During a confrontation on January 31, 1995, William Masters II shot two young men under a highway overpass in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. One of the men, Cesar Arce, 18, was killed, while the other, David Hillo, 20, survived. The details of what happened that night are still in dispute, but the case of the “Los Angeles Bernie Goetz” is an interesting flashpoint in the debate about self-defense, gun ownership and the rights of civilians who choose to patrol their own neighborhoods.
Some time before the shooting, William Masters II, a 35-year-old former Marine and weapons enthusiast, had taken it upon himself to patrol his crime-ridden neighborhood, just north of North Hollywood. He did so alone, on foot, and with a concealed 9mm pistol under his shirt. On the night in question he encountered two Latino youths spraying graffiti on a freeway pylon under Highway 170, also known as the Hollywood Freeway. Masters did not approach the two men, instead taking out a pen and paper to note their license plate number in order to report it to the police. At that point Arce and Hillo approached Masters and demanded that he turn over the license plate number.
David Hillo conceded that he had a screwdriver in his hand when they approached Masters, but says that they did not threaten Masters with it, nor did they demand his wallet, nor did Arce lunge at Masters as is Masters’s claim. Regardless of what happened in those crucial moments, Hillo and Arce were both shot in the back (Hillo in the buttock) after Masters brandished his gun. When the police arrived they detained Masters for six hours, but ultimately sided with his version of events and did not arrest him.
In the months after the killing, Masters did not hide from the spotlight. Many people who were affected by the staggering crime levels of Los Angeles in the 1990’s praised him as a hero and contended that he did nothing wrong. He appeared on local radio shows, did interviews and brazenly defended his actions. In one interview he blamed Arce’s mother for the incident and said “she murdered her son by being an irresponsible, uncaring parent.” He also reportedly referred to his victims in racial terms on more than one occasion.
Nearly a month after the shooting Masters was charged with one count of carrying a concealed firearm in public and one count of carrying a loaded firearm in public. Such a charge was not Masters’s first. In 1985 he was arrested in Texas for carrying two metal martial arts clubs and fought the case for four years until a state appeals court let stand a $1 fine levied against him. Hillo was charged with vandalism, but only after being threatened with charges of attempted robbery and murder (California law states that if one perpetrates an incident that led to a murder, that person can also be charged with murder). Masters was convicted of both counts in October, 1995 and sentenced to 30 days of removing graffiti (a common community service sentence) and 3 years probation. He was also ordered to give up his guns. Hillo was sentenced to 20 days in jail.
The story of William Masters II and his encounter with David Hillo and Cesar Arce is a tragic one, no matter which version of events one believes. Unfortunately the issues related to this case are seldom discussed until a tragedy of this magnitude occurs. Such incidents should at least reinforce the recognition that as long as there is an abundance of crime and too few law enforcement officers to shoulder that burden, there will be people who choose to defend their community. Whether those motivations and the actions that follow are justified will forever be debated. The case of William Masters is just one part of a larger narrative, but it is still an important part and one that should be remembered within the context of any discussion of “vigilante justice.”