A turning point in the life of Deputy Sheriff Rickey Ross came one night about 10 years ago when he crashed his car into a Los Angeles church. That he escaped death in a collision with a house of the Lord was a divine urging, he told friends, a warning that life is to be led on the straight and narrow.
So, each Monday night after working his regular shift as an undercover narcotics investigator for the Sheriff's Department, he would ride his chopped Harley-Davidson motorcycle to Biscailuz Detention Center in East Los Angeles and preach the gospel to inmates gathered in the mess hall. During the holidays, he would bring Christmas trees and Bibles to ghetto acquaintances who could not afford them.
But in the last couple of years, Rickey Ross seemed to change. He stopped preaching at the jail. He broke off contact with several old friends. He complained of difficulties in his marriage and on the job. And one day last fall, Ross asked a childhood friend to paint his motorcycle helmet black and stencil on it the words "Mad Dog."
Somewhere, somehow, prosecutors allege, Ross began haunting a netherworld of darkened streets where women sell their bodies for rock cocaine and often pay for their addictions with their lives. Investigators say Ross himself developed a taste for the drug.
One week ago Thursday, two Los Angeles policemen cruising the Southside pulled a car over for weaving. In the passenger compartment, they found a frightened prostitute and an off-duty deputy sheriff--Ross--allegedly high on cocaine. In the trunk, they found a loaded semiautomatic pistol that investigators subsequently said has been linked to the slayings of three prostitutes.
Ross, 40, has been charged with their deaths.
How could a God-fearing lawman with 18 spotless years on the job become a suspect in a serial murder case? That was the question friends and co-workers have sought to answer since Ross' arrest, and mostly they have failed. They could recall little in his past to reconcile their image of a gentle, unassuming Ross with that of the hulking murder suspect who glared sullenly Monday during his first appearance in court.
Rickey Ross was a child of South-Central Los Angeles where in the last four years at least 41 prostitutes have been slain.
He was born at 8:28 p.m. on June 9, 1948, at the old Los Angeles County General Hospital. His father, Johnnie Marshall Ross, worked as an automobile mechanic. His mother, Carnell Elcinia Jackson Ross, was a maid.
Johnnie Ross soon disappeared from the family picture. Some say he died in the early 1950s.
Alone, often relying on welfare checks, Carnell Ross raised Rickey and his younger brother, Charles, in a succession of rented houses and apartments, instilling in them the stringent, Pentecostal doctrines of the Church of God in Christ.
Sent to Live With Uncle
When times were tough, friends recalled this week, Ross was sent to live with an aunt and uncle, Lucille and L. D. Jackson, in a pink stucco house on East 81st Street. L. D. Jackson died a year ago, and Lucille Jackson is in a coma at an El Monte nursing home, but those who still live on 81st Street remember Ross as an strongly religious and unusually polite boy.
He didn't cheat. He didn't shoplift like some neighborhood kids. He refused to join a gang. If a friend didn't have the nickel for a jelly doughnut after school, Rickey would exercise Christian charity and buy it for him.
One day in junior high, Ross and other boys were roughhousing after class. Somebody took a swing, forgot to pull his punch and knocked out Rickey's two front teeth. A classmate remembers racing the bloody Rickey to a nearby hospital where doctors reimplanted the teeth.
"He didn't even get mad at the kid who hit him," marveled Ross' former classmate, now a police officer with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
At Manual Arts High School, Ross was known as a friendly, likable person with average grades. Twenty-two years after graduation, members of the Class of Winter, 1967, struggle to recall anything memorable about Ross beyond his chubby face and the possibility that he spent a season on the junior varsity football team.
"I do remember Rickey, but that's really all I remember," said Tony Cox, a Los Angeles television newsman whom Ross' class voted Most Likely to Succeed.
A year after graduating, Ross served a short hitch in the Army.
In July, 1971, he entered the Sheriff's Department. A friend recalled that Ross had always wanted to be a cop, that he had been influenced by an uncle or a cousin who had worked in law enforcement.
A deputy sheriff who followed him into the Sheriff's Academy remembered Ross as a carefree bachelor who loved to dance in his off-hours and devour cheeseburgers and tacos. He also "loved the girls."
"It's not a rap on him," the deputy said, "but hell, it was nothing to see Rickey with different women. He was never abusive to them. He would call them, 'Yes, baby,' 'Yes dear.' . . . He treated them right."
Ross later married and started a family.
The Sheriff's Department often was not the most hospitable employer of minorities in the early 1970s, but Ross, according to fellow black deputies, never complained.
After graduating from the academy, he was assigned to the Firestone station. On his first night, he tried to enter the back door wearing civilian clothes.
