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A young man walks past a burned out suit store on Pine Avenue the morning after a protest turned violent and looters damaged numerous businesses in Long Beach on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

A feeling of uneasiness grew in Vasken Samuelian’s stomach.

Samuelian, 57, sat with his family in his in-laws’ home Sunday afternoon, May 31, drinking a Scotch and watching TV coverage of a protest unfolding in downtown Long Beach. It was peaceful. But he noticed the crowd, at times, became confrontational toward police officers there.

He saw the throng, initially concentrated around the southern end of Pine Avenue, push further north — to Third Street, then to Fourth. Samuelian, who had run the Men’s Suit Outlet at Pine Avenue and Seventh Street since 2003, knew it might not be long before he saw his own shop on the screen.

After protests in Los Angeles the night before devolved from nonviolent marches against police brutality into looting, vandalism and arson, Samuelian wondered: Could the same happen in Long Beach?

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A charred mannequin lies on the ground outside a burned out suit store on Pine Avenue the morning after a protest turned violent and looters damaged numerous businesses in Long Beach on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

The demonstration, during the few hours Samuelian watched from afar, grew tenser. A standoff between protesters and police developed, interrupted at times by minor confrontations — a water bottle thrown at an officer, a rubber bullet fired at a rabble-rouser.

But still, to Samuelian, it seemed — from miles away on a TV screen — like the event would not careen out of control.

So he turned off the TV and spent more time with his family before heading home with his wife and daughter.

But the uneasiness stayed with him.

For good reason.

At first, all seemed quiet.

Later that evening, around 7:30 p.m. at his own home, Samuelian pulled out his phone and opened a security camera feed of his store.

A man, Samuelian saw, approached the store. He attempted to pull back the folding metal security gate protecting the glass storefront.

It was the first hint of what would soon follow: A rapid escalation that would lead to nearly all of his merchandise being stolen — and then the entire building, including a few smaller businesses, being torched.

Long Beach officials have defended their performance in responding to the widespread crime that broke out after what started as a peaceful demonstration in downtown on Sunday. City leaders have repeatedly emphasized that there was no loss of life, no major injuries and only one major structure fire that night — a much smaller scope of damage than that wrought on other cities regionally and nationwide.

Police deployed four times as many officers as they normally would on a Sunday to prepare for what Long Beach officials expected to be a peaceful protest, Police Chief Robert Luna said during a Sunday night press conference. But the department had to call on aid from nearby law enforcement units to respond to calls for service all over the city.

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“Sometimes, you get the anger from people saying, ‘Where are the police?’” Luna said that night. “We were everywhere, but it takes time to get there.”

But for Samuelian, that one structure, housing his shop, symbolized nearly two decades of commitment to Long Beach. He waited on hold with the Long Beach Police Department for 20 minutes before he could speak with a dispatcher, watching his store get looted.

He was distraught — and that was before, about an hour later, flames erupted.

Samuelian, in recent interviews, said he believed the building’s destruction was preventable.

“The Fire Department — as usual, they were very late to be there,” he said. “It was too late to solve anything, so the whole thing was burned to ashes.”

Fire officials, for their part, said they sympathized with Samuelian.

“I think it’s obviously something that we’re saddened by,” Jake Heflin, a spokesman for the department said, “the loss of that property, the building itself, and for the business owner’s business.”

But Heflin said fires, including the one at the Men’s Suit Outlet, were breaking out across the city all at once, and firefighters responded to each scene as quickly as they could.

“That was a very busy time for everyone,” he said.

“There’s no question that obviously our concern was to protect life and property to the best of our ability, we were sending resources that were available, and address that as quickly as possible,” Heflin added. “Because of the fire load inside that property, the fire grew at a rapid rate of spread, and that’s unfortunate.”

Fire Capt. Jack Crabtree pushed back even harder against Samuelian’s argument that firefighters took too long to get to the scene. According to department logs, Crabtree said, firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 9:56 p.m. and arrived two minutes later. There were 60 firefighters assigned to the scene throughout the night.

“It had some headway,” Long Beach fire Chief Xavier Espino said of the fire in a Monday, June 1, press briefing. “But when our troops arrived there and got to work, they kept that structure fire to a single structure, though there was new construction on two sides of that building.”

The last unit didn’t leave until 8:30 the next morning.

As for whether there could have been a delay before firefighters were dispatched, Crabtree said he could only speak to what the dispatch logs showed.

Still, according to Samuelian, the scene he witnessed from his home showed opportunities for officials to intervene before the store was consumed by flames — opportunities those officials let slip by.

“It was a disaster,” Samuelian said, “like I can’t describe.”

When the man who first approached the store tried on his own to pry open the metal gate, he failed.

But he held what appeared to be a crowbar. He reached through the holes in the gate and smashed the glass door and windows.

He then tried again to get past the gate; once more, he failed.

“So he left,” Samuelian recalled. “After, like, 10 minutes — I’m still watching on my camera — he brings like three or four humongous guys with him.”

Together, they broke through the metal gate and proceeded to shatter more of the shop’s glass facade.

Then the looting began.

The scene unfolded over more than an hour.

Samuelian said that, at one point, it appeared as if there were more than 100 people inside the store.

“They were looting, grabbing whatever they can, left and right,” he said. “It was a complete disaster.”

