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Authors: Michael Connelly

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BOOK: The Scarecrow
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I looked up at the podium just as the chief was passing the lead to Grossman. The captain stepped up to the microphone and started the narration that went along with a PowerPoint presentation of the sweep. On the screen to the left of the podium, mug shots of the arrested adults started flashing, along with listings of the charges against each individual.

Grossman got into the specifics of the operation, describing how twelve teams of six officers each simultaneously raided twelve different apartments at six-fifty in the morning. He said there was only one injury and that was to an officer who was hurt in a bizarre case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The officer was hurrying down the side of one of the project buildings to cover the rear, when the suspect inside was awakened by pounding on his front door. The suspect threw a sawed-off shotgun out the window so as not to be in possession of the illegal weapon. It struck the passing officer in the head, knocking him unconscious. He was treated by paramedics and would be held overnight for observation in an undisclosed hospital.

The mug shot of the gangbanger who had extorted fifty dollars from me the day before flashed on the screen. Grossman identified him as twenty-year-old Darnell Hicks and described him as a “street boss” who had several younger men and boys working for him selling drugs. I felt a small amount of joy seeing his face up there on the big screen and knew I would put his name first among the arrested when I wrote the story for tomorrow’s paper. That would be my way of doing the Crip walk right back at him.

Grossman took another ten minutes to finish giving out the details the department was willing to part with and then opened it up to questions. A couple of the television reporters threw him softballs, which he easily hit over the wall. No one asked him the tough question until I raised my hand. Grossman was scanning the room when he saw my hand. He knew me and where I worked. He knew he wasn’t going to get a softball from me. He kept scanning the room, probably hoping that another dimwit TV guy would put up a hand. But he didn’t get lucky and had no choice but to bring it back to me.

“Mr. McEvoy, do you have a question?”

“Yes, Captain. I was wondering if you can tell me whether you are expecting any backlash from the community?”

“Backlash from the community? No. Who complains about getting drug dealers and gangbangers off the street? Besides that, we had enormous support and cooperation from the community in regard to this operation. I don’t know where the backlash would be in that.”

I put the line about support and cooperation from the community into my back pocket for later and stayed on point with my response.

“Well, it’s pretty well documented that the drug and gang problems in the Rodia projects have been there for a long time. But the department only mounted this large-scale operation after a white woman from Hollywood got abducted and murdered going down there. I was wondering if the department considered what the community reaction to that would be when it went ahead with this operation.”

Grossman’s face got pink. He took a quick glance at the chief but the chief made no move to take the question or even help Grossman out. He was on his own.

“We don’t… uh, view it that way,” he began. “The murder of Denise Babbit only served to focus attention on the problems down there. Our actions today—and the arrests—will help make that community a better place to live. There’s no backlash in that. And it’s not the first time we have conducted sweep operations in that area.”

“Is it the first time you called a press conference about it?” I asked, just to twist him a little.

“I wouldn’t know,” Grossman said.

His eyes scanned the room for another hand from a reporter but nobody bailed him out.

“I have another question,” I said. “In regard to the search warrants evolving from the murder of Denise Babbit, did you find the location where she was allegedly held and murdered after her abduction?”

Grossman was ready for that with a pass-the-buck answer.

“That’s not our case. You will have to speak to Santa Monica police or the District Attorney’s Office about that.”

He seemed pleased with his answer and with stiffing me. I had no further questions and Grossman scanned the room one last time and ended the news conference. I stood near my seat, waiting for Angela Cook to work her way back from the front of the room. I was going to tell her that all I would need from her were her notes on the police chief’s comments. I had everything else covered.

The uniformed officer who had given me the handout at the door made his way to me first and signaled me to the door on the other side of the room. I knew it led to a side room where some of the equipment used in presenting the graphics during press conferences was housed.

“Lieutenant Minter wants to show you something,” the officer said.

“Good,” I said. “I wanted to ask him something.”

