A story for every victim

Diner patrons struggle to understand a regular's gruesome death

Each Sunday, Robert Hollis sent a text message to his friend Bridgette McDaniels, a waitress at Tal's Cafe, to let her know he'd be there right after church.

By afternoon, the lanky 75-year-old would saunter into the small diner on Florence Avenue in Hyde Park, a white cane with a red tip in his hand.

Hollis had gone partially blind in recent years. If there wasn't a seat at the counter, patrons would give theirs up for the man known as Mr. Bojangles. Others would help him fix his coffee: four packets of sugar and French vanilla creamer.

The 'Bo'

His order would usually be waiting for him.

The "Bo," a grilled chicken sandwich with sauteed onions and American cheese, was named for him.

Last Sunday, McDaniels didn't receive a text. She found herself looking at her phone, waiting for it to buzz, even though she knew it would not.

Three days earlier, Hollis had been found decapitated inside his Inglewood apartment. Police have released few details about the investigation, and Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. has said he will introduce a $50,000 reward for information on the killing this week.

Hollis' gruesome death has stunned his family, including his six children. His ex-wife, who remains a good friend, said she can't imagine who would want to hurt Hollis. He was a singer in various church choirs, a sign maker and former South L.A. car pinstriper.

"People knew his name and they knew him for years and years," said Norma Hollis, who was married to Robert Hollis for more than a decade.

Norma Hollis

When they first met, she said, he had a van with a couch in the back. The two would ride around Los Angeles and hang out in the back of the van. Mr. Bojangles was always recognized.

"He was just that popular on the streets of Los Angeles," she said.

Robert Hollis' legacy is tied to Tal's Diner. He painted the signs on the outside of the diner. He made the signs on the inside. And when he met Norma back in 1984, the two had their first date at Tal's.

At Tal's all the regulars have their own coffee mugs. Hollis', a black Starbucks mug, is put away on top of the refrigerator so no one else can drink out of it.

On Thursday morning, Mac Johnson sat in the corner of the restaurant wearing a brown cowboy hat, sipping coffee from a mug that read "Old Guys Rule." He often makes the drive from the Antelope Valley.

Johnson doesn't come for the food. He loves the people he has met.

The last Sunday Hollis was in the restaurant, Johnson took a seat next to him and the two caught up. Hollis often talked of his goal to live to be 100. That afternoon, Hollis said that "life is fantastic."

When Johnson heard what happened to Hollis, he couldn't make sense of it.

Mac Johnson

"He would be the last person I would expect that someone would do this to," he said. "You would never think that someone would take his life in such a cruel, heartless way."

McDaniels recalled the time years ago when she got a new white Kia truck and talked to Hollis about how to personalize it. Then Hollis finished eating and left.

When McDaniels finished her waitressing shift, she found her truck newly decorated. In black cursive, Hollis had placed a simple "Ms. Mac" on both sides.

"We loved him, we cared about him," McDaniels said. "He wasn't just somebody who stopped through and just ate."

-- Nicole Santa Cruz

Photos: (Top) Sheila Taylor holds a photo of Robert Hollis outside Tal's Cafe in Hyde Park on Thursday. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times. (Second) The 'Bo' sandwich at Tal's. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times. (Third) Norma Hollis, Robert's ex-wife, at a memorial for Hollis on June 22. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times. (Fourth) Mac Johnson, another regular at Tal's, at the diner. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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