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Headlines follow career of dedicated cop in a rough town

The LAPD honored Felix Vera with a Purple Heart last year, but not all the memories of his days with the department bring him comfort.

October 31, 2013|By Thomas Curwen
  • Retired now, Felix Vera holds a photograph of himself, taken early in his career as an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department.
Retired now, Felix Vera holds a photograph of himself, taken early in his… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

Bedtime comes early to Vintage Cerritos, an assisted living facility on the edge of Los Angeles County. The Thursday hoedown has ended, the lobby is quiet.

Felix Vera stood in the doorway of his apartment. He recently moved here, and the simple d├ęcor says more about what he's lost than what he owns.

He handed me a water-stained envelope filled with news clippings from his days with the Los Angeles Police Department. I promised to take good care of it.

"The stories aren't the exact truth," he said.

Having caught a glimpse of their tabloid extravagance, I was inclined to believe him.

I first heard about Vera last year, when he was awarded a Purple Heart under a new LAPD program to bestow the honor on its officers. At 88, he lives with memories I wanted to learn about. When I opened the envelope later that night, it was like stepping into a James Ellroy novel.

CRIME WAVE HITS L.A.

It was post-World War II Los Angeles, an era when it wasn't hard for a cop to get in the news. The city had five major papers, each upping the ante with ever-more sensational coverage. If fear boosted support for the police, it also sold papers.

Vera filled these accounts. Assigned to the vice squad and the Hollenbeck gang unit, he pushed through the front door of a gambling house, stumbled upon the body of a murdered cabbie, struggled with suspects at the booking desk, disarmed a suicidal man and caught a trio of robbers.

"We were told at the academy that most cops go through their 20 years, never pulling their gun from their holsters," he said. "That wasn't the case for me."

The accounts painted a picture of a city lurching toward its future, a rendezvous darkened by war and filled with uncertainty over the atomic present, Police Chief William H. Parker presiding.

Like many LAPD recruits, Vera had returned from Europe, where life and death often depended on where you stood. As a medic, he had ferried the wounded from the front and remembers once hearing the whoosh and whomp of an unexploded shell landing nearby.

Back home, he got a job as a crane operator — until the promise of $400 a month and an LAPD pension seemed like a better deal. He was sworn in on Jan. 5, 1948. In an early photo, he was not above smiling for the camera. A year later, he was in a shootout that could have ended his career.

BULLETS RIDDLE EX-CONVICT FIGHTING 100 L.A. POLICE

On a foggy night, Vera and his partner were on plain-clothes detail in Silver Lake when they heard shots. A man was running toward them. Vera drew his .38 and heard an explosion. The gun jumped from his grip. He had been shot in the hand.

He said it felt like he'd been kicked by a mule. He scrambled for his weapon and was able to empty the pistol.

But the man took off, hiding in the backyard of a nearby home. Soon surrounded by police, he was killed resisting arrest. One paper called him "a mad desperado," implicated in an attack on two police officers in Napa.

That night he had propositioned a minor, who notified the police. Officers caught up with the man, who crashed his car and took off running — only to meet Vera and his partner

Sixty-three years later, the LAPD honored Vera, citing "his extreme bravery and heroism and for sustaining a traumatic injury during a tactical situation."

The son of Mexican immigrants, Vera grew up in East L.A., his childhood home razed for the San Bernardino Freeway. His father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and to support his family, Vera dropped out of high school and got a job in a nursery.

As a cop, he eventually transferred to Hollenbeck and patrolled his old neighborhood. He and his wife, Francis, moved to Norwalk, where they raised three children. Francis died two years ago, and Vera still chokes up thinking about their 73 years together.

Leafing through the clippings, I came across a story that complicated this legacy.

FLEEING L.A. DOPE SUSPECT SLAIN

It was Ash Wednesday, 1957, when Vera received a call for backup. Two men had been stopped on suspicion of narcotics violations. In an era before probable cause, erratic driving and track marks on someone's arms were enough to warrant a thorough search of the car.

The Times' account is sketchy, Vera's memory vague. One of the men took off running. Vera caught him in an alley. They fought in the dirt. They were both sweating. Vera felt the man try to grab his gun. The man took off again, and Vera, according to the story, fired "once … then again."

Fifty-six years later, Vera doesn't remember it this way. He remembers only the struggle, the quick decisions, the sense that his life was in danger.

"When you get involved in a shooting," he said, "you're feeling the adrenaline. You know what you're doing, but you really don't. Your mind, your brain, your heart are all twisted around. A fog sets in."

That afternoon, Vera learned the man — who the coroner would later discover had a balloon of heroin in his stomach — had died at the hospital.

"The news kicked me in the chest and in the head," he said. "It was a shock that I had taken a human life."

Vera was cleared during an inquest, but he was not the same. On patrol, he forgot where he had been. He lost track of time. He found it hard to forgive himself.

Doctors prescribed medication. He went on leave, and when friends visited, Francis made excuses for him. He asked God for forgiveness.

"Because," he said, "killing is a mortal sin."

When I returned his envelope of clippings, Vera told me he was proud of his career as a cop (and after his retirement in 1967, his work as a polygraph examiner) but that he regrets that day in 1957.

As we said goodbye, we lingered near his front door, where he has hung his commendation from the city and a small purple medal in the shape of a heart.

thomas.curwen@latimes.com

Twitter: @tcurwen

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