"He had his uniforms draped over his back, but as he approached the door, a couple of deputies--I won't say they roughed him up--questioned his identify and asked him what business he had in the station," said a member of the department. "It upset him, but he didn't let them know."
Within four years, Ross was an undercover narcotics investigator, a prestigious assignment with limited supervision. It was not necessarily his commendable work record that won him the job, detectives said. Rather, they said, it was his looks and the fact that the department had few minority deputies to infiltrate black-run drug rings.
Big and glowering with blazing eyes that spoke of life on the streets, he simply didn't look like a cop. Rickey Ross was the last person a drug dealer would dare ask for identification.
"He's the kind of guy that if you see him coming down the street and you don't know him, you cross the street," one deputy said. "But behind that facade is a gentle heart, a guy who'd do anything for you if he could."
Bought Food for Suspects
Ross was a deputy known to buy food for suspects after arresting them.
No one can remember when specifically, but at some point in the late 1970s, Ross crashed his car into a church. The accident was no mere fender-bender. The car was totaled. Thankful to be alive, Ross took his survival as a heavenly message to change his life, he told fellow deputies and friends afterward.
Car mechanic Tyrone Mears, a childhood friend whose parents were close to Ross' aunt and uncle, said Ross "didn't seem too religious" when he was in high school. But by the time Mears and Ross were reacquainted in the mid-1980s, Mears was startled to find that his old friend could quote Bible verses by heart. Ross would spend hours at the Mears home, sitting with L. C. Mears, Tyrone's father, discussing Scripture. Ross told them that he had been ordained as a minister.
Ross and his family--wife, Sylvia, an airline stewardess, a teen-age stepson and a young daughter--were living at the time in a Gardena auto-salvage yard surrounded by barbed wire. Again, Ross did not complain. Their two-bedroom apartment was rent-free so long as Ross kept a protective eye on the acres of junked cars encircling their home.
He told friends he was saving to buy a house in the suburbs.
When the company that ran the salvage yard decided to use the apartment for offices in 1987, the Rosses moved back to the 81st Street neighborhood where Rickey spent part of his youth, back to the familiar pink stucco home where he had lived with his aunt and uncle, the Jacksons. With his uncle's death and his aunt in a nursing home, the house was empty.
Ross would come over to the Mears' house often. He chain-smoked Salems while he and Tyrone Mears passed the hours watching televised football games and playing dominoes.
Snapshots of Contraband
Ross talked happily about his family and his successes as a narcotics investigator. He was good at the job, with an ability to con even the most shrewd dealers into selling him narcotics. Sometimes, he showed off snapshots of the contraband he and his colleagues seized.
But when L. C. Mears came home from the auto body shop he owned, the talk invariably turned to the Lord. One Christmas Day, Ross showed up unannounced at the Mears' door with a fine yule tree and three Bibles. In one of them, Rickey had inscribed L. C. Mears' name and his own along with the date.
Ross was even spreading his faith among the imprisoned at the Biscailuz jail on Eastern Avenue. Monday nights, Ross would conduct Bible classes in the mess hall. Wearing jeans, he joined the prisoners in prayer and song, usually "This Is the Day the Lord Has Made." Then, he would preach.
"He had a really solid delivery," former inmate Benny Newton said. "It really impressed me that a policeman would have that type of compassion for us. He was one of the men that helped me to make a decision to turn my life around."
Newton, who was doing time for drugs, later became a salaried chaplain at the same jail after he served his time. He often ministered with Ross.
But about 18 months ago, Newton said, Ross began missing the Bible meetings--a week here, a week there. By last February, he had stopped coming altogether.
"He never contacted me or anything," Newton said.
It was about the same time, records show, that Ross and his wife put 25% down and bought a handsome, $210,000 house in the San Bernardino County community of Rialto. He had transferred narcotics assignments seven months before then, switching from the sheriff's station in quiet Altadena to a multi-agency, DEA-run task force at Los Angeles International Airport.
He was one of four deputies in the task force, working beside federal agents and Los Angeles police officers to intercept drugs coming into the nation's third-busiest airport. Among narcotics cops, it is a vaunted assignment, one that offers the excitement of going after big scores in comfortable passenger terminals rather than hostile tenements.
It is a job replete with surveillances, informants and plenty of overtime pay. Last year, according to sheriff's records, Ross earned $4,660 in overtime in addition to his $45,000 salary.
A new house, a new job. It would have seemed that Ross could find satisfaction in the challenges of both. But friends noticed that the normally mild-mannered investigator who used to keep complaints to himself was frequently muttering about his troubles: He was putting in too many hours at work; at home, his wife was on his case about everything from his looks to his clumsiness at home repairs.
