Archives for posts with tag: cagney

(This story is the beginning of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice.)

I thought that my only encounter with police detectives would be on television. I was a huge fan of Cagney and Lacey in high school. Before that was The Rockford Files, Barnaby Jones and Mannix, which I saw in late night reruns. And so meeting Detective Melissa Mora was highly unexpected, both in its delightfulness and its awfulness.

She showed up one night at my house and identified herself as a detective with the LAPD. She looked very much like television’s version of a police detective—blond, beautiful, vibrant and even tender. I had spoken with a crotchety, matter-of-fact detective that morning who’d informed me that because we had no evidence, our case was basically closed. The case was certainly not closed for me but I was still too traumatized to have yet developed any kind of formidable strategy.

As I led Detective Mora to the guesthouse in my backyard, otherwise known as the crime scene, she explained that she was just following through with things the day detectives hadn’t finished. I unlocked the door and let her go in first. The place creeped me out. There was blood everywhere: pools that had dried on the carpeting where I’d knelt over Jeanette trying to comfort her until the paramedics arrived, and what must have been a gallon more splashed across the tile kitchen floor. Bloody hand and footprints, both hers and mine, had stained the walls, the phone, the door, the steps.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

Although Cagney worked the night shift, she stopped by the following afternoon. She was going to visit Jeanette at the hospital and came to see if I wanted to go with her. It was two days after the attack, and Cagney was on the case. The night before I had given her a copy of the notes I’d taken from my conversation with John Edward, and she said she had an idea of who the perp might be. She’d spent all night looking through the computer to no avail: the guy she had in mind was already in prison. I followed her to the unmarked vehicle in front of the house.

“Should I sit in the—” I pointed to the back seat.

“You’re riding shotgun, partner,” she said, smiling.

I opened the door. There was an antiquated computer console between the seats, and a rifle jutting up from alongside it. A bouquet of flowers lay on the passengers’ side. I picked them up and got in. “You got her flowers?”

She nodded. “It’s the least I could do.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think you’re a cop,” I said. “I think you’re an angel.”

Detective Melissa Mora had been on the Los Angeles police force for just over 20 years. She lived alone. She rescued pitbulls. “You should think about getting one,” she said. She had three rescues at her house for which she was trying to find homes. “They’re actually the sweetest, most loyal dogs you can imagine. They’re incredibly gentle dogs. People don’t realize that.” She proceeded to tell me about the three she was taking care of, clearly trying to entice me.

“I have a commitment problem,” I told her.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

I opened the envelope and popped the videotape into my VHS player. The screen was divided into quarters, each displaying footage from one camera—down the aisles, in the meat section, across the cash registers. Images from each of the four cameras flashed on and off in such fast motion I couldn’t track anything. Luckily, there was a function on the remote to play the tape frame-by-frame. When I did I discovered that each camera captured one frame every few seconds, and the camera views in each quadrant of the screen changed frequently to show the whole store over time. I could see various angles of people in different parts of the store, their jerky movements jumping across the screen before disappearing.


The images were grainy black-and-white video. You’d be hard-pressed to identify anyone from it. I knew that Jeanette was wearing a white sweater and jeans; the contrasts would make it easy to identify her. I had intended to fast forward through the tape to about the 4:30 or 5:00 hour, but then I noticed the date stamp on each camera was 2/11/99—three days after the attack. The tape I needed had either been recorded over or I had the wrong tape. I scrolled through it to make sure there was nothing from 2/8/99, then I popped it back into the envelope and returned to the store.

I was feeling more confident. I told myself I hadn’t actually impersonated a police officer since I never told anyone I was on the police force and certainly not a detective. If they believed I was, they were mistaken. And if anyone had asked me, I would have told them the truth and promptly sent Cagney over in my place.

I confronted the store manager again. I told him I’d scanned the tape and it had yesterday’s date on it. I needed Monday’s tape. I asked him if I could look at all the tapes from the entire week, hoping they’d been mislabeled. He went back upstairs, returned with two more tapes and handed them over. I thanked him and left, feeling like a total fraud but an arrogant, victorious fraud.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

In the ten days since Jeanette’s assault, my life had become something I hadn’t expected, something completely unfamiliar. During the days, I walked the streets of Venice looking for clues—houses, people, dogs. I spoke at length with all the mail carriers. I traversed the alleys and peered over fences. And when nothing panned out, I widened my circle. The place in which I had chosen to make my home had become a place that was filled with suspects and witnesses and criminals or potential criminals. I was aware, in every waking hour, just how on-the-edge my neighborhood really was. I read the crime reports. I knew where the black clouds hovered. And still, I found nothing.

