Victim's Family Renews Hope

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Above Jeri Edwards' couch hang three oil portraits of her son dressed in his LAPD uniform, the hat nearly hiding his thin face and proud smile.

Twenty-eight years ago today, Officer Michael Edwards' bullet-ridden body was discovered in an abandoned, burned-out apartment building in South-Central Los Angeles. Since then, Edwards, a Riverside resident, has visited her son's grave in Cypress several times a year to clean the headstone and leave fresh-cut flowers. Each time, she tries not to think about what happened. But she can't help wondering.

"I don't know," said Edwards, 76. "I wish I did know. I can't understand why anybody would want to hurt him."

Now, as she honors the anniversary of his 1974 death, she is filled with renewed hope that detectives may finally be on the verge of solving the case, one of only two unsolved killings of Los Angeles Police Department officers.

Detectives reopened their investigation three years ago and have again ruled out some of their initial suspects, including a fellow LAPD officer, street gang members and even the Symbionese Liberation Army. Though detectives still lack enough evidence to make an arrest, they say they now believe his slaying may have been for personal rather than professional reasons.

Edwards, 26, a father of two who was separated from his wife and seeing other women, may have been the victim of a jealous husband, they say. Although the initial investigators had received a tip along those lines within days, it was barely pursued at the time.

"We're famous for putting on blinders and thinking it's got to be something to do with your job," said LAPD Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, who is investigating the murder. "If it was Joe the plumber, that's the first thing we'd look at. We'd look at his personal life--what's he up to, who does he owe money to, who is he dating."

The Edwards murder has hovered over the LAPD like a dark shadow. The original detectives traveled to at least 10 states to follow leads, and the case has led to books and billboards, but no arrests.

"We tried just about everything we could do at that time," said Tom McGuine, one of the initial detectives on the case, who retired in 1983. "We had the people power, we had the time, we had everything going for us. But sometimes you get to a point where you just don't get the answer."

Born in 1948, Edwards was the middle child of a homemaker and a car salesman. As a teenager, he built skateboards and played the electric guitar. Three years after graduating from high school in Long Beach, he joined the LAPD in 1969 and became a patrol officer in the 77th Street Division.

Edwards' mother was proud, but apprehensive. "As a mother, you worry," she said. "But you try and go on with life."

When Edwards and his wife started having problems, he moved in with his parents and started dating an unmarried police dispatcher, his mother said. He also was friendly with another woman who worked near the division and was recently married, according to detectives.

On May 10, 1974, Edwards had just finished his last day on a stint with the LAPD's gang task force and headed to the bar at the Los Angeles Police Academy to meet some friends.

A guard saw him leave the academy about 10:30 p.m. in his Ford Pinto station wagon. A short time later, he was back at the 77th Street station. After leaving there, he was seen by witnesses at a nearby hospital, Kilcoyne said.

Police believe that shortly afterward, he was forced to go to the abandoned building at 122 W. 89th St., where he was shot six times with a 9-millimeter handgun. His body was found in the morning by two neighborhood teens on their way to the market. His shirt was pulled over his face and he was handcuffed. Both his car and service revolver were missing.

That night, Edwards' car was found in the 1000 block of West 186th Street, near what was then the Ascot Raceway, a frequent drop spot for stolen vehicles. Divorce papers from his wife were on the passenger seat, detectives say. Police believe that at least two people were involved in the murder.

Edwards' sister, Sue Davis, has her own theory about her brother's murder: "He must have trusted someone he shouldn't have. He couldn't get out of it."

"It's not going to bring him back, but it'd be nice to know," said Davis, 46, who regularly accompanies her mother to the grave site.

It had been years since the Edwards family had heard from LAPD detectives. They assumed that the department had given up hope of solving the case. Then, in the fall of 1999, LAPD Dets. Kilcoyne, Rosemary Sanchez and Paul Coulter knocked on the door.

A few months earlier, detectives from the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had established a team to reexamine the handful of unsolved slayings of LAPD officers and sheriff's deputies. They started with the 1985 murder of Sheriff's Deputy George Arthur. Through DNA evidence, they said, they determined that Arthur had been slain by a retired fellow deputy allegedly caught up in a love triangle. Before the suspect, Ted Kirby, could be arrested, he committed suicide, they said.

Detectives then turned their attention to the Edwards killing, poring through evidence and reviewing what their colleagues had done before them. They looked at earlier suspects, including one of Edwards' fellow officers. He was also dating the dispatcher, did not have a solid alibi and did not do well on a polygraph exam, detectives said. Eventually, they decided the officer was not involved in Edwards' death.

At one point during the original investigation, the LAPD offered a $15,000 reward and posted billboards that read, "Who Executed Mike?"

"They had a lot of calls, tips and crazy clues, but nothing," Kilcoyne said.

Then in 1981, Edwards' service revolver was found, raising detectives' hopes. A woman brought the gun to a Las Vegas police station after seeing a gun safety message on television. LAPD detectives interviewed the woman and the friend who had given the gun to her, but determined that they had no link to the murder.

The number of possible suspects, along with the era during which Edwards was killed, inspired author Wendy Hornsby to write a novel and James Ellroy to write an as yet unfinished screenplay.

"What's amazing to me is, here is this nice, but not exceptional, young man, and there were so many people who could have killed him," said Hornsby, whose book "77th Street Requiem" was published in 1995.

To Hornsby, one of the most intriguing angles was the possible connection to the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had been hiding out in the neighborhood after kidnapping newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in the Bay Area.

Just days after Edwards' body was found, six SLA members died in a fiery shootout with police a few miles away. Suspicion quickly turned to the radical group, which had been outspoken about its plans to incite a revolution. Authorities tested the weapons used by SLA members slain in the shootout, but could not link them to Edwards' murder.

After reopening the case in 1999--coincidentally about the same time accused SLA member Sara Jane Olson was arrested on attempted bombing charges dating to 1975--authorities re-tested the weapons used in the shootout and others seized in a 1975 raid on SLA safe houses in Northern California. Again unable to make a connection, detectives ruled out the SLA.

The new detective team also visited the crime scene, talked to Edwards' friends and family members, and sent letters to former and current officers in the 77th Street Division. They had the FBI retest fingerprints and found a match on prints lifted from a soda can in the alley. That proved another dead end when the prints turned out to belong to a child in the neighborhood.

It was then that Kilcoyne and his fellow detectives started focusing on Edwards as a man, rather than as an officer.

"It's usually not the Sunday night mystery," Kilcoyne said. "It's usually something blatant right in front of you. You just overlook it."

Four days after the murder, one of Edwards' friends told police that Edwards had been involved with a woman who worked near the precinct.

But Kilcoyne said the lead, one of dozens that flooded in shortly after the murder, was not completely investigated. He says the reason was that Edwards was white and the woman was black, and former detectives had told him they didn't believe Edwards would have dated a black woman.

"That's hard to swallow now, but in 1974, the mind-set of society was totally different," Kilcoyne said.

Now detectives think the tip may be the key to solving the case, and they are continuing to conduct interviews and gather evidence.

Kilcoyne said he is optimistic but also mindful of the passage of time. A few witnesses, as well as four of the six original detectives, are dead. Memories are fading.

"No matter what you find in the archive box, there is still a lot of information that went to the grave," Kilcoyne said. "This is an old, old case."

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