In the neighborhood around Rowan Street in Nicetown, Lawrence Bennett was known as "Uncle Larry," a friendly, 68-year-old military veteran who complemented his monthly Social Security checks by doing handyman work for neighbors, usually offering up jokes as he worked.

"He was always making you smile," said neighbor Jermaine Gindraw, 39. "He was a good dude."

Monday night, police were still searching for 17-year-old Tyrone Roberson, who they say shot Bennett to death after he had cleaned up the yard of the house in which the young man allegedly was living.

Police remained at the scene of the shooting as evening fell, after a group of the suspected gunman's relatives and friends had attacked and beaten a group of neighbors angry over Bennett's killing.

"It's very brazen," Capt. James Clark, of the police Homicide Unit, said of the shooting. "To do this in broad daylight, to shoot an unarmed 68-year-old man - we want to get this person off the streets as soon as possible."

Bennett had arrived at a house on the 1900 block of Rowan around noon yesterday, carrying his rake, said neighbors.

After an hour, Bennett, a tall, thin man with a graying beard, emerged from the house and walked across the street to chat with some women sitting by a fenced lot.

Bennett was telling a joke when the suspect came running across the street with a handgun, according one person among those who said they witnessed the shooting.

"I thought it was a starter pistol at first," said one person.

Roberson tried to rifle through Bennett's pockets, the witnesses said, accusing Bennett of taking something from the house. When Bennett swatted his hands away, the youth fired three times, hitting Bennett in the stomach, said the witness. "Mr. Larry grabbed his stomach and said, "What'd you do that for?' " a witness said. "Then he fell facedown on the sidewalk. He didn't say anything after that."

Neighbors said the youth was living at the house with his mother and grandmother, and that Roberson's mother ran up to the scene moments after the shooter fired his gun.

"She screamed, 'Oh, no,' " said a witness. "Then he ran off down the street and she ran after him."

Police who searched the house described it as a "flophouse," with mattresses strewed about and raw sewage in the basement.

"You could smell the weed as you walked in," said an officer.

When a reporter approached to seek comment, people on the porch of the house shouted that they had nothing to say.

Bennett lived by himself in a small apartment around the corner. His landlord, Keith Jackson, a SEPTA bus driver, did not charge him any rent.

"He was fixing the place up for me, putting in new walls and Sheetrock, so I didn't charge him anything," said Jackson, who stopped by the apartment in the hours after the shooting. "He was like family to me."

Bennett's apartment was sparse but clean. A cantaloupe sat on the counter, with a knife next to it. A container of chicken-liver salad and an onion were the main things in the refrigerator. His bed was made.

Bennett had attended the University of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said his sister Sylvia Traylor, who came to the apartment to collect her brother's belongings.

He served in the Air Force and was a successful car salesman at a now defunct dealership on Broad Street, she said.

For years, Bennett lived in a home on a nearby street with his wife and stepson, Traylor said. But they divorced and the son no longer lives in the neighborhood, she said.

"I have to go call his son," she said, crying.

Gindraw, the neighbor, remembered playing pool in the basement of Bennett's old home.

"He had framed pictures of himself with Frank Rizzo and Jimmy Carter from when he was selling cars," Gindraw said. "He was a big deal at one time."

Other neighbors recalled how Bennett volunteered weekends at a local church, but said he also had grappled with drug abuse in recent years.

"He had his struggles," said Gindraw. "But he was a good man. There's a lot of anger in the neighborhood over this."

On Rowan Street, police broke up a brawl after women hanging out on the porch where the youth lived ran across the street and attacked women who were talking with reporters.

One woman, who told reporters she had witnessed the shooting, was pinned against a car and punched in the face repeatedly.

"He did everything for anyone. He was the best guy," said the woman. "That boy walked up and shot him. It just ain't right."

Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 856-779-3237 or mnewall@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Allison Steele contributed to this article.