Unlimited space for untold sorrow
This newspaper typically covers about 10% of the homicides in Los Angeles County each year. They are often the most sensational or shocking: a baby hit by a stray bullet, or a celebrity murder.
But for the last year, the paper’s website, latimes.com, has recorded every homicide. It was my idea. I reported on crime for the paper, and I wanted readers to see all the killings -- roughly 1,000 violent deaths each year, mostly of young Latinos and, most disproportionately, of young black men. The Web offered what the paper did not: unlimited space.
So the Homicide Report, as it was called, began with the simplest of journalistic missions: exposing a painful, largely unseen problem. The first list of homicide victims, published just over a year ago, contained the names of 17 people. Eight were Latino. Six were black. Two were of Cambodian descent -- killed in a double homicide. None were white. Most were in their 20s.
Readers responded strongly. “Oh my God,” began one of the first posts by a reader. “The sheer volume is shocking,” wrote another. “Almost like they’re disposable people,” wrote a third.
Two or three homicides occurred in the county per day, on average. As the report developed, I filled notebooks with police jargon, scrawling the same details over and over. “Male black adult” or “Male Hispanic” -- accompanied by addresses in Compton, Florence, Hawthorne, Boyle Heights or Watts.
The coroner provided a basic list of victims. But much of the information about the killings had to be wrung from police agencies spread across 400 square miles, or from crime scenes or victims’ families. I worked mostly out of my car, fanning to the south and east of my office.
Many agencies were not used to releasing details. One police press official was surprised to learn that victims’ names were public information: No reporter had ever asked him for that, he said.
When I first presented a list of victims to the state Department of Motor Vehicles for photos, the clerks were baffled. Twenty young people every week? “What is this?” one asked. “Did a plane crash?”
One could know the numbers in the abstract yet still be unprepared for the sheer volume, similarity and obscurity of the victims. Los Angeles County’s homicide rate was on the decline, and 2007 was destined to be one of the least violent years in a generation. Yet the concentration of killings remained the same -- a pocket epidemic of violent death among black and Latino men in neglected corners of society.
There was Manuel Perez, 17, whose homicide I chanced to hear mentioned in a detectives’ staff meeting. As soon as I put his name on the site, a comment was posted: “I miss you so much, Manuel.”
There was Fernando Tello, 15, Latino, stabbed, who took a week to die at a hospital. Isaac Tobias, 23, black, had no DMV record. Valdine Brown, 28, also black, seemed to have disappeared altogether: The coroner had a record of his death in a hospital, but the detectives had never heard of him. Eventually it was revealed that Brown’s killing was filed under one of his many aliases.
At a crime scene in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Newton Division, lifelong friends of a victim said they knew him only by a nickname. At another scene, a family had no recent photographs of their 19-year-old son. For some of those victims, a police mug shot was the only record of their presence in the world. A detective in Watts once asked me to run a photo of an elaborate norteno-style belt buckle, the only clue to the identity of a victim whose body had been burned.
Detectives routinely admitted that the names and ages they had recorded for victims were, at best, conjecture: Many victims, including illegal immigrants or career criminals, had lived entirely underground.
Sweeping characterizations about homicides, so prevalent in media coverage and public discourse, fell apart. A term such as “gang-related” had a dozen meanings.
Once, three police officers, all working in the same division and all claiming personal knowledge, gave me three assessments of the same young man. One described him as a violent gang member; the second said he was a gang member who had committed no serious crimes; the third said he wasn’t a gang member at all.
Each death, however, limned ruined lives and ravaged communities.
“This is killing me,” a slight woman named Althea Mizell sobbed during an interview in October. Her son, D’Angello Mizell, 36, had been killed a year before in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division. He was a textbook unsympathetic victim, a gang member who had never been out of prison more than a year in his adult life.
