Roses for Grisha Steinman
On the 10th anniversary of Grisha’s murder, I drive across Hollywood--past Paramount Studios, west on Melrose, north on Gower, hard right onto the grounds of Beth Olam cemetery.
Yan and Rita, part of my family’s Russian contingent, are waiting for me inside the quiet vault. We stand facing a wall of crypts, peering up at where my cousin Grisha and his wife, Maya, are entombed.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Aug. 12, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Cold case: The Table of Contents page in last Sunday’s West magazine incorrectly stated that murder victim Grisha Steinman had survived pogroms and revolution. It was writer Louise Steinman’s grandmother who had survived these events, as the story indicated.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 13, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Cold case: The table of contents page in the Aug. 6 West magazine said that murder victim Gregory “Grisha” Steinman had survived pogroms and revolution. It was writer Louise Steinman’s grandmother, Rebecca (Becky) Steinman, who survived these events.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 27, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 5 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
The Table of Contents page for the Aug. 6 issue incorrectly stated that murder victim Gregory “Grisha” Steinman had survived pogroms and revolution (“Roses for Grisha Steinman”). It was writer Louise Steinman’s grandmother who had survived these events, as the story indicated.
The crime merited a brief note in the Metro section of the L.A. Times on Friday, Aug. 9, 1991: Los Angeles police detectives said they had no leads in the killing of an Encino man, Gregory “Grisha” Steinman, 57, who was shot in the head about 9:15 a.m. as he walked to his car in the parking lot of the Auto Club of Southern California on Kester Avenue in Van Nuys. He died five hours later.
Shot in the head. A phrase often coupled with “execution style.” It was easy to make that leap. Had there been an assassin stalking my cousin? Did he have some secret life none of us knew about? The Times piece quoted Det. Steve Hooks: “There was no one who would have benefited from his death or would have wanted him dead.” Then why?
The day of Grisha’s funeral was stifling hot. Smog obscured the Hollywood sign. Cemetery workers used a special crane to raise the coffin into place. It malfunctioned. Excruciating sounds: gears gnashing, wood scraping on marble, assembled family and friends sobbing.
Now, on the anniversary, Yan, Rita and I murmur the kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning that praises God, celebrates the gift of life and peace and never mentions the word “death.” We exchange no other words, just occasional, unavoidable sighs.
Russians like roses. Rita has brought a generous bouquet of robust yellow buds. We arrange half of them in the copper vases attached to the seventh-story crypt, proceed down the hallway to leave some at eye-level for my grandparents, Herschel (Harry) and Rebecca (Becky) Steinman. Next we climb stairs to the second floor where my parents--Anne and Norman Steinman--are immured. You have to kneel to read their plaque.
Rita feels faint, convinced that gasses are escaping the crypts. Outside, we gulp what passes for fresh air. Though none of us is an observant Jew, we wash our hands at a spigot before leaving the cemetery. It’s a vestigial gesture.
A lot of Steinmans are resting here. Age and illness took all of them except Grisha.
It wasn’t until three years after Grisha’s murder that I summoned the nerve to call the Van Nuys police station. There had to be more information than in those few paragraphs in The Times. I was referred to a Det. Stephen Fisk at the homicide desk. “A relative of mine, Grisha Steinman, was the victim of a homicide. Shot in the head . . . .” I spoke much too fast. I explained that Grisha’s grandfather and my grandfather were brothers, that my grandmother and my parents helped to bring Grisha and his family from Russia.
Fisk interrupted: “So you don’t know anything?” I was wasting his time.
“It’s hard for families when you don’t know,” he offered. “I worked a case where this father lost his only son . . . that was back in 1984 and that father still calls me every couple of months.”
“Was it rare,” I asked, “for something to turn up after years had passed?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘rare.’ It does happen,” he said. “Someone knows. Someone is guilty. Maybe he’ll brag about it. Maybe his girlfriend knows. Then they have a falling out or something like that. Then it comes out.”
“You must learn a lot about human nature in your job,” I said.
“Yeah, and most of it ain’t good.”
The Grisha Steinman I knew was a gentle, moral man. He emigrated from Kiev with his wife Maya and son Yan in 1975; they moved to Los Angeles in 1981. He and Maya had waited 12 years for permission to leave the Soviet Union. When they arrived in Los Angeles, I was astonished to meet close family whose fates--over a mere two generations--had so diverged from my own. They were unmistakably Steinmans. Grisha’s blue eyes were just like my father’s. The laugh lines around his eyes were my grandfather Harry’s.
My new cousins observed their first-ever Passover seder, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, at our home in Culver City with four generations of Steinmans present. My 90-year-old grandmother, Becky, who had left Ukraine when she was 19, presided over the kitchen in a giddy mixture of Russian and Yiddish.
The extended family included Maya’s father and several Russian cousins who had emigrated a little earlier--Alex and Fira and their son Genady; Rita, her husband Ivan and daughter Larissa. My mother insisted to Maya, Grisha and Yan that by the following year, they’d be able to read from the Haggada in English. She was right, of course. Twelve months later, they recited the plagues and wonders with the rest of the clan.
