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Authors: Michael Connelly

Tags: #General, #Thrillers, #Fiction

The Scarecrow (9 page)

BOOK: The Scarecrow
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Crime scene investigators found that the person who abandoned the victim’s car with the body in the trunk had unsuccessfully attempted to remove evidence from the car by wiping down all surfaces that potentially held fingerprints. The door handles, steering wheel and shift lever were all wiped clean inside. On the outside, the trunk lid and outside door handles were also wiped clean. However, the investigators found a clear thumbprint on the interior rearview mirror, presumably left when someone driving the car adjusted it.
The thumbprint was matched by computer as well as physical comparison by a latent prints specialist to Alonzo Winslow, 16, who carried a juvenile arrest record for sale of narcotics in the same projects where Denise Babbit had bought heroin and been arrested the year before.
An investigative theory emerged: After leaving her job in the early morning hours of April 24 the victim drove to the Rodia Gardens projects in order to buy heroin or other drugs. Despite her being white and Rodia Gardens’ being 98 percent black in population, Denise Babbit was familiar and comfortable going to the projects to make her purchase because she had purchased drugs there many times before. She may have even personally known dealers in Rodia Gardens, including Alonzo Winslow. She may have also had a past history of trading sex for drugs.
However, this time she was forcefully abducted by Alonzo Winslow and possibly other unknown individuals. She was held in an unknown location and sexually tortured for six to eighteen hours. Because of the high levels of petechial hemorrhaging around the eyes, she also appeared to have been repeatedly choked into unconsciousness and then revived before final asphyxiation occurred. Her body was then stuffed in the trunk of her car and driven almost twenty miles to Santa Monica, where the car was abandoned in the ocean-side parking lot.
With the fingerprint as a solid piece of evidence supporting the theory and linking Babbit to a known drug dealer in Rodia Gardens, detectives Walker and Grady obtained an arrest warrant for Alonzo Winslow. The detectives contacted the LAPD in order to elicit cooperation in locating and arresting the suspect. He was taken into custody without incident on Sunday morning, April 26, and after a lengthy interrogation confessed to the murder. The following morning police announced the arrest.

I closed out the summary file and thought about how quickly the investigation had led to Winslow, all because he had missed one finger-print. He had probably thought that the twenty miles between Watts and Santa Monica was a distance no murder charge could leap. Now he sat in a juvy cell up in Sylmar, wishing he had never turned that rear-view mirror to make sure he wasn’t being followed by the police.

My desk phone rang and I looked over to see Angela Cook’s name on the caller ID screen. I was tempted to let it go, to maintain focus on my story, but I knew it would ring through to the switchboard and whoever answered would tell Angela that I was at my desk but apparently too busy to take her call.

I didn’t want that, so I picked up.

“Angela, what’s happening?”

“I’m over here at Parker and I think something is going on but nobody’s telling me shit.”

“Why do you think something’s going on?”

“Because there’s all kinds of reporters and cameras coming in.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in the lobby. I was leaving when I saw a bunch of these guys coming in.”

“And you checked with the press office?”

“Of course I did. But nobody’s answering.”

“Sorry, that was a stupid question. Um, I can make some calls. Stay there in case you need to go back up. I’ll call you right back. Were they only TV guys?”

“Looked like it.”

“You know what Patrick Denison looks like?”

Denison was the main cops and crime reporter for the
Daily News
, the only real print competition the
Times
faced on a local level. He was good and every now and then broke an exclusive I would have to chase. It was a reporter’s worst embarrassment to have to follow a competitor’s scoop. But I wasn’t worried about getting scooped here, not if the TV media was already in the building. When you saw TV reporters on a story, that usually meant that they were following yesterday’s news or were headed to a press conference. The TV news in this town hadn’t had a legitimate scoop since Channel 5 came up with the Rodney King beating tape back in 1991.

After hanging up with Angela I called a lieutenant in Major Crimes to see what was shaking. If he didn’t know, then I would try Robbery-Homicide Division and then Narcs. I was confident I would soon know why the media was storming Parker Center, and the
L.A. Times
was the last to know about it.

I talked my way through the city secretary who answers phones in Major Crimes and got to Lieutenant Hardy without much of a wait. Hardy was less than a year in the job and I was still doing the dance with him, slowly procuring him as a trusted source. After I identified myself, I asked what the Hardy Boys were up to. I had taken to calling the detectives in his command the Hardy Boys because I knew giving the lieutenant ownership of the squad played to his ego. The truth was, he was simply a manager of people, and the investigators in his command worked pretty autonomously. But it was part of the dance and so far it had worked.

“We’re laying low today, Jack,” Hardy said. “Nothing to report.”

“You sure? I heard from somebody else in the building that the place is crawling with TV people.”

“Yeah, that’s for that other thing. We’ve got nothing to do with that.”

At least we weren’t behind the curve on a Major Crimes story. That was good.

“What other thing?” I asked.

“You need to talk to either Grossman or the chief’s office. They’re having the press conference.”

I started to get concerned. The chief of police didn’t usually hold press conferences to discuss things already in the newspaper. He usually broke things out himself—so he could control information and get credit if credit was due him.

The other reference Hardy had made was to Captain Art Grossman, who was in charge of major narcotics investigations. Somehow we had missed an invitation to a press conference.

I quickly thanked Hardy for the help and told him I would check with him later. I called Angela back and she answered right away.

“Go back in and head up to the sixth floor. There is some sort of narcotics press conference with the chief and Art Grossman, who is the head narc.”

“Okay, what time?”

“I don’t know yet. Just get up there in case it’s happening right now. You didn’t hear about this?”

“No!” she said defensively.

“How long have you been over there?”

“All morning. I’ve been trying to meet people.”

“Okay, get up there and I’ll call you back.”

