Lisa La Pierre has no memory of the moment that changed her life.
After a night of dancing at the House of Blues, the USC pre-law student was parked in her car, chatting on her cellular phone, when a small black pistol poked through the partially open driver’s window. With an explosion of blood, a bullet crashed through her spinal cord, paralyzing her from the neck down.
A week earlier, another slug had torn through the pelvis of a Texas transplant who pulled his auto into a carwash in a seedy area of Hollywood. He gunned his car and crashed a block away before bleeding to death.
Nine months later, a model and actor was shot twice in the chest and died crying for help after he parked his convertible outside a friend’s apartment near Westchester. And 16 months after that, someone pumped several rounds into the torso and face of a nightclub security guard in Hollywood, then stole his sidearm.
Every crime in this string of street mayhem from 1994 through 1996 was committed with the same Beretta .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol, wielded by at least two gang members and possibly others.
“There is truly no telling how much damage this gun has done,” said Los Angeles Police Det. Ronald Cade. “The only thing we know is that it has changed . . . people’s lives--two that don’t live, and others that will never be the same.”
Although its path was particularly destructive, the Beretta in many ways typifies crime guns in America. Like three out of four, the Beretta is a handgun. Like many, the Italian-made weapon is a high-quality pistol, not a cheap Saturday night special. And, like almost all, it figured in ordinary crimes, not a Columbine High School massacre or a North Hollywood shootout.
But the Beretta also is what detectives call a “community gun,” a benign term for a deadly and difficult-to-trace gang weapon that circulates out of control. “The .380 was a ‘hood pistol,” one gang member said in a court declaration. “If nobody wasn’t using it, whoever [was] needing the gun could use it.”
Like the Beretta, crime guns commonly have been stolen from their legal owners, purchased by “straw” buyers or had their serial numbers obliterated so they can be dumped if they become too hot to handle.
Often, the only clues police have to go on are discharged bullets and casings with telltale marks akin to a gun’s fingerprints.
Armed with new technology, law enforcement agencies have been tracing an increasing number of firearms. Databases containing computerized images of recovered guns, bullets and casings help link shootings that might otherwise go unsolved.
In Southern California, an FBI database used by 14 agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, contains 56,000 images, more than half of them of casings. In Los Angeles, these new tools have connected hundreds of shootings since 1994, like those involving the Beretta.
Even so, it took years of persistent detective work by Cade and others--plus a measure of good luck--to painstakingly uncover what happened after one of the more than 220 million firearms in America hit the streets of Los Angeles.
The good luck came on the mild autumn evening of Sept. 20, 1996. Someone was brazenly firing off rounds for fun on Glasgow Place in South Los Angeles. Frightened neighbors called police. As officers corralled several gangbangers, a man slipped away, jumped a fence and vanished.
But he left behind a black .380-caliber Beretta.
After 18 Months, a Break in the Case
A routine check of the computerized database came up with a hit: The same gun had fired a bullet removed from the body of Richard Allen Dunbar, a fashion model and aspiring actor who had been killed almost 18 months earlier. Casings recovered from the slaying scene also matched the Beretta.
That was the break Cade, an 18-year veteran of the LAPD, needed. The Dunbar case was cold when it was handed off months earlier to the burly Pacific Division gang expert who had been raised in Long Beach and played fullback for Texas A & M.
For Cade, it was a frustrating and especially tragic murder: The victim came from a very close family and was struck down just as his career had begun to blossom.
Dunbar was 33, the oldest son of a United Methodist minister. As a boy, his routine had been church, choir and Scouts. As a teenager, he loved to polish his Chevy Malibu with friends who owned the same model car.
One dream stayed with him, whether he was playing high school basketball, attending a local college or, later, toiling on a Jeep assembly line: Someday, he wanted to put his sculpted good looks to use.
Modeling and acting brought him to Southern California. He loved the beach and made friends easily. His family reveled in his successes. He traveled to Holland for a modeling assignment. He landed a few bit parts on television. He sent his mother a photo of himself in a Nike ad and some modeling contest trophies. She put them on her mantel.