Samuelian said he called 911 three times before getting through to someone at 8:55 p.m.

The Police Department said it faced an extraordinarily high call volume during the time Samuelian was on hold.

“In addition to the active looting, we were also experiencing an extremely high number of calls for service during this time,” Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer De Prez said in a Thursday evening, June 4, written statement, “nearly four times the normal number of calls, which led to longer wait times for officer arrivals.”

But as looters ravaged his store, Samuelian said, he saw at least five police officers already at the scene.

The officers, Samuelian said, stood on the sidewalk and watched as his store was looted.

“They were not doing a single thing,” he said, “just standing there like statues.”

Residents across Long Beach have said similar things about Sunday night’s chaos: that police officers stood by and observed as people broke into businesses and ran away with stolen goods. Video footage of multiple instances of looting on Sunday appears to back up those complaints.

But city officials have repeatedly fought those accusations. Even when it appeared police officers were simply allowing crime to happen, Mayor Robert Garcia said in a Monday morning briefing, that was because there were other priorities — like protecting the public — to consider.

“I know it’s hard to see an image of police officers standing together, and maybe something is happening across the street,” Garcia said, “but please know there are things happening all around them, and they’re using all their training and knowledge to do the right thing and also protect the public.”

Samuelian, though, said what he saw happen next may have been worse than letting looters run amok in his store: After the culprits left, so did the officers.

“We are aware that officers were in the area of 7th Street and Pine Avenue attempting to mitigate incidents of looting at multiple businesses in the immediate area,” De Prez said Thursday, “however at this time we cannot provide further details regarding the circumstances for each individual location.”

At a certain point, Samuelian’s wife told him to stop watching the security feed; he couldn’t control what would happen, so he might as well try to put it out of his mind.

Samuelian agreed. He put his phone away.

That is, until he got a call from a friend less than an hour later.

“Turn on CBS,” his friend said. “They’re showing your store.”

Samuelian flipped on the TV and watched as a small fire in his store grew, within minutes, to devour the whole building.

“That’s when I burst into tears,” Samuelian said, “when I saw my store burning.”

His wife and daughter hugged him.

More than $250,000 worth of merchandise, Samuelian estimated, was lost that night — either taken by the looters or destroyed in the blaze. And that doesn’t include untold other losses, including fixtures, decorations and the computer system — not to mention the building itself.

“Trust me, it’s not the material that I’m concerned about,” he said. “It’s 17 years of my life and my compassion — my service to the community all these years.”

Samuelian’s shop predates many of the clothing stores that have popped up along Pine Avenue in recent years.

It all started in 2003, in the early years after the U.S. Navy closed its Long Beach station and its shipyard, when the city struggled to form a new identity.

Pine Avenue, north of Third Street, “was like a ghost town,” Samuelian recalled.

Some parts of the corridor, he said, resembled Skid Row.

One night, on his way home from a downtown Long Beach club with his wife, Samuelian missed the first turn to get on the 710 Freeway and had to turn left on Seventh Street. While stopped at a red light, his wife said that spot, at Pine Avenue, was a nice location. Samuelian, looking for a place to set up shop, agreed.

“Honestly,” he said, “it was, as they say, love at first sight.”

The next day, he met with the building’s owner and signed a lease. He’s been there ever since; in 2014, he expanded the shop.

To this day, Samuelian said, it’s hard to describe what attracted him to the site all those years ago.

“A lot of my friends, they used to tell me, ‘Oh, are you crazy?’” he recalled. “But I was very friendly with all the neighbors. They used to love me because my prices were right and the collection was great.”

He grew to love the Long Beach community. His clients ranged from grooms shopping for tuxedos to weekly church-goers who always wanted to look their Sunday best.

“Thankfully, we were doing very good,” he said, “until the tragedy that happened last Sunday.”

Samuelian knows he’s got it better than some; he didn’t rely on the Long Beach store alone for his income. He owns a couple of other stores in the Los Angeles area. He also works as a DJ.

Still, Samuelian said, he would love to reopen in the same building. But the shell of a structure that remains must be torn down before new construction can begin.

The entire process will likely take years.

“I would love to come back,” Samuelian said. “Don’t get me wrong. But let’s see within two years what happens.

“In the meantime,” he added, “I’m just waiting for the insurance checks.”

The Long Beach Police Department, meanwhile, continues to grapple with the fallout from Sunday.

“At this early point in our investigations,” De Prez said Thursday, “we do not know if the suspects involved in this looting incident have been apprehended.”

The department has launched an online portal where it encourages residents to submit photo and video evidence from Sunday night to help officers further investigate the crimes that were committed.

“There were a lot of cameras out there,” Luna, the police chief, said Monday morning, “and if you were looting and we have your license plate number and we have your face, we’re coming after you, and we’re going to arrest you.”

While Luna spoke during that briefing, Samuelian was back at the store, surveying the damage.

The ground was covered in rubble. Metal fixtures and equipment littered the building. Walls were charred. Sunlight spilled in through a hole in the roof.

“After 17 years, this is our store,” Samuelian said in a video he filmed of the wreckage. “This is completely gone.”

Samuelian said he would like to see the people who looted and burned his shop arrested.

But, the way he sees it, any justice that comes will be too little, too late.

His shop is gone.

And he knows that, at this point, there’s nothing the authorities can do to change that.

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