold and became a rallying cry for those who later pushed for a hate crime charge against her.

As recently as last month, the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the highly respected newspaper that styles itself as the Wall Street Journal of the legal profession, repeated the initial error, quoting West as tossing off the "Mexican roadkill" remark.

Chuck Jones, the bagel shop’s human resources director, said that news angle bothered him.

"The media made it out to be a hate crime, but it wasn’t," Jones said. "The lady was just crazy, out of her mind."

Jones’ common-sense assessment is confirmed by West’s long psychiatric history. The 35-year-old woman, a classic blond-haired and blue-eyed American beauty, was a law school dropout and former Vegas showgirl. She had suddenly succumbed to bi-polar disorder a decade earlier, dropped out of Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley, abandoned plans for a law career, and veered from treatment to treatment ever since. On 17 separate occasions, doctors had diagnosed her as a danger to herself or others.

The morning of the homicide, she was overdosed on a toxic cocktail of 14 different prescriptions from eight different doctors — some of which were not supposed to be mixed. As a result, she was in the midst of the worst manic episode of her life.

The media at first was unaware of her medical problems and concentrated on the hate crime angle. Aldez was all over local TV in the days following the homicide, proclaiming it a hate crime for the cameras and microphones.

However, a review of the newscasts also reveals that Aldez never accused West of using the phrase "Mexican road kill." That was just a media myth that fit the storyline Aldez was selling. Its origin is still unknown.

Within hours of the initial news reports of a hate crime, there was a public outcry among the Latino community, where Plascencia was well known as a gentle man who made an early morning bagel run every weekday morning for the last 12 years.

The 66-year-old Latino man was single and lived alone. His "family" consisted of his co-workers at the deli where he worked in Canoga Park, and the people he saw every morning when he went to pick up bagels at Western Bagel.

"Everybody loved Jesus," said Chuck Jones, director of human resources at Western Bagel. "He was just a nice old man. He was like family to us."

Plascencia’s friends and co-workers began circulating petitions asking that West be formally charged with a hate crime. They gathered more than 2,000 signatures.

Despite the absence of racial comments by West at the homicide scene, Aldez, the lead officer in the investigation, reached the conclusion that this was a first-degree murder/hate crime within 24 hours.

The Los Angles District Attorney at the time, Gil Garcetti, agreed and filed murder charges against her with special circumstances of racial animus.

Although he admits West displayed a diminished mental state, Detective Aldez argues that she knew exactly what she was doing when she ran down Plascencia.

"She was sane enough to ask for a lawyer when she got to the police station, and I believe she was capable enough to know what she was doing at the time of the crime," Aldez said. "But her mental capacity is of no concern to me now. Someone else has to make that determination."

West’s attorney, Tony Capozzola of Redondo Beach, said her request for a lawyer is irrelevant.

"Just because a person asks for a lawyer does not mean that person had a specific intent to commit a crime, and this is a charge that requires a specific intent," Capozzola said. "Anyone who is generally confused or thinks they are in trouble has the ability to ask for a lawyer. If everybody who asked for a lawyer therefore had the specific intent to commit a crime, then all you would have to do is ask for a lawyer and the state wouldn’t have to prove specific intent at trial. That would be insane, as this whole case is."

Aldez also offered a theory about West’s possible motivation.

"There was only one parking spot available, and he took it," he said during an hour-long interview at his office in Van Nuys. "We think he unknowingly took the parking space she wanted. She may have been upset about that."

Capozzola ridiculed that theory.

"He has no basis for it other than his own mind-reading," he said. "A theory without any basis is bull."

West was held for two days at the Van Nuys police department. She was then taken to the psychiatric ward at the Los Angeles County Twin Towers Jail where she was given a padded, one-piece Velcro fastener vest similar to a straightjacket. Four months later she was transferred to Patton State Hospital, where she is currently incarcerated. The court has determined that she is not mentally competent to stand trial and will not stand trial until she is found mentally stable.

West is the first person in California charged under a state law that permits capital punishment for a hate crime murder. The law applies to anyone who intentionally kills another because of his or her race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin.

