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‘America Killed Andre’ : Celebrity Chef Michel Richard Lost His Best Friend to a Robber’s Bullet. Now He Talks About the Dark Side of the American Dream: Murder, Greed, Fear

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

On the night of July 10, an armed robber killed transplanted Frenchman Andre Coffyn while he was closing up his Wilshire District bistro, “Michel Richard.” While his murder was no more important, no less important, than any other killing that occurs in Los Angeles, it received considerable publicity and sparked rumors of a “conspiracy” against the French community, prompting the State Department to make an official inquiry on the matter to the Los Angeles Police Department. Here, for the first time, Coffyn’s best friend and partner, L.A. celebrity chef Michel Richard, talks about the murder’s impact on his own life.

“Have you ever lost a friend?” said Michel Richard as he sat on the patio of his celebrated Citrus restaurant as the bright Los Angeles sunshine turned increasingly hazy with smog and sunset. “Because Andre was my best friend. He was my only friend. Andre was exactly the kind of friend I needed. And it’s a great loss for me.

“I’m sure that if Andre was still living in France, he would still be alive. Because I think he was in the wrong spot at the wrong time. That person didn’t come to kill Andre. He was looking for somebody wearing a nice watch, so he could sell it and make some money. And this way he could please his own needs.

“And that’s why I say America killed Andre.”

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“No one’s been arrested yet. There is not a great deal of evidence,” says Los Angeles Police Detective Dan Andrews, who is handling the case.

“There is not a real strong description of the getaway vehicle we can trace. There don’t appear to be any fingerprints. The Rolex watches that were stolen haven’t turned up at a pawn shop or anywhere in Southern California that we can trace.

“In other words, there just aren’t a lot of real good leads at this point.

“Sure, there are some similarities to other Rolex robberies in that this guy demands a watch. But that seems to have become a very popular pastime as far as armed robberies in L.A. County are concerned. Clearly, the word on the street is you can get anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000 for an expensive watch. So you go to an affluent neighborhood where most people are wearing nice watches. It’s the law of averages.”

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“Crime doesn’t happen so much in France. Because when I was living in France, before I left in 1974 and came to America, I never worried about it.

“You know, Paris is a beautiful city, but we do have problems. And I remember it was very rare to have crime happen to you. I remember that, 15 years ago, if you went to work late, people asked why. And when you said, ‘My car has been stolen,’ it was like a big deal. The entire village would go, ‘God, did you hear that?’

“Now, I’m afraid that 50 years from now in Los Angeles it’ll be, ‘How come you don’t come to work?’ and you’ll say, ‘Because my husband was killed last night.’ And people will say, ‘Oh, so what.’ It’s just like normal. Something expected.

“And, you know, we take this too easy. I mean, how many times has my car radio been stolen? 15 times? Yeah, so many times. And between Andre and me, maybe even 20 times. And then tell your friends tomorrow, ‘Oh my God, somebody broke into my car.’ And it’s nothing.”

“It appears to have been a simple robbery that went sour,” Detective Andrews explains.

“There doesn’t appear to be anything that Andre Coffyn did to provoke this incident. The gunman probably had no idea Andre was even the owner. He had a glass of wine in front of him, he was sitting in the cafe, socializing with the other patrons. He looked like a customer.

“So that leaves us with a scenario where this guy is standing there perpetrating an armed robbery. He’s got seven patrons sitting on the sidewalk cafe, so he’s concerned about controlling these people. He’s in a hurry, his adrenaline’s pumping and he’s holding an automatic weapon in his hand. He tells everyone that it’s a robbery and to give up their watches and money, which they did. And the first person that he confronts, the one who was sitting closest to him, was Coffyn.

“I don’t know if you know anything about weapons, but it doesn’t take much as far as trigger pull is concerned to make a .32 automatic discharge. And it may just have been an inadvertent act.

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“It could have been any one of them who was killed. It just happened to be Andre.”

“I know somebody knows who did it. There’s no doubt about it. Somebody knows.

“And they should call the police and put the guy in jail because he doesn’t have the right to take a gun and take a life. He should be put away some place where he won’t ever do it again. He hurt so many people.”

“We have a composite drawing from the descriptions of witnesses,” says Detective Andrews. “The suspect is a male black, approximately six feet tall, slender build, medium complexion, black hair, aged 25-26 years. He had on a dark - sleeved shirt with yellow stripes, dark pants.

