During the early morning hours of October 30, 1997, Deputy Michael Hoenig was killed by gunfire as he attempted to stop a suspicious man on a bicycle in the City of Lynwood.
Last week, I received a message from a colleague who had been reading the reflections posted on the Officer Down Memorial Page of Deputy Hoenig, remembering him on the anniversary of his death. The colleague asked if I had known Deputy Hoenig, or if I knew the details surrounding his death, suggesting it might make an interesting blog if I did.
I did know Deputy Michael Hoenig, and I was involved in the investigation of his death.
My Interaction with Deputy Hoenig
It was 1996 and I was working the detective night car out of Century Station. My partner and I had gone out in the field in an unmarked detective car, a chocolate brown Chevy Caprice that fooled nobody over the age of three as to our identity. We were dressed in green Sheriff raid jackets that were tucked into jeans, topped by our Sam Browne belts which carried traditional patrol equipment.
We were in the City of Lynwood, not far from where Deputy Hoenig would be killed just over a year later. It was broad daylight when we spotted a young Hispanic gangster, gun in hand, moving quickly along the sidewalk.
Chasing Bad Guys
The chase was on, which meant our usual, questionable tactics were immediately employed: My partner bailed out of the car and began chasing the kid with the gun, and I drove ahead to cut him off. The gangster was on the sidewalk to my left, so I accelerated past him and nosed across the sidewalk. Before I had come to a stop, my door was open, and my pistol was leading me out of the car.
Mr. Vato Loco darted across the road behind me, my partner still in pursuit but some distance behind. I ducked into the car and began backing into the street in order to continue my pursuit. But in all the excitement, I hadn’t bothered to bring my other leg into the car and close the door; I had anticipated getting out again in the very near future. The door caught the bumper of a parked car and bent backward against the hinges.
Meanwhile, my partner had taken an angle at our gangster that sealed the gangster’s fate, and the bad guy saw it coming. He turned to see me coming toward him from the other direction, the crunched car now parked and waiting behind me.
We had our pistols leveled at him, and I remember yelling some of that magical police shit, commanding him to drop the gun or die of lead poisoning. He did as he was ordered and was taken into custody without incident.
Our first instinct in such situations was always, “We can fix it” (as opposed to reporting it). But as we stood staring at the crinkled door, our hope of pulling that off, diminished rather quickly. So we called for a supervisor and a traffic car, someone who, unlike us two Neanderthals, knew how to write a vehicle collision report.
Deputy Michael Hoenig
He was assigned to a Lynwood City traffic car, and he responded to our request.
I hadn’t spoken to Deputy Hoenig much beyond a few passing greetings in the hallways of Century Station. It was a big place, and patrol and detectives didn’t interact as much as they might otherwise have because of the station design.
On the occasions I had encountered Deputy Hoenig, he always had a smile on his face and warm eyes that telegraphed a friendly disposition. Standing next to our “slick” car, he looked at the crunched door and then glanced at the gangster sweating in the back seat of our car.
“At least you got him,” he said, smiling.
A Traffic Collision Report
Deputy Hoenig listened as I told him the circumstances of how I managed to back up with the car door wide open while pursuing the pint-sized killer who now sat in our back seat. Hoenig nodded. “Not a problem, sir. Shit happens. I’ll write it up the best I can.”
And he did. He wrote as favorable a report as could be written, given the circumstances. We thanked him for his work, shook hands, and went our separate ways.
One Year Later
The next time I saw Deputy Hoenig, his eyes were no longer warm, and his smile was long gone. Both had been taken from him in a vicious, deadly attack, something we (cops) are always aware can happen yet are always surprised when it does.
Shortly after the mishap with the car door, I had transferred to Detective Divison, Special Investigations. After a year there, I was promoted to Homicide Bureau. I hadn’t been there much more than a month when our bureau was summoned to Lynwood to handle the worst case a homicide detective can handle: the murder of one of our own.
The homicide team that was up for murders that night was not the team to which I was assigned. But as often is the case—and it was on this occasion—many homicide detectives respond to these types of callouts without being assigned or asked to do so. I don’t remember now how I learned of the case, but I responded to the scene to see what, if anything, I could do to help with the investigation.
I hadn’t expected to know the deputy who had been killed.
Other Fallen Colleagues
In my very early days with the department, I had been assigned to Men’s Central Jail, and George Arthur had been my sergeant. On a warm night in June 1985, George was murdered when he left the facility after his evening shift. I had visited with him shortly before he left, and I was sitting outside waiting for a friend when Lieutenant Brad Welker ran past me, headed toward the parking lot, fear and intensity on his face.
“George Arthur has been in an accident,” he puffed out as he ran past, in response to my asking what was wrong. I learned the next day that George had actually been murdered in his vehicle, just a short distance from the jail.
