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Amid Grief and Questions--a Clue

February 25, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A single clue, discovered in the turmoil and grief after two Compton police officers were shot dead this week, gave police the one solid lead they were searching for Wednesday: a suspect.

The clue, which police were jealously guarding, led officers Timothy Brennan and Robert Ladd to a law enforcement computer network, which produced a list of possible suspects. From the computer's initial group of names, they discarded suspects currently in jail or who didn't match physical descriptions by eyewitnesses.

By early afternoon Wednesday, they held a photograph of the man who may have shot officers Kevin Michael Burrell and James Wayne MacDonald. After staring at it for a full minute, the officers slipped it carefully away and hit the streets.

"This is really hard," Ladd said as he and his partner cruised Compton's residential streets and parks. "We're all hurting over this, and nobody on the streets is talking. And I know somebody out there knows something. Something important."

Brennan and Ladd, who make up two of the city's three-person gang unit, usually spend their days talking to gang members about everything from robberies to carjackings to turf wars. On this day, the murder of their fellow officers begins and ends every conversation.

The two spent most of Tuesday talking to everyone they knew, handing out their business cards and pager phone numbers. On Wednesday, they cruised the streets again, reminding citizens and gangbangers alike that they were still looking for information. Every time one of their pagers beeped, they became hopeful: Maybe this is the call.

"Kevin was really important to us," Ladd said. "We feel like we helped train him. When he was still an Explorer Scout, years ago, he liked to ride along with us to see how we worked. He was a really motivated police officer and the people out there really liked him. Everyone knew him. "

Most residents who stopped the officers wanted to offer condolences or remember Burrell, who grew up in Compton and was well-known for his huge frame and gentle ways. One woman in a blue station wagon pulled up alongside Brennan and Ladd at a stop light and rolled down her window to ask the date of Burrell's funeral.

"My husband used to coach him, you know," she said.

Passing one narrow street, Brennan recognized a man wanted for questioning in an unrelated crime. Ladd whipped the car around and pulled the suspect over. The conversation quickly turned to Burrell and MacDonald.

"You're out there. You hear things," Brennan told the man. "I've got a feeling you know something."

The man talked of maybe seeing a red truck around but couldn't say whose it was. He was released after he promised--like so many others--to contact Brennan and Ladd as soon as he heard anything.

Back at the station, Brennan pulled out the photograph of their suspect again and started going through a large stack of snapshots, looking for similar faces. With the photo of the suspect and of five other men, he constructed a photo lineup--or "six-pack"--to show witnesses. In the same office, two other officers discussed plans for Burrell's funeral.

Nearby, four officers paced around desks trying to imagine how Burrell, a seasoned officer, might have been caught off guard. They were also trying to figure out how the two officers may have approached the red truck and how they became vulnerable.

Fearing that their investigation would be muddied by too much media exposure, police declined to say what the clue was that led them to their suspect, or describe the suspect, other than his height and weight.

"Everything about this has to be done just right," Ladd said. "Because I guarantee you we are going to find the guy who did this--who shot our officers. And when we do, I want to be able to put him away forever."

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