But those who know West well argue that she is not and never was a racist person. They point out that her second husband was black and her third husband, Al Bowman, is half Hispanic.

They say the night at the bagel shop was the tragic — and preventable —result of a manic depressive woman who had desperately tried to find care for her condition before she became out-of-control. It would have been preventable, they say, if state law had allowed West to be held against her will.

The West case, and several similar cases, have prompted the state to take a hard look at the current mental health system. The bill Gov. Davis signed last week, AB 1424, requires consideration of the historical course of the person’s mental disorder when making a determination on whether there is probable cause to hold that person involuntarily for treatment. Specifically, the bill requires disclosure of medical records, including psychiatric history and information from family members, before making a determination

The assembly is also working on a more comprehensive bill, AB 1421, that would give the state even greater authority to hold patients against their will.

Secret Weapon

At first glance, the facts of the West case seem clear and convincing: At the time of the homicide, she had been psychotic for a decade, was overdosed on a toxic combination of medications, and was in the midst of the worst episode of her life.

While she may have hurled racial epithets at police officers after the homicide, there is no evidence she said anything racial towards or about the victim, Plascencia. As her husband points out, she probably had no idea what nationality Plascencia was when she first backed into him.

"This was just her being crazy, not racist," Bowman said.

Timothy Aguilar is a spiritual counselor who worked with West for six months. He is part Hispanic and Native American, and he said it is absurd that West is being charged with a hate crime that could ultimately lead to her execution.

"In my personal experience with her she is not a hateful person, especially against my race," Aguilar said.

Even Chuck Jones, the bagel shop HR director, said it was clear West was out of her mind.

"She talked about road kill and everyone thought she was nuts," Jones said. "I would say it was her mental state rather than anything else. Even the employees who loved Jesus didn’t see it as a race issue. Jesus was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Deputy District Attorney Scott Millington heads the Hate Crimes Unit of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. He declined to explain filing the hate crime special circumstances charge despite West’s long psychotic history and the lack of racial comments at the scene.

"I don’t try cases in the media," Millington said. "As for her mental condition, we’re still evaluating all her prior medical records as well as the reports we get from Patton State Hospital."

West’s husband, Al Bowman, speculated that the state filed the hate crime charge because all ten current women on death row are minorities.

"There’s a lot of politically correct pressure to get a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who ran over an elderly Hispanic man on death row," he said. "A lot of people are pushing to have her killed for that very reason."

But there may be another reason for the state’s insistence it was a hate crime despite all the evidence suggesting it was a psychotic episode that turned fatal.

The Easy Reader has learned that West had been involved in two race-related arguments in the five days prior to the homicide. It is evidence that could be difficult for the defense to overcome if the case goes to a jury.

Detective Aldez, who did not volunteer the information but confirmed it when asked about it, said testimony about the two racial incidents would be part of the state’s evidence if the West case does go to trial.

"We think it goes to her state of mind," Aldez said.

The first argument erupted when West was having some work done on her Volvo at the Redondo Beach Firestone tire shop on Pacific Coast Highway. She made some comments about bringing a Confederate flag into the shop, some black and Latino employees took exception, and ethnically charged remarks were exchanged by both sides.

"She was out of control with the things she said," said one Firestone employee who asked not to be identified. "She was rude, obnoxious and racially insulting. She’s lucky she wasn’t punched out. If she was a man, she would have been."

Two days later, West got into a similar race-related spat with two Hispanic cooks at the Hermosa Steakout, the restaurant, where she worked as a part-time waitress. The issue: who settled California first, Mexicans or Caucasians?

From the prosecution’s point of view, Plascencia’s death was indeed the end result of a five-day spree, just as Bowman claims. But they see it as a spree with racial overtones.

They have evidence of West spewing, at best, politically incorrect views, and at worst outright racist rhetoric, in the days before the homicide. In either case, it could easily alienate a jury, no matter what their ethnic makeup, and lead them to think the homicide was the logical climax of a racial spree. The issue for a jury: would her mental illness trump any racial overtones to the homicide?