Since the slaying, his mother talks to almost no one and rarely leaves her tiny apartment. She eats, sleeps and agonizes. Though a religious woman, she has reconciled herself to going to hell because she harbors so much anger, so much lust for revenge. It’s worth it, she said.
About her son, she has no denial. He is the failure she can’t recover from. When the interview ended, she said: “Think of me sometimes.”
In June, Vicky Lindsey, whose 19-year-old son was killed in 1995, helped organize a vigil for one of the more anonymous victims on the Homicide Report: Anthony Jenkins, 46, a black man killed by gunfire, whose relatives authorities were slow to locate.
The organizers came together for a man who was a stranger to them because they too feel unseen.
“It is as if we are buried with our children,” said Lindsey, who has a sticker on her car that reads: “My son was murdered.”
The vigil took place at dusk, at the place where Jenkins was shot. They lit candles and taped to a wall a printout of the Homicide Report chronicling Jenkins’ death. Passersby watched, talking among themselves about murder, the police, the media.
“Ain’t no one coming to help us ‘cause they just say, ‘They killin’ each other,’ ” a man remarked.
A black man in a long brown Cadillac slowed down to look, then drove off. The group began to pray. A few minutes later the same Cadillac pulled up to the curb. The driver emerged, weeping. His 21-year-old son had been killed recently, he said.
“I went up the road and the tears just started and I couldn’t keep going,” he gasped.
Memorial messages stacked up on the blog’s comments section. They were often written in the form of a letter to the deceased, sometimes in Spanish, once in Armenian.
“Every night I dream about the different ways I could have said, ‘Please don’t go,’ ” wrote one victim’s sister. “Where did you go? Why did they take you? What did they do to you? Why? Why?”
The more the killings stacked up on the blog, the more absurd the old media criteria for selecting one homicide over another seemed. Thirteen-year-old boys nearly always made the headlines of The Times’ print edition, but 14-year-olds were a tossup. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds were more likely to make the cut if they were girls.
In February, Joseph Watson, a 17-year-old black youth who was a running back on his high school football team, was slain in Athens. According to his parents and police, he had long fought to avoid being “jumped in” by his neighborhood gang.
His killing attracted no media attention, other than on the Homicide Report. Swept under the same rug was Timothy Johnson, a 37-year-old black man, nicknamed “Sinister.” His death in Watts in November closed another homicide investigation in which he was the primary suspect.
The March stabbing death of 17-year-old Alex Contreras-Rodriquez was big news because it happened on the campus of Washington High School, but two double homicides committed a few feet from school grounds were not.
One of those happened in May. Two Latino men, each 23, were working on a gutter across the street from Elizabeth Street Elementary School in Cudahy while classes were in session.
It was execution-style, a girl of 9 or 10 explained to me at the police tape. They had tried to run, leaving their ladders in place. One of the men had once been a documented gang member. But the day he died, he was working for hourly wages, wearing long sleeves to cover his tattoos.
Shortly after the killings, schoolchildren watched as the parents of one of the victims were led to the coroner’s van to view his body. The father, an elderly Latino man in paint-spattered work boots, made it back to the car, then collapsed. The children behind the police tape stood motionless, their faces blank.
Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Ford vented his frustration to me about media coverage of homicide.
“Certain incidents capture the attention,” he said. “But how do you value one life over another? You shouldn’t.”
Media coverage matters. In September, news broke that a 23-day-old baby had been killed by a stray bullet in the LAPD’s Rampart Division. More than twice as many detectives were assigned to work that one case than to the division’s 15 other 2007 homicide cases combined. Arrests were quickly made in the baby’s killing. But as of January, some three-quarters of those other Rampart cases remained open.
The Homicide Report made no distinction between a celebrity and a transient. Each got the same typeface, the same kind of write-up. If you were the victim of a homicide, you made the blog.
The report included the race of each victim. Newspapers traditionally do not identify homicide victims by race. But failing to include race also served to disguise the disproportionate effect homicide has on blacks and Latinos.
