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Gunfire and Deadly Crash Rattle the Las Vegas Strip;
Will Incident Hurt Las Vegas Tourism?

By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 22, 2013--LAS VEGAS -- A spectacular predawn crash on the Strip -- triggered when bullets fired from a black Range Rover peppered a Maserati -- hit this resort city right between the eyes. In the end, three people were dead and a major intersection under lockdown during a three-state manhunt for the shooters, leaving even casino veterans used to the extraordinary scratching their heads.

The mayhem was sparked, witnesses told police, by a quarrel early Thursday at a hotel valet stand.

The two vehicles left the Aria resort hotel and were heading north on Las Vegas Boulevard at 4:20 a.m., an hour when the casino marquees shine brightly but the gambling thoroughfare is largely empty. At Harmon Avenue, occupants inside the Range Rover opened fire on the Maserati, police said.

The silver-gray sports car, which was struck several times, sped into the intersection at Flamingo Road, ramming a Yellow cab. The taxi exploded, killing the driver and a passenger. Four other vehicles in the intersection were also involved in the crash and explosion, but officers offered no details.

"Omg Omg Omg that car just blew up!" one witness tweeted shortly after the crash, posting a photo of the wreckage. "God Bless their Souls! Omg!"

The driver of the Maserati died later at a hospital, police said. A passenger in the vehicle received minor injuries and was being interviewed by investigators. At least three others were also injured.

Police in Nevada, California, Arizona and Utah were on alert for the distinctive black Range Rover SUV, described as having dark-tinted windows, black rims and out-of-state paper dealer plates.

"We are going to pursue these individuals and prosecute them," Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said at an afternoon news conference. "This act was totally unacceptable. It's not just tragic but unnecessary -- the level of violence we see here in Las Vegas and across America."

Authorities had not publicly identified the dead. But a Las Vegas television station late Thursday identified the taxi driver as Michael Boldon, 62, who the station said had recently moved here from Michigan to care for his 93-year-old mother.

The victim's son, who drives a limousine, told Fox News 5 that he last talked with his father after 3 a.m., and later called his cellphone shortly after the crash to warn him to avoid the Strip. But there was no answer.

The station also identified the driver of the Maserati as Ken Cherry, a rap artist from Oakland who also is known as "Kenny Clutch." The station quoted family members identifying Cherry as the driver. An Internet video of a Cherry song called "Stay Schemin" shows two men in a vehicle on the Strip.

Police had more questions than answers.

"It began with a dispute at a nearby hotel and spilled onto the streets," said Capt. Chris Jones of the Las Vegas Police Robbery and Homicide Division.

The morning's events threw the Strip into disarray all day. The gambling boulevard's busiest and best-known intersection was cordoned off by yellow police tape until nightfall, keeping traffic and curious pedestrians away from the carnage. Even skywalks were blocked off.

While slot machines beeped and card games continued inside casinos around the accident scene -- including the Bellagio, Caesars Palace and Paris Las Vegas -- hotel bell captains were fielding questions from tourists who had awakened to news of the crash and the Strip shutdown. The alleys and side streets between nearby hotels were clogged with pedestrians who inched along on narrow sidewalks, past delivery doors, many making their own paths between the landscaped bushes and palm trees.

Even casino industry workers were thrown into turmoil. Hotel maids and dealers who finished their midnight shifts after dawn were left without bus service home. "I'm stranded," said Tiruselam Kefyalew, 25, a maid. "What a day to leave my cellphone at home."

Limousine drivers who normally prowl the city's gambling core improvised detours. Some said the police blockade would cost them $500 or more in lost business and tips.

"Most people understand, but you have your complainers," said Jim DeSanto, a limo driver who waited for fares outside Bally's casino. "Those people will complain, even when everything is perfect."

Well after noon, guests peered out nearby hotel windows and others leaned into the street to glimpse the crime scene.

"Hey, honey, it must have happened right here," one man told his wife as they left Caesars around noon. The tourist, who would only say that he had arrived from Tampa, Fla., the previous evening, had looked out his hotel window at 4:30 to see a vehicle in flames.

"I thought it was just another crash," he said. "I never would have dreamed it was a crime scene."

Paul Pillat witnessed the incident. For seven years, Pillat, whose nickname is "Tumbleweed," has lived on the streets of Vegas. His regular haunt is the intersection where the crash occurred.

Pillat, 58, said he was walking on the sidewalk in front of Paris Las Vegas, headed toward a fast-food restaurant, when he heard gunshots. "I ducked right away," he said. "I said, 'Whoa!' I didn't know what was going on."

He did not see the impact but heard the crash. "Then the ambulances started coming. It was like a demolition derby out there," he said.

Pillat said he had come to expect violence on the Strip. "It's the Wild West here. People don't understand. They think it is fun and games. It's not. It's dangerous," he said.

At the news conference, Gillespie emphasized that the city remained safe. "I've been asked whether the Las Vegas Strip is safe: Yes, it is," he said. "As you know, there are no absolutes when it comes to people's behavior."

Still, the shooting hit a city that has embraced guns and lawlessness as a way of business. Settled by organized crime members, downtown Las Vegas has its own Mob Museum. The Strip and surrounding freeways are littered with billboards advertising galleries where customers can fire AK-47s and other high-powered weapons.

In 1996, rapper Tupac Shakur was shot and killed two blocks from Thursday's accident scene, at the intersection of Flamingo Boulevard and Koval Lane, as he rode in a car driven by Death Row Records Chairman Marion "Suge" Knight.

Standing outside Bally's casino Thursday morning, Denver resident Scott Golaszewski opened an advertising handout to a page with a local shooting gallery ad featuring a scantily clad woman holding a semiautomatic rifle over her head, an ammunition belt wrapping her waist.

"I think this girl did the shooting, right here," he told his wife, Diane.

"I saw that ad, but I wasn't going to tell you," she shot back. "We're not going there, especially today."

She said she felt sorry for the victims, especially the taxi driver and his occupant. "Those people were probably just out having a good time," she said. "It just makes you realize that death can come from any angle."

Other visitors acknowledged they were looking over their shoulders Thursday. Gaspar Pasqualetto, 83, and his brother Frank, 80, from Diamond Bar, said violence can hit any street corner in America.

"Look at what happened in Orange County this week," Gaspar said of the shooting rampage that left four dead, including the gunman.

But nothing was going to stop these two determined gamblers. Racing form in hand, Pasqualetto waved as he headed to the sports book inside Bally's.

"Wish me luck," he said.

john.glionna@latimes.com

___

(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services NYSE:BWS,Unannounced:CZR,



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