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Crime & Courts

After 6,000 homicide investigations, LaBarbera to turn in his badge

Det. Sal LaBarbera is retiring after more than 6,000 homicide investigations in 33 years with the LAPD

Sal LaBarbera was asleep when his phone rang Monday at 3 a.m. He didn't have to open his eyes to know who was calling, or that there had been another killing in Los Angeles.

"Good morning, sweet cheeks," said LAPD Lt. Jeff Nolte, officer-in-charge at South Bureau homicide. "We got one. San Pedro and 120th."

"That's the 118th Street East Coast Crips neighborhood," Det. LaBarbera responded.

Yeah, no kidding, Nolte said. But not in those words.

LaBarbera drove up from his home in Orange County and arrived moments after Nolte. A black man who appeared to be in his 30s, dead from gunshots, was lying in a driveway.

The grim, fog-shrouded scene was numbingly familiar to LaBarbera. When he hangs it up at the end of this month, after 33 years on the force and 27 of them in homicide, he will have had a hand in more than 6,000 homicide investigations, most involving black male victims.

He will take with him the unforgettable images of that carnage — decades of drive-bys, gang executions and crimes of passion — along with the hope that he's made a difference along the way.

Some would say that he has, and not just by putting away more than a few killers. Lots of detectives roll through the homicide detail in South Los Angeles, give it their best, and move on before the job eats away too much.

LaBarbera stayed put.

"This is home," he said in his office Monday after six hours at the crime scene on 120th Street, where he helped supervise the early stages of the investigation. That included knocking on doors and noting that in the morning dew, one patch of pavement was dry, suggesting, perhaps, that someone had made a quick exit just after the killing.

South Los Angeles was always where the action was, especially in the 1980s and '90s heyday of colliding forces and multiple daily murders. In the separate and safer universe a few miles to the north, it's always been convenient to ignore the nearby epidemic of mayhem, or to think of killing as a kind of cleansing. It's just thugs killing thugs, so let them have their way.

To LaBarbera's credit, the balkanization of outrage has always been on his radar.

"No one has the right to play God here. Yes, we do handle a lot of gang cases, but we treat every case like the victim was a member of our own family. If you can't do that, you don't belong here," he said.

"If there was a shooting in Westwood or Beverly Hills, somewhere on the Westside, it would draw the attention of the whole world. The same night Bill Cosby's kid got killed, we handled the murder of a young girl getting off a bus who was shot and killed," LaBarbera said.

He was referring to 17-year-old Corrie Williams of Watts, killed by a stray bullet in a 1997 gang shooting. At the time of her death, Williams was carrying a form to order her high school graduation gown.

"Same day," said the detective, "and nobody knew about that case because everybody was focused on Cosby."

LaBarbera has interrogated more killers than he can count, having personally led 200 homicide investigations, and said there are times "where you want to smack them in the head for what they did." But over the years, he has witnessed an oft-repeated narrative. Dad's in prison, mom's a junkie, relatives are gang members, schools are struggling and jobs pay next to nothing.

But there's money in mischief, so a kid jumps at it, and once he sees the trick, he's too far down the road to prison or the cemetery.

"I always said that if I ever won the lottery, I'd buy air conditioners for every apartment in the housing projects," said LaBarbera, who remembers far too many hot summer nights when grudges and hostilities, marinated in alcohol, boiled over and ended in gunfire.

"There is no tougher place in America to be a homicide detective than Southeast Division," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. "Sal has brought enthusiasm and compassion to that job for the past three decades. That someone could endure the difficulties of this assignment for so long is amazing, that they could do it with such integrity and success is beyond expression. I will miss seeing Sal in dark alleys at midnight; his presence there made me believe justice would soon follow."

LaBarbera's gift, said Lt. Nolte, was his ability to schmooze with the neighbors, get to know the families and build relationships that helped solve murder mysteries. At Christmas, LaBarbera and Nolte have often driven around with a stash of toys in the trunk, handing them out to families they know.

"It's community policing," said LaBarbera, and even at a time when there's simmering distrust in many cities between police and the communities they serve — particularly minority communities — he feels as if the relationships he and other homicide detectives nurtured are not only strong, but key to their work.

At a crime scene, he said, you still get a lot of people who insist that they didn't see or hear anything, either out of fear or to protect identities. But when you tap your trusted contacts, they are glad to see you because they don't want any more loss of life.

LaBarbera wholeheartedly embraced the Twitter rage, partly as a tool to communicate with community contacts. But he drew fire in 2011 for tweeting a photo of a crime scene body with the headline, "Guess Where I'm at??? It never ends."

Insensitive and inappropriate, said critics. For LaBarbera, there was a purpose.

"I wanted to bring attention to it," he said.

And now, he wants a rest.

LaBarbera dabbles in writing and has some entertainment people interested in him, so he could go Hollywood. He's got another project in mind, too — trying to atone for all the family time he missed working so many 18-hour days.

As the countdown to retirement begins, LaBarbera been tweeting photos of himself from murder scenes with lines such as:

"Hopefully one of the last times on this side of the tape."

Was Monday morning's killing at San Pedro and 120th — which remains unsolved — the last he will work?

Maybe, maybe not.

Until Jan. 31, when the phone rings, he'll roll.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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