A Son’s Errand, Gunshots and the Quest for a Killer
She and Times photographer Brian Vander Brug observed all aspects of the detectives' work, including interviews with witnesses, suspects and the family members of homicide victims.
Leovy and Vander Brug personally observed every stage of the investigation into the killing of Jerry Wesley Jr., with the exception of the suspects' arrests. Leovy obtained details of the arrests from LAPD detectives and officers.
Los Angeles homicide Det. John Zambos stood at 101st and Figueroa, peering into a green Chevrolet Suburban with silver rims.
In the driver’s seat was a man wearing dark blue work pants, a gray Southpole sweatshirt and a sequined earring. His head was tilted back, mouth ajar. His hands rested palms-up on his knees, as if he had just dropped off to sleep.
Zambos scanned his face: rounded cheeks, like a child’s, a stubble of beard. The only visible wound was a tiny hole in the temple. Drops of blood, still wet, glistened on his sweatshirt. A box of takeout food sat on the passenger seat.
It was about 8:30 on Dec. 1, a sunny, cold morning. Knots of people gathered. A breeze flipped the pages of Zambos’ notebook, which lay open on the hood of his Buick Century.
Zambos, 47, had nearly come to blows with paramedics when they tried to cover the victim’s body with a sheet. Zambos had shooed them away. He was determined to protect fingerprints and any other evidence.
For once, Zambos had been the first on the crime scene. This investigation would be perfect.
Zambos was one of 12 homicide detectives who worked in Watts and surrounding neighborhoods for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southeast Division.
The squad shouldered the highest caseloads in the city, but the killings rarely made the news. Sometimes it seemed to Zambos and his colleagues that if they didn’t care, no one would. The less attention their cases got, the more they drove themselves.
Zambos leaned against his car, jiggling a pen in one hand. “One to the temple, another to the body,” he snapped into a cellphone. “African American, I bet in his 30s.”
On the other end, back at the station, was Det. Sal LaBarbera, his boss. LaBarbera was dark-haired, 45, a Bronx transplant notorious for working around the clock. His cellphone was always on, and he showed up for nearly all of Southeast’s homicides, sometimes pulling on a suit at 3 a.m.
LaBarbera yelled to his detectives: “One-o-one and Fig.”
Two by two, Zambos’ colleagues pulled up in unmarked sedans. LaBarbera strode toward witnesses huddled under the awning of Tam’s hamburger stand, determined that none would slip away.
Zambos was the Southeast homicide squad’s second-in-command. But he wasn’t much of a manager and tended to ignore all but the case in front of him. That left LaBarbera to churn with worries about the unit: how to keep his detectives from burning out? How to recruit more officers to work homicide?
Mostly, LaBarbera worried about unsolved cases.
In a trailer behind the Southeast station, LaBarbera’s detectives had built an archive for old cases. Nearly 700 unsolved slayings, some going back to 1978, packed the homemade shelves.
The trailer haunted LaBarbera -- 700 grieving families, the killers still loose.
Now, at the scene of Southeast’s 71st homicide of the year, he leaned against a car, reading interview cards filled out by uniformed officers. Each had a hastily scribbled name and address.
At 9:43 a.m., a coroner’s van arrived. “Any suspect info?” a coroner’s investigator asked.
“Male black,” LaBarbera answered dryly.
Someone guffawed. “Well, that narrows it down,” one of the coroner’s men said.
An investigator put on gloves and dabbed gunpowder residue from the dead man’s hands. As he worked, a cellphone rang. His eyes traveled over the victim’s body before finding it in his clothes.
“Anyone want this cellphone?” he called out to detectives.
The sun was higher now. At Tam’s, people lined up again for breakfast.
LaBarbera tapped his watch. “We want to keep things moving,” he said.
This killing would not end up unsolved in the trailer.
The detectives regrouped back at the Southeast station, a two-story brick building east of the Harbor Freeway known as “108th Street” for its location at 108th and Main streets.
LaBarbera’s homicide squad -- eight detectives and three trainees -- worked at the far end of a large windowless office on the ground floor.
The station had been renovated that fall. Gone were the wooden desks and cork bulletin boards. The new look was corporate: glass desk coverings and cubicles.
LaBarbera hated it. The waist-high partitions between desks made it harder for detectives to talk. Worse, the remodeling did not include an interrogation room with taping equipment and a one-way window.
Detectives had to interview people in storerooms, at their desks or in a small windowless office with bad acoustics.
The LAPD had some of the most advanced equipment in the world. But detectives fought over scarce cars and computers, and paid for their own cellphones and tape recorders. They tried to fool suspects into thinking they could enhance video footage from security cameras, like in the movies, or perform rapid DNA tests. The truth was they often waited months for results.
Unlike LaBarbera, Zambos loved the new office because it was clean. He kept nagging everyone to keep it tidy. Passing around a Windex bottle, he would declare, “A clean squad room is a happy squad room.”