After hanging up I started multitasking. While putting in a call to Grossman’s office I went online and checked the CNS wire. The City News Service operated a digital newswire that was updated by the minute with breaking news from the city of angels. It was heavy with crime and police news and was primarily a tip service that provided press conference schedules and limited details of crime reports and investigations. As a police reporter I checked it continuously through the day like a stock market analyst keeps his eye on the Dow crawl at the bottom of the screen on the Bloomberg channel.

I could have stayed further connected to CNS by signing up for e-mail and cell phone text alerts, but that wasn’t the way I operated. I wasn’t a mojo. I was an
oldjo
and didn’t want the constant bells and whistles of connectivity.

However, I had neglected to tell Angela about these options. And with her spending the morning at Parker Center and my spending it chasing the Babbit case, nobody had gotten any bells or whistles, and nobody had made the old-fashioned manual checks.

I started scrolling backward on the CNS screen, looking for anything about a police press conference or any other breaking crime news. My call to Grossman was answered by a secretary but she told me the captain was already upstairs—meaning the sixth floor—at a press conference.

Just as I hung up, I found a short blurb on CNS announcing the eleven
A.M
. press conference in the sixth-floor media room at Parker Center. There was little information other than to say it was to announce the results of a major drug sweep conducted through the night in the Rodia Gardens housing complex.

Bang
. Just like that, my long-term story was hooking nicely into a breaking story. The adrenaline kicked in. It often happened this way. The daily grind of the news gave you the opening to say something bigger.

I called Angela back.

“Are you on six?”

“Yeah, and they haven’t started. What’s this about? I don’t want to ask any of these TV people, because then I’ll come off as stupid.”

“Right. It’s about a drug sweep overnight in Rodia Gardens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, but it could go big because it’s probably in response to the murder I told you about yesterday. The woman in the trunk was traced back to that place, remember?”

“Oh, right, right.”

“Angela, it connects with what I’m working on, so I want to try to sell it to Prendo. I want to write it because it will help set up my story.”

“Well, maybe we can work on it together. I’ll get as much as I can here.”

I paused but not too long. I had to be delicate but decisive.

“No, I’m going to come over for the conference. If it starts before I get there, take notes for me. And you can feed them to Prendo for the web. But I want this story, Angela, because it’s part of my larger story.”

“That’s cool, Jack,” she said without hesitation. “I’m not trying to bogart the beat. It’s still your baby and the story is yours. But if you need anything from me, just ask.”

I now thought I had overreacted and was embarrassed at having acted like a selfish prick.

“Thanks, Angela. We’ll figure it out. I’m going to give Prendo a heads-up on this for the daily budget and then I’ll be over.”

 

P
arker Center was in its last months of life. The crumbling building had been the command center for police operations for nearly five decades and was at least one decade past obsolescence. Yet it had served the city well, seen it through two riots, countless civil protests and major crimes, and had been the location of thousands of press conferences like the one I was going to attend right now. But as a working headquarters it was long outdated. It was overcrowded. Its plumbing was shot and its heating-and-air-conditioning system almost useless. There weren’t enough parking spots, office space or jail cells. There were known areas in hallways and offices where the air was tainted and sour. There were buckles in the vinyl flooring, and the structure’s prospects of surviving a major earthquake were questionable. In fact, many detectives tirelessly worked cases on the street, pursuing clues and suspects to extraordinary lengths, just so they wouldn’t be in the office when the big one hit.

A beautiful replacement was weeks from completion on Spring Street, right next to the
Times
. It would be state of the art and spacious and technologically savvy. Hopefully, it would serve the department and the city for another five decades. But I would not be there when it was time to move in. My beautiful replacement would be the one, and as I rode the rickety elevator up to the sixth floor I decided that this was how it was meant to be. I would miss Parker Center precisely because I was like Parker Center. Antiquated and obsolete.

The press conference was in full swing when I got to the big media room next to the chief’s office. I pushed past a uniformed officer in the doorway, grabbed a copy of the handout from him and ducked under the line of cameras—a reluctant courtesy—along the back wall and took an open seat. I had been in this room when it was standing room only. Today, with the bottom line being that the PC was about a drug raid, the attendance was perfunctory. I counted representatives from five of the nine local TV channels, two radio reporters, and a handful of print people. I saw Angela in the second row. She had her laptop open and was typing. I assumed she was online and filing for the web edition even as the press conference was still under way. She was a mojo tried-and-true.

I read the handout to get up to speed. It was one long paragraph, designed to set forward the facts, which the police chief and his top narc could elucidate further during the press conference.

In the wake of the murder of Denise Babbit, presumed to have occurred somewhere in the Rodia Gardens Housing Project, the LAPD’s South Bureau Narcotics Unit conducted one week of high-intensity surveillance of drug activities in the housing project and arrested sixteen suspected drug dealers in an early morning sweep. The suspects included eleven adult gang members and five juveniles. Undisclosed amounts of heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine were seized during raids on twelve different apartments in the housing project. Additionally, Santa Monica police and investigators with the District Attorney’s Office executed three search warrants in regard to the murder investigation. The warrants sought additional evidence against the 16-year-old charged with the murder as well as others who may have been involved.

Having read thousands of press releases over the years, I was pretty good at reading between the lines. I knew that when they didn’t disclose the amounts of drugs seized it was because the amounts were so low as to probably be embarrassing. And I knew that when the press release said the warrants
sought
additional evidence, then the likelihood was that none had been found. Otherwise, they would have trumpeted the fact that more evidence was gathered in the execution of the warrants.

All of this was of mild interest to me. What had my adrenaline moving was the fact that the drug sweep was in response to the murder and it was an action that was sure to instigate racial controversy. That controversy would help me sell my long-term story to my own command staff.

BOOK: The Scarecrow
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