For her an uproar, for him a whisper
They were killed on the same day, in the same way. One of the deaths captured the attention of a city and spurred the Los Angeles Police Department into overdrive. The other slipped by unnoticed, leaving a lone detective with little more to go on than hope.
Adrianna Bachan died first. Shortly after 3 a.m. March 29, Bachan, 18, and a friend stood at the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street on the edge of the USC campus. Returning home after a night out, the two students stepped into the crosswalk and started across Jefferson.
An eastbound car blew through a red light, tossing Bachan into the air and hurling her friend onto the windshield, before it disappeared into the darkness, witnesses and police said.
Bachan’s friend suffered broken legs and other injuries. Bachan was alive when she reached California Hospital Medical Center, but died before sunrise of massive head injuries.
Minutes before 11 that night -- just as television stations were about to start news broadcasts filled with reports about Bachan’s death -- Agapito Gaspar Nicolas stepped into a crosswalk on Figueroa Street, a block from his cramped Highland Park apartment. The 55-year-old Guatemala native had been scratching out a living on construction crews since coming to California about 15 years ago.
Nicolas’ girlfriend would guess later that he had been on his way to a taco stand to pick up carne asada burritos for her and her children -- something he did often. Just before he reached the far curb, a car broadsided him and dragged or threw him 70 feet. Paramedics found Nicolas lying in the street with a fractured skull. He died soon afterward.
About an hour after Bachan was hit, Jimmy Render, a detective supervisor in the LAPD’s South Bureau Traffic Division, arrived at the scene to take over for uniformed officers. He was not encouraged by what he found. Witnesses could offer only a vague description of the car -- a dark-colored sedan, maybe a Toyota Corolla, maybe a Honda Accord. No one had glimpsed the license plate or managed to get a look at the driver. And no piece of the car -- a hood ornament or bumper that could have been used to identify the make and model -- had been recovered.
Render knew his best move was an appeal to the public. Perhaps the driver had confessed to someone or a neighbor had seen the damaged car. By midmorning, police had put out a news release about the accident and TV stations and newspapers jumped at a story involving the death of a USC student.
Render did several on-camera interviews that day, offering details of the crime. The driver, he said, had driven on with Bachan’s friend lying on the hood of the car. The car stopped suddenly and a passenger jumped out to pull the young man’s body to the ground. The car then sped off again.
Media interest exploded the next morning, when Bachan’s mother went to the site of the hit-and-run, clutching photographs of her daughter, a freshman from Santa Barbara.
Television crews and newspaper reporters waiting for an LAPD news conference swarmed the woman. Wild with grief, she paced back and forth. “Please, anyone who knows anything, please help us,” she wailed. “Please, I beg you.”
Over the next several days, television broadcasts and news websites were saturated with images of an inconsolable Carmen Bachan at news conferences, addressing the L.A. City Council and attending memorial services for her daughter. The photographs of Adrianna she carried and held up to the cameras added to the pathos. The media seized on one that showed a rosy-cheeked young woman with dirty-blond hair and big, round eyes, smiling broadly.
The callousness of the driver and passenger, the grief of the mother, the image of a beautiful young woman -- it all added to the usual pressure on LAPD and city officials to quickly solve high-profile crimes at USC, an enclave of privilege and wealth surrounded by poverty and violence.
Typically, City Council members wait for a request from police before posting a reward in a case. But police said staffers for Councilman Bernard Parks, who represents the USC area, did not wait for a request and arranged for speedy approval of a $75,000 reward -- the highest amount allowable under city statute.
The university added $50,000, the county Board of Supervisors $10,000, and an anonymous donor $100,000, bringing the total to $235,000. It was more than someone could collect from the city for information about a serial killer believed responsible for at least 11 deaths.
News of the reward led to hundreds of tips, which quickly overwhelmed detectives. Normally, one or two detectives work a fatal hit-and-run. In this case, LAPD officials assigned all four detectives in the South Bureau Traffic Division, along with several police officers and about 12 of the bureau’s best homicide detectives, who put their other cases on hold, police said.
In all, as many as 20 detectives and uniformed officers would join the hunt for Bachan’s killer -- extraordinary resources for a hit-and-run investigation.
The effort paid off. Amid all the bogus tips was a real lead: a phone call from someone who identified the driver as Claudia Cabrera, a 30-year-old South Los Angeles woman. On an unannounced visit to her home, detectives saw shards of broken window glass on the carport floor. Cabrera told police her husband had been in an accident, but was vague about the details and said she didn’t know where he or the car had gone, police said. In what would prove to be a crucial break, Cabrera gave the detectives her cellphone number.
A surveillance detail kept watch on Cabrera. Early the next morning, Det. Chris Barling of the South Bureau’s Criminal Gang Homicide Group reached out to an FBI agent he knew who had expertise in tracking cellphones. Within a few hours, using call records and other data from Cabrera’s cellphone provider, the agent determined that she was in the immediate vicinity when Bachan was struck.
In the days that followed, police would piece together Cabrera’s movements that night. She and her husband, Josue Luna, left their infant son with a baby-sitter at a friend’s house near USC and drove to the San Fernando Valley with the friend for a party, police said.
Shortly before 3 a.m., the couple returned to drop off their friend and pick up the 5-month-old baby. Then they headed home. Cabrera was behind the wheel and Luna -- the heavyset Latino witnesses had seen dragging Bachan’s friend off the hood -- was in the passenger seat, police said.
Detectives returned to Cabrera’s house with a search warrant and, by late afternoon, took her into custody.