Capozzola said the two racial arguments shortly before the homicide only prove she was on an extended psychotic episode.

"It’s obvious from her past history that her episodes last for several days," Capozzola said. "The mentally ill Marie is one person, the other Marie is the person who is loving to all people. A person who is not ordinarily prejudiced could make those kinds of statements when she is psychotic. We will ask a jury to judge her on her whole life, not just on one psychotic episode."

And Capozzola called on the DA’s office to make a decision as soon as possible.

"What’s frightening to me is why the DA is trying so hard to execute this person," he said. "Why don’t they just admit that the totality of the circumstances proves that she didn’t kill him because he was Latino? Why have that hanging over somebody’s head? They know about her mental situation, so why don’t they make a decision based on what’s right?"

Millington declined to respond, other than to say "I’m familiar with Mr. Capozzola’s tactics."

 

The cry for care

His wife’s final, fatal act capped a five-day nightmare for Bowman, a well-known, 43-year-old Hermosa Beach resident who, at various times, has been the owner of a limousine fleet that catered to rock stars, a tabloid news reporter, and the producer of the Los Angeles Music Awards.

What has turned into his never-ending nightmare started on Aug. 24, 2000, when West began crying uncontrollably.

"She was just pouring out tears and said she had to go to Harbor for treatment," Bowman said.

West sought treatment at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, but doctors there refused to treat her unless she agreed to voluntary admission for at least three days. She refused.

"Right there is where the current system failed her, where we needed a change in the law," Bowman said. "They could see she was heading toward a full manic episode, but they couldn’t treat her unless she signed in voluntarily for at least three days. If they could have held her against her will all this could have been prevented."

Three days later, on Aug. 27, West felt an uncontrollable mania coming on. Panicked, she flew to northern California to seek treatment at the Alta Bates Herrick Hospital in Berkeley.

When asked why she was there, West, in her confused state, only mentioned heavy vaginal bleeding and never brought up any mental problems. She was released after six hours and was prescribed a medication for vaginal bleeding. Bowman said the medication had negative effects when combined with her other medications.

She came home from the Berkeley trip feeling more manic than ever, Bowman said. Three days later, he tried again to seek help for his wife and called the College Hospital in Cerritos for emergency care. He was told that West would be put on a waiting list, but it would be a week before a doctor could see her.

Unfortunately, a week proved to be too long for West — and Plascencia.

By the night of August 31, West was so out-of-control that Bowman knew he was dealing with a potential disaster. He hid her car keys, but she started the Volvo with a secret spare key and took off to parts unknown. That’s when Bowman called the Hermosa Beach Police Department, who were long familiar with West’s mental problems.

Bowman warned police that West was out of control and had a car. He also asked for protection and said she had already tried to kill him that night by putting her prescription medications in his wine.

Hermosa Beach police said they had a long history of dealing with West and her mental problems.

"There is no doubt in my mind that she is mentally ill because I have had to personally send her to the Harbor UCLA medical center for a 72-hour hold. When she is on her medication she is fine, but when she is off, she is trouble," said Paul Woolcott, public information officer for the Hermosa Beach Police Department.

The police were unable to locate her, and Bowman did not hear anything until 1 a.m. when West called him from the Rainbow Bar and Grill in West Hollywood. He begged her to come home but she refused.

"She didn’t want to come home because she thought someone put land mines on the freeway and there were kidnappers out to get her," Bowman said.

As the night wore on, Bowman eventually called the police five separate times.

At 7 a.m. he received a call from ABC Eyewitness News, his first hint of the bagel shop tragedy. He soon learned that his wife was being held on first-degree murder charges with the special circumstances of a hate crime after backing over a 66-year-old Hispanic man.

"I was shocked, but in a way I wasn’t surprised," Bowman said. "If the new law had been in effect back on Sept. 1, this tragedy never would have happened. An innocent man is dead because we just couldn’t control her."

Next week the Easy Reader will explore the long history of West’s illness and the state’s legislative attempts to deal with the issue of involuntary treatment for mentally ill people. ER