In the months before the Rosses moved to Rialto, their arguments were so loud that the Mears family next door could hear them plainly. More than once, Tyrone Mears overheard Rickey Ross sputter to his wife: "Goddamn it Syl, leave me alone!" Sometimes, Mears said, Ross would storm out of the house wearing his black leather motorcycle jacket, hop on his Harley and roar off.
Efforts to interview Sylvia Ross, as well as her husband, have been unsuccessful.
After the Rosses moved, Ross rarely called the Mears family anymore. Then, one day last fall, he telephoned Tyrone at his body and fender shop. Ross wanted his motorcycle helmet painted. He wanted it black, with the words "Mad Dog" on the front.
Mears had it done. He didn't ask why.
The Harbor Freeway above Gage Avenue faces a desolate area that becomes almost ghostly after sunset.
For several blocks, the avenue is lined with old clapboard houses, each protected by wrought iron bars and gates and painted garish primary colors--oranges, yellow, greens--as if in defiance of the dull oppression of the area's decay. Beyond the houses are burger stands, check-cashing offices, storefront churches and a shack advertising used tires.
At night, the access roads leading to the freeway's on-ramps are dark, almost devoid of light, perfect dumping grounds for old furniture and open bags of trash--or parking spots for prostitutes and their johns.
Even before night falls, women with scarred faces and tight miniskirts lurch along Figueroa, not far from the freeway, leaning into car windows and asking, "Want a date?"
It was there that two patrol officers from the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th station were cruising at about 1:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 23. Officer Ron (Snoopy) Smith, 39, a 20-year-veteran, was offering pointers to Officer Michael Acevedo, 22, a few months out of the Police Academy.
Near Gage and the Harbor Freeway, they saw the figures of a man and a woman in a Ford Tempo. As the officers approached, the Ford accelerated and pulled away in what the officers later called "an erratic manner." The officers blocked the Tempo with their cruiser and got out.
The driver, a heavily muscled man, appeared to be "under the influence of an intoxicating substance," police later reported. The woman, police said, was a prostitute who later told detectives that she became "concerned for her safety" when the driver of the car mentioned that he needed to go to the trunk for a moment.
The driver was Rickey Ross. He had no sheriff's identification with him and was driving an unmarked county car, but immediately identified himself as a deputy and asked the officers to "give me a break."
Ross, the officers said, consented to a search of his car. In the trunk, they found a loaded, 9-millimeter Beretta pistol. During roll calls in previous weeks, Smith and Acevedo, along with other officers assigned to South Bureau stations, had been advised that a man armed with such a weapon was killing prostitutes.
The patrolmen took Ross to the 77th station, where he was booked on a charge of driving while intoxicated. The officers telephoned Ross' lieutenant, who came to the station and drove him home.
That afternoon after ballistics experts allegedly matched the pistol found in his trunk to the bullets that killed three prostitutes between Oct. 14 and Dec. 11, Ross was arrested and driven to police headquarters.
Investigators said the prostitutes allegedly killed by Ross were all found in an area that Ross passed through each day on his way to and from his airport post.
Detectives also came to suspect that Ross had begun using rock cocaine while trying to stop those who traffic in it.
"There's something about that drug," one investigator observed, "that makes people do wild things."
Some of Ross' friends concede that he might have used drugs. It happens sometimes to veteran narcotics investigators. None, however, said they believe he was capable of murder.
Ex-convict Newton was not troubling himself with the enigma of Ross' arrest this week. He views Ross in a different light, as a jailhouse minister who once helped save his soul and now is in spiritual need himself.
Next week after Ross is arraigned, Newton intends to visit the jail and minister to his former role model--just as Ross once did for him.
'Going to Be Very Lonely'
"His life," Newton said, "is going to be very lonely from here on out."
Today, as investigators explore whether Ross can be linked to additional prostitute killings, the suspect waits without bail in the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail where he once worked.
He is kept in isolation on the second floor in a special section of cells that the authorities call "7000" or "high power." Mentally unstable inmates are kept there, along with defendants from high-profile cases, including Night Stalker defendant Richard Ramirez.
The cells line both sides of a stark, gray-walled corridor. Each has a reinforced security door and a red marker, called a "deadline," painted in front of the door to ward off gawkers.
The isolation measures are meant to protect the inhabitants of 7000 from other inmates. There are ample reasons to protect Rickey Ross at the jail. He put more than a few felons into it.
Times staff writers Bettina Boxall, John Kendall, William Overend and Louis Sahagun contributed to this report.