Fellow detectives called him “Zambos the Greek” or “Zorba the Freak” for his many eccentricities -- earsplitting laughter, mood swings and his neurosis for cleanliness. But none questioned his skill.
Zambos believed in a sacred principle: Leave no paper on your desk. Otherwise, he said, “with so many cases, you’ll get overwhelmed.”
Over the years, his obsession got out of hand. It had helped break up his marriage. He couldn’t stand so much as a dirty fork in the sink.
Returning from the crime scene, LaBarbera and his squad borrowed an office belonging to the Southeast gang detail. The detectives took places around a table.
At Tam’s, they had spoken with people who saw the shooting from different angles. One witness had seen a car pull up to an alley a block from Tam’s, a detective reported. “Mine said the car was a Crown Vic,” another said. “He was positive. Dark blue.”
Two people had popped the trunk of the Crown Victoria and removed a gun. Then one of them had walked up the alley toward the hamburger stand.
“He is about 5 foot 3,” the detective said. “Slim, in a black hoodie. He comes back very excited, running, a gun in his hand.”
Zambos said the dead man was Jerry Lee Wesley Jr. He was 35.
“He is into some kind of bullshit!” he said. “He had platinum credit cards, gift certificates to Black Angus.”
Another detective finished the thought. “People said they see him in different cars. Nice ones. A Lexus.”
They would need to ask Wesley’s loved ones about his background. But first they had to tell them he was dead.
At 6 foot 4, Det. John Skaggs towered over nearly everyone in the squad room. His red hair was fading to blondish gray, and his blue eyes wore an endlessly agreeable expression.
His signature gesture was a slow nod, accompanied by a quiet “right” or “sweet,” and it was like having an arm thrown over your shoulders. A colleague called Skaggs “the common man’s detective.” The bloodshed seemed to roll right off him.
Skaggs’ longtime partner, Det. Chris Barling, had a youthful face that blushed easily, and he always seemed to be in motion, bolting out of his chair or anxiously clicking a pen.
Barling was the conscience of the squad, its resident moralist. Colleagues wondered how Skaggs put up with Barling’s frequent sermons, which he punctuated by chopping the air with his hands.
Barling’s favorite topic was the failed November ballot measure to raise the sales tax to hire more police. It lost, in part, because black voters in South L.A. didn’t support it, a fact that ate at him. Yet he thought that he understood their cynicism.
Blacks “have been lied to too much,” he would say. “It’s just promises, promises.”
Skaggs and Barling had been assigned to train Mark Arenas, who had moved to homicide from the gang detail just a month before. LaBarbera called Arenas “a little salty, a little arrogant -- but worth saving” and turned him over to his best team.
Arenas, 34, wanted passionately to be a homicide detective, but he was struggling. His first case had stalled. He had clashed with Barling. To top things off, the squad was short a computer, so he was always searching for a free desk.
After the detectives’ meeting on the Wesley killing, Skaggs summoned Arenas, and the two men got into an unmarked silver sedan.
Skaggs drove. “Ever done a notification?” he asked.
Arenas said he had, then tried to make a joke about it.
There was a beat of silence. Arenas backpedaled. “I was trying to be insensitive,” he said feebly.
It was almost noon, a few hours after Wesley’s death. The sun had dispelled the morning’s chill.
They turned up a narrow side street, crossing west out of the Southeast Division into another part of South L.A.
The dead man was not listed in the state’s gang member database. “But he may be a dope dealer,” Skaggs said.
He glanced at Arenas. They were getting close to the house.
“You comfortable with this?” he asked. “You want me to do it?”
Arenas answered without hesitation. “I want you to do it.”
They parked in front of a small stucco house screened by a clump of palm fronds. An older man with gray hair and shiny black dress shoes was standing at the open front door.
Skaggs stepped onto the porch. “Who are you?” he asked.
The man said his name: Jerry Lee Wesley Sr.
“I have some bad news,” Skaggs said quietly. “There has been a shooting. Your son Jerry has been killed.”
The father stumbled back, as if blown by a strong wind.
“Oh, my God. He’s dead? Lord have mercy.”
He disappeared inside. The detectives followed.
They entered an immaculate living room -- a bright red carpet, a snow-white rug under a glass coffee table. An “I Love Lucy” episode was on TV.
Wesley Sr., 70, had retreated to a stool by the kitchen. He leaned on the counter, resting his forehead in his open palm. “Oh, damn it,” he murmured. “He went to get my breakfast.”
Skaggs sat on a stool facing him. “I’m very sorry,” he said.
“OK,” said the father, and heaved a sigh. “OK.”
The room had chiffon curtains and white furnishings. There was a goldfish swimming in a tank and a white teddy bear on a chair. On the coffee table was an engraved crystal plaque: “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Peace.”
Suddenly, the father bolted upright and pounded the counter with his fist. Then he collapsed back onto the stool and buried his head in his arms. “Oh, Lord have mercy,” he moaned. “Oh, my God.”
He glanced up. An embarrassed look swept across his face. He straightened.
“It’ll be all right,” he told the detectives.
