LAPD Det. Michael Kaden, the only officer assigned to Nicolas?… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
They were killed on the same day, in the same way. One of the deaths captured the attention of a city and spurred the Los Angeles Police Department into overdrive. The other slipped by unnoticed, leaving a lone detective with little more to go on than hope.
Adrianna Bachan died first. Shortly after 3 a.m. March 29, Bachan, 18, and a friend stood at the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street on the edge of the USC campus. Returning home after a night out, the two students stepped into the crosswalk and started across Jefferson.
An eastbound car blew through a red light, tossing Bachan into the air and hurling her friend onto the windshield, before it disappeared into the darkness, witnesses and police said.
Bachan's friend suffered broken legs and other injuries. Bachan was alive when she reached California Hospital Medical Center, but died before sunrise of massive head injuries.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 08, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Hit-and-run reward: An article in Monday's Section A examining two hit-and-run fatalities said staffers for Los Angeles Councilman Bernard Parks had arranged for a reward in one of the cases without first receiving a request from the Los Angeles Police Department. The article cited an LAPD officer on that point, but department officials now say the officer was unaware that a commanding officer had contacted Parks' office to inquire about a reward before the offer was made.
Minutes before 11 that night -- just as television stations were about to start news broadcasts filled with reports about Bachan's death -- Agapito Gaspar Nicolas stepped into a crosswalk on Figueroa Street, a block from his cramped Highland Park apartment. The 55-year-old Guatemala native had been scratching out a living on construction crews since coming to California about 15 years ago.
Nicolas' girlfriend would guess later that he had been on his way to a taco stand to pick up carne asada burritos for her and her children -- something he did often. Just before he reached the far curb, a car broadsided him and dragged or threw him 70 feet. Paramedics found Nicolas lying in the street with a fractured skull. He died soon afterward.
About an hour after Bachan was hit, Jimmy Render, a detective supervisor in the LAPD's South Bureau Traffic Division, arrived at the scene to take over for uniformed officers. He was not encouraged by what he found. Witnesses could offer only a vague description of the car -- a dark-colored sedan, maybe a Toyota Corolla, maybe a Honda Accord. No one had glimpsed the license plate or managed to get a look at the driver. And no piece of the car -- a hood ornament or bumper that could have been used to identify the make and model -- had been recovered.
Render knew his best move was an appeal to the public. Perhaps the driver had confessed to someone or a neighbor had seen the damaged car. By midmorning, police had put out a news release about the accident and TV stations and newspapers jumped at a story involving the death of a USC student.
Render did several on-camera interviews that day, offering details of the crime. The driver, he said, had driven on with Bachan's friend lying on the hood of the car. The car stopped suddenly and a passenger jumped out to pull the young man's body to the ground. The car then sped off again.
Media interest exploded the next morning, when Bachan's mother went to the site of the hit-and-run, clutching photographs of her daughter, a freshman from Santa Barbara.
Television crews and newspaper reporters waiting for an LAPD news conference swarmed the woman. Wild with grief, she paced back and forth. "Please, anyone who knows anything, please help us," she wailed. "Please, I beg you."
Over the next several days, television broadcasts and news websites were saturated with images of an inconsolable Carmen Bachan at news conferences, addressing the L.A. City Council and attending memorial services for her daughter. The photographs of Adrianna she carried and held up to the cameras added to the pathos. The media seized on one that showed a rosy-cheeked young woman with dirty-blond hair and big, round eyes, smiling broadly.
The callousness of the driver and passenger, the grief of the mother, the image of a beautiful young woman -- it all added to the usual pressure on LAPD and city officials to quickly solve high-profile crimes at USC, an enclave of privilege and wealth surrounded by poverty and violence.
Typically, City Council members wait for a request from police before posting a reward in a case. But police said staffers for Councilman Bernard Parks, who represents the USC area, did not wait for a request and arranged for speedy approval of a $75,000 reward -- the highest amount allowable under city statute.
The university added $50,000, the county Board of Supervisors $10,000, and an anonymous donor $100,000, bringing the total to $235,000. It was more than someone could collect from the city for information about a serial killer believed responsible for at least 11 deaths.
News of the reward led to hundreds of tips, which quickly overwhelmed detectives. Normally, one or two detectives work a fatal hit-and-run. In this case, LAPD officials assigned all four detectives in the South Bureau Traffic Division, along with several police officers and about 12 of the bureau's best homicide detectives, who put their other cases on hold, police said.