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Identitiy Of Homeless Man Shot By LAPD Still Unclear

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The shooting of a homeless man by police here in Los Angeles last weekend was caught on tape. It sparked both protests and questions about police misconduct. In that way, the case is similar to ones in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But in another way, it's very different as Rina Palta of member station KPCC reports. Of all questions swirling around this police shooting, one of the trickiest to answer is who is the man the police shot?

RINA PALTA, BYLINE: There's a memorial on Skid Row in the place where the homeless man killed by police pitched his tent every night. Candles, clothes he left behind and a poster bearing the nickname he went by - Africa. Across the street, Kareem Anderson's clipping hair in his makeshift sidewalk barbershop. He remembers Africa.

KAREEM ANDERSON: Africa - he was a humble man. He lived in a tent. He slept by himself - kept to himself, smoked a little weed. He didn't bother anybody. But he was pretty firm about not letting people bother him.

PALTA: Africa lived on Skid Row, one of the largest homeless communities in the United States, just steps away from new, pricey urban lofts in downtown Los Angeles. His neighbors here knew him as kind but occasionally volatile. They never knew his full name, but since the shooting on Sunday, a lot more has come out about him. Police knew Africa as Charley Robinet, a French immigrant who pistol-whipped a man while trying to rob a bank in suburban LA in 2000. Steve Cron was his attorney.

STEVE CRON: Of all the cases I tried, his was the most difficult.

PALTA: Mainly, Cron says, because TV news footage showed the man post-robbery being chased by police.

CRON: Crossing over the center divider of the Ventura freeway on foot. And money was flying out as he was running. And he was caught with a satchel of money.

PALTA: Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Cheryl O'Connor says the man known as Robinet confessed to the robbery but later recanted.

CHERYL O'CONNOR: He also, in his tape-recorded confession, said that he had robbed the bank to get money to pay for his acting lessons.

PALTA: Which O'Connor says might have been true.

O'CONNOR: He was a very attractive man. And I certainly could've seen him aspiring to be an actor.

PALTA: After serving 13 years in prison, immigration agents tried to deport him, but they couldn't - turns out the man's name wasn't Robinet, and he wasn't French. The real Charley Robinet is alive in France. And the man known on Skid Row as Africa was actually from Cameroon. The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office thinks they have the man's true name. But they haven't released it yet. They've been trying to track down the man's family in Africa - but so far, no luck. Police say once you start digging into the lives of people on Skid Row, you're often surprised by what you find. Los Angeles Police Commander Andrew Smith worked that beat for three years.

ANDREW SMITH: You know, fascinating stories and tragic stories - many of them don't carry identification. Many of them don't want to be identified.

PALTA: In this case, it took a shooting for anyone to dig into Africa's past. For NPR News, I'm Rina Palta in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.