When the phone rang, the beating in the Lawndale motel stopped.
Howard Bloomgarden, a 26-year-old college grad and self-styled mobster, was calling from Miami. He was checking on a cross-country manhunt that was reaching its climax on this night in 1994 as
His college buddy and former partner, Peter Kovach, was bound and splayed on the bed. Kovach had dropped from sight after botching a marijuana shipment. Bloomgarden's heavies had tracked him to a cellphone store in Torrance he'd bought a stake in.
Guns drawn, they'd abducted Kovach, 26, and a co-worker who was helping close up the shop. They'd driven their captives to the motel.
The mission, retold over the years through prosecutors' cases against members of the drug ring and appeals court opinions, wasn't going well. Even after being roughed up, Kovach insisted he had nothing to give.
When Bloomgarden called, the leader of the gang held the phone to Kovach's ear. The two old friends talked. Before hanging up, the henchman briefly talked to Bloomgarden.
Five days later, the bodies of Kovach and his co-worker, Ted Gould, turned up in San Diego.
Federal authorities in New York busted the drug ring a few months later. Bloomgarden, along with all four of the abductors and a lawyer associated with Bloomgarden, were convicted on federal racketeering charges.
As part of a plea agreement, Bloomgarden confessed to helping finance the kidnapping and ordering the killings over the phone. Under a 33-year federal sentence, he would be eligible for release as early as 2025.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles had other ideas. For nearly two decades, they waged a marathon struggle over double jeopardy, incompetent counsel and hearsay evidence.
They wanted Bloomgarden to die in prison — and if they had their way, he would die at the state's hands.
Howard Bloomgarden began dealing drugs while a student at the University of Miami, with the help of his close friend Kovach, according to transcripts from Bloomgarden's federal case and state appeal documents.
The operation grew after they both graduated. In summer 1992, Bloomgarden secured a connection in California for cheap, high-quality Mexican marijuana, according to court documents.
At first, with Miami reeling from
But Bloomgarden's luck ran out on Feb. 26, 1993, the day the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time. New York airports went on high alert, and a shipment was seized.
Prosecutors said Bloomgarden put Kovach, who was living in California, in charge of shipping the drugs by land instead of by air.
Two months later, authorities in Illinois stopped an RV packed with 800 pounds of marijuana en route to Florida. Knowing that Bloomgarden had bought the marijuana on credit and that he would be held responsible, Kovach bailed.
But Bloomgarden, prosecutors said, believed that Kovach was quietly continuing to deal with the suppliers in Los Angeles.
Bloomgarden enlisted a business associate named Gary Friedman to deal with it.
By the time Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Geoffrey Lewin was assigned the Bloomgarden case in 2011, it had been handed around like a baton by prosecutors, going back to when Gil Garcetti was district attorney.
"It was originally thought of as a pretty simple case," said Lewin, a prosecutor with the organized crime unit.
The district attorney's office had pressed murder charges against Bloomgarden in 1996, shortly after authorities tied the drug ring to the two unsolved homicides.
But prosecutors faced complications in Los Angeles County Superior Court. First, in 2002, a judge granted a defense motion to dismiss the cases against members of the ring on the grounds of double jeopardy. The state appealed — because the defendants had been convicted of only "travel in aid of racketeering" for the two killings in federal court, it argued, the charge of murder had not yet been filed.
An appeals court agreed and sent the cases back for trial.
Then came the biggest blow: In 2006, Bloomgarden's confession was ruled inadmissible in the state case. Judge Curtis Rappe said Bloomgarden's old attorneys had violated his 6th Amendment rights to proper counsel by not recognizing the consequences a plea could have on the capital murder case in California.
Lewin took the case personally, contacting the victims' families and staying in touch while he investigated the case.
In 2013, Lewin made a trip to a Louisiana prison to see Gary Friedman, where he was serving three life sentences. He refused to cooperate, Lewin said.
The number of possible state witnesses was dwindling: The man convicted of carrying out the strangulations, Friedman's brother, Kenny, had committed suicide in 2012 in San Quentin.
Lewin was left with only threads of circumstantial evidence and a star witness who needed federal protection after snitching on his former boss.
Late in April, Ruben Hernandez walked into Los Angeles County Superior Court surrounded by U.S. marshals. Over two days of testimony, the marshals sat by as the beefy New Yorker recounted through his thick accent the events leading up to the killings.
Hernandez testified that in 1994 he was a driver for Gary Friedman, who was a criminal defense attorney in Queens, when his brother, Kenny, offered him $10,000 and a cut of future business to go on a trip to California to track down an errant associate.
"We was going there just to snatch Pete up, take him somewhere, sit him down so he could talk to Howard," Hernandez testified. "That's all we were there for."
Hernandez testified that he, Kenny Friedman and two associates stalked the Galleria Telecom for weeks, hoping to catch Kovach alone.
Finally, they decided they couldn't wait any longer. It was Oct. 26, 1994.
Gould, 29, had been on the job for only a few weeks. Kovach pleaded with the captors to let his co-worker go, Hernandez said on the stand.
Once they got to the motel, Hernandez testified, he helped Kenny Friedman pin Kovach to the bed. He described watching as Friedman picked up the phone, then placed it to Kovach's ear, before taking it back and talking some more.
When the call ended, Friedman threw Kovach to the floor and began to beat him, Hernandez said. Kovach had already tried to escape once, so Hernandez jumped down to grab Kovach's legs and stop him from kicking.
Hernandez said he heard Kovach gurgling, but it wasn't until he felt urine running down Kovach's pants that he realized what was going on: Friedman was strangling him. Then Kovach's body went limp.
Hernandez testified that he hadn't agreed to participate in a killing. He said he left the room while Gould was held captive on an adjacent bed, knowing what was coming next. Before going, Hernandez asked Kenny Friedman why he did it.
"Howard told me to do it," he testified that Friedman told him.
Lewin knew that Hernandez was hardly a perfect witness. He was no model citizen and provided only hearsay evidence on the crucial matter of whether Bloomgarden had signed off on the killings — testimony allowed because he had admitted being a co-conspirator in the case.
In closing his case, defense attorney Jack M. Earley said Hernandez was strung along by Kenny and Gary Friedman, who used Bloomgarden as an ATM and dropped his name to cover their tracks.
"Everything [Hernandez] says comes from Kenny and Gary," Earley told jurors. "He never talked to Howard."
Believing Hernandez, a career criminal, was to believe Kenny Friedman, another career criminal, Earley said. He further warned to beware of Hernandez's accomplice testimony because he was "bought" by the prosecution by taking a deal.
Lewin's case also relied on a trail of phone records and Western Union receipts that he told jurors proved Bloomgarden organized and financed the expedition.
However confusing, they were key to the case. Under California's felony-murder rule, anyone involved in committing a dangerous felony — like a kidnapping — that leads to deaths may be found guilty of first-degree murder.
After listening to testimony over five weeks, the jury deliberated for only four hours. On May 15, it returned a verdict: guilty on two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of kidnapping.
Jurors unanimously voted down an alleged special circumstance of multiple murders, signaling that they were not convinced of Bloomgarden's intent to kill.
But they found true a second allegation that the murders were committed during the course of a kidnapping, meaning Bloomgarden was eligible for the death penalty.
The state got its victory, but the long span of the case denied at least one person justice: Ted Gould's mother, Gladys, died of complications during surgery just 10 days before the verdict.
Soon, the jury will reconvene to decide whether Bloomgarden, 46, should get the penalty Los Angeles County prosecutors thought he deserved when Kovach and Gould were killed nearly 20 years ago: death.