LOS ANGELES -- Henry Keith Watson remembers April 29, 1992, as if it were just last week. History won't allow him to forget it.

It was a day that marked the beginning of one of the deadliest, most destructive race riots in the nation's history, and one in which Watson's spur-of-the-moment decision to take part made him one of the enduring faces of the violence.

He was at home that day when he heard the news that was racing across Los Angeles: A jury with no black members had acquitted four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black man stopped for speeding nearly 14 months before.

"I got caught up in the emotions like everyone else," Watson says 20 years after a riot that would leave 55 people dead, more than 2,300 injured and himself forever recognized as one of the attackers of white truck driver Reginald Denny, who himself became the enduring image of the innocents victimized during the chaos.

As a liquor store at the intersection of Florence and Normandie was being looted and white passersby were fleeing a barrage of rocks and bottles, Denny stopped his big rig to avoid running over someone.

He was quickly dragged from the cab and nearly beaten to death by Watson and a handful of others. As the attack unfolded on live TV, Watson stepped on Denny's head after Damian Williams smashed the trucker's skull in with a brick.

Rioting spread across the city and into neighboring suburbs. Cars were demolished and homes and businesses were burned. Before order was restored, more than 1,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

A stunning reminder

Almost a quarter century had passed since the tumultuous urban riots of 1968, and even longer since LA's Watts rioting in 1965. The magnitude of this new racial paroxysm shocked a nation that thought it had moved on.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Today, Watson still struggles to explain why he took part. He was 27, an ex-Marine with a wife and a job who came from a good family. His father had been his neighborhood's block captain. "I guess you could say . . . looking at my background and whatever, how could I have gotten caught up in it?" he says.

After a long pause and a sigh, he continues: "You know, honestly, it was something that just happened, man. I never even knew Reginald Denny. Just the anger and the rage just took hold to where [neither] I nor anyone who was out there that day was in their right frame of mind."

Watson was convicted of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to time served for the 17 months he spent in jail before his case was resolved.

But that day was a rage, he and others in the community say, fueled by years of high unemployment, abuse and neglect by police, and rising tension with recently arrived Korean store owners.

"We wanted jobs around here, we wanted respect and we didn't get . . . [any] of that. And then the police just harassed us all the time," says Sharon McSwain, who for 22 of her 45 years has lived within walking distance of the intersection where Denny was attacked. He was saved by a black truck driver who rushed out to help.

@Newsday

Backdrop of high tensions Tensions in the community had been running high before the riot, fueled in part by the case of a Korean grocer who in March 1991 shot to death a black teenager she had accused of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The grocer, Soon Ja Du, was convicted of manslaughter for killing 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, but in November 1991 received a sentence of only probation and community service.

Like King's beating, the shooting had been captured on videotape, by Du's store surveillance camera. The images stoked the anger.

The store shooting occurred just two weeks after George Holliday stood on the terrace outside his San Fernando Valley home and videotaped four LAPD officers kicking King, using stun guns on him and delivering more than 50 blows from their police batons.

On April 29, 1992, it seemed the videotape would be the key evidence leading to a guilty verdict against the officers. When they were instead acquitted, violence erupted immediately.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Police, seemingly caught off-guard, were quickly outnumbered by rioters and retreated.

King himself, in his memoir, "The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption," says FBI agents warned him a riot was expected if the officers walked. They advised him to keep a low profile. He did until the third day, when he went on television and made an emotional plea for calm, famously asking, "Can we all get along?"

Cops, chief under scrutiny

In the aftermath, much of the blame was placed on Police Chief Daryl Gates, who resigned under pressure soon after.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Before the uprising, Gates had been hailed in national police circles as an innovator, helping to pioneer both the modern police special weapons and tactics team and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

Until his death in 2010, he angrily defended his actions, accusing his officers of failing to carry out a plan he said was in place to stop any trouble.

"The captain, lieutenant, deputy chiefs, commanders -- they all screwed up in my judgment," Gates, who had been chief for 14 years, said in 2002.

After the riot, a number of reforms were instituted, including limiting a police chief to a maximum of two five-year terms. Stricter guidelines in the way the LAPD investigates civilian complaints and disciplines its officers were also implemented after both federal officials and an independent review board concluded the department had for years been guilty of a pattern of civil rights abuses.

Anger toward the department as a whole is less intense now. Violent crime fell citywide by 76 percent between 1992 and 2010, according to city police statistics.

Meanwhile, tensions between the black and Korean communities have lessened over the years, according to both sides. Rioters targeted and caused $400 million worth of damage to Korean-American businesses, many of them liquor stores that residents said were blights on the community. Language barriers and cultural differences were also key.

Watson, meanwhile, has gotten on with his life. He has two daughters in college, and for years has operated his own limousine business.

Asked if he feels badly about what he did to Denny, he says simply that what happened to the trucker that day was "unfortunate." "But I can't take it back. There's nothing I can do."

Watson did apologize personally to Denny some years ago, the only one of his attackers to do so. Another time he offered to send a limo to pick him up and take him to Florence and Normandie, then somewhere where the two could talk.

He says Denny, who lives in Arizona these days, declined. The trucker has shunned interviews for years, and repeated attempts to contact him for this story were unsuccessful.