I talked to Cagney every day, and most evenings I saw her. She had to deliver the news that the first police technician who’d dusted for prints had found none. I was heartbroken and lobbied for her to try again. She’d have to pull some strings in order for that to happen, so she wanted me to make sure we could find some viable prints. I consulted with John, and together we mapped out the areas in which he strongly believed there was real evidence that would lead us to a suspect.

When the second police technician arrived, I directed him to walls, countertop areas, the stovetop and other surfaces. First, he’d paint a layer of gray dust over wide sections, and then he’d zero in on something and carefully lift dust particles in the form of fingerprints onto squares of clear plastic. I watched him for the better part of an hour pull at least 15 useable samples. When I wasn’t watching him, I was scanning the room trying to imagine what had happened. All the blood was still there, untouched. The toaster oven was open and a paring knife was lying nearby. One of the last things Jeanette said she remembered was making dinner. I asked the man about the possibility of getting prints from the knife, but he said it had already been dusted. I asked him how they determined the difference between all of our prints and anyone else’s, and he said that if the prints didn’t match any that were in their system, it didn’t much matter whose they were.

As it happened, the prints didn’t match any that were in their system. It seemed like we were getting nowhere with the investigation, and when I wasn’t frustrated, I felt hopeless. This detective stuff was crap. In fact, it was tedious crap. Much as I loved and appreciated Cagney, I wondered if we’d have more resources or if the case would have been a higher priority if Jeanette had been murdered.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

Jeanette was ahead of her time; she was sporting a fantastic lightning bolt scar on her forehead years before anyone had ever heard of Harry Potter. Unfortunately, right after acquiring hers, it became infected and in order to help it drain, she had a toothpick jutting out from between her eyes. With pus and blood dripping down her face, she met with a bankruptcy attorney who took one look at her, gathered all of her paperwork and told her that he wasn’t going to charge her because he didn’t want this to be her experience of Los Angeles.

Although the image of her—jaw wired, crushed cheek and nose, facial lacerations—may have been daunting, it certainly wouldn’t be her worst look. That was still to come.

On our second visit to Dr. Keller’s office, Jeanette’s car broke down. I hoped it wasn’t a sign that moving forward was going to be challenging; maybe it simply meant she had an old car in need of attention. Regardless, Dr. Keller and Dr. Lacombe outlined a plan for the year ahead: rebuilding her nose, inserting a cheek implant to replace the missing tissue, and performing collagen and laser treatments to minimize the scarring.

The following evening, on Friday March 5th, we all gathered at Mary’s apartment for a farewell party for Jeanette’s friend Jeff who’d been her caretaker for the last week. Those sorts of parties happened on a regular basis. As one friend arrived to be with Jeanette, another left. The comings and goings were always marked by celebration. The next morning, Jeanette’s brother Richard was arriving from Florida. Jeanette had been waiting for Richard to come; he was the prince who could comfort her like no one else. She had wanted to go back to her home, the scene of the crime, and pack all of her things up, and she felt like she would have the strength to return with Richard by her side.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

The ever-illustrious Rodney was not at home when Cagney went calling. She did say, however, that the house matched the description that my friend John had given us.

He lives nearby in a Hispanic area at a busy intersection. The house style is not typical of the area. It’s two-story, dilapidated with a porch and a low chain link fence. There’s lattice under the porch. Light-colored. Pointy roof. Multiple families live there. It has a country, old-time feeling. It’s an Archie Bunker kind of house. Or Mr. Roper from Three’s Company. But very rundown. To the left of the house is some space, maybe an empty lot that’s used as a common area. If you stand on the porch and look to the right, you can see the orange ball of the Union 76 gas station on the corner.

Cagney would keep an eye on the place, but our more pressing need was to find the woman—”the strawberry”—he’d confessed to, and then get her to ID him. Both of these things were going to be difficult, Cagney warned me.