He passed a hand over his face and asked again: “He’s dead?”
“Yes, sir,” Skaggs said. Arenas hung back, watching.
Skaggs tried a few questions, asking about his son’s job at Pep Boys, his girlfriends, his cars.
The father could not focus, and his answers were fragmented. “Whew,” he said, as if trying to breathe. “Oh, boy.”
Skaggs fell silent, then got up to leave. “Sorry to bring bad news,” he said.
The father pulled a baseball cap over his brow and got up. He thanked the detectives and followed them out to the porch.
Skaggs turned back and began, “If there’s anything I can do.... “
The elder Wesley didn’t seem to hear. “He’s dead,” the father repeated.
In the car, Skaggs sighed, one hand on the wheel, the other trailing out the window, idly tapping the side of the car.
“He just left the house to get some food,” Skaggs said.
Southeast Division is its own small town, running south from Manchester Avenue along the Harbor Freeway.
Covering 10 square miles, it is home to small stucco houses, flood channels scrawled with graffiti and public housing projects made famous in rap songs: Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts.
Once, the area was nearly all black -- mostly descendants of refugees from Jim Crow’s Louisiana and East Texas. Now they were being replaced by immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador.
Police officers new to the division often remarked on how different Southeast seemed.
They talked of how few businesses lined the boulevards and how people seemed to treat their neighborhoods like big living rooms, carting their furniture outside and walking around in pajamas and slippers. They marveled at how well neighbors seemed to know one another’s business, and how families seemed formed of vast networks of “aunties,” “baby mamas” and “play” sisters.
Detective work in Southeast had its own unwritten rules.
Investigators knew a good street contact was worth more than a phone number, because so many people used cellphone plans that expired every month. They knew that residents’ complex kinship ties held the keys to many cases.
Southeast had the highest homicide rate in the city, and most of the killings were labeled gang-related. But on closer look, many were rooted in old-fashioned conflicts -- somebody-done-somebody-wrong killings, Barling called them.
A son avenged the murder of his father. A lover killed his rival. There were killings over dice games, killings over $5, killings over a cigarette.
They were seldom mysteries. The obstacle was usually that witnesses would not cooperate. They were too terrified of gang vengeance or too hostile to the LAPD.
Making matters worse, LAPD commanders changed jobs frequently, and the number of South L.A. officers fluctuated, making it difficult to sustain attention on any given case or problem.
Outside the LAPD, there was scant interest in the homicides. Detectives viewed the media as frustratingly capricious.
One week, news outlets would seize on an outbreak of school violence, the next on underground parties. Sometimes detectives were pulled off one case to work another that had drawn headlines -- but rarely in Southeast.
At 1:40 p.m., about five hours after Jerry Wesley was killed, Zambos stood at his desk, bellowing into the phone, “That’s it! That’s what it’s about!”
He had spent the past few hours phoning Wesley’s out-of-town relatives, building a picture of his life, his romantic ties, his finances.
The relatives said Wesley had quarreled recently with his ex-lover’s new boyfriend. Maybe this boyfriend killed Wesley -- or arranged for someone else to do it.
Zambos slammed down the receiver, looking satisfied with his theory.
“You women!” he roared to the nearest female in the office. “You damn women!”
He snapped his fingers and drummed on the partition. “There is no doubt this is where it’s going to go,” he said. “I just got that feeling.”
Zambos and Skaggs went back to see the family. The detectives figured that now, with time to absorb the news, they might reveal more of Jerry’s life.
In the car, Zambos circled back to the romantic-triangle theory. “I like it,” he said. “You got the boyfriend. You got lying-in-wait. That’s the death penalty!”
They pulled up to the house. Three people waited in the tidy red-and-white living room.
Jerry’s father, a retired bakery worker, sat hunched with his fingers laced. His wife, Dorothy, 59, sat across from him, jiggling her hands. She was Jerry’s stepmother but considered him her son.
Muriel Bryant-Manolesakis, the victim’s 42-year-old sister, sat huddled in a corner of the couch, eyes teary.
The detectives began quietly. Did Jerry have any enemies?
The parents looked bewildered. He didn’t fight with anyone, Dorothy said: “Jerry was a bundle of joy.”
They asked about work. “They always wanted him in Pep Boys, always called to him,” Jerry’s father said with pride. “They liked him there.”
Wesley Jr., a graduate of Washington High School, had a consuming passion: cars. He had used the profits from the recent sale of a home to buy his Lexus, the family said.
Zambos described the killing with characteristic bluntness: Someone had walked up to Jerry’s Suburban and shot him. Dorothy wrung her hands. “Oh, my goodness,” she said. “Oh, boy.”
“You will hopefully start hearing things,” Zambos said. “People will find out who did it and start talking to you. That is really the key.”
Dorothy stared out the window and let out a long breath.
Zambos handed her his card. “Call 24-7,” he told her.
Back in the car, Skaggs and Zambos stared ahead.
Zambos broke the silence. “Damn it!” he said. “This is a nice family!”
