LOS ANGELES — Tourists flock to Hollywood each year hoping to see movie stars and the site of the Academy Awards as they experience the glitz of the world’s entertainment capital. They don’t expect to see a woman stabbed to death amid the crowds.
Christine Darlene Calderon, 23, was killed Tuesday in front of an American Eagle Outfitters store on Hollywood Boulevard after police say she refused to give three panhandlers $1 for taking their photographs on the star-lined “Walk of Fame.”
As authorities vowed Friday to increase undercover and uniformed patrols in the area, the incident served as the latest reminder of the seedy side of a place where fame often mingles with misfortune. While the neighborhood of famous theaters, red carpet events and stars’ footprints preserved in concrete has cleaned up its act in recent years, it remains gritty and, at times, dangerous.
“Hollywood is totally glamorized in movies, stories and books,” said Juan Alcala, 64. “But the reality of Hollywood is the majority of the people here are transients, people trying to make it in the movie and entertainment industry who wind up prostituting themselves because there’s no food.”
Alcala calls himself a homelessness activist. He’s a transient who knows many of the area’s panhandlers and other wanderers. On Friday, he was wheeling his road bike down the street with bags of newfound possessions strapped to it.
Behind Alcala played out a typical Hollywood scene: superheroes like Zorro in costume and swinging a fake sword, people posing for photos with a wax figure of Marilyn Monroe, men dropping CDs into the hands of passing tourists asking for money, a religious group chanting their fervor for Jesus. Meanwhile, starry-eyed tourists poured off buses to check out the TCL Chinese Theater and sites they’ve only seen in movies or on TV.
Anna Leiter, 18, and her boyfriend Fabian Klotz, 19, were visiting Los Angeles for the first time from small towns in Austria. Klotz stared at people portraying Spiderman and the Hulk with a grin as Leiter palmed a camera. They had heard about the stabbing on the news but agreed not to tell their parents.
“It was scary of course,” Leiter said. “We thought we’re going to go make pictures like that woman. You think there are so many people here. You don’t think that can happen.”
“But we know it can happen anywhere,” Klotz said.
Even the superheroes have been known to brawl out of character for their good-guy personas. Alcala said he’s been chased down the street by an angry Cookie Monster. Los Angeles officials tried to crack down on unlicensed Hollywood character impersonators after a fight a couple years ago. Characters sued claiming their First Amendment rights.
Monica Acuna, 41, grew up in the Hollywood area and has an apartment behind the Hollywood and Highland Center, which opened in 2001, transforming the block into an even bigger commercial shopping area. But while security has been increased, the area is still home to “thieves and swindlers” who stop tourists every few feet to try and sell them something, Acuna said.
“As long as you don’t talk to the bums, you’ll be all right, I’m pretty sure,” Acuna said while dressed as a clowned-up version of Marilyn Monroe. “When they talk to me I give them an even crazier look than they give me, and act crazier than them.”
Police have received complaints about aggressive panhandling, but those actions are also constitutionally protected, said Cmdr. Andrew Smith.
Hollywood station Senior Lead Officer John Washington, who serves as a liaison with the community, said police officers are often outnumbered on the streets.
“As soon as we tell a group (of panhandlers) to leave, they leave, and somebody else replaces them,” Washington said.
The department has employed dozens of additional officers in the area since 2009 to ensure tourist safety, Smith said. Crime is significantly down, especially when compared to the “wild west” days of the 1980s and 1990s, locals say, but petty theft remains a problem.
Tuesday’s stabbing was “not standard for Hollywood,” Smith said.
On Friday, the three panhandlers accused in Calderon’s stabbing death pleaded not guilty in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Dustin James Kinnear, 26, a hulking man with long red hair, is charged with murder. Jason Joel Wolstone, 33, was charged with assault, and Brian Joseph Widdows, 34, with being an accessory.
The day of the fatal stabbing was Angel Gimenez’s first day of work selling sunglasses at a kiosk 20 feet from where Calderon was killed.
“It was really scary,” said Gimenez, 30, who came here from Paraguay two months ago. “But you know, in my country it’s the same. I got robbed five times maybe, with guns,” he said pointing a finger to his head. He said most tourists and friends who visit tell him, “I thought it was going to be better.”
On Thursday, two days after Calderon’s death, it was better for one of the area’s regular star-studded ceremonies.
Jennifer Lopez was honored with the Walk of Fame’s 2,500th star.