In 1986, I transferred to Patrol Division, Firestone Station, where we averaged a murder a week and sometimes many more. I was still there in 1992 when Deputy Nelson Yamamoto was killed. I was a detective at Century Station when Deputy Steve Blair was killed in 1995, and I had assisted Homicide at the scene of his death and during the following days and weeks as we pursued his killer.
I had learned to compartmentalize the emotional component of death from the business at hand, at least until the appropriate time to mourn had come.
The Night Deputy Hoenig was Killed
There wasn’t much a newbie at Homicide would be tasked with on his own when a cop was killed. I was given a detail to handle, something minor I can’t even recall. I completed it and returned to my duties at the bureau, my heavy heart concealed from my new colleagues.
It wasn’t the image of Deputy Hoenig’s warm, friendly eyes that stayed with me; rather, it was a terrible new picture of those eyes, now clouded and dull, fixed on something far beyond the filthy goddam street he died on. Like the way a fiery iron singes its brand into the leathery hide of a months-old calf, that image never left me. Many others have remained as well.
The next day, my lieutenant suggested it would be good for me to accompany him and others to the autopsy of Deputy Michael Hoenig.
No Stranger to Death
When I arrived at Homicide in September 1997, I had fourteen years on the department. By then, I had, in one fashion or another, been involved to some extent in at least a hundred death cases. I had been to half a dozen cop funerals. During my first week at Homicide, I was sent to the coroner’s office for a week of training. I viewed several dozen autopsies and went on as many calls with a coroner’s investigator. Then, I was partnered with a training officer, Mike Scott, who had opened the unsolved (at that time) murder of Sergeant George Arthur. He provided me with several boxes of files and photographs and told me to study it all during my spare moments. It was the first time I had viewed the autopsy of someone I knew. Though it was only through photos, it was a very distasteful experience.
Now I was going to witness, tableside—live and in color—the postmortem examination of a person I knew. A person with whom I had interacted, a person whose company I had enjoyed in the relatively short time I had known him. A fellow Deputy Sheriff.
This would elevate this death business to a new level. It was uncharted waters into a treacherous sea, one of which, dare I say, many would not sail.
Welcome to the Big Leagues
There will be many friends, colleagues, loved ones, and maybe even family members of Michael Hoenig who will read this blog. For that reason, I will not describe his autopsy in any detail. But what struck me most, and what I do want to share, is the reverence that was shown during an otherwise horrible event.
As mentioned, I had viewed scores of autopsies by then, and I’ve viewed hundreds since. Most autopsies are performed in gruesome fashion with no reverence for the dead. Sometimes a dozen autopsies would be going at once in the two autopsy rooms, separated by two pairs of solid double doors and a hallway. The tools generally used in the process are harsh, but efficient. At times, the rooms would be full of idle chatter, sometimes laughter, all standard coping mechanisms in the business of death.
But during this very special examination, the room was hushed. There was no chatter, no levity; it was all serious business. The procedure had been purposely scheduled late in the day so that no other autopsies would be taking place.
Many observers were in attendance: department executives, representatives from the district attorney’s office, the chief medical examiner, and an assortment of homicide detectives. Each of us was dressed in blue paper gowns, paper shoes, rubber gloves, respirators, and eye protection. Most of us wore blue hairnets on our heads.
The process of the examination was delicate, with great reverence for the deceased, and consideration of the audience. The tools used were surgical scalpels, not the usual harsh tools that resembled those used for gardening and carpentry. Even the standard and frequent spraying and washing to keep the work area clean was subdued. Usually, observers instinctively retreated when the coroner’s tech reached for the hose.
It was as nice as it could be. The work of a surgeon, not a butcher. A finish carpenter, not a framer.
But in the end, all of the tranquility came to an abrupt stop when Deputy Hoenig’s uniform was brought in for gunshot wound analysis. His badge and name tag remained intact and in their proper places, although stained by the volumes of his lifeblood that soaked his shirt.
The sight of Deputy Hoenig’s uniform jolted me, and its memory has stayed with me. Because it was those things, the uniform and badge, that represented the entire story of his death.
Michael Hoenig, a young man of only 32 years, died violently, ambushed as he was exiting his car, struck multiple times by a hail of bullets in the dark of night. Because—and only because—he chose to wear the badge, the same badge I wore that day as I stood tableside to his final exam. The same badge many of us have worn and will continue to wear.
The Risk we all Accept
Deputy Hoenig had assumed the same risks all of us had, and he paid the ultimate price while serving a community other than his own.
It was something he had done for many years, and almost always, he had done so with that smile on his face.
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Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you will share it with your family and friends.