Skaggs nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Nice mom. Nice dad. Nice sister.”
There was a moment’s silence. “He was into something they don’t know about,” Zambos said.
“Yeah,” Skaggs said. “You don’t just go up and shoot someone like that. I can’t even see a rival gang member doing a random job like that.”
Zambos slapped a thigh. “Someone knows what he was up to.”
They fell silent, driving north on Western Avenue, then turning west. Pennants snapped in the breeze over Century Boulevard. “What a beautiful day,” Skaggs said.
The conversation turned to squad-room politics. They worried that they were putting too much pressure on Arenas. “We told him, ‘If you don’t solve your first case, you might as well leave homicide,’ ” Skaggs said.
They all used that line with young detectives. You can’t let them get complacent, Zambos told Skaggs -- “A la the 77th homicide unit!”
The 77th Street Division was the LAPD’s other high-violence precinct, adjacent to Southeast and similarly overworked. The previous year, the 77th had complained about a shortage of detectives, so the Southeast squad sent over a basket of baby products: diapers and pacifiers.
“We need to sneak in there and write something on the board,” Skaggs said. “You know, ‘77th Homicide: Clearance Rate 2%' "
Zambos let out peals of laughter.
They pulled into the Pep Boys off La Brea, south of Manchester. It was about 3 p.m. and the store was nearly empty.
The detectives were directed to a man in a Pep Boys uniform with a trim mustache and brisk step. “Humberto, store manager,” his name tag said.
Humberto Sanchez, 47, escorted the detectives to his office overlooking the sales floor.
How did Wesley die? he asked.
“You know Tam’s?” Zambos said. “Someone just walked up.”
Sanchez cursed softly.
The detectives questioned him, trying to find out what aspect of Wesley’s life might have sparked a violent quarrel.
Wesley was in a child-support battle with an ex-lover after discovering that the baby wasn’t his, Sanchez said. He had been trying to recover support payments.
How much? Skaggs asked.
"$80,000,” Sanchez said.
Skaggs rocked back and forth on his heels, staring out over the displays of woofers, bucket seats.
“Jerry was one of my best employees,” Sanchez said.
The detectives nodded and tried to move on, but Sanchez was insistent.
“He was a very nice guy. Very,” he said. “He was a very intelligent guy.”
In that moment, scattered impressions from the day coalesced:
Jerry Wesley was not a gangster. His blue pants were part of his uniform at Pep Boys, where he earned $11 an hour. The Tam’s takeout box by his side was breakfast for a father who was proud of him. The chirping cellphone was his father calling.
“He was nice,” Sanchez repeated as the detectives left. “He was smart.”
Back in the car, Skaggs and Zambos rehashed.
“Eighty grand!” Zambos said.
“That’s motive,” Skaggs said, nodding.
“Sheesh, motive enough for me,” Zambos said. “I’d whack someone for that.”
Then he had another thought.
“I’d do it in 77th,” he said. “That way I’d never get caught!”
LaBarbera taped a quotation to his desk in the morning. It was from one of his daughter’s Dr. Seuss books, “If I Ran the Zoo.”
“If you want to find beasts you don’t see every day, you have to go places quite out-of-the-way. You have to go places no others can get to. You have to get cold, and you have to get wet too.”
LaBarbera said it went to the heart of his squad’s ethos: outwork everyone.
The homicide squad was nicknamed “The Green Mile” for all the green overtime slips. Their caseloads were double those of colleagues in the Valley and Westside, yet they defied the odds, posting better arrest rates than several squads with lighter workloads.
There was a price. Turnover was high and recruiting next to impossible. Working homicide once had prestige. But even with all the paid overtime, these days almost no one in the LAPD wants the job.
Years of irregular hours had messed with LaBarbera’s sleep. He had so little time to see his daughters, 8 and 11, that they left him messages on a dry-erase board.
“Why does this have to ruin my life?” LaBarbera asked one afternoon. “I have two kids at home. I should be with them.”
He had just learned that the bureau couldn’t spare any detectives to monitor a jailhouse wiretap in another case.
To LaBarbera, priorities in the LAPD sometimes seemed absurd. He was irritated, for example, by the intense scrutiny given to shootings of dogs by police officers. Until recently, the department sent twice as many detectives to the scenes of dog shootings as to most homicides -- a side effect of efforts to comply with a consent decree.
He drew on a cigarette. Then he said: “Quit? Of course not. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror.”
Barling, Skaggs’ partner, also fretted about these issues -- urban murder and its low status in the public eye.
During a staff meeting the previous week, Barling had demanded that LAPD Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger transfer more detectives to homicide.
“But if you take a detective from the robbery table, what does the robbery table do then?” Paysinger asked.
Barling’s face reddened.
“When a homicide happens, that rips into the moral fiber of the community!” he said, chopping the air with his hands. “The robbery victim, he can live with leaving that unsolved. But the homicide victim’s family....”
Paysinger interrupted: “Can you tell the robbery victim that?”