Life was good. He had a girlfriend. He bought a white BMW convertible and added $1,800 chrome rims.
On April 5, 1995, he dressed in a tan suit and drove to the West Palm apartments between Ladera Heights and Inglewood to pick up a friend for a night at a club. He parked his car and went to the security gate to ring upstairs.
At 10:45 p.m., a neighbor heard two gunshots and a scream: “Help me! Please!” After two more shots, she saw a man with a gun walk rapidly down the street, then disappear into an alley.
Rushing to the murder scene that night, Dunbar’s sister, Christina, saw her brother’s bloodied body. Two bullets had pierced his lungs.
His car keys were missing, but the car was untouched. It made no sense. Dunbar had told his family he would never resist a carjacker.
The investigation was going nowhere until the Beretta turned up. “Without [a ballistics] match, the case sits on the shelf,” Cade said.
A trace determined that a Van Vuys man had purchased the $390 weapon about two years earlier from a sporting goods chain. Within two months, the gun had been reported stolen from his home.
Gang members detained by police at Glasgow Place were not talking. But Cade sought out the weakest link--a youth already looking at time for another murder. In a ruse, Cade showed him a photo of the Beretta and said his homeboys had accused him of shooting Dunbar.
With an angry denial, the prisoner said the gun belonged to a “jacker” named Bernard Nelson who had killed a woman in a Hollywood carjacking.
Cade struck out as he contacted LAPD’s Hollywood and North Hollywood offices. He thought the informant was lying. But weeks later, it occurred to him to call another Hollywood--the West Hollywood sheriff’s office.
“We had something like that,” he was told. “She didn’t die, but she should have because of what he did.”
“I think I need to talk to you guys,” Cade said.
Two More Stalled Shooting Cases
By the time Cade showed up in 1997, sheriff’s investigators had long before made an important discovery: The gun used in the summer of 1994 to shoot and paralyze USC student Lisa La Pierre was also used to murder a salesman named Thurman Monroe Brown one week earlier.
But the investigations were stymied until Cade brought in the Beretta. The sheriff’s crime lab found that the Dunbar murder weapon had been used to shoot Brown and La Pierre too.
“I was on a trail,” Cade recalled. “I thought, ‘Now the work really begins.’ ”
The murder of Brown, a garrulous 51-year-old door salesman from east Texas, remains unsolved.
July 4, 1994--the cool, clear night he encountered the Beretta--was his first back in Southern California after going home to care for his dying mother. He and his male lover had driven a rental truck here, with his black Mustang convertible in tow.
After they checked into a motel, Brown drove alone to Santa Monica Boulevard and stopped at the Tide Auto Spa, in a commercial area frequented by transients and hookers.
About 2:45 a.m., a man leaned inside the passenger door and talked with Brown, according to witnesses. There was a loud report. Shot in the hip, Brown peeled away in the Mustang, collided with two other cars, then died at a hospital.
His diamond ring and watch--with a gold coin on the face--were missing. No gun was found, but a test detected gunshot residue on the hands of a 25-year-old male prostitute who was arrested. Murder charges were dismissed after a key eyewitness, a parolee, failed to appear for the trial.
Lisa La Pierre survived her encounter with the Beretta. But the crime always had touched detectives on the case because it had robbed her of something almost as precious as life.
The 26-year-old was the first of three children from a hard-working South Bay family. Her late father was a truck driver. Her mother baked for a local supermarket.
La Pierre was outgoing and always going out. Roller-skating, parties, clubbing, expensive restaurant meals. A trip to Puerto Vallarta. Shopping excursions to San Francisco.
But she had a serious side. She wanted a good career. To pay for school and rent, she worked three jobs--one as a legal secretary for a female attorney who became her role model. She planned to finish USC, where she was a junior, and become a criminal defense lawyer.
When she and five friends headed to the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip the night of July 11, 1994, La Pierre had a cellular phone in her red Honda and carried pepper spray. Her group included three men.
They partied until about 1:30 a.m., then decided to caravan to a nearby deli for breakfast. But first La Pierre and her roommate followed a friend as he took his date home in West Hollywood.
