Authors: Michael Connelly
The Gower Gulch was the name affixed by Hollywood lore to the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, where almost a hundred years ago it was a pickup spot for day laborers. These laborers waited at the corner for work as extras in the westerns the movie studios were turning out by the week. Many of the Hollywood cowboys waited at the intersection in full costume — dusty boots, chaps, vests, ten-gallon hats — so it became known as the Gower Gulch. It was said that a young actor named Marion Morrison picked up work here. He was better known as John Wayne.
The Gulch was now a shopping plaza with the fading facade of an Old West town and portraits of the Hollywood cowboys — from Wayne to Gene Autry — hanging on the outside wall of the Rite Aid drugstore. Going south from the Gulch, a stretch of studio stages as big as gymnasiums lined the east side all the way down to the crown jewel of Hollywood, Paramount Studios. The storied studio was surrounded by twelve-foot-high walls and iron gates, like a prison. But these barriers were constructed to keep people out, not in.
The west side of Gower was a contradiction. It was lined with a stretch of car repair shops sharing space with aging apartment buildings where burglar bars guarded all windows
and doors. The west side was marked heavily by the graffiti of a local gang called Las Palmas 13, but the east-side walls of the studios were left unmarred, as if those with the spray paint knew by some intuition not to mess with the industry that built the city.
The shooting call took Ballard and Moore to a street party in the tow yard of an auto body shop. Several people were milling about in the street, most without masks. Most were watching officers from two patrol cars who were taping off a crime scene inside the gated and asphalt-paved yard, which was lined with vehicles in different stages of repair and restoration.
“So, we have to do this, huh?” Moore said.
“I do,” Ballard said.
She opened the door and got out of the car. She knew her answer would shame Moore into following. Ballard was pretty sure she was going to need Moore to help with this.
Ballard ducked under yellow tape stretched across the entrance to the business and quickly ascertained that the victim of the shooting was not on scene and had been transported. She saw Sergeant Dave Byron and another officer trying to corral a group of potential witnesses in one of the business’s open garages. Two other uniforms were stringing an inner boundary around the actual crime scene, which was marked by a pool of blood and debris left behind by the paramedics. Ballard walked directly over to Byron.
“Dave, what do you have for me?” she asked.
Byron looked over his shoulder at her. He was masked but she could tell by his eyes that he was smiling.
“Ballard, I have a shit sandwich for you,” he said.
She signaled him away from the citizens so they could talk privately.
“Folks, you all stay right here,” Byron said, holding his hands
up in a stay-put motion to the witnesses, which Ballard took to mean that they might not understand English.
He joined Ballard by the front of the rusting body of an old VW bus. He looked at what he had jotted down in a small notebook.
“Your victim is supposedly Javier Raffa, owner of the business,” he said. “Lives about a block from here.”
He pointed a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the neighborhood west of the body shop.
“For what it’s worth, he has a known affiliation with Las Palmas,” Byron added.
“Okay,” Ballard said. “Where’d they transport him?”
“Hollywood Pres. He was circling.”
“What did the wits tell you?”
“Not much. Left them for you. Raffa apparently has the gates open and puts out a keg every New Year’s Eve. It’s for the neighborhood but a lot of Las Palmas shows up. After the countdown, there was some shooting of firearms into the sky, and then suddenly Raffa was on the ground. So far nobody is saying they actually saw him get hit. And you’ve got shell casings all over the place. Good luck with that.”
Ballard shot her chin toward a camera mounted on the roof eave over the corner of the garage.
“What about cameras?” she asked.
“The cameras outside are dummies,” Byron said. “Cameras inside are legit but I haven’t checked them. I’m told they are not in a position to be of much help.”
“Okay. You get here before the EMTs?”
“I didn’t, but a seventy-nine did. Finley and Watts. They said it was a head wound. They’re over there and you can go talk to them.”
“I will if I need to.”
Ballard checked to see if either of the uniforms who were marking the boundary was a Spanish speaker. Ballard knew basic Spanish but was not skilled enough to conduct witness interviews. She saw that one of the officers tying the crime scene tape to the sideview mirror of an old pickup was Victor Rodriguez.