“We think there also might have been a getaway driver. We have one witness who heard the car speed away and saw a black Camaro-type vehicle. We have another witness who heard someone run up to the car and say something to the effect of, ‘Let’s go.’

“What are the chances of finding this guy? I think what we need is somebody anonymously or whatever to tell us what happened. Because somebody knows. The driver of the car knows. Probably friends or acquaintances of whomever did this knows. It’s going to take what we in this business call the ‘magic phone call.’ We need that desperately.”

“You know, the day after Andre was killed, people called and said they’re going to kill me too. What happened is somebody told me that they heard on TV that there was too much publicity about Andre’s case and ‘if you don’t stop, we’re going to kill Michel Richard.’

“I didn’t know if it was real. But even if it’s a joke, you’re still afraid.”

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“I’ll tell you exactly what happened. This thing got completely blown out of proportion,” says Detective Andrews. “That’s my estimation after investigating it quite extensively.

“The day after the murder, the neighborhood was swarming with news people. And you know how they are: They’ll put a microphone in front of anyone. So then an elderly woman calls the ‘Michel Richard’ restaurant and says, ‘If you don’t get those reporters off my lawn, there’s going to be another shooting,’ and then hangs up the telephone.

“Of course, we were concerned about this and we put a tap on the telephone of the restaurant that has the ability to trace phone calls. And we determined that it was just obviously some irate neighbor.

“But the news people out there at the restaurant stick a microphone in the face of a 20-year-old girl who works behind the counter making sandwiches and ask, ‘How do you feel about this?’ And she says, ‘Well, I think it’s really tragic. And not only that, but now we’re receiving death threats.’

“So that night on the news, without calling me or trying to verify it at all, that’s what they play, ‘Death threats against Michel Richard. So then some people who know the real Michel Richard are watching the news and they hear this and they don’t realize they’re talking about ‘Michel Richard,’ the restaurant. And so they call Michel and say, ‘We understand from the TV that you’re next.’ So he goes into hiding.

“I get frantic calls the following morning from the family and friends of Richard and Coffyn and everyone else wanting to know about this conspiracy against French people and against French chefs and how Andre was killed because he was French and that Michel’s going to be next. I even got a call from the planners of the Bastille Day party at Hollywood Park, where 10,000 people are expected to attend, including French government officials and movie stars and dignitaries. They’re obviously upset and they want to cancel this event.

“So I tell them the whole story, and they go ahead with it.

“Then, on July 14th, I get another call and it’s a representative from the United States State Department. And he says, ‘We’ve received formal inquiries from the French government and from the Ambassador of France regarding the murder of a Frenchman and the conspiracy against French people in Los Angeles. So what about it?

“So I tell him the whole story, and that was really the last I’ve heard about it.”

“Oh yes, I’m still afraid now.

“If I drive, I’m afraid. If somebody gets close to me, I’m afraid. If I hear some noise in my home, I’m afraid. The feeling won’t go away.

“I’m afraid not only for me but for my kids. You know, you can’t leave your kids on the street. My son is 6 years old and if he’s on the street for five minutes, he’d be . . . I can’t even imagine. But when I was his age in France, I used to go in the forest or in the mountains or fishing and my parents never worried about me.

“But you raise your kids here and they don’t have freedom. I guess, as parents, we’re afraid of everything--drug dealers, rapists, robbers.

“I’ve been married three times, the first time when I was 18. And when I came to this country, I was a bachelor father raising my 11-year-old son all alone. I won’t go into detail what happened to my son out of respect for him. But it’s a long, long story. He had some problems. Drugs and all that. Everybody’s problems.

“You know, when you’re an adult like us, if you take drugs you know exactly what’s going to happen. But kids, when they’re 12, 14, 15, they don’t know. And there can be some bad person who tries to take advantage of them. And I’m afraid for my other three kids, a boy who’s 13, another boy who’ll be 6 on Oct. 24, and a girl who’ll be one year on Oct. 10.

“That’s why I’m thinking about going back to France. Just thinking about it for now.

“It won’t be mainly because I don’t like America. It’ll be for reasons of my profession and my kids.”

“Michel is a very complicated guy. He has the insides of an artist,” says food writer Russ Parsons, who was dining at Richard’s home on the night that Coffyn was murdered.

“He switches moods very quickly. There are two sides to him. Everyone knows the Michel who is very good at being a jovial and teddy bear kind of guy, enjoying life. But it’s a real mistake to take that for being happy-go-lucky. Because the other side of him is always wondering what life is all about.”