I had met many people -- most of them black -- who had been bereaved not once, but twice -- and, in a couple cases, three times -- by the slaying of an immediate family member. Giving readers anything short of a full and accurate picture of this surfeit of bereavement seemed indecent. Some readers, though, were critical. The practice “just feeds into stereotyping of minorities,” one wrote.
The blog’s readership slowly grew. The death of “Sinister” drew more than 100 emotional posts at the end of the year as readers segued from grief and anger into an impassioned debate about race and murder.
Police agencies gradually grew more cooperative. A sheriff’s deputy who throughout the year had been exceptionally helpful sent an e-mail in December praising the effort. He closed: “My younger brother was murdered . . .”
In December, The Times asked me to turn the blog over to a colleague, Ruben Vives, and move on to other things. The Homicide Report has been a humbling experience. None of the more ambitious stories I’d previously done for the paper seemed quite as effective as simply listing victims, one by one by one. The Homicide Report did not seek to distill its subject into a digestible shape or explore some angle of an issue to help people understand it.
It was just about facts, about reporting homicides -- 845 of them recorded so far for 2007 -- in a straightforward, comprehensive way. One reader complained that the project had provided no depth, no explanation, of the problem it revealed. So many slayings documented, yet still “I don’t understand it,” he wrote.
Maybe, in sum, the report has merely skimmed a problem whose true depths couldn’t be conveyed. And in an intimate sense, too, the coverage nearly always felt inadequate.
The same month as the Anthony Jenkins vigil, I congratulated myself for finding time to look for the family of 21-year-old Richard Mitchell, a black man who died on the operating table 10 days after he was shot. The family had left town to bury him. A neighbor answered questions with a strange weariness.
At last, she explained: “My son was killed too.” He was 15 and black. It was an unrelated homicide, a year prior. A pause as she regarded me, reproach in her eyes. She was surprised to see me, she said. No reporter had come to ask about her son.
Times researcher Jacci Cenacveira contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From the Homicide Report
These killings were among those posted on the Los Angeles Times’ website during November and December 2007.
Esteban Garcia, a 15-year-old Latino youth, was shot at 2125 S. Hooper Ave. about 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24, according to Newton-area detectives. He was taken to County-USC Medical Center, where he died. Garcia was driving a car out of an alley when the bullet hit him. His foot slammed into the accelerator, and the car lurched forward and flipped over. Garcia was a student in Santa Monica. His family had recently moved from the area, but he had returned to visit. (The photo was taken three years ago, when he was 12.) LAPD Newton detectives are at (323) 846-6556.
*Update: Newton detectives have cleared this case.
Damon Barney, 32, a black man, was shot in the 800 block of West 97th Street in South Los Angeles on Wednesday, Nov. 21, at about 11:30 p.m. and died shortly after, at 12:10 a.m. Nov. 22. He had been in the street with a group of people. There was a screaming argument, possibly over a woman, then gunshots. Police arrived and found him down on the sidewalk. He was taken to a hospital. LAPD Southeast Division detectives are seeking information. Dets. Sam Marullo and Nathan Kouri are at (213) 485-4341.
Jeffrey Sinclair, 17, a black youth, was shot multiple times at 825 W. 54th St. in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division at about 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20. He was taken to California Hospital Medical Center, where he died at 9:45 p.m. His mother was incarcerated; he lived with his grandparents. He had been on his bicycle just before he was attacked. The bicycle fell near him at the homicide scene.
Walter Vega, 30, a Latino man, was shot several times at 749 S. Berendo St. in Wilshire Center just west of Vermont Avenue at about 4:15 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, and died at 4:57 p.m. at County-USC Medical Center. Vega was only a week or so out of prison. He was standing on the sidewalk in an area where people congregate to drink nearly every day. His attackers were two Latino men or youths, one in a dark shirt, the other in a light one. They walked up, shot him, ran to a waiting blue Toyota van and sped away.