“You mind if I keep V-Rod to translate?” she asked.
Ballard thought she saw the lines of a frown form on Byron’s mask.
“How long?” he asked.
“Preliminary with the witnesses and then maybe the family,” Ballard said. “I’ll get somebody from another unit if we transport anybody back to the station.”
“All right, but anything else comes up, I’m going to need to pull him back out.”
“Roger that. I’ll move fast.”
Ballard walked over to Rodriguez, who had been with the division for about a year after transferring from Rampart.
“Victor, you’re with me,” Ballard said.
“I am?” he said.
“Let’s go talk to witnesses.”
Moore caught up to Ballard in step toward the group of witnesses.
“I thought you were staying in the car,” Ballard said.
“What do you need?” Moore said.
“I could use someone at Hollywood Pres to check on the victim. You want to take the car and head over?”
“Or you can interview witnesses and family while I go.”
“Give me the keys.”
“I thought so. Keys are still in the car. Let me know what you find out.”
Ballard briefed Rodriguez in a whisper as they approached the witnesses.
“Don’t lead them,” she said. “We just want to know what they saw, what they heard, anything they remember before they saw Mr. Raffa on the ground.”
They spent the next forty minutes doing quick interviews with the collected witnesses, none of whom saw the victim get shot. In separate interviews, each described a crowded, chaotic scene in the lot, during which most people were looking up at the stroke of midnight as fireworks and bullets cut through the sky. Though no one admitted doing it themselves, they acknowledged that there were those in the neighborhood crowd who had fired guns into the air. None of these witnesses revealed anything that made them important enough to transport to the station for another round of questioning. Ballard copied their addresses and phone numbers into her notebook and told them to expect follow-up contact from Homicide investigators.
Ballard then signaled Finley and Watts into a huddle to ask them about first impressions of the crime. They told her the victim was nonresponsive upon arrival and appeared to have been hit by a falling bullet. The wound was at the top of the head. They said they were mostly occupied with crowd control, keeping people away from the victim and creating space for the paramedics.
As she was wrapping up with them, Ballard got a call from Moore, who was at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.
“The victim’s family is all here, and they’re about to get the word that he didn’t make it,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”
I want you to act like a trained detective,
Ballard thought but didn’t say.
“Keep the family there,” she said instead. “I’m on my way.”
“I’ll try,” Moore said.
“Don’t try, do it,” Ballard said. “I’ll be there in ten. Do you know if they speak English?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Okay, find out and text me. I’ll bring somebody in case.”
“What’s it looking like over there?”
“Too early to tell. If it was an accident, the shooter didn’t stick around. And if it wasn’t, I’ve got no camera and no witnesses.”
Ballard disconnected and walked over to Rodriguez.
“Victor, you need to drive me to Hollywood Pres,” she said.
Ballard informed Byron of where she was going and asked him to keep the crime scene secured until she got back.
As she crossed the lot, following Rodriguez to his car, she saw the first drops of rain hitting the asphalt amid the bullet casings.
Rodriguez used the lights but not the siren to speed their drive to the hospital. Ballard used the minutes to call her lieutenant at home to update him. Derek Robinson-Reynolds, the OIC of Hollywood detectives, picked up immediately, having texted Ballard his request for the update.
“Ballard, I was expecting to hear from you sooner than this.”
“Sorry, L-T. We had several witnesses to talk to before we could get a handle on this. I also just heard that our victim is DOA.”
“Then I’ll have to get West Bureau out. I know they’re already running full squad on a two-bagger from yesterday.”
Homicides were handled out of West Bureau. Robinson-Reynolds was ready to pass the investigation off but knew it would not be well received by his counterpart at West Bureau Homicide.
“Sir, you can do that, of course, but I haven’t determined what this is yet. There were a lot of people shooting guns at midnight. Not sure if this was accidental or intentional. I’m heading to the hospital now to get a look at him.”
“Well, didn’t any of the witnesses see it?”
“Not the witnesses who stuck around. They just saw the victim on the ground. Anybody who saw it happen scrammed out of there before the unis got on scene.”
There was a pause as the lieutenant considered his next move.
They were a block from the hospital. Ballard spoke before Robinson-Reynolds responded.
