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An honor overdue

Officer Walter Kesterson was shot and killed while on duty in 1946. Sixty-one years later, he's up for the LAPD's highest award, the Medal of Valor.

March 08, 2007|Matt Lait | Times Staff Writer

At a movie theater that no longer exists, on a street since renamed, several gun-toting bandits robbed a teenage cashier of $90. Although the crime was nothing spectacular, the outcome tragically was.

It was Feb. 4, 1946, shortly after 9 p.m., when LAPD Officer Walter Kesterson's car radio squawked with news of the stickup. He and his partner, dressed in plain clothes, were working a crime suppression detail around the Los Angeles Coliseum, near the heist. As they cruised the neighborhood, they saw two men matching the suspects' descriptions at the corner of 43rd Place and Avalon Boulevard. Suspicious, they quickly brought the unmarked patrol car to a stop and Kesterson jumped out.

He barely had a chance to call out that he was a cop when one suspect pulled a .38-caliber handgun from his jacket and shot the 51-year-old officer squarely in the chest. Kesterson returned fire, killing his assailant and the other armed bandit, who, detectives later learned, had slain a Vernon police officer two weeks earlier.

"Things happened so fast that by the time I was out of the car, all three men were on the ground," Officer E.W. Patrick told reporters the night of the shooting. One news account said Kesterson managed to stumble back to the squad car, where he collapsed across the front seat and died.

Kesterson's courage under fire soon became legendary in the annals of the Los Angeles Police Department. He was the first officer from the heralded Metropolitan Division to be killed in the line of duty. His picture hangs on a wall of division headquarters and an award for bravery is named in his honor.

But the department didn't award him its highest honor, the Medal of Valor. Records show no such medals were given to any officer between 1936 and 1952. The reason is a mystery, LAPD historians say.

This spring, department officials hope to remedy the oversight and award Kesterson the Medal of Valor, 61 years after his death. The Los Angeles Police Commission still must vote on the commendation, which it is expected to do within the next couple of weeks. If it is approved, Kesterson's 78-year-old nephew will fly in from Colorado to accept the award.

"There's no statute of limitation on heroism," said Scott Kroeber, a Metro Division captain who initiated the effort to honor Kesterson two years ago when he read a Los Angeles Police Historical Society article, which noted that Kesterson did not receive the commendation. "He's part of the legend and lore of Metro. We don't glorify violence, but we do honor courage."

A review of police records and news accounts from the time provide a snapshot of post-World War II Los Angeles and its police force. It was an era of supposed police reform marred by a vice scandal in which officers took protection money from prostitutes. Minority residents often were randomly -- and with little cause -- swept up and taken to the station for interrogation.

In those days, reporters and police worked hand in glove. Just a couple of years earlier, news scribes carried "press badges" that were nearly indistinguishable from the officers' shields. Their cars often looked like police cruisers.

On the night of Kesterson's shooting, reporters walked the crime scene with the cops. They were with officers when Kesterson's wife received the horrible news about her husband. A photographer from the old Los Angeles Daily News captured her reaction on film. They were also there when she pulled back the sheet and identified her husband's body.

"Oh, Walter," she reportedly cried.

The day after the shooting, Police Chief Clemence B. Horrall told reporters that the city had been "invaded by a lot of dangerous characters." He ordered his officers to "use every means necessary to safeguard [their] lives while investigating suspicious persons."

The Los Angeles Times published an editorial supporting the chief's tough talk and railing against the "champions of civil liberties" who wanted officers to confront the dangers of the streets with their guns holstered.

Those who knew Kesterson praised his 18-year commitment to police work.

In the Historical Society article that Kroeber read, the author -- former Officer John "Two Gun" Powers -- called Kesterson "a quiet and competent officer who knew how to get along with everyone, not only his brother officers but also the people he put in jail."

Powers, who died in 2002, said Kesterson trained him when he was first assigned to Metropolitan Division, which was also known as the Reserve Unit because its officers would move from area to area to fight crime throughout the city.

Frequently, Powers said, that meant working on skid row with its "cheap hotels, flophouses, missions, all-night movies, pawn shops, liquor stores, cheap restaurants and cheaper bars."

The denizens of skid row, Powers wrote, were "winos, thieves, hustlers, drunk rollers, strong-arm robbers and ex-convicts, as well as ... working men between jobs or down on their luck."

Kesterson, he said, knew how to handle them all.

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