At the curb, she made a phone call while her roommate listened to the car stereo.
Moments later, a young man appeared and thrust a handgun inside. There was a loud pop. La Pierre’s head slumped on her roommate’s shoulder. The bullet that passed through her neck entered her roommate’s leg. Her friend screamed, but Lisa was still.
Nothing was taken. The gunman left fingerprints on the car window, but sheriff’s detectives could not identify a suspect through law enforcement computers.
Their hopes were raised when Cade told them he had a suspect in the Dunbar murder involving the same Beretta--Bernard Nelson--but his prints did not match those on the window.
So whose were they?
When detectives paid another visit to the jailed gang member who already had provided Cade with information, he gave up a name: Frank Lewis.
A Hatred for Police
Life started normally for Frank Antoine Lewis. His family had a house in Inglewood; both parents worked.
Then his father took up with another woman, and began beating his wife and drinking. He was killed by police when he reached for a gun during a traffic stop. Young Frank saw it happen; he hated cops.
As his family fell apart, he took up with a street gang. He got his first gang tattoo at 10 and his first gun at 12. He served several stints in Juvenile Hall for gun violations and robbery.
Outside a ratty crack house, he met Bernard Nelson. Nelson seemed an unlikely gangster. In his mid-20s, he kept his hair short and wore preppy clothes. He used big words to impress Lewis, then 14 and expelled from school.
The morning of July 11, 1994, Lewis was watching cartoons and eating Cap’n Crunch cereal while baby-sitting. Later he rode to a picnic in Nelson’s Mustang ragtop, smoking pot and drinking beer. That night they hit a party in Hollywood, and he agreed to go out robbing with Nelson.
The method was simple: follow people from nightclubs, then stick them up.
Each time Lewis got out of the car, he later said in an interview, Nelson handed him a .380-caliber Beretta. He took a wallet from a man, $500 from a prostitute, a purse from an old lady. He abandoned the robbery of a BMW driver who pulled out Mace spray.
Nelson, Lewis said, slapped him in the face for blowing it. Twice. That angered him and hurt his pride.
A woman with a cellular phone was going to be their last target. They followed her car from the House of Blues, and when she stopped, Nelson parked in a nearby alley.
Lewis decided to kill her to show that he was tough. But he gave her a “chance.” “I told her, like, ‘Give me the phone,’ ” he said in an interview. “I know she didn’t hear me, because I think she said, ‘What?’ And I shot.”
Frantic, Lewis said, he ran the wrong way at first. Then he dashed to the alley, and Nelson flashed the getaway car’s lights.
“He asked me, ‘Did you get the phone?’ And I say, ‘I couldn’t get the phone, I shot her.’ He said, ‘Why did you shoot her?’ I made up some excuse . . . so he told me to go back and get the phone. So I say, ‘I ain’t going back.’ ”
As they drove away, sheriff’s cars raced by, sirens howling. Heading back to the party, they laughed about the shooting, he recounted. Later, while Lewis belted down liquor, he vomited on one of his homies. He thought he had killed and the law was coming.
That didn’t happen for three years. On July 16, 1997, Lewis was about to be freed from the California Youth Authority fire camp in Paso Robles, where he had served time for stabbing a gang rival, when Cade appeared with sheriff’s investigators.
Lewis could hardly look when Cade showed him a photo of Lisa La Pierre hooked up to all those medical contraptions. When they said his fingerprints were found on La Pierre’s car, he broke down. He asked Cade to tell the shooting victims he was sorry.
“That was a child talking,” Cade said. “It wasn’t a hard-core gang member.”
Lewis would plead guilty to attempted murder and now has an August 2002 parole date from the CYA. What he did, he says, haunts him. “I had a dream Lisa shot me in my neck, and I was paralyzed and she was rolling me down stairs,” he said.
Another Piece Falls Into Place
In the summer of 1997, another piece of the puzzling path of the Beretta fell into place, and it, too, pointed toward Nelson.
