Spokane grapples with veteran's death

Residents stunned, saddened by fatal beating of man, 88

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SPOKANE -- Standing near the place where her longtime friend was beaten to death, allegedly by two teenagers who robbed him, Bonnie J. Murphy looked at her husband and saw shades of Shorty.

Joe Murphy is 88, just like Shorty was. He wore his World War II veteran cap, a testament to his time in the Pacific, where Shorty served too. She couldn't help but worry that he was just as vulnerable.

"He's going to get it one of these days," Murphy, 77, said of her husband. She thinks he should be more careful, and even bought him a chained wallet so it wouldn't get lost or stolen.

He scoffed. "I don't think so," he said, holding up his fists. "I'm a fighter."

She shook her head. Murphy was grieving and angry, not just because she'd lost her old friend, whose real name was Delbert Belton, a regular here at the Eagles Lodge and her dance partner. But also because his beating death Wednesday night has jolted Murphy -- and others -- with a cruel reminder of the kind of violence that all too often can rock a community and the randomness with which it seems to strike.

"He was a very good person, and it could have happened to anyone," she said. "There are just those kind of people out there, and you get in the wrong place at the wrong time."

As the story of Belton's death traveled far from Spokane -- an elderly white man, a World War II vet injured in Japan, killed, police said, by two black teenagers -- a vocal contingent has speculated that race could be a factor. They echoed a similar contention about a shooting days earlier in Oklahoma, in which three teenagers are accused in the killing of a college baseball player from Australia as he was jogging.

But in Spokane, a city of about 200,000 people, most of whom are white, many say they are grappling with a situation that is complicated, seemingly inexplicable and sad.

"This is not a racial thing," offered one of the speakers at a candlelight vigil held Friday outside the lodge. Many people went up, one by one, to say a few words about the man nicknamed Shorty because of his 5-foot stature. "We're not supposed to kill each other, beat each other to death."

The crowd of hundreds clapped. "Amen!" a few called out.

Authorities have not said that race was a motivation. Police believe it was a random act and say Belton's property -- including his wallet -- was found in a yard blocks away from the attack.

Police have arrested one of the suspects, a 16-year-old, and are looking for a second suspect, also 16.

The Los Angeles Times does not name minors who are suspects in criminal activity unless they are tried as adults.

The Inland Northwest -- an area of Eastern Washington and Idaho -- has a difficult history with race relations because of the white supremacist groups that once had a significant presence in the region, said Tony Stewart, a co-founder of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations in Idaho.

Stewart tracks civil rights issues in the region and he contends that because of the regional history, when a crime like this occurs -- black on white, or white on black -- outsiders take note.

He said his organization "condemns this brutal crime. It's just horrendous, and its unconscionable that those kind of things happen." Stewart added that if the investigation were to reveal that race was a factor, they would swiftly condemn it as a hate crime.

Belton's death has prompted many here to reflect on how this could happen.

"People don't talk to each other near as much as they used to," said Jacqueline Ceniza, 52, who was walking near the lodge through a neighborhood in the northern end of the city, which has been described by many as a rough one. Ceniza thought it was certainly a place that could have a stronger sense of community.

Ceniza, who is black, says she has a son who recently turned 16. She struggled to fathom a young man her son's age being behind an attack like this one. "I wouldn't even know," she said.

Ceniza's friend Vickie Russell has just grown tired of the seemingly constant stream of violence she sees across the country. "All that garbage that's been going on lately," she said. "It's beginning to hit close to home."