By Joe Piasecki
Los Angeles police have ruled that a Del Rey homeowner who shot and killed a violent homeless intruder on Sept. 30 acted in legal self-defense, but the incident has left neighbors calling for more action to address the area’s homeless population.
Police say 27-year-old Hunter Merkel, who died in the shooting, had been homeless in the area for about six months prior to attacking several people that night and confronting the armed man inside a garage on the 4700 block of La Villa Marina, part of the upscale 685-unit Villa Marina housing development.
Merkel was in the garage beating up a tenant with whom he’d had previous contact with when witnesses alerted the homeowner, Los Angeles police Det. Terry Keyzer said.
“The homeowner grabbed his registered firearm and came down the stairs into the garage, where he saw Merkel. Merkel produced a knife and came at the homeowner, and the homeowner shot him once in the chest,” Keyser said.
The shooting occurred at around 8 p.m., about an hour after Merkel had assaulted two men in a grassy area bordering the Marina (90) freeway and robbed one of them of a flashlight, she said.
The incident has heightened neighborhood concerns about increasing interactions with homeless people who have built encampments in nearby vacant land and parts of the Ballona Wetlands.
LAPD Pacific Division Capt. Brian Johnson told some 150 Villa Marina residents who attended an Oct. 17 homeowner’s meeting that police are ready to respond to immediate safety threats but are not equipped to prevent the homeless from gathering in the area.
“It’s kind of like shoveling sand at the beach. Until we get it from all angles, it’s a tough situation for us to police,” Johnson said in response to calls by several residents for police to cite and detain homeless people in order to drive them from encampments.
But to do that would tax law enforcement resources and violate their rights, Johnson said.
And due to jail overcrowding, tickets for panhandling (which also require witnesses to go to court) or trespassing in the wetlands — even when they go to warrant — don’t result in time behind bars.
“We take them in, they get a free meal, and they’re out,” Johnson said.
Rather, police must rely on cooperation from state officials to help secure and supervise the state-owned wetlands, he said.
During the meeting, members of the Noarus Auto Group proposed converting a problematic strip of land along the Marina Freeway and Mindanao Way into a parking lot as a way to keep trespassers out.
Noarus Auto Group, which owns Marina del Rey Toyota, holds title to the 1,862-foot long, 60-foot wide parcel and envisions a 390-space parking lot for excess inventory.
Group President Norris Bishton Jr. said the company would secure the land by encircling it with a 10-foot stone wall and chain-link fence gate opening to Mindanao. The company would also install lighting and monitor the area with security cameras, Bishton said.
Villa Marina Council board members later took a straw vote on the proposal that indicated overwhelming support, board President Richard Reece said.
“We have about 280 kitchens overlooking the Toyota property, which has been a haven for homeless people,” some of whom have interfered with quality of life in the development, Reece said.
“This proposal will solve that problem, plus it will be nicer to look at,” he said.