The following evening I met my friend Jay for dinner. Jay and I had worked together a few years before, and since then he went on to bigger and better pursuits. He’d helped get Pete Wilson re-elected for governor of California, for instance. Jay wasn’t just one of the smartest men I knew, he was also one of the most well connected. I tried not to let his politics interfere with our friendship.

During dinner, I recounted the details of my month, including my on-going fear of being alone in my home, as well as the sickening realization that Rodney was still out there and in such close proximity. “We’re pretty sure we know who he is,” I told Jay, “we just don’t have evidence to link him to the crime yet. And that’s just disgusting.”

Jay listened attentively and then pushed his water glass to the side of the table as if clearing a space. “I’m only going to say this once,” he said.

Then he met my eyes intently. “I know people if you want to use them.”
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

The wires clamping Jeanette’s jaw shut were finally removed but it took weeks for her to get her teeth apart to any distance approximating normal. The art of chewing came slowly, and her upper lip remained numb. I watched her unconsciously touch her face, trace the new grooves and divots, and pinch areas that still had no sensation. If she was distraught about how she looked with half her face caved in, she certainly didn’t let on to me—and I would have thought I’d be one of the few she’d tell.

In May, two months after the assault, she was scheduled for her first big reconstructive surgery in Santa Barbara. Gretchen, the woman who worked in Dr. Keller’s office had arranged for us to stay with a friend of hers. Jeanette and I shared a room in a beautiful sprawling ranch home with Saltillo tiles that stretched out toward vibrant, pink bougainvillea at the base of the surrounding mountains. Fresh flowers were expertly arranged in vases in nearly every room. The place was brimming with light and color. It was a true oasis.

The waiting room in Dr. Keller’s office was more like a spa with comfortable chairs and cucumber water and bowls of fresh fruit. But still, it was hour after endless hour of flipping through mindless magazines and scrapbook-like binders detailing every cosmetic option available: otoplasty, rhinoplasty, blepharoplasty, rhytidectomy and liposuction among them.

Dr. Keller and Dr. Lacombe cut through Jeanette’s gum line, lifted the skin from her face and inserted a silicone implant to build up her right cheek adding cadaver tissue on top of it to replace the flesh. I suddenly appreciated all those people who’d given their bodies to science because one of them was restoring Jeanette’s smile.

When she finally emerged from the long surgery, her entire head was wrapped in gauze and ace bandages that left holes for her to see and breathe. We spent a couple days letting the lazy Santa Barbara breeze mix with the painkillers before she felt well enough to make the drive back. She insisted on stopping for Mexican food on the promenade in Santa Monica. All bandaged up like a human tennis ball, she sat in the outdoor patio watching the people walk by, many of whom stared. We talked and ate and laughed as if we hadn’t just been through the worst trauma of our lives. There we were, coming out the other side.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)

I used to make it a point to call Jeanette every year on February 8th, and then she wisely proclaimed that she didn’t want to mark the day as if it were some kind of anniversary commemorating something.

This year, February came and went as best as I can remember.

Then one early morning, it might have been in March, I was in my car going somewhere I no longer remember. I weaved my way through the Venice streets heading toward Abbot Kinney Boulevard—the Melrose of the Westside. I waited at the corner of Palms and Abbot Kinney for the traffic to clear. On my left side was an overpriced clothing boutique named Steven Alan, and there was a man outside with a hammer smashing the ceramic lettering on the side of the building. The traffic cleared, and I eased my way onto Abbot Kinney thinking, hmm, they must have gone out of business. In my mind, for a brief moment, some construction worker was out early removing the signage. But then clarity struck me: That wasn’t a construction worker; it was an angry homeless man causing vandalism.

By the time I’d swung my car around and headed back with my iPhone ready to capture him in the act, he’d disappeared. I circled several blocks looking for him to no avail.

Later that afternoon, I went back to the store and told the manager I’d seen a guy smashing his sign. I gave him a description, told him the approximate time and left him with my contact information. Several days later he phoned me to tell me he’d contacted the police and had pulled some surveillance footage of a guy in front of the store matching the description I’d given him. He told me that the police had requested he gather all the material and show up at the station with the witness who could identify the vandal. We agreed to meet at the Pacific Division of the LAPD the following day.
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