Millennial Moment: Officer Kills Boy, 5, Holding Toy Gun

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March 3, 1983: Patrick Andrew Mason was too sick to go to school, and his mother Patricia Ridge, 29, had no one to care for him while she went to her job charging car batteries at a Sears store in Buena Park, so she left him alone in their apartment at 8101 Cerritos Ave. in Stanton, putting him in a bedroom with a TV set and tying the door shut with heavy string.

Patrick had been sick since late February, so Ridge bought him a set of police accessories based on the “T.J. Hooker” TV show — a red plastic gun, a badge and a baton — at a convenience store near their home.

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The 8100 block of Cerritos Avenue in Stanton via Google Street View.


Ridge, an African American, had left Chicago the previous August in hopes of raising Patrick in a safer area. One of her friends had been unable to contact her for about two weeks, so on March 3, 1983, the friend contacted police to report the situation.

About 5:30 p.m., Police Officer Anthony Sperl, who had been with the department a little over a year, responded to the apartment, which was later described as being in an “anti-police” “gang-troubled” neighborhood.”

No one responded to his knocks and shouts, so he told the dispatcher he was leaving. But Sperl was ordered to stay while police contacted the apartment manager and arranged for her to unlock the apartment, which Times reporter Maura Dolan described as “dusty and sparsely furnished.” Sperl apparently thought that the apartment had been burglarized or vacated.

Apartment manager Anne Reid said Sperl did not ask who lived in the apartment, nor did she volunteer the information. With a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other, Sperl entered the apartment.  He heard noises coming from the bedroom and called out. “After receiving no reply, Sperl became ‘panicky.’ Fearing that he was being ‘set up,’ [he]  kicked in the door, saw a figure pointing a gun at him and fired,” The Times said.

He said later that the room was only lit by a TV set and that he saw a figure with a gun, so he fired, killing Patrick Andrew Mason, 5.

The aftershocks of this tragic incident reverberated through the court system for years and raised the debates about latchkey children, officer-involved shootings and relations between white police officers and African Americans.

In September 1983, Sperl retired on disability from the department after the Orange County Grand Jury decided not to indict him in the killing. In 1986, Ridge dropped her $20-million wrongful death suit against Sperl and the city of Stanton, which agreed to pay her $395,000. A “Hill Street Blues” episode was based on the incident and CBS’ “60 Minutes” profiled the killing. There’s really a movie in this story for the right person.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1983, Crime and Courts, Millennial Moments and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Millennial Moment: Officer Kills Boy, 5, Holding Toy Gun

  1. Santos L Halper says:

    It’s interesting how this story trickled down socially in pre-Internet society; as a child growing up in the late 80s on the east coast, this was a commonly referred to tragedy when adults would instruct us to never, ever display a toy gun near a police officer. (I lived in a pretty high crime area but it was full of children playing on the streets.) However, it’s fascinating to finally read about the incident in more detail. As a kid, we were led to believe that the shooting was under much less hazy circumstances. If I recall correctly, the imagery we were given was of a suburban white child in a park holding some sort of plastic toy gun and a police officer firing at him from a moderate distance. That certainly served as a disturbing enough premise to keep us from doing anything foolish.

    • lmharnisch says:

      I remembered this incident vaguely, since I was in the news business, but I didn’t live in L.A. at the time, so I didn’t recall all the details. Particularly the detail that the plastic gun was red — as stated in one story — not black. A terrible incident — and there’s much more that I left out.

      • Tony sperl says:

        The gun was black and looked real, it was NOT RED.
        One more point. I am from one of the oldest Jewish Families in Los Angeles and own a building that my great grandfather built in Downtown Los Angeles in 1882. According to the internet, I am the longest family to own property in Downtown Los Angeles. Also, my grandfather Harry Sperl (Sperling) was the first Pilot to circle Los Angeles in an Airplane and he stared the Santa Monica Airport…it was a farm, he had engine trouble and landed there. The rest is Los Angeles History.

  2. Mike Botula says:

    Larry,
    I was a reporter at KFWB when this incident occurred. Given the times and the tension that existed then on the issue of police shootings, this story was huge in the local media. Shortly after this shooting incident, it was discovered that Officer Sperl was the son of Los Angeles County Marshall Timothy Sperl. The elder Sperl was later convicted of corruption charges in Los Angeles County and dismissed from the position. He changed his name to Farrell and changed careers, as an actor.
    Mike Botula

    • Patrick says:

      I was a news junkie in the 80’s and listened to KFWB frequently; it was “all news, all the time” then. Great to hear from Mike Botula again. He’s absolutely right about L.A. County Marshal Timothy Sperl leading a double life as actor Timothy Farrell in the 1950’s. He appeared in Edward D. Wood Jr.’s cult classic “Glen or Glenda”.

    • Tony sperl says:

      Mike, my father had been a famous actor in the Ed Wood Cult Movies in the 1950’s using the acting name Timothy Farrell. He also wrote for ABC Television in the 1950’s and 1960’s…mainly court shows. His real birth name was not Timothy Sperl, but Harry Sperling. One more point, I know for a fact that my father was innocent of the charges he was convicted on because one of the three Deputies confessed that they took it upon themselves to destroy documents after my father instructed them not to touch them.

      • Mike Botula says:

        It’s amazing that stories like this bubble to the surface after so many years. I lived only a few miles from where this happened, and remember agonizing over it because it happened so close to home. Then there was the issue of a young officer who was probably scared to death making entry into the darkened home. When he saw the pistol, he just reacted. To me, the fact that the officer’s father was the L.A. County Marshal was merely a side issue. My heart went out to the mother, who couldn’t afford a baby sitter and the police officer who obviously knew a split second later that he had made a horrible mistake. In my view, it was a horrible tragedy.

  3. Mary Mallory says:

    So sad that the mother received virtually no money, and the officer got off scot free. Was this her only child?

  4. Craig Payne says:

    Mary – the officer didn’t get off ‘scot free’……his life was all but destroyed, and the constant remorse and feelings of guilt must have been absolutely devastating. Can you imagine having to live with such a burden? He was just trying to do his job as best he could….there was no intent or reckless disregard for which he could or should have been legally punished. And yes, it does seem the mother should have received a larger settlement, but $395,000 isn’t exactly ‘virtually no money’….it was 25 years ago. Very sad heartbreaking case for all involved – life can be so rough and unforgiving. The little boy went straight to our Heavenly Father, I have no doubt…..bet he will be the first to extend forgiveness to Anthony if he ever has the chance.

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