It was the LAPD’s dilemma. More officers to suppress killings in Watts meant fewer to combat auto theft in Granada Hills or Venice.
Los Angeles is two cities. One, encompassing the San Fernando Valley and Westside, has too few police for property crimes; the other, South L.A., has too few police for violent crimes.
In the LAPD’s four West L.A. divisions, there were nearly twice as many officers for each violent crime as there were in South L.A.
Barling’s preoccupation fueled the clashes with his trainee, Arenas.
“People just don’t take responsibility for anything in this division. None!” Arenas said. “You arrest a kid, and his mother looks at you and says, ‘You lie. You planted this on my son.’ ... This is the most vicious cycle of violence here. And somehow the community has the nerve to twist it like it’s my fault.”
Barling rebutted with talk of racism and history.
“There shouldn’t be any anger toward the community,” he said. “If I am going to put my angst and frustration on someone, I’m going to put it on the people in power.”
Zambos stood at his desk at midmorning, weighing his next move in the Wesley case. He wanted to keep the investigation focused.
The squad had collected accounts from half a dozen witnesses. It was vastly better than having too few. But Zambos also knew that too many witnesses could confuse jurors during a murder trial.
“You only need a couple of witnesses,” he told his partner, Gerry Pantoja.
Pantoja, 38, had landed in homicide from the gang unit after he injured a knee during a foot chase.
With his shaved head and wild grin, Pantoja was the squad comedian -- the perfect complement to Zambos. Colleagues called Pantoja payaso, clown in Spanish, and Pantoja had actually worked as a clown before joining the LAPD. He and Zambos spent their days trading vulgarities.
Now, Pantoja oiled his gun, nodding as he listened. He had heard it all before -- how Zambos liked to keep his murder files thin and neat.
Pantoja and Zambos had found Wesley’s ex-girlfriend, and they called her in for an interview.
She arrived at the Southeast station later that morning dressed in black. Zambos had hoped to interview her in the empty closet that doubled as an interrogation room. But the previous night, gang officers had filled it with file cabinets.
So Zambos interviewed her at his desk. She faced him in a swivel chair. Zambos asked when she had last talked to Wesley.
“I had nothing to do with it,” she said. “I got home, and I heard Jerry’s dead, and my heart started racing.”
He asked if she had a cellphone -- maybe phone records connected her to the killing. She said no.
Zambos glanced at her open purse on the floor, reached in and pulled out a cellphone.
What’s this? he asked.
Zambos persuaded her to take a lie-detector test, and she cried all the way to Parker Center, the LAPD’s downtown headquarters.
The test was inconclusive.
Later that day, Det. Donovan Nickerson’s cellphone rang.
Nickerson, 40, was a cyclist and scuba diver who had majored in microbiology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was one of two black members of the Southeast homicide squad.
Most of the detectives commuted from Orange County, but Nickerson lived in Southeast, in the same neighborhood where he grew up.
None of the other squad members had Nickerson’s contacts or rapport with residents. He used both to solve cases, but the advantage came at a price. Being from Southeast, being black, he said, made it “just a lot more emotional for me to see the crime that goes on here.”
Nickerson often held his tongue when Southeast officers spoke callously. Many, if not most, Southeast homicide victims were criminals or gang members.
NHI, the officers dubbed such killings: No Humans Involved.
Their views trouble Nickerson. “I don’t look at it as a gang member being killed,” he said. “It’s a person being killed. A young black male.”
In his off-hours, he mentored young men in trouble. A few weeks before, a woman he met on a case asked him for help with her 13-year-old son. Nickerson had talked about taking the boy to a game. The mother called and left a message.
Nickerson hadn’t had time to return the call.
Now, on Thursday afternoon, one of his contacts in the neighborhood phoned.
The person knew about Wesley’s killing. He gave Nickerson a name, Will Carter, an alleged gang member. He had another hint, a gang nickname, possibly that of the shooter.
Nickerson dialed Zambos to pass on the tip.
Pantoja knew Carter from his years in the gang unit. He and Zambos headed to Carter’s house.
Late that afternoon, Zambos and Pantoja burst into the Southeast squad room.
Zambos slammed his binder on his desk.
“Where’s Sal?” he asked. “Benny, Mark -- Benny! Get off the phone! Now. Now!”
Arenas and Ben Perez, another detective trainee, hustled over. Zambos whirled and strode across the room. Mystified, the novices followed.
He led them to the closet. There was barely room to stand.
Zambos told them that he and Pantoja had driven by Carter’s house. In the driveway, they had seen a blue Crown Victoria, the same make and model that witnesses had seen near Tam’s just before Wesley was shot.
Before they could arrest Carter, they would have to scout the house and get a warrant. Perez and Arenas would start early the next morning, with help from the gang detail.
“Don’t tell nobody!” Zambos said. He meant: Don’t tell uniformed officers. They might drive by the house out of curiosity, tipping off Carter.
That night, the 12 officers gathered at the Hobbit, an elegant Orange County restaurant. They had been saving money all year for this holiday-season dinner.