We went through the door and Minter was there waiting for me, sitting on the corner of a desk, his posture ramrod straight. A handsome man with a trim body, smooth coffee skin, perfect diction and a ready smile, Minter was in charge of the Media Relations Office. It was an important job in the LAPD but one that always confounded me. Why would any cop—after getting the training and the gun and the badge—want to work in media relations, where zero police work was ever done? I knew the job put you on TV almost every night and got your name in the paper all the time, but it wasn’t cop work.

“Hey, Jack,” Minter said to me in a friendly manner as we shook hands.

I immediately acted like I had called for the meeting.

“Hey, Lieutenant. Thanks for seeing me. I was wondering if I could get a mug shot of the suspect named Hicks for my story.”

Minter nodded.

“No problem, he’s an adult. You want any others?”

“No, probably just him. They don’t like running mug shots, so I probably will only be able to use one, if I’m lucky.”

“It’s funny that you want a photo of Hicks.”

“Why?”

He reached behind his back to the desk and brought around a file. He opened it and handed me an 8 × 10 photo. It was a surveillance shot with police codes in the lower right frame. It was of me handing Darnell Hicks the fifty dollars he had charged me in street tax the day before. I immediately noted how grainy the shot was and knew it had been taken from a distance and at a low angle. Remembering the parking lot where the payoff had taken place, I knew I had been in the heart of the Rodia projects and the only way the shot could have been taken was if it had been taken from inside one of the surrounding apartment buildings. I now knew what Grossman had meant by community support and cooperation. At least one resident in Rodia had allowed them to use an apartment as a surveillance post.

I held the photo up.

“Are you giving me this for my scrapbook?”

“No, I was just wondering if you can tell me about it. If you have a problem, Jack, I can help.”

He had a phony smile on his face. And I was smart enough to know what was happening. He was trying to squeeze me. A photo out of context like this could certainly send the wrong message if leaked to a boss or competitor. But I smiled right back.

“What do you want, Lieutenant?”

“We don’t want to stir up controversy where there isn’t any needed, Jack. Like with this photo. It could have several different meanings. Why go there?”

The point was clear. Lay off the community backlash angle. Minter and the command staff above him knew that the
Times
set the table as far as what was news in this town. The TV channels and everybody else followed its lead. If it could be controlled or at least contained, then the rest of the local media would fall in line.

“I guess you didn’t get the memo,” I said. “I’m out. I got a pink slip on Friday, Lieutenant, so there isn’t anything you can do to me. I’m down to my last two weeks. So if you want to send this picture to somebody at the paper, I would send it to Dorothy Fowler, the city editor. But it’s not going to change who I talk to on this story or what I write. Besides that, do the narcs down in South Bureau know you’re showing their surveillance shots around like this? I mean, this is dangerous, Lieutenant.”

I held the photo up so he could see it now.

“More than what it says about me, it says your drug team had a setup inside somebody’s apartment in Rodia. If that gets out, those Crips down there will probably go on a witch hunt. You remember what happened up on Blythe Street a couple years ago, don’t you?”

Minter’s smile froze on his face as I watched his eyes go over the memory. Three years earlier the police had conducted a similar peep-and-sweep operation at a Latino gang–operated drive-through drug market on Blythe Street in Van Nuys. When surveillance photos of drug deals were turned over to lawyers defending those arrested, the gang soon figured out what apartment the shots had been taken from. One night the apartment was firebombed and a sixty-year-old woman was burned to death in her bed. The police department didn’t get much positive media attention out of it and I thought Minter was suddenly reliving the fiasco.

“I gotta go write,” I said. “I’ll go down to media relations and pick up the mug shot on my way out. Thanks, Lieutenant.”

“Okay, Jack,” he said routinely, as if the subterranean context of our conversation had not existed. “Hope to see you again before you go.”

I stepped through the door back into the press conference room. Some of the cameramen were still there, packing up their equipment. I looked around for Angela Cook but she hadn’t waited for me.

 

A
fter picking up the mug shot of Darnell Hicks I walked back to the
Times
building and up to the third-floor newsroom. I didn’t bother checking in because I had already sent my editor a budget line on the drug sweep story. I planned to make some calls and flesh it out before I went back to Prendo and tried to convince him it was a story that ought to go out front on the home page as well as the print edition.