A street informant told Cade that a teenage member of Lewis’ gang had been recruited by Nelson for bank robberies and was upset about being caught. The same suspect had been questioned a year earlier about a drive-by shooting in Inglewood.
Thinking he would be ripe for questioning, Cade went to visit the youth in jail. The gang member told the detective that Nelson provided the drive-by gun and that Nelson acknowledged killing a Latino man in Hollywood--"basically smoked the fool"--to get it.
A few days later Cade contacted Hollywood detectives. They had a similar sounding robbery--a bold, brutal and odd one involving a Latino security guard.
About 1 a.m. on Aug. 16, 1996, Miguel Cortez was posted outside the Arena and Paradise 24 nightclubs in Hollywood. Without warning, someone grabbed him from behind and shot him in the side. Several more shots quickly followed, the last tearing through his cheek.
Before fleeing, the assailant snatched a handgun from the guard’s holster.
About 12 hours later, Inglewood police recovered the gun in a drive-by shooting. But none of the suspects in that attack was identified as Cortez’s assailant.
A year passed. Then Cade arrived with information from his informants. When technicians checked, they discovered that casings found at the Cortez shooting scene had been fired by the .380-caliber Beretta that Cade was tracking.
Cade provided the name of a suspect--Bernard Nelson--and the security guard selected him in a photo lineup.
“I was frustrated. I had solved everybody’s case but mine,” Cade said, referring to the Dunbar slaying.
After four surgeries, Cortez was left with stomach and breathing problems, and a damaged hand that hurts in cold weather.
Lucky to Be Alive
While Cade was still building his case, rookie LAPD Officer Giovanni Buccanfuso looked death in the face--and saw Bernard Nelson.
On May 7, 1997, Buccanfuso was patrolling South Los Angeles with his partner when he found himself in the middle of a drive-by shooting. Hanging out a car window, the gunman saw the black and white, and fired several times toward the officers.
With police in pursuit, the gunman tumbled out as the car turned at 48th Avenue and 11th Street and stopped. A Glock handgun clattered to the ground.
Running after him, Buccanfuso was just a few feet away when the suspect turned, pulled another Glock and pointed it. Then he dropped the gun and escaped over a wall.
Later, police found a spent cartridge casing that had become wedged in the gun’s chamber, jamming it. Buccanfuso, police experts said, was lucky to be alive.
At a nearby home, police arrested a shirtless and scraped up man. The suspect’s name was Bernard Nelson.
Ultimately, he was charged with attempting to murder security guard Miguel Cortez, the two police officers and a John Doe. He also was charged with murdering model Richard Dunbar, after eyewitnesses identified him as the man seen fleeing from the West Palm apartments.
Convicted in September
The Beretta made its most recent appearance in the Criminal Courts Building downtown at Nelson’s trial. This time his life was on the line.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Danette Meyers portrayed him as a predator who drew younger gangsters into robbery and worse. Nelson had a long rap sheet, including convictions on three weapons charges.
Some witnesses, including Lewis, faced their own legal problems. But the jury believed enough to convict Nelson last September.
As the panel pondered whether to give him life in prison or death, the Dunbars were there, watching, waiting for Nelson’s day of reckoning.
“What Bernard Nelson took away from the whole family . . . you can’t explain it,” said the Rev. Richard Allen Dunbar I. “Twenty years from now, I will still miss him, and there are grandkids I won’t have, and fussin’ and fightin’ and the normal things in life.”
The Rev. Dunbar has long believed that only God could take a life. But he is having second thoughts. “I spent three weeks at that trial, living in the sewer, watching this person who was evil and had no remorse.”
There, too, was Lisa La Pierre, a prisoner of her wheelchair and her breathing machine. Forgiveness comes hard for her. She lost almost everything. She can’t walk, bathe, eat or even scratch her nose on her own.
Getting around usually means being lifted from her bed and wheeled into the living room of her mother’s tiny apartment. When she ventures outside, it takes a few hours to get her ready and loaded into an old van. At the mall or a restaurant, people seem to stare. Is it because she still looks pretty, she asks herself, or because they wonder what tragedy befell her?