“When I came to America, I was 26. I wanted to learn English. But I never wanted to leave my country.

“First of all, the ambitions there are different than here. In France, when you’re a poor kid like I was, I never dreamed of becoming a rich man. It was enough for me to be able to pay your bills and raise your family and be rewarded for being a good chef.

“I grew up in Champagne country, a small town, Givet. I didn’t have a father. He left my mother when I was 6. My mother worked in a factory. We had five kids, two girls and three boys. I was the second oldest. My mother was working so hard that I cooked for my brothers and sisters when I was 6 or 7. “When I was 14, I got a job in a restaurant with a pastry shop. I was kind of young, but they give you lodging and they feed you, and you make maybe $10 a month. But you don’t need much more than that. And you worked long hours, sometimes from 5 a.m. until midnight. On your days off you picked apples and mushrooms or you cleaned the garden. You never, never stopped.

“It was so tough. Sometimes at night I would take my suitcase and head in the direction of the train station. But where was I going? My mother would never take me because she was remarried with somebody and I didn’t like the guy. There was just no place to go. So I would go back and work.

“You know, when I opened my businesses here, it was so tough to find good employees. We had so many jobs to offer. And the problem, I feel so many times, is that people here don’t know what it is to work.

“To me, it’s so rewarding when you work hard. It’s so good for you. But that’s something that this country didn’t teach its kids, that working is the best thing in the world.

“And that’s why you have so many kids on the street. I don’t know what they are looking for, but the main thing is to give them a good job. And if they learn a profession, they won’t be lost on the street. And that’s why you have a problem on the street like killing, raping. They’re going to look for something they can do to get money.”

“The whole thing with Andre was a very shattering experience for Michel,” explains Parsons. “He was just heartbroken.

“For the first couple of weeks, a lot of people thought he had been the one who’d been killed because when you heard it was the owner of the ‘Michel Richard’ restaurant, you thought it was Michel unless you knew he sold it to Andre several years ago.

“After Andre’s murder, you didn’t see the old Michel very much. His brother-in-law, who is the maitre d’ at Citrus, would call me and say, ‘Come here. You’ve got to get him out of this place because he’s driving us crazy.’ You see, it was hard for Michel to be happy with anything at that point. He felt guilty when he was happy.”

“Andre came to America in 1980. How did we meet? I don’t remember exactly.

“But one day we were having a steak together, or maybe it was a duck breast, rare, and he said to me, ‘Michel, I want to move to America and be partners with you.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’

“That was like a Thursday. Two days later, he was in L.A. He became my best friend after.

“He loved America. He really loved America. I miss France. But Andre was never missing France. I think, mainly, he wanted freedom. I think maybe he was afraid of the Communists back in France. I’m afraid of the Communists too.

“When Andre moved here, he immediately started to work with me. As a cook, this guy could fix the best meal. And he was a gourmet. I mean, he had the palate.

“We sold the ‘Michel Richard’ pastry shop in the Valley in 1986, and Andre moved to the one on Robertson because I was tired of the headaches and I was opening Citrus. So I said to Andre, ‘Do you want to take that thing over? Because otherwise I will close it.’ I was a co-owner of ‘Michel Richard’ for three years and then I sold it to him. His wife ran it during the day. Andre was involved in the restaurant only at nighttime because in the daytime he had a clothing business.

“It was terrible when I found out about Andre. Let me tell you why.

“I had just built a beautiful home for myself and my family near Sunset Plaza. So Andre came over Monday night for the first dinner we had together in my new house. We ate and then Andre told me, ‘Michel, I have to go and close the restaurant at 10:30 p.m.’

“Usually, Andre never worked on Monday night. Never. So we were together at 10:30 p.m. and at 11 p.m. he was dead.

“And, you know, the coffee was not even cold. He hadn’t finished his cigar.”

“We had two very French dishes--salmon with sauce gribiche and cassoulet--with two American wines in the French style, a Chardonnay and a pinot noir. Then cigars and Armagnac afterward,” recalls Parsons.

“When Andre left, he came over and gave me a hug. Then he went to Michel and they shook hands. When he closed the door, Michel looked at me and said, ‘When I see my friends, I always hug them. But Andre is my best friend, like my brother, and I only shake hands with him. I wonder why that is?’