The 928-page printout of the Winslow confession as well as the other documents I’d sent to the copy shop were waiting for me on my desk. I sat down and had to resist the urge to immediately dive into the confession. But I pushed the six-inch stack to the side and went to the computer. I opened my address book on the screen and looked up the number for the Reverend William Treacher. He was the head of a South L.A. association of ministers and was always good for a viewpoint contrary to that of the LAPD.

I had just picked up the phone to call Preacher Treacher, as he was informally known by his flock as well as the local media, when I felt a presence hovering over me and looked up to see Alan Prendergast.

“Didn’t you get my message?” he asked.

“No, I just got back and wanted to call Preacher Treacher before everybody else did. What’s up?”

“I wanted to talk about your story.”

“Didn’t you get the budget line I sent? Let me make this call real quick and then I might have more to add to it.”

“Not today’s story, Jack. Cook’s already putting it together. I want to hear about your long-term story. We have the futures meeting in ten minutes.”

“Wait a minute. What do you mean Cook’s already putting today’s story together?”

“She’s writing it up. She came back from the press conference and said you were working together on it. She already called Treacher, too. Got good stuff.”

I held back on telling him that Cook and I weren’t supposed to be working together on it. It was my story and I’d told her so.

“So whadaya got, Jack? It’s related to today’s thing, right?”

“Sort of, yeah.”

I was still stunned by Cook’s move. Competition within the news-room is common. I just hadn’t expected her to be so bold as to lie her way onto a story.

“Jack? I don’t have much time.”

“Uh, right. Yeah, it’s about the murder of Denise Babbit—but from the killer’s angle. It’s about how sixteen-year-old Alonzo Winslow came to be charged with murder.”

Prendo nodded.

“You have the goods?”

By “the goods,” I knew he was asking if I had direct access. He wouldn’t be interested in a story with
police said
used as attribution everywhere. He wouldn’t want to see the word
allegedly
anywhere near this piece if he was going to try to give it a good ride on the futures budget. He wanted a crime feature, a story that went behind the basic news everybody already had and rocked the reader’s world with gritty reality. He wanted breadth and depth, the hallmark features of any
Times
story.

“I have a direct line in. I’ve got the kid’s grandmother and his lawyer, and I’m probably going to see the kid tomorrow.”

I pointed to the freshly printed stack of documents on my desk.

“And that’s the pot of gold. His nine-hundred-page confession. I shouldn’t have it but I do. And nobody else will get it.”

Prendo nodded with approval and I could tell he was thinking, trying to come up with a way to sell the story in the meeting or make it better. He backed out of the cubicle, grabbed a nearby chair and pulled it over.

“I’ve got an idea, Jack,” he said as he sat down and leaned toward me.

He was using my name too much and the leaning into my personal space was uncomfortable and seemed completely phony since he had never done it with me before. I didn’t like the way this was going.

“What is it, Alan?”

“What if it wasn’t just about how a boy became a murderer? What if it was also about how a girl became a murder victim?”

I thought about it for a moment and slowly nodded. And that was my mistake, because when you start by saying yes, it becomes hard to put the brakes on and say no.

“It’s just going to take me more time when I split the focus of the story like that.”

“No, it won’t because you won’t have to split your focus. You stay with that kid and give us a kick-ass story. We’ll put Cook on the vic and she’ll cover that angle. Then you, Jack, weave both strands together and we’ve got a column-one story.”

Column one on the front page was reserved each day for the signature story of the paper. The best-written piece, the one with the most impact, the long-term project—if the story was good enough, it went out front, above the fold and in column one. I wondered if Prendergast knew he was taunting me. In seven years with the
Times
I had never had a column-one story. In more than two thousand days on the beat, I had never come up with the best piece of the day. He was waving the possibility of going out the door with a column-one at me like a big fat carrot.

BOOK: The Scarecrow
10.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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