“Let me run with it, L-T.”
Robinson-Reynolds remained silent. Ballard made her case.
“West Bureau is running on the two-bagger. We don’t even know what this is yet. Let me stay with it and we’ll see where it stands in the morning. I’ll call you then.”
The lieutenant finally spoke.
“I don’t know, Ballard. Not sure I want you capering out there on your own.”
“I’m not alone. I’m with Lisa Moore, remember?”
“Right, right. Nothing on that tonight?”
He was asking about the Midnight Men.
“Not so far. We’re pulling into Hollywood Pres now. The family of the victim is here.”
It pushed Robinson-Reynolds to make a decision.
“Okay, I’ll hold off on West Bureau. For now. Keep me informed. No matter the hour, Ballard.”
Robinson-Reynolds disconnected. Ballard’s phone buzzed with a text as Rodriguez was pulling to a stop behind Ballard’s car, which had been left by Moore in an ambulance bay.
“Was that Dash?” Rodriguez asked. “What did he say?”
He was using the short name ascribed to Robinson-Reynolds by most in the division when not addressing the lieutenant personally. Ballard checked the text. It had come from Moore: No English spoken here.
“He gave us the green light,” Ballard said.
“Us?” Rodriguez said.
“I’m probably going to need you in here too.”
“Sergeant Byron told me to double-time back.”
“Sergeant Byron’s not in charge of the investigation. I am, and you’re with me until I say otherwise.”
“Roger that — as long as you tell him.”
Ballard found Moore in the ER waiting room, surrounded by a group of crying women and one teenage boy. Raffa’s family had just gotten the bad news about their husband and father. A wife, three adult daughters, and the son were all exhibiting various degrees of shock, grief, and anger.
“Oh, boy,” Rodriguez said as they approached.
Nobody liked intruding on the kind of trauma unexpected death brings.
“I heard you want to be a detective someday, V-Rod,” Ballard asked.
“Fuck, yeah,” Rodriguez responded.
“Okay, I want you to help Detective Moore interview the family. Do more than translate. Ask the questions. Any known enemies, his association with Las Palmas, who else was at the shop tonight. Get names.”
“Okay, what about you? Where are — ”
“I need to check the body. Then I’ll be joining you.”
“Good. Let Detective Moore know.”
Ballard split off from him and went to the check-in counter. Soon she was led back to the nursing station that was in the middle of the ER. It was surrounded by multiple examination and treatment spaces separated by curtain walls. She asked a nurse if the body of the gunshot victim had been moved yet from a treatment space and was told that the hospital was waiting for a coroner’s team to pick it up. The nurse pointed her to a closed curtain.
Ballard pulled back the pastel-green curtain, entered the single-bed examination space, and then closed the curtain behind her. Javier Raffa’s body was faceup on the bed. There had been no attempt to cover him. His shirt — a blue work shirt with his name on an oval patch — was open and his chest still showed conduit ointment, likely from paddles that had been used in an attempt to revive him. There were also whitish discolorations on the brown skin of his chest and neck. His eyes were open, and there was a rubber device extending from the mouth. Ballard knew it had been placed in his mouth before the paddles were used.
Ballard pulled a pair of black latex gloves out of a compartment on her equipment belt and stretched them on. Using both hands, she gently turned the dead man’s head to look for the entry wound. His hair was long and curly, but she found the entry at the upper rear of his head under hair matted by blood. Judging from its location, she doubted there was an exit wound. The bullet was still inside, which in terms of forensics was a break.
She leaned farther over the bed to look closely at the wound. She guessed that it had been made by a small-caliber bullet and noticed that some of the hair around it was singed. It meant that the weapon had been held less than a foot away when discharged. She saw specks of burnt gunpowder in Javier Raffa’s hair.
In that moment, Ballard knew this had been no accident. Raffa had been murdered. A killer had used the moment when all eyes were cast upward to the midnight sky and there was gunfire all around to hold a gun close to Raffa’s head and pull the trigger. And in that moment, Ballard knew she wanted the case, that she would find a way to keep this conclusion to herself until she was too deeply embedded to be removed.
She knew this could be the solve she needed to save herself.