Matthew Itkowitz, an off-duty deputy U.S. marshal, was being beaten and threatened with a gun in an alley off Melrose Avenue when, in fear for his life, he managed to draw his own weapon and fatally shoot his attacker.
At least, that's the story Itkowitz told Los Angeles police.
What really happened that night in the Fairfax district is less clear-cut. Witnesses' accounts of what happened before the shooting vary. But footage from a surveillance camera, which has never been made public, calls into question the deputy marshal's claim of self-defense. A copy of the tape was reviewed by The Times.
The footage of the March 5, 2008, encounter, coupled with other evidence from the scene, raises a disturbing possibility: that a drunk cop fatally shot a man in the back to settle a score.
Whether prosecutors see it that way is another matter.
After knocking back shots of tequila at a Mexican restaurant a few blocks from their apartment, Itkowitz and his wife, Alexandra, began to argue as they walked home. The couple, both in their 30s, were having problems in their marriage and were discussing a separation.
Itkowitz became angry, his wife would later tell police. She said her husband pushed her and took a baseball cap from her head and swatted her. She was crying as she followed him down an alley they used as a shortcut home.
One witness told police she heard Itkowitz tell his wife: "You're out. You're gone. We're done."
Still crying, his wife responded, "You're drunk."
Itkowitz turned and walked quickly back toward her. Frightened, she ran to a group of people standing near the rear entrance to a tattoo parlor and asked for help. One of them was Ryan Gonzalez, the manager of the shop, who was closing up for the night.
Gonzalez, 26, had a long rap sheet and had done time in prison, including a 21/2-year sentence for possessing a firearm as a felon. That night, he had been drinking and marijuana was detected in his system, according to an autopsy report.
At 5 feet 6 and 160 pounds, Gonzalez may not have looked formidable. But he had a chiseled body and quick hands, and those who knew him say he was not one to back down.
"He was cool with people. He was not an instigator," his stepfather, Ray Smithen, said in an interview with The Times. "But if you antagonized him, that's a different story."
Itkowitz described Gonzalez as combative. He told detectives that Gonzalez pulled a gun from his pocket and said: "You know who I am, homey. I'll … kill you."
Itkowitz said he tried to calm the situation, telling Gonzalez: "Whoa, dude … everything's cool."
Caroline Cardenas and Alicia Simmons, witnesses with no connection to either man, described the encounter differently.
Although police said Cardenas initially told them it seemed as though Gonzalez was the aggressor, she later testified that she heard Itkowitz swearing at Gonzalez, telling him, "This isn't your business, mind your own business."
Gonzales, she said, told Itkowitz: "Calm down and go home."
Simmons told police she saw Itkowitz "backing Gonzalez up against a wall" and "Gonzalez … holding his hands palms out and saying 'Hold up, hold up.' "
However the confrontation began, there is no doubt it came to blows.
Itkowitz told police that Gonzalez punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground. He said he then told Gonzalez that he was a law enforcement officer, pulled out his wallet and showed his driver's license. Gonzalez snatched it from his hand.
Itkowitz said he was "trying to focus on that gun" when — without warning — Gonzalez hit him in the face again, knocking him to the ground a second time.
Itkowitz said he shuffled backward, trying to create some distance, and told Gonzalez, "It's cool, it's cool."
Then, "in a split second," as Gonzalez turned his head, Itkowitz lifted up his shirt, drew his weapon and fired. "I popped up … and I just started firing," he told police.
Images from a surveillance camera mounted on a wall behind Mao's Chinese restaurant show Gonzalez twice knocking Itkowitz to the ground. But they do not show that any shots were fired during the fight or immediately afterward.
Rather, the footage shows the two men walking together down the alley after the fight in the direction of Itkowitz's apartment. At one point, Gonzalez pulls out an object that prosecutors later said could "be reasonably inferred to be a handgun" and points it at Itkowitz's head.
Gonzalez then places it back in his waistband and motions for Itkowitz to leave. He turns around and heads toward the tattoo parlor.
As Gonzalez walks away, Itkowitz can be seen removing a gun from the waist of his pants and holding it behind his right leg.
Still walking toward the tattoo parlor, Gonzalez turns back toward Itkowitz and again motions for him to leave. When he doesn't, Gonzalez walks several steps back in Itkowitz's direction.
He's about 10 to 12 feet away when Itkowitz raises his gun and fires.