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A Son's Errand, Gunshots and the Quest for a Killer

June 12, 2005|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer


Los Angeles homicide Det. John Zambos stood at 101st and Figueroa, peering into a green Chevrolet Suburban with silver rims.

In the driver's seat was a man wearing dark blue work pants, a gray Southpole sweatshirt and a sequined earring. His head was tilted back, mouth ajar. His hands rested palms-up on his knees, as if he had just dropped off to sleep.

Zambos scanned his face: rounded cheeks, like a child's, a stubble of beard. The only visible wound was a tiny hole in the temple. Drops of blood, still wet, glistened on his sweatshirt. A box of takeout food sat on the passenger seat.

It was about 8:30 on Dec. 1, a sunny, cold morning. Knots of people gathered. A breeze flipped the pages of Zambos' notebook, which lay open on the hood of his Buick Century.

Zambos, 47, had nearly come to blows with paramedics when they tried to cover the victim's body with a sheet. Zambos had shooed them away. He was determined to protect fingerprints and any other evidence.

For once, Zambos had been the first on the crime scene. This investigation would be perfect.

Zambos was one of 12 homicide detectives who worked in Watts and surrounding neighborhoods for the Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Division.

The squad shouldered the highest caseloads in the city, but the killings rarely made the news. Sometimes it seemed to Zambos and his colleagues that if they didn't care, no one would. The less attention their cases got, the more they drove themselves.

Zambos leaned against his car, jiggling a pen in one hand. "One to the temple, another to the body," he snapped into a cellphone. "African American, I bet in his 30s."

On the other end, back at the station, was Det. Sal LaBarbera, his boss. LaBarbera was dark-haired, 45, a Bronx transplant notorious for working around the clock. His cellphone was always on, and he showed up for nearly all of Southeast's homicides, sometimes pulling on a suit at 3 a.m.

LaBarbera yelled to his detectives: "One-o-one and Fig."

Two by two, Zambos' colleagues pulled up in unmarked sedans. LaBarbera strode toward witnesses huddled under the awning of Tam's hamburger stand, determined that none would slip away.

Zambos was the Southeast homicide squad's second-in-command. But he wasn't much of a manager and tended to ignore all but the case in front of him. That left LaBarbera to churn with worries about the unit: how to keep his detectives from burning out? How to recruit more officers to work homicide?

Mostly, LaBarbera worried about unsolved cases.

In a trailer behind the Southeast station, LaBarbera's detectives had built an archive for old cases. Nearly 700 unsolved slayings, some going back to 1978, packed the homemade shelves.

The trailer haunted LaBarbera -- 700 grieving families, the killers still loose.

Now, at the scene of Southeast's 71st homicide of the year, he leaned against a car, reading interview cards filled out by uniformed officers. Each had a hastily scribbled name and address.

At 9:43 a.m., a coroner's van arrived. "Any suspect info?" a coroner's investigator asked.

"Male black," LaBarbera answered dryly.

Someone guffawed. "Well, that narrows it down," one of the coroner's men said.

An investigator put on gloves and dabbed gunpowder residue from the dead man's hands. As he worked, a cellphone rang. His eyes traveled over the victim's body before finding it in his clothes.

"Anyone want this cellphone?" he called out to detectives.

The sun was higher now. At Tam's, people lined up again for breakfast.

LaBarbera tapped his watch. "We want to keep things moving," he said.

This killing would not end up unsolved in the trailer.

The detectives regrouped back at the Southeast station, a two-story brick building east of the Harbor Freeway known as "108th Street" for its location at 108th and Main streets.

LaBarbera's homicide squad -- eight detectives and three trainees -- worked at the far end of a large windowless office on the ground floor.

The station had been renovated that fall. Gone were the wooden desks and cork bulletin boards. The new look was corporate: glass desk coverings and cubicles.

LaBarbera hated it. The waist-high partitions between desks made it harder for detectives to talk. Worse, the remodeling did not include an interrogation room with taping equipment and a one-way window.

Detectives had to interview people in storerooms, at their desks or in a small windowless office with bad acoustics.

The LAPD had some of the most advanced equipment in the world. But detectives fought over scarce cars and computers, and paid for their own cellphones and tape recorders. They tried to fool suspects into thinking they could enhance video footage from security cameras, like in the movies, or perform rapid DNA tests. The truth was they often waited months for results.

Unlike LaBarbera, Zambos loved the new office because it was clean. He kept nagging everyone to keep it tidy. Passing around a Windex bottle, he would declare, "A clean squad room is a happy squad room."

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