They worked closely together, sometimes 15 hours a day. But the dinner began awkwardly. Conversation was halting. At last it wobbled into the usual crude jokes and silly banter by Zambos and Pantoja.
Barling privately chafed. This locker room aspect of LAPD culture ate at him. But Zambos roared at every raunchy punch line.
As the wine was served, LaBarbera, the boss, raised his glass and the guffaws subsided.
LaBarbera was solemn, looking at the faces around the table. “Thank you,” he said, “for your dedication.”
Glasses clinked. LaBarbera took a sip and set down his glass. Then his cellphone rang.
A bolt of energy shot through the table. LaBarbera had asked Harbor Division’s homicide squad to cover for the night, and it reported another Southeast homicide.
There were two dead: boys, 14 and 17.
They finished their dinner. The killings did not make the news.
Zambos and Pantoja drove a pistol to the LAPD’s firearms analysis lab early in the morning.
While the squad was at dinner, Southeast gang officers had arrested a young man near Carter’s house. He had turned out to be Carter’s cousin. He was carrying a .45-caliber semiautomatic loaded with the same brand of ammunition that had killed Wesley.
It was a brilliant day, and Zambos was in high spirits as the two drove to the lab in northeast Los Angeles. Usually detectives would have to wait a week or more to test a seized gun. But the lab was doing Zambos a favor.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Zambos’ quarry was an unknown hit man connected to an ex-lover. Now it was a gang assassin. “You’ve always got to be able to switch gears,” he told Pantoja.
Arenas and Perez, dressed casually for surveillance work, had also started early that morning. They had planned to hook up with gang officers to scout Carter’s house. But the officers never showed up.
So Arenas went up in a police helicopter to have a look at the house. From the air, he saw the Crown Victoria pull into the driveway. After landing, he rushed back to the house with Perez. The car was still there.
Arenas called Pantoja on his cellphone.
Zambos and Pantoja were standing at a desk in the firearms lab about to hand over the pistol.
Pantoja told Zambos that the Crown Victoria was back home.
“Sit on it! If it moves, let’s take it. I want everyone in the car!” Zambos said.
At the other end of Los Angeles, Arenas flipped his phone shut. As he and Perez watched from their unmarked sedan, Carter and three companions walked out of the house and got into the Crown Victoria.
Arenas and Perez followed. After driving a short distance, Carter saw the young detectives behind him and pulled over. Carter recognized Perez, who had arrested him in the past.
The two detectives hopped out of the car, then realized they weren’t ready to arrest Carter and his companions.
They had just one set of handcuffs.
Arenas put out a call: “Detectives request additional unit!”
Perez chatted with Carter, trying to kill time. Nervous moments ticked by.
Help finally arrived -- but not from their patrol colleagues. Barling and other members of the homicide squad came. Barling was furious. Why hadn’t uniformed officers responded?
Zambos and Pantoja arrived at the Southeast station, and Carter’s blue Crown Victoria was parked outside.
It was just before 10 a.m. Arenas and Perez stood nearby, both looking relieved and a little frazzled.
“Great job!” Zambos said. He greeted the car like a lost pet: “My car!”
In the squad room, Zambos crowed. He clutched a bouquet of red licorice and wore a wide grin.
Zambos had been eager to give Arenas a chance to shine. So he gave him and Perez, the two trainees, a shot at the next pivotal step: interrogating the suspects.
Arenas and Perez started with a teenage girl who had been arrested along with Carter. Her description matched that of a girl who was seen in the Crown Victoria on the day of Wesley’s killing.
They took her into the small windowless office, which had a round table but no chairs.
Arenas tried to steal one from a neighboring office. It jerked back from his hands. It had been chained to the desk -- an angry note taped to the back, warning off thieves. He ran to find another.
The girl was skinny, wearing a sweatshirt with a hood pulled over her head, her braids poking out.
“What we are here to interview you on is a shooting off Century,” Perez began. “I think you know about it ....”
“How you know I know about it!” she interrupted, laughing.
Perez continued. “Without cooperating, you may be booked too,” he said.
“I tol’ you!” she said. “He just picked me up!”
The girl glanced sideways at Perez, flirting.
As they talked, she squirmed, smiled, rubbed her eyes drowsily and giggled.
They went around and around, Perez pressing for details.
“We were just smokin’,” the girl told him.
Arenas waited, jiggling his feet, rocking his chair.
Perez left the room and Arenas jerked out of his seat. He loomed over the girl. She glanced up in alarm.
“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Arenas said. “You are lying, and you are going to get yourself booked for murder today!”
On a yellow legal pad, Arenas had scribbled notes. Now he took the first pages between a thumb and forefinger. “You know what these are?” he demanded, shaking them at her. “These three pages are conspiracy to commit murder!”
A tear rolled down the girl’s cheek.
After the interview, Arenas went back to his desk.
Two homicide detectives were still watching Carter’s house in case the gun at the lab didn’t pan out. The murder weapon might still be in the house. But the detectives couldn’t stay much longer.