“Take it one day at time,” her mother says, and both do. Hours before dawn, Michele La Pierre leaves to work as a baker at a supermarket. When she comes home, she relieves Lisa’s nurse.
Now 32, the young woman who worked three jobs survives on Supplemental Security Income and Medi-Cal. She recently met with her USC advisor and hopes to re-enroll. But does she still want to be a defense lawyer?
“No!” she declares. “A prosecutor.”
The loss of life--the pain of survivors--hit Cade hard: Before the case was finished, the detective’s own son was killed by a car and his wife succumbed to breast cancer; now he is a widower raising two daughters. “I can relate to the loss and emotions all of them are going through,” he said.
A Childhood of Violence
Bernard Nelson’s journey to that wood-paneled courtroom was also in some ways tragic, his lawyer and defense witnesses told the jury.
He was the son of a Mississippi teenager and an itinerant nightclub performer from Honduras who had a drug problem and a cruel temper. When little Bernard fussed or cried, his father stuffed cotton in his mouth or held his head underwater. And Bernard’s mother, Barbara Nelson, told the court that when she tried to stop the abuse, she was beaten and choked. After losing his job, Nelson’s father shotgunned himself in January 1979.
When his mother resettled in California and remarried, Bernard found himself on Los Angeles gang turf. He got jumped and robbed. He hooked up with gangs himself. When he stopped going to class, his mother sent him to Mississippi to finish high school.
Bernard wrote gangsta rap music, which the prosecution said showed hatred of cops and the defense contended was harmless. Relatives said he had a supportive side: He helped his sister with homework and urged his niece to go to college. And he baby-sat for a daughter of his own, a 4-year-old who came to court.
“I love my son very much, and I am so sorry that I couldn’t protect him,” his mother said as she pleaded for his life.
The convicted killer said nothing on his own behalf, but his attorney told the jury, “Bernard Nelson will die in prison. The only question is who will decide when Bernard dies--you or God.”
On Sept. 30, the jury chose death. His attorney is seeking a new trial and a reduced sentence. Formal sentencing is scheduled for Monday downtown before Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Trail of a Gun
April 14, 1994 The .380-caliber Beretta is purchased at an outdoor store in Reseda.
June 18, 1994 The gun is taken from a Van Nuys home and reported stolen.
July 4, 1994 Texas salesman Thurman Brown is slain after stopping at a Santa Monica Boulevard carwash.
July 11, 1994 USC student Lisa La Pierre is paralyzed and her roommate is wounded during attempted robbery in West Hollywood.
April 5, 1995 Model and actor Richard Dunbar is killed in attempted carjacking in Los Angeles.
Aug. 16, 1996 Security guard Miguel Cortez is wounded several times outside a Hollywood nightclub, then his own gun is stolen.
Sept. 20, 1996 The .380-caliber Beretta is recovered after gang members fire shots in a South Los Angeles intersection.
Not all guns used in crimes are tracked from manufacturer to distributor to retailer to purchaser. But the number of trace requests that California law enforcement agencies have made to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has risen dramatically in the past decade as police try to solve crimes and document sources of illegally used firearms.
WHERE GUNS WERE RECOVERED The largest number of requests in 1998 originated in Los Angeles, one of 27 cities nationally that is routinely submitting gun information for tracing as part of an ATF program. Here are the top 10 California cities in trace requests.
CRIMES THAT LED TO TRACES
The largest number of traces in 1998 involved weapons offenses, including carrying a concealed firearm.
TYPES OF GUNS
The vast majority of traced weapons in 1998 were semiautomatic handguns and revolvers.
WHO MADE THE GUNS
Guns made by major U.S. manufacturers, such as Smith & Wesson and Browning, generally accounted for the most trace requests in 1998.
MOST COMMON CALIBERS
The largest numbers of trace requests in 1998 involved common .22-caliber firearms and more powerful 9-mm. guns.
Sources: Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
Analysis: Times research Paul Singleton
Note: Totals do not include all computer checks made by local agencies for handgun owner information compiled separately by California attorney general’s office.