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Times coverage: USC student's 1994 shooting could be reopened as a homicide case

Lisa La Pierre spent 15 years on a ventilator and in a wheelchair. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / December 30, 1999)Times reporter Kate Linthicum has more on  Lisa La Pierre, a 42-year-old white woman who died in a hospital Monday, Jan. 18, more than 15 years after she was shot at Santa Monica Boulevard and Sweetzer Avenue in West Hollywood. A gang member who pleaded guilty to attempted murder and served time in a juvenile jail could face new charges in her death.

In 2000, The Times wrote about the gun used in La Pierre's shooting, a .380-caliber Beretta which had been stolen in a burglary and was then used by gang members to rake a bloody trail across the city from 1994 to 1996.

Linthicum has the story on her case since:

In 1994, someone walked up to Lisa La Pierre's parked car in West Hollywood, thrust a gun through the cracked window and fired.

The bullet didn't kill La Pierre, but it ended life as she knew it. Paralyzed from the neck down, the USC pre-law student dropped out of school and spent the next 15 years on a ventilator and in a wheelchair.

La Pierre died in January. Now officials are trying to determine whether it was the gunshot that killed her.

The coroner initially listed her death as a homicide and later deferred a final determination pending additional tests. If the death is linked to the shooting, a case that had been closed for a decade could come back to life.

The circumstances surrounding the case are very complex, said Det. Dave Gunner of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who has spent the last two months reviewing the case in the event that it is reopened as a homicide investigation. "There is so much gray area here," he said.

For one, the gunman has already served time in juvenile detention center for attempted murder. It's unclear whether Frank Antoine Lewis, now 30, could be tried again.

Lewis, who was born in Inglewood, got his first gang tattoo when he was 10 and his first gun at 12. At the time of the shooting, he was 14.

The attack happened after a night of partying on July 11, 1994.

Bernard Nelson -- a member of the MoneySide Hustlers gang, according to Gunner -- asked Lewis to join him in a series of stickups. Lewis agreed.

Lewis later said he used Nelson's handgun to rob three people before approaching La Pierre's red Honda.

La Pierre lived in Torrance. Her mother was a baker at a supermarket. Her late father had been a truck driver. La Pierre was a junior at USC and worked three jobs to pay for school. She hoped to become a criminal lawyer.

She had gone out that night with several friends to the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip.

At 1:30 a.m. they had left the club, planning to eat at a nearby deli. But first La Pierre and her roommate, 21-year-old Samantha Holcomb, drove behind a friend as he took his date home in West Hollywood.

La Pierre pulled over to the curb at Santa Monica Boulevard and Sweetzer Avenue in West Hollywood. She was making a call on her cellphone when Lewis shot her. One bullet ripped through her spinal cord. Another lodged in Holcomb's leg.

Holcomb's injuries were not serious. La Pierre woke up in the hospital, paralyzed.

Detectives working the case tracked Lewis down three years later to a juvenile facility where he was serving a sentence for stabbing a gang rival.

Lewis pleaded guilty to attempted murder and served several years in a juvenile jail. He later testified in another murder case against Nelson, the gang leader, who now sits on death row at San Quentin State Prison.

In an interview in the Los Angeles Times in 2000, Lewis said he had not been able to shake the guilt over what he had done.

"I had a dream Lisa shot me in my neck," he said, "and I was paralyzed and she was rolling me down stairs."

Photos: Lisa La Pierre, top, and Frank Lewis, bottom, shown in 1999. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times

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