A police officer asked why I cared that one of the North Hollywood bank robbers was permitted to bleed on the street without medical care until he died.
His implication was clear: I was going to write a sob story about how the cops allowed Emil Dechebal Matasareanu to die untreated.
I replied I didn't care whether the man lived or died. But he was a valuable witness, and he had been lost. If Matasareanu had been treated quickly, he might have lived and talked enough to shed light on a crime filled with unanswered questions. That's why I wanted to know.
The department's response is evolving as more information comes in, including a provocative report that treatment was delayed because of official fears that Matasareanu's body may have been booby-trapped.
If that's true, fine. But we have to ask the questions.
Still, the very idea of launching such inquiries under the circumstances is deeply troubling to many reporters.
For years, L.A. cops have dumped on the local media for being too critical of the department, for obsessing on the Rodney King beating and Mark Fuhrman's racist boasting. During and after the siege of North Hollywood, the media showered the department with deserved praise for doing a great job.
I was thinking about the cops' terrific work on Friday morning when a colleague, Times photographer Carolyn Cole, hailed me not far from where Matasareanu had driven his escape car, tried to commandeer a passing truck, and was finally stopped by police, who shot him in a furious gun battle.
Several minutes before, Cole had taken a picture of Matasareanu being held down by a policeman after he had been shot. Matasareanu was lying on his stomach, his eyes wide open, his head raised from the pavement.
Cole said that when she arrived on Archwood Street, where Matasareanu had been shot, the wounded man was moving his head. "Every few seconds, he raised his head up," she said. "That's when I got that shot."
While Matasareanu remained on the pavement, an ambulance pulled up nearby. It carried away a wounded occupant of the truck Matasareanu tried to steal. Only later, she said, did a Fire Department ambulance finally come for Matasareanu, who by then had died.
At first, Cmdr. Tim McBride, the department spokesman, flatly denied Cole's account. There was only one ambulance at the scene, he said, the one called for Matasareanu. Before it arrived, he said, "ambulances couldn't get in. We thought we had a third suspect, maybe a fourth" in the area.
But a neighbor's recollections match Cole's. In fact, Dora Lubensky was right in the middle of the action.
She had been working upstairs in her house when the helicopters clattered above, tracking Matasareanu's flight down Archwood Street. Downstairs, Lubensky saw the wounded occupant of the truck stagger to her front porch.
He hid behind a brick wall on her porch, leaving bloodstains that were still visible when I talked to her Tuesday evening.
Lubensky called 911, and looked out the window to see the gunfight between Matasareanu and the cops.
A Fire Department ambulance arrived, she said, and took away the bleeding man. Lubensky then went outside and watched the wounded Matasareanu. "He was still moving his head," she said. The man talked to the police, she said, and "raised up his head, but nobody gave him medical attention. I think they should have. He is a human being, after all, even though he has a killer's intuition. But they didn't give him anything. After a while, they checked his vital signs and he was dead."
The long wait was confirmed by coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier. He said his office's records show that Matasareanu was shot at 9:45 a.m. The Fire Department ambulance did not arrive until 11:07 a.m. Matasareanu was pronounced dead three minutes later.
Wednesday, police spokesman McBride said that he had been wrong, that an ambulance had arrived at the scene to care for the wounded truck occupant.
Later in the day, a source offered an important new dimension to the account. The source said that the bomb squad had told officials at the command post not to let any police officers search the robbers' bags, their bodies or their car until it could be determined that they did not have explosive devices or grenades.
If true, this could justify the delay in treatment. The official investigation should get to the bottom of that point--which is why the reporters need to ask in the first place.
A lot of people will say, "Why bother? Why don't you leave it alone."
I felt that way myself for a while. I think the media piles on the LAPD to the extreme when things go wrong, and it was good to see the department praised. Who cares what happened to Emil Matasareanu?
Then law enforcement began investigating whether this was more than a simple robbery. Federal and local cops want to know whether the two bandits are part of a paramilitary conspiracy. They want to know what happened to the $1.5 million the pair allegedly made off with in earlier heists. If that cash is now in the hands of some violent extremist group, they ought to know where to look.
Matasareanu knew the answer, but he took it to the grave, just as Lee Harvey Oswald was silenced by a bullet after John Kennedy's assassination.
We should cheer the LAPD. But that shouldn't stop the media--and the cops themselves--from trying to find out the full story of the death of Emil Matasareanu.