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INSIDE STORY

The Real L.A. Confidential

Reporter Nieson Himmel Saw It All: Murder, Corruption, Fires, Gangsters. He Was the Last Link to a More Lively Era of Journalism, When Crime Coverage Was King.

July 18, 1999|MILES CORWIN | Miles Corwin is a Times staff writer

The first time I worked with Nieson Himmel was at a drive-by shooting on the edge of Watts on a misty winter night in the early 1990s. Nieson was almost 70 at the time and rarely left the newsroom to cover stories anymore. He usually wandered into The Times at dusk, monitored the three police and fire department scanners on his desk until dawn and left his chair only to make one of his many nightly trips to the cafeteria and the candy machines. But on this Friday night, Nieson heard on the scanner that five people were down in a drive-by, and the night editor decided the story was big enough to warrant sending him to the scene.

About 20 minutes later, Nieson called to report that the casualty toll had climbed to seven, with several in critical condition. The editor dispatched me to help. The scene was a crumbling neighborhood on the edge of Watts, on a street lined with dilapidated apartment houses and weathered bungalows with sagging wooden frames. I walked past a gauntlet of gangbangers, frightened neighbors and edgy patrol officers and spotted, under a street light in the distance, a squat, enormously wide figure bobbing along the edge of the yellow crime scene tape. I knew only one person who could cast a silhouette like that--the 5-foot-7, 300-pound Nieson. He was interviewing detectives and scribbling amoeba-like notes. As deadline approached, I was ready to call the city desk, but I did not have a mobile phone and did not have time to search for a phone booth.

Just then, a woman in a frayed housecoat and curlers wandered out of her apartment and called, "Oh, Nieson, would you like to use the phone again?" He nodded, and she shepherded us into her apartment as her two surly sons eyeballed us suspiciously. Nieson asked her a few questions about the boys who had been shot, she gave him a few quotes and we called in our notes.

I was mystified as to how Nieson had managed to ingratiate himself with this woman, how he won her over and had secured a phone in such menacing surroundings, particularly since I had been sent out to the scene to rescue him. As we were leaving, he thanked the woman, pulled a ball of detritus out of his pocket, which contained melted M&Ms, lint, scraps of newspaper and greasy bills of various denominations. He searched through the bills, pulled one out, handed it to the woman and said, "Here's another twenty for you."

*

Nieson Himmel worked for the Times until shortly before his death on March 13 at the age of 77. He was the last link to the lively, lurid era of 1940s journalism, when five dailies in the city competed for crime stories. Nieson had covered every major crime in the city since World War II, including the Black Dahlia case, Bugsy Siegel's murder and Robert Kennedy's assassination. But in his last decade, Nieson had slowed down considerably, and his duties were limited to answering the phone and listening to the scanners. That first night we worked together he had been dispatched only to provide an initial report. When it became clear that the story could be a big one, the editor sent me. But there I was on the street, relying on Nieson. His methods, I knew, were not considered appropriate by today's corporate journalistic standards. Still, he never understood why he should not simply peel off $20 if he needed something from a street source.

Nieson had difficulty adjusting to modern journalism in countless other ways as well. During much of his career, newspapers covered not just every murder in the city, but every shooting. By the early 1990s, however, with the number of murders approaching 2,000 a year in Los Angeles County alone, it was impossible to cover even half of them. Yet night after night, Nieson trudged up to the city desk and passed on murder reports he had heard on the scanners. And almost every night he became despondent when his tips were ignored. Some nights, after a spate of murders never made the paper, he muttered, "We wouldn't even write a story about the Black Dahlia murder if it happened today."

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