When Steve Cooley, who wants to be Los Angeles County's next district attorney, cranks into high gear on the campaign trail, he is almost certain to bring up "the Uzi killer of Calabasas."
The phrase has a nice, alliterative ring to it, which Cooley uses to full effect: "the OOOZY KILLer of KAL-uh-BASS-us." It refers to an especially chilling murder case that, Cooley says, typifies the failure of his opponent, incumbent Gil Garcetti, to turn his rhetorical support for gun control into action.
But did Garcetti go easy on the so-called Uzi killer, Robert Rosenkrantz, as Cooley claims? Or did he merely support the decision of a deputy who, Garcetti now says, made a mistake by not opposing Rosenkrantz's bid for parole?
What is most interesting about the Rosenkrantz case is what it says about the race for district attorney. There is a broad gulf of mutual mistrust separating the two candidates, and a willingness on both sides to shoot first and ask questions later.
Cooley, a top deputy district attorney, has used the case to combat Garcetti's dogged insistence that the challenger is soft on gun control. In fact, their positions on gun control are nearly identical.
The challenger also has suggested that it is symptomatic of Garcetti's lax ethics and alleged willingness to kowtow to the rich and powerful. But the record suggests that, in this case at least, Garcetti is guilty of no more than inattention to the appearance of impropriety, if that.
The truth about the Rosenkrantz case has been an elusive element in the bitter campaign. The two candidates have diametrically opposed views of what happened in the highly politicized case, which itself has led to an extraordinary showdown between Gov. Gray Davis and the state Court of Appeal.
Here's Cooley, responding to the incumbent's proposal to confiscate all assault weapons: "When [Garcetti] says, 'Let's get these guns off the streets,' well, let's start by being a real prosecutor and not urging parole for the Uzi killer of Calabasas, who shot someone 10 times in the head with an Uzi machine gun. He has supported the parole of this young man. Why? Why the early parole for someone who used a machine gun to kill another young man?"
And here's Garcetti: "Mr. Cooley is not dealing with all the facts. It is without a question, it's been documented, it's been proved . . . that that decision [regarding parole] was not made by me, it was not made by anyone on my staff at the executive level. It was made by the prosecutor who has the responsibility for attending every lifer hearing, Diane Vezzani."
A review of the available records in the case, along with interviews with most of the central figures in the dispute, suggests that Garcetti is correct. But it also provides fuel for those who say the case has been mismanaged by his department.
On June 28, 1985, Rosenkrantz fired 10 rounds from his newly acquired Uzi semiautomatic carbine at an acquaintance, Steven Redman, who had "outed" him as gay a week before. Rosenkrantz was 18 at the time. The 17-year-old Redman had caught Rosenkrantz with another man at a beach house the night of Rosenkrantz's graduation from Calabasas High School.
Six shots struck Redman in the head, two in the torso, two in the arm; he died on the spot.
Rosenkrantz fled Calabasas and remained a fugitive for nearly a month before being apprehended. In 1986, he was convicted of second-degree murder with a firearm, and sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.
In the 14 years since, Rosenkrantz has been a model prisoner at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo. He has never been disciplined. He has worked full-time as an administrative clerk at the prison. He has completed his bachelor's degree and learned computer programming. Prison psychiatrists have described his potential for future violence as "well below average."
All of these points have come up in a series of parole hearings held by the California Board of Prison Terms. Support for early parole has come from an impressive array of sources, including a deputy sheriff who investigated the case and an assemblywoman who argues that Rosenkrantz was the victim of a hate crime--the outing by Redman--and a violent confrontation that led up to it.
Rosenkrantz himself has expressed great remorse. Redman "did a bad thing," he said at one hearing. "I did a much worse thing. I'll regret it for the rest of my life."
It was in this atmosphere that Diane Vezzani stood before the parole board on June 18, 1996. Vezzani is the deputy district attorney whose job is to represent Garcetti at parole hearings for inmates sentenced to life terms. She is authorized to determine whether an inmate deserves parole, and to testify accordingly.
Almost without exception, she opposes parole.
This time, she didn't--or so it would seem.
"On behalf of L.A. County, we would not be opposed to this man receiving a parole date," she told the board. "I think he's earned it."
Interpretation of Remarks Differs