They worked hard and they prospered. Grisha, an oil and pipeline refinery engineer, learned the auto body business. Maya, who taught elementary school in Kiev, worked as a bookkeeper. They bought a split-level in Encino. Grisha remodeled the kitchen, terraced the backyard. Yan married. They became doting grandparents of red-haired Sasha.
Within two years, everything changed. In December 1989, Maya died of multiple myeloma. She was 49. Grisha never left her side in the hospital. In January 1990, my father died of a heart attack. Ten months later, my mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer. We were in a state of shock: three Steinman funerals within a year in the same vault in the same cemetery in Hollywood.
The terrible phone call came on Aug. 6, 1991: There would be a fourth Steinman funeral. Grisha found dead. Nothing stolen: not his keys, not his wallet, not the car. No witnesses. No suspects. It made no sense.
Days after our 10th anniversary visit to the cemetery, I dialed the Van Nuys police station once again. I was determined to meet a detective in person. “I am a relative of a murder victim,” I began. “A cold case.” The operator put me through to a Det. Ismael Aldaz. If I could prove I was related to Grisha, said the detective, he’d give me some information. “Bring photos or a family tree.”
I dug up a dusty album with a snapshot from that first Passover dinner. Grisha, sitting next to Maya, grins sheepishly from the long table. Bottles of Manischewitz, the plate with the shank bone, matzoh and burned egg. Intimate images to show a stranger.
I drove past shabby stucco duplexes and endless mini-malls en route to my rendezvous in the Valley. The air-conditioner ran full blast. While stuck in traffic, I called Det. Aldaz on my cell. “You’re close,” he said, “Turn left at Cupid’s Hot Dogs.”
While waiting on a hard plastic chair inside the station, I recalled how Rita had not been impressed by the original police work on the case. If she could have done the interrogating, she said, “I’d make the Taliban talk!” I had no reason to doubt her.
Aldaz invited me into an interview room, just like on “NYPD Blue.” I pulled out the photo album. He took a cursory glance, then placed a yellowed legal-sized manila folder on the table between us. Grisha’s file.
He assured me that a case was “never closed” until an arrest was made, until the appeals were over. In fact, he told me, he’d just solved a case from 1984. “If I had any witnesses to interview on this one,” he told me, “I’d even go to Russia.”
He explained, however, that there were now only five detectives in his unit, and there were no new leads, “no clear pattern to follow” on what he called the Triple A Murder.
According to Aldaz, Grisha’s case has been reviewed six times since 1999. Detectives often meet to brainstorm on cold cases, to go over known details, to pass on information. Just the other day, Aldaz--who was the supervisor--had spoken to Phil Moritt, one of the original detectives on the case.
Of course, new homicides take precedence in the workload, he explained. “Our department demands 85% clearance rate on new homicides.” I learned a few more miscellaneous details about the life of a detective: “By 3 a.m., if you’re not called, you can usually sleep through the night. If you’re not called by 9 a.m., you usually are free for that day. Murderers use the night; only rarely do murders occur in the morning.” Grisha’s murder was an exception.
Grisha’s file, 2 inches thick, lay on the table between us. It bulged with notes, interviews, reports, ballistics. What it did not contain, I knew, was Grisha the man. How he was loved. How he was missed. How his life had been bracketed by violence.
I learned from Rita, our own Mother Courage, how 7-year-old Grisha and his family escaped Kiev in September 1941, just ahead of the Nazis who massacred nearly 34,000 Jews in the space of two days at an enormous ravine outside of Kiev called Babi Yar.
Rita’s father recalled the Germans from World War I as “civilized, polite.” Now Rita listened to the refugees straggling into Kiev, who told of the horrors the Nazis--advancing eastward--had unleashed against Ukraine’s Jews. She insisted that the family evacuate immediately.
Grisha and his mother caught an open freight train headed to Kyrgyzstan, where they almost starved to death. Months later they managed to reunite with Rita and her family in Kazakhstan. Rita, soon to depart for service as a radio dispatcher in the Soviet army, remembers carrying emaciated Grisha around on her back. “He weighed nothing.” Grisha’s father, a Soviet soldier, was killed in 1945 in Hungary near Lake Balaton, where the Germans launched their last major offensive of the war.
Aldaz’s thick file didn’t contain the story about the trip Maya and Grisha once took from Kiev to Moscow. It was their first time alone together since the birth of their longed-for baby boy. They left year-old Yan with Maya’s mother and rode through the night to the capital. By the time they arrived, they were convinced they had made a mistake. They missed their baby too much. Without even seeing Red Square or Lenin’s tomb, they got right back on the train to Kiev.
Maya told me how, on the return trip, when the train stopped at a little station halfway between Moscow and Kiev, Grisha bought two dill pickles and a hot baked potato with fresh butter and sour cream from a vendor who came to the window of their compartment. They were hungry from traveling. The sweet butter ran off the steaming potato, the garlicky green pickles were sour and crisp.
I must have stopped listening to Aldaz; I was startled to see his large hand extended for a goodbye. His voice was somber. “Anyone--you or me--could be a murder suspect or a murder victim,” he said. As I turned to leave he added, “My hunch is that this was not an intentional act. Someone in the nearby apartment building was just playing with a rifle and it went off. That person may not even have known that he killed your cousin.”