Before a phalanx of TV cameras, high-ranking police officials and council members announced the arrest. “I really want to thank the press for keeping this story alive,” Bachan’s mother said through tears. “That was my goal.”
Cabrera has pleaded not guilty to charges of vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run. A few days after her arrest, Luna was caught by federal border agents trying to re-enter the country after fleeing to Mexico. He was charged with being an accomplice to a crime. In television interviews after posting bail, he expressed remorse for the crash and for leaving the scene, but said he believed the traffic light had been green.
Adrianna Bachan had been dead less than a week.
The search for Agapito Nicolas’ killer unfolded differently.
No detective was summoned to the crime scene -- common in hit-and-runs in which the victim does not die at the scene. Instead, uniformed officers collected what information they could and wrote a report. As with Bachan, there wasn’t much evidence: no license plate, no description of the driver, only two witnesses, who said they believed the car had been a silver Volkswagen Jetta.
The next morning, the case was assigned to Det. Michael Kaden. A 13-year veteran of hit-and-run investigations, Kaden read the crime scene report and knew he was in for a long day. He drove to the scene and spent the morning looking for more witnesses or security cameras that might have captured the incident. He drove back to LAPD’s Central station to make copies of an “Information Wanted” flier, then returned to the crosswalk and spent much of what remained of the day handing the fliers to passersby.
A news release elicited no interest from newspapers or television stations. Kaden would give no interviews that day or any other until contacted by The Times. Deputy police chiefs and City Council members would host no big press conferences. The public would not hear Nicolas’ girlfriend, Joaquina Ramos, talk about how he used to slip her children $20 bills wrapped in napkins to pay for groceries or how people who knew him called him Tito. They would not see the hurt on the face of Ramos’ daughter, who considered Nicolas, a legal U.S. resident, her father.
“I want justice,” Ramos said in an interview with The Times, the same wish that Bachan’s mother had expressed.
Nearly four weeks passed before the City Council approved a $50,000 reward without any fanfare. The reward remains in limbo, awaiting the signature of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“This is basically a worst-case scenario,” Kaden said in an interview. “I don’t even know if I am looking for a man or a woman.”
Kaden considered knocking on doors of the auto body shops that line Mission Road in East L.A. to see if anyone had worked on a silver Jetta. Then he decided it would be a waste of time, since no witness could describe what damage, if any, the car sustained.
“I could go and ask to look at their records of all the Jettas that came in with broken windshields, but they’ll look at me and say, ‘What records?’ ” Kaden said.
The detective searched a state database for silver Jettas built between 2000 and 2008 that had been cited for traffic violations in recent years. Information on more than 200 cars came back. He winnowed the list to cars registered in Los Angeles and found himself staring at the addresses of 84 Angelenos. Kaden thought he had caught a break when he plotted the addresses on a map and saw that two of the Jettas were registered to people living close to where Nicolas had been run down. Neither lead panned out, however.
And so Kaden did the only thing left to do: He went looking for the remaining Jettas on the list, hoping he might find the one that had killed Nicolas.
Two detectives helped him for a day. Other than that, Kaden was on his own and still had to deal with the rest of his workload, including preparing evidence for several upcoming criminal trials. “I’ve at least touched this case every day,” he said. “I wish I could say it’s the only thing on my plate right now, but it’s not.”
Kaden began one morning of searching at an impressive Spanish-style home near Griffith Park. A silver Jetta sat parked outside. Kaden circled to the front of the car and inspected the edges of the windshield for glue that could indicate it had recently been installed.
Finding nothing, he stepped back to snap some photos with a Polaroid camera. After leaving a brief note and his calling card at the front door, he opened a large binder with Nicolas’ name and “Unsolved” on the spine and crossed the car off the list.
The day would take him to several apartment complexes in Thai town and Koreatown, and to an artist colony at a converted brewery in East L.A. He found several Jettas, but none could be connected to Nicolas’ death. Still, he fastidiously took notes and photos of each car and calmly explained himself to the confused owners before moving on. Twice, after spotting silver Jettas on the side of the road, he pulled quick U-turns to check them out.
“You gotta think you might get lucky, otherwise you wouldn’t do this job,” he said. “You’d be frustrated beyond frustration. I try not to focus on the bleakness of it all.
“Is it fair?” he asked, reflecting on the difference between Nicolas’ case and Bachan’s. “I can’t look at fair. Any time you have a high-profile person involved in a crime or a high-profile situation, you are always going to receive more attention. Is that right? Is that wrong? I don’t know.”
Three weeks after Nicolas was killed, Kaden departed for a long-planned vacation with his family. When he returns, he plans to continue making his way down the list of Jettas.
“I could theoretically never be done with this, but it’s an unfortunate part of this job that you have a lot of unsolved cases. At some point, I’ll have to move on to the next one, because there will be another one.”
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
REWARD: $235,000, from L.A. City Council, L.A. County Board of Supervisors, USC and an anonymous donor.
POLICE RESOURCES: South Bureau Traffic Division assigns 4 detectives, 5 uniformed officers and about 12 detectives from a specialized unit.
STATUS: A suspect was arrested 4 1/2 days after the incident and charged with manslaughter.
Agapito Gaspar Nicolas
REWARD: $50,000 approved by Los Angeles City Council, nearly a month after the accident. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has yet to sign off on it.
POLICE RESOURCES: The LAPD Central Bureau Traffic Division assigned one detective; two other detectives assisted him for one day.
STATUS: The case remains unsolved, 36 days later.