Barling turned to Arenas. “Why hold the house?” he demanded.
Arenas explained that he had to ask his colleagues to do the work because gang officers didn’t have time.
Then you should have gone to your superiors, Barling argued.
This always upset Barling -- the squad’s inability to make homicide a priority, to get help from patrol officers. “It’s always, ‘How can we compromise?’ Always compromise!” Barling said.
He wanted Arenas to see how unfair this was -- unfair to victims, to Watts, to blacks.
Arenas just stared at him, red-faced.
“Look,” Arenas said. “I don’t like to be in the middle of this!”
Then, Zambos swept past. He sized up the situation: Barling and Arenas at odds again.
“Let the house go,” Zambos said, and strode to his desk.
An hour later, Zambos was on the phone with the firearms analyst.
“Gotcha,” Zambos said quietly into the phone.
He dropped the receiver and pushed his chair back until it hit the wall behind him. He tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling.
“It’s not the gun.”
Carter had tired, wide-set eyes and a ponytail with loose hairs escaping around his face. A thin braid hung from his chin.
He sat hunched in the makeshift interrogation room, his shoulders turned away from Perez and Arenas.
Perez started to read him his rights. “I know all that,” Carter snapped.
“I’m gonna read it anyway,” Perez told him.
Perez began in a monotone. The detectives believed Carter was the driver. They needed to find the killer.
“I think you are not the baddest person out there,” Perez said. “I give you the opportunity to get out.”
Carter wouldn’t look at him. “Man, maybe I did stop there,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He quickly became emotional, his face a mask of sadness as he spoke about gang life.
“Homies killing homies!” he said. “They get a gun in hand, and they kill whoever! I’m fed up with this stuff. I’m 30 now. They look at me as a big homeboy. But my son is 8, and it’s Christmas, and I’ve been home with him once for Christmas. Once!”
His eyes filled with tears.
Perez handed him a tissue.
Carter looked at him for the first time: “Who else my age is in the ‘hood right now?” he asked. “Nobody! You can’t name nobody!
“Every day, I want to say, let it go. I got my family. My bitch is pregnant. But no. It would be like you doing 15 years in the police force and just resigning. You wouldn’t do it.”
Carter offered one alibi, then another. Perez let Carter talk, then told him how witnesses contradicted his account. Each time Carter faced a contradiction, he retreated a little, changing his story.
Eventually, he admitted that he had picked up a companion that morning -- and that they had driven to the mouth of the alley, stopped and opened the trunk.
It was a breakthrough. Carter had put himself at the scene.
Perez told Carter that he had a choice: Give up the shooter or be charged as the chief murder suspect.
“It’s the homies or your kids,” Perez said.
Carter stuffed his hands in his pockets, stared at the table, crying silently. “What chance of me getting out of here?” Carter finally asked.
Perez sighed. “Depends on how much you help.”
Carter furrowed his brow, looked down.
Arenas chimed in: “Your cousin is caught up in this too,” he said.
Carter looked at the ceiling and sucked in his lips.
Regarding his own actions, he said, “Ain’t nothing I can do about it. I can accept it. But my little cousin ... he had nothing to do with it.”
Arenas and Perez barreled out of the interview room about 4:30 p.m., and the squad crowded around, peppering them with questions.
They hadn’t gotten everything they wanted, but Carter had confirmed key elements of witness accounts.
Arenas, mostly frustrated since joining the squad, now found himself in the spotlight. He pointed to Perez. “It was Benny!” he said.
Zambos leaned against the wall as Arenas recounted the interview. “Beautiful,” Zambos said.
The detectives had more work to do. They checked back with witnesses and gleaned new details.
By 5 p.m., they had a full account of the killing, plus a description of the shooter and two of his nicknames.
Pantoja bent over his computer, searching the state database of gang members. He sang softly as he tapped the keys.
Pantoja clicked on a photo. The names matched, but this gangster was nearly 30.
That’s not him, Zambos said: We’re looking for a teenager.
Pantoja bent over the keys again.
A second later, he sprang up. This time, everything matched -- gang monikers, physical description, name, address.
“It’s him!” Pantoja said. He peered more closely at the screen. “A baby. We are going to arrest a baby.”
“How old is he?” Zambos asked.
The suspected shooter was the same boy that Det. Nickerson had promised to take to a ballgame -- the boy whose mother’s phone message Nickerson had not returned. He was arrested in the stairwell of an apartment building not far from the Southeast station.
About 8 p.m., he was seated in a swivel chair at the end of the squad room, his thin neck protruding from an enormous black hooded sweatshirt.
He had wide, bright brown eyes and a thin scar across the bridge of his nose.
Zambos glanced at him as he walked by. The boy was slumped far back in the swivel chair, expressionless.
“Sit up,” Zambos said.
The boy straightened.
“How come you told me you were in Carson when your mom told me you were out riding your bike?” Zambos asked. The boy’s eyes widened.
“No, sir!” he protested. “I forgot.” He began to argue. Zambos cut him short.
