Thirty years ago today, I was beaten unconscious while performing my duties as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff.
Marina del Rey
I had volunteered to go on loan from Firestone Station to the Marina del Rey Station. The Marina is not known for high levels of criminal activity, and as such, their trainees are generally not well-rounded nor experienced when their six-month training program is completed. Because of this, there was a program in which trainees assigned to the Marina would be sent to Firestone for a few months of training if there were deputies at Firestone who were willing to do body swaps.
In December 1988, I reported to the Marina for what was meant to be a five-month body swap with one of their trainees. At the time, I was under internal investigation for complaints that had been filed against me and had not yet been resolved. A few months away from the fast-paced, high-crime district of Firestone Station in South Los Angeles would be a good break.
I had been there one month when four men jumped me and beat me unconscious.
The First Day
At the end of my first shift at the Marina, I sat in the briefing room writing a report for the gun arrest I had made. Deputies and supervisors alike stopped to hear the story as if I had captured Sasquatch on the beach. But I hadn’t; I had only made a good observation arrest of a felon with a gun. It was police work, not magic.
As I finished up with my reports that afternoon, a sergeant informed me that the station’s captain wanted to see me in his office. I assumed he was going to welcome me to the station or maybe even thank me for volunteering to come to the Marina. Maybe he was going to tell me he heard about my good arrest that day and thank me for a job well done.
But that wasn’t how it went.
His name was Sanchez and he spoke with a heavy Spanish accent. I walked in at his direction and approached his desk, prepared to shake his hand. He didn’t stand or offer his hand. Instead, he glared, pointed to a chair across the tidy work area and told me to sit.
The tone had been set but I had no idea why he was upset with me.
Off to a Bad Start
“You are in a fishbowl, and I will be watching you,” he said.
That wasn’t the first thing he said, but those were his exact words that I will never forget. He said he was aware that I was under investigation and that there was a lawsuit pending against me as well. This wasn’t something that was rare among cops from fast stations. Complaints were common, and investigations followed. Suing the cops was all the rage.
But I was stunned at the captain’s verbal assault.
He went on to tell me that his station was no ghetto, and blah, blah, blah. I stopped him. “Sir, you are aware that I volunteered to come here, right?” It seemed he was under the impression that I had been sent there as a matter of disciplinary action. He said that he did indeed understand that I had volunteered to come to the station, though he was less than appreciative.
Pissed, I stood from my seat. “Well, if you don’t want me here, send me back. I’m here doing you a favor.” I walked out and slammed his door behind me.
We are no longer in Kansas, Toto
Clicking my heels didn’t work so I found a private phone in the station and called the training/scheduling sergeant at Firestone Station and asked to be brought back. I was told that I would remain there for five months and there were no options for returning early. Great.
So, I requested the graveyard shift at the Marina. Given the captain’s clear agenda, I silently committed to avoiding real police work for the duration of my assignment there. I would not make traffic stops, not even if I suspected the occupant(s) to be involved in criminal activity. From that point forward, I would drive with blinders on and only handle the calls that were assigned to me.
On the first early morning shift, a sergeant pulled me aside and told me he was glad I was there and on his shift. He said it would be good for the young, inexperienced deputies with whom I would be working. One female deputy, in particular, had potential, but very little exposure. The sergeant wanted me to take her under my wing.
I told the sergeant about my meeting with his captain and my resulting disposition. He was very disappointed. I told him that I would certainly help when and where it was appropriate, but I was not sticking my neck out one inch; the captain had made it clear that he was out to crucify me, and I would not willingly place myself in harm’s way.
So Far, So Good
A couple of weeks went by and I was bored to death. I hated not being a cop. My self-imposed work stoppage went against my every grain. The female deputy was, in fact, a good deputy though inexperienced. I would back her up on calls and traffic stops when possible and, when appropriate, share my thoughts or suggestions with her.
One night she had a call of a suspicious person near a restaurant that overlooked the Marina. We arrived in tandem and were able to spot the man and his vehicle as it had been described. As she spoke with him, I could see he was nervous, and I knew he was lying in his responses to some of her questions.
The deputy seemed unsure of what to do next, so I abandoned my self-imposed work stoppage protest and took over. My instinct told me that this situation was not a good one. I ordered the man to place his hands on the railing near where we stood, and I searched him. I recovered a small handgun that had been concealed in his waistband. It was fully loaded. The grips had been wrapped with tape.
The female deputy was excited. I told her it was her arrest and that I wasn’t going to be involved. This was her first gun arrest, and she was excited yet nervous too. I told her to be sure to have the gun held for prints and to request a firearms trace through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Months later, as I was recovering from a severe concussion and damaged equilibrium, I received a call from an FBI agent who needed more information about that arrest than what had been written in the deputy’s report. He explained that the man we (she) had arrested was a hitman for one of the Italian mafia families on the east coast. He had been sent to the Marina to conduct a hit.
