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L.A. Then and Now

Historic trove recalls famous crimes

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley is the unofficial curator of a vast collection of trial memorabilia.

December 23, 2007|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Most know Steve Cooley as Los Angeles County's district attorney. But the Los Angeles native also is a history buff, and his collection of memorabilia has turned part of his office suite into a museum of sorts.

The three floors near the top of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Building in downtown Los Angeles, domain of the district attorney's office, house a cache of mementos, evidence from prominent trials and even artwork.

Some of the trove belongs to the county, but Cooley has added plenty from his own eclectic collection. From the macabre contents of the office's "evidence room" of historic crimes to the old-fashioned police call box next to his desk on the 18th floor, Cooley was happy to show all of it to a reporter recently.

Two floors below is a locked walk-in closet officially known as the Historical Vault. It's the repository for evidence collected in some of the county's most infamous cases, many of which have been the subjects of books and movies.

Plain brown boxes hold photographs, transcripts and other details of such cases as the murder of Elizabeth Short, dubbed the Black Dahlia after her bisected body was found in a vacant Los Angeles lot in 1947. Other boxes are dedicated to the case of wife-killer L. Ewing Scott, who in 1957 was the first person convicted of murder in California without a body having been found, and to preserving the details of the death Marilyn Monroe in 1962.

One of the items is a suitcase that had belonged to pop singer Michael Jackson. The label said it contains "numerous books, 2 pairs of Reebok shoes, 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair underwear, $1, tube hair-straightener."

Yet another box contains the bloodstained navy blue suit jacket (minus a sleeve) and trousers and other clothes that U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was wearing when he was shot to death at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968.

"We got a letter from the Secretary of State requesting us to turn over his clothing and other items in our possession," Cooley said as he opened the box to display its contents, which include a white shirt, boxer shorts, belt, tie, handkerchief and a single yellow metal cuff link.

"Someone from the state archives will be coming here next year to collect it."

Mass murderer Charles Manson's records and evidence also are boxed up here, including two murder weapons and two mannequins used at the trial to show victims' wounds.

But the evidence closet couldn't begin to hold everything from all the area's crimes, Cooley was quick to point out.

"This is nothing," Cooley said, looking around the room. "We've got another facility in Commerce that's the size of a football field."

Up on the 18th floor, hundreds of items are on display. One conference room is decorated with the drawings of Mona Shafer Edwards, a Los Angeles courtroom artist whose work gives glimpses of high-profile trials including that of "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez; O.J. Simpson; the Menendez brothers, who killed their parents; and Jody "Babydol" Gibson, a Hollywood madam.

Another conference room, named for former district attorney and California Atty. Gen. Evelle J. Younger, contains tile plaques representing most of the county's 88 cities. Cooley began asking local officials to send him the plaques shortly after he took office seven years ago, and most have obliged, enabling Cooley to turn the conference area into what he calls his "City Room."

"It started out by accident, asking each one of the 78 cities we help in prosecution cases to send us their city plaque," Cooley said. About a dozen cities are missing, including Los Angeles, which Cooley says "is in the process of making one," and Malibu, whose emblem apparently "got slowed down by fires." West Hollywood and Pasadena have assured him theirs are en route, he said.

He doesn't, however, expect to get one from Vernon, where his office has filed political corruption charges against the mayor and others.

Cooley also has put on display a collection of his memorabilia, including FBI baseball caps commemorating the 12 years his father spent with the bureau, and mugs, lapel pins, T-shirts and badges from various local police departments.

A framed 1978 photo of himself in his police uniform, standing by a black and white police car, is a reminder of his days as a reserve LAPD officer.

And then there is a fake, battery-operated "time bomb" that came from a judge with a note reading "Ha!" It reminds Cooley of the time he sent out a "talking" invitation to a fundraiser for his 2000 race for district attorney.

It apparently looked suspicious to one of the recipients, a different judge. The bomb squad was called and blew up Cooley's gimmicky invitation in the parking lot of the courthouse in Norwalk.

Cooley attributes his love of historic items in part to his deep roots in Los Angeles.

He was born and raised in Silver Lake and majored in history at Cal State Los Angeles.

Cooley builds on the tradition of his former boss, Gil Garcetti, who commissioned a giant mural of a 150-year timeline of the D.A.'s office.

When asked what he's going to do with all his memorabilia when he leaves office, Cooley, who plans to seek reelection next year, didn't respond directly.

"Hopefully that won't be too soon," he said.

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

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