“Good luck with yourself,” Zambos said, and walked back to his desk.
The boy swiveled back and forth, playing with the strings of his sweatshirt hood as he was booked on suspicion of murder.
Detectives pieced together this account of the slaying: Carter picked up the boy just before the shooting. As they drove by Tam’s, Wesley was at the restaurant window, ordering breakfast. One of the car’s occupants pointed to Wesley and asked if he was from a rival gang.
“I think so,” someone answered. Carter then drove the boy to the alley. The youth ran to Wesley’s Suburban.
The teenage girl waiting in the Crown Victoria turned up the stereo, masking the sound of gunfire.
Police believe the boy shot Wesley in a gang initiation rite, mistaking the Pep Boys salesman for a rival gang member.
Wesley’s ex-girlfriend was not involved, Zambos said. He never learned why she had lied about having a cellphone.
Nor did police find the murder weapon.
Zambos was able to close the case and keep the murder book the way he liked it: neat, free of excess detail.
Murder charges were filed against Carter, accused of driving the car, and against the boy, accused of fatally shooting Wesley. Both are awaiting trial.
The homicide squad, meanwhile, carried out a heist on Arenas’ behalf. They stole a computer from patrol, hid it in a closet until the clamor died down, then installed it on his desk.
It was overcast, dark and cold when Zambos and Pantoja headed out of the office. The weather was shifting into a pattern of heavy rains. Zambos played Christmas carols on the radio and sang along. Pantoja drove fast.
Both were cracking silly jokes -- Pantoja chuckling as Zambos laughed himself weak. Zambos had been looking forward to this moment. He loved bringing news of arrests to victims’ families.
As they walked up to the Wesleys’ door, Zambos jiggled his keys.
They were back in the room with the snow-white rug.
The father, stepmother and sister sat in a circle around them. “We have two in custody, an adult and a juvenile,” Zambos said.
He explained the killing in clipped phrases: “Gang-related....Some feuding going on north of Century.”
Wesley’s stepmother, Dorothy, had been staring at the floor, hands over her mouth. Then she let her hands drop between her knees and looked up. “God,” she whispered.
Jerry Wesley Sr. was hunched on the couch.
Zambos told them about the suspected shooter. “He was only 13 years old,” he said.
“Babies!” Dorothy said, and clapped a palm to her forehead.
Zambos opened a book of mug shots, and the couple bent over it. “He did it?” the father asked. “He did the shooting?”
Dorothy turned to Pantoja. “His poor family,” she said, shaking her head. “His family suffering. Our family suffering. All the families suffering because of this!”
Zambos talked, trying to explain the coming trial. The stepmother nodded absently, turning her glasses over in her hands. “Did the first bullet kill him?” she asked. “Did he suffer?”
When Zambos and Pantoja got up to leave, the father stayed on the couch, bent over, rubbing his face.
Dorothy and Muriel, the victim’s sister, hugged and thanked the detectives.
“You can’t tell me the police don’t work for us,” Dorothy said.
Then she began to ramble.
“It’s just a cycle,” she said. “All we do is complain. But then we had that initiative thing, to get more cops, and even that wasn’t approved. It’s just a spinning door.”
She broke off, dropped her head in her hands and cried.
In the car, Zambos turned on the Christmas carols again. They drove in silence as rain clouds moved in.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Life and death in the Southeast Division
Southeast had the highest homicide rate of any LAPD division last year. It has the second-highest percentage of black residents and of those living in poverty.
Southeast Division demographics
Homicides per 100,000 population:
Southeast Division: 56.6
Rest of city: 12.4
Percent of population living under the federal poverty line: 38%
Sources: Census Bureau, Los Angeles Police Department. Data analysis by DOUG SMITH
LAPD Caseloads (2004)
Homicides per homicide detective
South Bureau (average 4.9)
Southeast 6.0Southwest 5.777th Street 5.3Harbor 1.8
Central Bureau (avg. 3.5)
Newton 5.2Hollenbeck 4.4Central 2.8Rampart 2.7Northeast 2.3
West L.A. Bureau (avg. 3.3)
Hollywood 4.3Wilshire 3.5West L.A 3.0Pacific 2.0
Valley Bureau (avg. 3.0)
Foothill 4.5Van Nuys 3.0North Hollywood 2.6Devonshire 2.4West Valley 2.2
Homicides resolved by arrests (citywide average 34%)
South Bureau (avg. 28%)
Southwest 36%Southeast 33Harbor 2277th Street 21
Central Bureau (avg. 36%)
Central 48Newton 42Northeast 36Rampart 29Hollenbeck 29
West L.A. Bureau (avg. 41%)
Hollywood 42%Wilshire 42Pacific 38West L.A 37
Valley Bureau (avg. 44%)
Devonshire 58%West Valley 48Van Nuys 45North Hollywood 42Foothill 34
Crime ratios (month ending 12/18/04) Per 100 patrol officers
Violent crimes by bureau
South 94Central 85Valley 62West L.A. 53
Valley 289West L.A. 245Central 189South 182