Thirty Years Ago Today
On New Year’s Day, 1989, I was driving through the Marina with my blinders in place. As I went by the Red Onion, a popular restaurant with a notorious nightclub below it, I passed a patrol car traveling in the opposite direction. It was my “sister” patrol car, the one other unit assigned to the Marina that night. Two one-man cars to patrol a city that had come to life with the excitement of a new year. It was the end of a weekend, a Sunday night. The following Monday was insignificant to most as it would be the recognized holiday.
Having seen me, the sister car deputy contacted me by radio after we passed and asked if I would accompany him in the Red Onion. The station policy forbade deputies from doing bar checks by themselves, especially there. It was the one place in the Marina where a deputy sheriff could go to borrow trouble.
Reluctantly, I agreed. I didn’t like the idea of it, but I couldn’t say no either. The act itself went against my self-initiated work slowdown, my commitment to patrolling with the blinders on. But not backing up another cop was out of the question.
The Red Onion Bar
We descended the spiral stairs together into the nightclub that sat below the restaurant. It was packed beyond capacity. People yelled to be heard over the blaring music with its thumping beat that had scores of young people dancing on the floor and at their tables or on their barstools. The air was thick and humid with a medley of perfumes and sweat. In the dim light, we snaked through the crowd, each of us taking notice of the scantily clad, beautiful women as they moved to the rhythm. The other deputy and I exchanged smiles once or twice to confirm we both appreciated the scenery.
People seemed to be unfazed by incidental contact with others around them, bumping into one another and pushing through crowds to move about. A young lady bumped into me, and we paused briefly, face to face, exchanging smiles. But all of the pleasantries of the moment suddenly changed as my attention was drawn to a commotion beyond the crowded dance floor.
The Marina Brawl
A small area at the edge of the dance floor had cleared when two men began to fight. One man was being punched in the face as he tried to cover up and protect himself like a boxer against the ropes. It was immediately clear which one of the two was the aggressor, and I instinctively went to him. I flashed my light into his face as I approached, yelling for him to stop. He glanced in my direction but continued hitting the other man.
Sanchez was in my head: “You’re in a fishbowl, and I’m watching you.”
The department—at that time—trained us to use the flashlight as a weapon when necessary. In the brief moments that passed as I went to intervene, I foolishly made the decision to only use my bare hands. I didn’t know it at the time, but later I would find out that the man on the losing end of the fight was a bouncer at the club; the one inflicting all the damage was a trained kickboxer.
I had shoved my flashlight into my rear pocket just before reaching the man, and I grabbed him by his shoulder. My intent was to break up the fight without starting a riot or having to use force. You’re in a fishbowl.
The kickboxer turned and drilled me squarely in the jaw with a right cross.
I had been in more than a few scraps by that time in my young life. I had been beaten, kicked, and bitten, and I had won a few and lost a few. But I had never before had a punch landed on my face that felt as if someone had hit me with a sledgehammer. My bell had been rung.
I staggered, and before I could recover, he was swinging and hitting me repeatedly. I knew I was in trouble, but I had one thought in mind: my partner would be jumping in at any moment and then we would win the fight. The trouble was, I never saw that so-called partner again until later that night when he walked into the emergency room without so much as a scratch on his pretty face.
But I wasn’t going to let go, either. I had my arms wrapped around the fighter with my head tucked into his body, trying to avoid further damage until help arrived. Soon, others were moving me around, pushing and pulling at me, and I became part of a group that was being moved across the dance floor. It felt as if I had been caught in a riptide, unable to come up for air. I held tight. This asshole who nearly knocked me out with his first punch wasn’t going anywhere but to jail. In that, I was determined.
The Will to Survive
While struggling to hang on to my opponent so he couldn’t flee, I was suddenly struck by a hard, heavy object on the back of my head. The blow dropped me to my knees, and I knew it had done significant damage. In my mind, I was being struck by a beer bottle. I would later find out that a buddy of the kickboxer had taken my large, metal flashlight from my back pocket, and it was that with which I was being beaten.
A second blow hit me with even greater force. And then a third. My head rang like a gong. I was in trouble, losing consciousness, and I knew I had to act. No help had come. I was on my own, badly hurt, and I was being pushed and pulled while being punched and kicked and now beaten on the head.
The blows to the back of my head continued. I was taking a pounding. In order to survive, I would have to kill the man behind me.
To be continued . . .
I pushed away from the man I had been latched onto. As I turned to my left, I drew my gun from its holster, intent on killing the sonofabitch behind me.