“A couple of hours later, the phone rang. Michel’s wife, Laurance, answered it. And Michel -- without knowing who it was -- said, ‘I always hate it when the phone rings late at night. It’s always bad news.’ Then we heard Laurance crying.”

“The phone rang and an employee said, ‘Andre’s dead.’ So I jumped in the car with Russ and we went down to the pastry shop and Andre was dead on the floor.

“And the thing is, Andre never, never, had any enemies. He was the sweetest, nicest man. He didn’t deserve this. That’s why I’m upset. Why they kill Andre? Why? Why?

“I don’t know why.”

“It was one bullet. In the head. He died immediately,” Detective Andrews says.

“You lose a wife, people understand. You lose a kid, people understand. When you lose a friend, they don’t understand. We were so close. And though he was 48 and I’m 41, he was like my little brother. He was more than a brother. He was a buddy.

“I would see him all the time. He sometimes would come to my home and not even talk. He’d just sit down and watch TV. Or we’d talk for hours.

“Every night, he’d bring over the bread and we’d eat and enjoy a cigar. Most people don’t like cigars, but we would concentrate and talk about them like wine and forget the other problems. And when I used to travel to cook in San Francisco, Houston, New York, wherever, Andre would come with me and help me in the kitchen.

“Now, oh yes, my life is different. I’m grieving. I’m crying. And you know the saddest thing? Andre had a problem with his green card, so he couldn’t go back to France to visit. And he was missing having great meals at great restaurants. So I would come back from my trips and tell him about my dinners. We’d talk about everything on the menu, and sometimes we’d try to duplicate the dishes.

“And he always said, ‘The first day I have my green card, Michel, I’m going to go with you and we’re going to try all these restaurants.’

“And he did receive his green card--two days after he died.”

“Citrus had become a meeting place, of sorts, for the French community here. It was a French Foreign Legion,” says Parsons.

“It used to be that almost every Saturday when the restaurant isn’t open for lunch that there would be a bunch of French people who would come and have a nice meal. Nothing fancy, just very simple home cooking like some short ribs and tomato salad. And they’d just sit and drink a bottle of wine and speak in French.

“And it became really important for these immigrants to have like this little island, this rock, that they could hold on to. And at the center was Michel and Andre.

“Andre was very much in love with the myth of America. Even though he didn’t speak English hardly at all. You’d have to talk to him in sign language. But still he was in love with James Dean and American movies and the way we see ourselves, which is not really the way we are.

“But Michel’s pretty much of a realist. He sees it for the good and the bad.”

“Don’t give the impression that I’m not very happy in America. I love this place because the people help me to realize my dream. I can’t really say what I think, how I feel, because it’s not my country. If I don’t like it, then I shouldn’t stay here.

“And, you know, a few years ago, a neighbor of mine said, ‘Hey, dumb French. Go back to your country.’

“I think America is a beautiful country, a great country. I’m not an American, but I love it. But everybody should work harder to make this country more pleasant and more beautiful instead of being upset and angry. It could be the nicest country in the world.

“The thing is, Americans, they’re hurting themselves. They’re working so hard to try to make a bad country. Maybe I’m upset with Los Angeles because they took away my best friend. But even the rest of it too.

“It’s become so ugly. You look at Sunset Boulevard, and it could be beautiful. But people want to promote so many products that you see Marlboro signs. You think that is beautiful? A promotion of bad products for your lungs?

“You know, the beautiful homes in Beverly Hills are a dream of a lot of people. And I felt like there was lots here for me. It was true. “The American dream--it is sometimes just a dream. Money-wise, I have it. But the most important thing in life is friends. Because without friends you’re nothing. You can’t live alone.

“If you make money, you want to share your money with your friends. If you have a beautiful home, you want to invite your friends for dinner. Even if you have a big car, you want to show your friends your new car.”

“Last year at this time we had 25 murders in this division. This year we’ve had 40,” says Detective Andrews. “I don’t know if that’s indicative of citywide. But, yeah, there does seem to be a pattern, for lack of a better word, of pretty random violent incidents.

“This case got a lot of publicity at first. And now it gets very little.

“It’s kind of out of sight. Out of mind.”

“If I went back to France, I’d like to open up a beautiful place in the country, like an inn. And I would love to make my customers very happy, to have them sit and relax in serenity. I would love to grow my own vegetables. And I would love to see my kids say, ‘Daddy, we are going to pick some flowers,’ or ‘We’re going to go fishing’ and just let them go.

“And not be afraid that something would happen to them.”


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