Archives for posts with tag: detective

(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.)


Even though all those late night cop shows I’d watched had given me the basics, I was about to be schooled in the art of becoming a police detective. I suddenly wished I’d been far more interested in piecing the clues together and solving the crime instead of being so caught up in the character development and unfolding relationships. Plot has never been my strong suit.

When Cagney returned to the crime scene the second night to tell me that she’d taken the case herself, she also revealed that the officer who’d been over to dust for prints had found none. So far, any attempt to recover evidence had been unsuccessful. But she brought with her a pair of space-age-looking night vision goggles, which she positioned over her eyes explaining that they were for the purpose of detecting sperm residue. Even though it was determined that Jeanette had not been raped, apparently some men get off on beating women, she told me as she scanned the room. Although I didn’t want this beast to have enjoyed the violence of his actions, I sure as hell wanted some DNA. I was already beginning to think like a cop. And miraculously, Cagney was already accepting me as her partner. When she removed the goggles and shook her head, she asked if I could think of anything at all that might help, no matter how bizarre or remote. That’s when I reached for the piece of paper that had been burning a hole in my back pocket.
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(This story is part of a continuing series, An Assault in Venice. Part 1 starts here.)


Jeanette had moved from Washington, DC, by way of Ohio University where she earned a master’s degree in film studies. She arrived in Los Angeles ready to launch her career as a film director after more than a decade stage managing regional theater. My neighbors, Rob and Amy, held a barbecue in her honor knowing full well that what Jeanette cherished above all else was a sense of community.

Rob and Amy lived in the duplex next to mine. We shared a wall, a yard and a palpable affection layered with dimensions—length, depth, breadth. We grew herbs and vegetables, we composted our waste, we ate like epicureans, and we enjoyed fine wine by candlelight, firelight or starlight. We believed in the idea that only the right things happen. We asked deep questions and attempted to answer them, and when we couldn’t, we’d divine meaning from both sensible and absurd sources, measuring each with equal weight. In a place where people came carrying big, artistic dreams, ours was an enclave of the idyllic, framed by a mosaic tile garden that was literally a work of art. Raised flowerbeds ringed the perimeter, a maze of concrete benches rose up from a tapestry of colored cement, and a towering fig tree in a vase of stone proclaimed its status as centerpiece.

From the moment Jeanette entered our beachside haven, she immediately knew that she’d arrived. I had been the one to tell her that our landlord was moving his graphic design business out of the converted garage and preparing it as a rental unit. I urged her to wait while he completed the renovation, not knowing that it would fall far behind schedule. Still, Jeanette was convinced that this was her new home. She spent months sleeping on various couches, including mine, while her tiny oasis was being prepared for her. When she finally moved in, she lived there for fifteen days.
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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.)

My new home was the Eartha Kitt room in the finished attic space at Rob and Amy’s, named for the dozens of pillows in wild prints that covered the floor. It acted as a sort of bunker during the long, sleepless nights, and it was also where Rob and Amy and I gathered to pray. We prayed about everything—that Jeanette would have a good night, that Detective Mora would be blessed with fruitful leads, that we would all be able to sleep, that Karen and David would find some measure of peace and comfort. We’d already experienced a series of miracles, like the fact that Jeanette had not sustained any trauma to her brain, and even more surprising was that her right eye would eventually regain normal function—something I was particularly worried about. Perhaps the best news of all was that Karen had been able to convince the hospital administrators to not transfer Jeanette to a county facility. Jeanette didn’t have health insurance, and already the medical bills were staggering.

Every night in the Eartha Kitt room, Rob and Amy and I lit candles, held hands, closed our eyes and prayed. We visualized the details of her upcoming surgery—that the bone fragments in Jeanette’s face would come together seamlessly. We blessed the surgeons and the nurses and the assistants. We filled the room with loving energy. We even prayed for the man who had done this to Jeanette. Oddly, none of us felt particularly vengeful or pitiless. In fact, I often imagined myself sitting across from him, trying to understand who he was and what horrible things in his life had led him to this. Most of the time, the only thing I had for him, besides fear, was compassion. Certainly, he was hurting. Of course, when I imagined him, he was always behind bars. If I was ever to see this man, I wanted to see him behind bars.