Not what I wanted to hear. Grisha dodged the death squads at Babi Yar to be struck down by a random bullet in a Van Nuys parking lot? I needed to know why this had happened. By some obscure logic, I’d decided that Grisha’s death would be easier to accept if I knew there was a person with a motive, not some idiot messing with a gun.
A few weeks ago, 15th anniversary looming, I extracted Aldaz’s worn card from my wallet and dialed his number. “Call back after the holiday,” the cheery voice told me. Monday morning I was on the phone with a Det. Craig Rhudy, the homicide coordinator. Aldaz was now working downtown.
Rhudy wasn’t familiar with the Triple A Murder. “What year did it happen? What was his name?” We made a plan to meet.
On the appointed morning, the Van Nuys police station baked under a brutal June sun. No one manned the checkpoint in front of the elevators, and a long line of people waited to air their concerns at three service windows. Worried that I’d be late, I called Rhudy and he came downstairs immediately. He was a handsome bald man in a buttoned-down shirt. He greeted me with a friendly handshake.
“I just brought the murder book up from the basement,” he told me. The material from the manila folder was now in a ring binder. It looked bulkier than I remembered. Did this portend new evidence?
The detective dispelled the notion. “For a lot of cases, there are eight binders just like this. Witness statements take up a lot of room. This binder is slim, because for this case there has never been a suspect.”
The case had not been reviewed since my last visit to Aldaz. Rhudy began reading the case file. I read what I could upside down. “There’s no reason not to share anything in here with you at this point,” he offered. I was disappointed.
Grisha had renewed his vehicle registration at the Auto Club express counter when it opened at 9 a.m. At 9:15, a witness drove into the lot and pulled into a stall two over from where Grisha’s white Oldsmobile was parked. She noticed him face down on the ground, bleeding. She thought he’d fallen. She ran inside and notified the staff. The paramedics also didn’t realize that he’d been shot. They took him to Valley Presbyterian Hospital, where doctors found the gunshot wound. By the time the detectives arrived on the crime scene, the Auto Club staff had washed down the blood. After all, they thought that he’d fallen.
No fingerprints were lifted from inside the Oldsmobile because it was locked. The car was impounded and searched. The detectives contacted Interpol to see if there was any intelligence that the Russian Mafia was involved. There was nothing to indicate that. Nor could they determine anyone who was out to rob him. The auto body shop where Grisha worked was absolutely clean. Sixteen witnesses were interviewed--the Auto Club employees, family, friends, acquaintances. No answers to the mystery.
The bullet, a .22, was still available for comparison. Where? I asked. “In a massive warehouse downtown.” They could not identify the gun. Grisha had been shot--not at point-blank range but from a distance of more than 3 feet, “possibly from as far away as a mile.” A mile? I shook my head . . . impossible. Rhudy launched into a brief lesson on the physics of bullet trajectories. It all depends on the angle of the shot and the amount of powder in the cartridge.
“About six, seven years ago,” the detective recalled, “there was a store robbery over on Roscoe. The robbers shot rounds up in the air. Four blocks away, at a bus stop, a man dropped dead. It took weeks to figure out he’d been shot by one of those bullets from the robbery.”
Were we supposed to walk around the city wearing helmets? “Not a bad idea,” Rhudy said grimly, concluding our interview.
The glare outside dizzied me. As I climbed into the hot stickiness of my car, I realized that this was probably the last visit I’d make to the Van Nuys police station. Before I headed home though, I had one more stop to make.
I drove the few blocks to Kester Avenue. There were few cars in the Auto Club lot, which wasn’t visible from the street. Mature Aleppo pines provided shade. A wrought-iron fence surrounded the perimeter, separating the lot from a tract of neat ranch houses. Within a mile radius I’d noticed check-cashing enterprises, liquor stores, ratty apartment buildings, a carniceria. Where had that bullet come from? We’d never know.
A gray-haired man exited the Auto Club building and strolled over to his car, jiggling his keys. He wore summer clothes--a yellow polo shirt, khaki shorts, leather sandals. He looked as unconcerned about his surroundings as I imagine Grisha was that morning nearly 15 years ago. Damn. This was a lonely place to die.
Last Friday, I drove across town to Beth Olam cemetery once again. I left flowers for Grisha and for Maya, for my parents and grandparents--who were lucky not to live long enough to know about Grisha’s murder. Those of us who had come to remember Grisha said the kaddish and, as is the custom, we washed our hands when we left the cemetery. We drove out the gates and passed Paramount Studios with its signs for the current season’s game shows and crime series.
On TV, cold cases get solved. The intrepid cop ultimately uncovers the motive for why, long ago, someone was murdered. Randomness does not make for a good plot line, nor does the struggle to accept that certain things--in fact many things--are beyond understanding.
Or, as my grandmother Becky, herself a survivor of pogroms, revolution, civil war, would say, raising her shoulders and turning her palms upward: “Listen, everything is unbelievable. But what can we do?”