In West Hollywood, gulf between young black man and wealthy white political donor fuels concern about death investigation
West Hollywood officials discuss the investigation into the death of Gemmel Moore, who overdosed in July in the West Hollywood home of prominent Democratic donor Ed Buck.
After Gemmel Moore was found dead of a drug overdose in the West Hollywood home of prominent Democratic fundraiser Ed Buck, the contrasts between the two men immediately jumped out to Moore’s family.
Moore was 26, black and poor. He had been homeless and had worked as an escort. Buck was 62, white and wealthy, a well-known figure in LGBTQ political circles.
Now, Moore’s family and friends — who have questioned whether the drugs that killed him were self-administered — are wondering whether those differences in race, class and connections factor into how the investigation into his death is being handled.
They are pressing officials to allow potential witnesses to speak with immunity from prosecution from other potential crimes, like drug use or prostitution. They say some people fear self-incrimination by talking to authorities about Buck, especially if they are black. Over the last week, the issue of immunity has been hotly debated in West Hollywood.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s homicide bureau last week opened a new investigation into Moore’s July 27 death. Initial investigations by deputies and coroner’s officials flagged nothing suspicious, and Buck has not been charged with a crime.
Sheriff’s detectives want to speak with people who spent time with Buck, according to two law enforcement officials with knowledge of the case.
Capt. Chris Bergner of the sheriff’s homicide bureau said deputies do not grant immunity; prosecutors do. In the Moore case, he said, investigators are trying to determine whether Buck or anyone else is criminally liable for the death.
“It is about getting to the truth,” he said, adding that the best way for anyone to help the probe is to discuss anything related to it with authorities. Bergner declined to discuss details of the investigation.
Greg Risling, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, said prosecutors were assisting the Sheriff’s Department. He declined to elaborate.
Buck’s attorney, Seymour Amster, has denied his client did anything wrong. He said Moore was a “good friend” of Buck and that his death was accidental and self-imposed.
“Is there any actual evidence he administered drugs to someone? No, there is no evidence,” Amster said. “If there is any evidence, let’s see it. We are not afraid.”
The issue of immunity was further fanned Monday during a West Hollywood council meeting when Mayor Pro Tem John Duran, noting his job as a criminal defense attorney, weighed in, warning that neither investigators nor city officials can grant immunity.
“Transparency doesn’t always work with the criminal justice system,” Duran said. “Transparency can subject you to criminal arrest and prosecution. So, before you do anything, you should seek legal counsel to advise you on how to proceed forward before you speak to law enforcement.”
Duran told The Times that he had been an attorney for Buck for the last decade but did not mention that during the council meeting. He said in an interview that he is not representing Buck in regard to Moore’s death.
Duran’s comments angered Moore’s mother, LaTisha Nixon, who walked out of the council chambers as the councilman spoke. She said she felt like she was being talked down to and that she thought Duran’s comments were inappropriate since he had represented Buck.
Buck is a longtime political donor, one-time West Hollywood City Council candidate and an activist who led the push for the city’s 2011 ban on fur apparel.
Moore’s family and friends have questioned whether Buck’s ties to elected officials have influenced the investigation.
At the City Council meeting Monday, Nixon pleaded with council members to help advocate for witness immunity.
“I want you guys to please put pressure on whoever needs pressure so that these people can get immunity and I can get justice for my son,” Nixon said.
“It’s not fair that [Buck is] such a big political donor, and I’m sure he’s donated to maybe some of you, but … if you guys can look past that and just help us to get justice, that’s all I’m asking for,” she said.
I want you guys to please put pressure on whoever needs pressure so that these people can get immunity and I can get justice for my son.
— LaTisha Nixon, speaking to West Hollywood City Council
Councilwoman Lindsey Horvath said from the council dais that she had personally contacted the district attorney’s office, urging it to make it possible for anyone with information to come forward.
In an interview after his comments, Duran acknowledged that he was in a “weird spot” because he had represented Buck. He said he spoke out only after hearing Horvath encouraging people to come forward and said he felt a responsibility to let people know they should not incriminate themselves.
“If any witness is coming forward, you need to have a lawyer,” he said. “I didn’t say, don’t come forward.”
But former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley questioned Duran’s decision to comment.
“Offering wholesale legal advice to individuals strikes me as inappropriate unsolicited in a City Council meeting when there is an ongoing investigation by the sheriffs into someone’s death,” Cooley said. “He would be well-advised to button up, especially when a client of his is involved.”
Cooley said that although homicide detectives can’t personally offer immunity, they regularly tell potential witnesses that they’re interested in a death, not other crimes like prostitution. An attorney advising the witness will then present an offer to the district attorney’s office offering certain testimony, and a high-ranking member of the office would review the need for evidence and decide whether to agree to immunity, Cooley said.
Robert Sheahen, a veteran criminal defense attorney, said “informal immunity is granted by detectives almost every day.”
“We rely on a good deal of faith and the word of law enforcement,” he said.
Buck, a tech entrepreneur millionaire, has been on the national political scene for three decades. In 1980s, as a Republican, he ran a campaign to impeach Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham. For the last decade, as a prominent Democratic booster, he has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic causes and candidates, including in West Hollywood.
Nana Gyamfi, a Los Angeles attorney, said she represents at least three black men who complained about Buck and that she is seeking immunity for them from the district attorney before providing statements and evidence to sheriff’s homicide detectives.
The Times has reviewed pages of a journal that authorities said was found among Moore’s possessions and picked up by a family friend from the coroner’s office.
In it, Moore purportedly wrote last year about his use of crystal methamphetamine and made accusations against Buck. Authorities said they are investigating claims made in the journal.
“I’ve become addicted to drugs and the worst one at that,” Moore purportedly wrote. “Ed Buck is the one to thank, he gave me my first injection of chrystal meth.”
The entry continues: “I just hope the end result isn’t death. … If it didn’t hurt so bad I’d kill myself but I’ll let Ed Buck do it for now.”
The Times interviewed a man who said he reported complaints about Buck — similar to those made in the journal — to the sheriff’s West Hollywood station on July 4. The man, who asked to remain anonymous, described himself as an escort. The Sheriff’s Department was looking into whether he filed a report.
Amster, Buck’s attorney, said his client was at home with Moore at the time of his death but “Ed did not witness him ingest any drugs.” The attorney said Moore was at the apartment because “Ed is involved in helping the homeless to get a safe haven to take care of their sanitary needs.”
Amster said his client is distraught over Moore’s death and is now facing accusations on the Internet from unnamed escorts.
“How many weeks of spurious stories are there going to be?” Amster said. “It is starting to sound like character assassination.”
He said he’s never experienced people asking for immunity so early in a case.
Amster said the investigation does not give people the right to pry into Buck’s lifestyle with consenting adults and that West Hollywood especially, which has a large LGBTQ population, should respect that stance.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.