I awakened early on the morning of Day 4. I slipped out of the house and walked over to the grocery store across the street. It was only about 6 AM but the store was open 24 hours. Employees were in the aisles opening pallets of items and stocking the shelves. I asked one of them if I could speak with the manager. The daytime manager didn’t arrive until 9, he said. I explained to him what had happened—that there was a violent crime that had been committed in the neighborhood. I told him the police had reason to believe that the perpetrator had followed the victim home from the store, and that they were interested in seeing the surveillance tapes from that day, if they were still available. The guy explained that one tape holds 24 hours of surveillance, and that they tried to keep tapes for a week. But, he added, sometimes they forgot to take the tape out of the machine, in which case, it got recorded over. I asked him if he’d have the day manager pull the tape from Monday, and said that a detective from the LAPD would be by later to pick it up.
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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.)

Being active had initially helped me get through the days. Knowing that I would be speaking with Cagney gave me incentive; I looked forward to the moment I could tell her what I had done, and we could collaborate on what I could do next. Those conversations gave me a sense of purpose, as well as the comforting feeling that I had a real partner who was in this with me. But as the weeks went by and we were seemingly no closer to arresting anyone, that sense of purpose waned.

Fortunately I had Jeanette: I could visibly see her healing. Her face returned to its normal size and shape. Her sense of humor returned, fully intact. And although her jaw was still wired shut, her incredible circle of friends found increasingly creative ways to prepare her meals. Much as she seemed to look to me for answers—I was in regular contact with the detective, I had found a plastic surgeon, even I had been the one to initially come to her aid—I looked to her to help me navigate my way back toward wholeness. She kept saying, then and for years after, that I was the keeper of her memory—I contained the gaps in the story that had so profoundly altered the course of her life. But at the same time, she seemed to be the gauge by which I would measure my own healing process. If Jeanette could be okay through this, then certainly so could I. And the truth is, her courage, her humor and her utter lack of anger or bitterness helped light my way.

I was trying to find comfort in spirituality. I collected sentences and repeated them like mantras. The greatest power we have is the power to change our mind. I found prayers and clung to them like life rafts. Dear God, I don’t know why this is happening but I know You do, so thank you. And I copied passages from books and kept them close at hand to read again and again. When a tragic event happens, we cannot change the course of that event. We will feel sadness, we will feel pain, but it is what we do beyond that moment that defines our Mastery. We must look for a deeper meaning. We must see with different eyes and use our intelligence to find a way to bring love and happiness back into the world.
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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.)

I don’t watch standard TV “procedurals.” I don’t like the format where a crime is introduced, investigated and then solved in 42 minutes (minus commercials). Life doesn’t work like that. Sometimes the bad guy never gets caught. Sometimes shit happens that’s caused by shitty people and the shit never hits the fan for them (so to speak).

Unfortunately, this is the story of a crime left unpunished, and the damage remains.

I don’t watch shows like CSI or Cold Case but I sure know a lot more now than I did then. I know that when two people have an encounter like Jeanette did with her attacker, there is always an exchange of DNA. There was DNA in that room, and I naively thought someone would collect it. I don’t know why they didn’t. I don’t know if it was simply a different time with insufficient technology. I don’t know if the LAPD is so saddled with crimes that they can’t fully investigate all of them. I don’t know if only murders get the once-over with a fine-toothed comb. I can only tell you that if I knew then what I know now, I would have either tried to collect DNA evidence myself or hired someone to do it for me. And I would have really used Cagney as my partner. The truth is, I was probably lead detective on this case, and if I’d know how or if I’d known that I could, I would have driven this train in a very different way.

I don’t have regrets, but I do have lingering questions.
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