In Marina del Rey
There were worse places to process a crime scene than two miles offshore in Marina del Rey, California. But how, exactly, would one go about such a task, and what circumstances would call for such an investigation? Perhaps a case of suicide. Or murder.
Those were the questions I asked a seasoned crew of sea-going sheriff’s deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol. They were the navy of the LASD: men and women trained, experienced, and versed in the operation of sea vessels; equipped, certified, and anxious to sail across or dive into the murky waters of our coastline.
My Turn in the Barrel
I was working the desk at Homicide when the call came in. A deputy on the other end of the line reported there had been a suicide in the Marina.
Okay, nothing unusual so far. Rich people croak themselves too.
“How did he do it?” I asked, leaning back in my chair, bored. No homicide detective enjoys working the desk.
“Tied himself to the hull of his yacht and sank it.”
I sat up in my chair; he had my attention. “How, exactly, did he sink his boat?”
“He shot a bunch of holes in it with a rifle.”
I pulled the phone away from my ear and frowned at it.
This Call Just Didn’t Seem Right
Let us be honest: the Marina is not a hot station. The deputies there don’t see death every day or every week as do deputies assigned to nearby Lennox, or Carson, Compton, Century, or East L.A. When a deputy calls from one of those stations, it is likely he/she has handled dozens of murders and scores of deaths. Their calls seemed to be more routine and typically less concerning.
Certainly less bothersome than having a deputy report that a man had tied himself to the hull of a boat, and then sunk said boat by shooting holes through it. The deputy was reporting it as a suicide. I was picturing a sail-by shooting. Shit was getting real in the Marina.
“I better come have a look.”
A Trash Run
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Bureau investigates all unattended deaths, including homicide, suicide, accidental, industrial, and recreational deaths. All deaths other than homicide are unceremoniously called trash runs, and generally, require only a single investigator response.
One of the two partners in the barrel will handle the trash runs. His job is to drive, fly, or, in rare cases, sail to the scene, and have a look to make sure the death is not a cleverly disguised murder. After documenting his observations with notes and a few photographs, he’ll call in a coroner’s investigator and a meat wagon to haul away the remains.
As a homicide detective, you had to get it right. If there was any doubt—if there was a chance a case might actually be a homicide—you stopped and called in a team. However, there was a risk in calling in a team, too. If you did so unnecessarily—that is to say, if the case turned out to be a suicide and a team responded for nothing—the ridicule would be unrelenting.
Harbor Patrol in Action
I arrived at the Marina del Rey Station that evening and learned that the victim’s body had been recovered and brought ashore by the dive team shortly after the incident occurred. They had responded to a call of the sinking vessel, made their dive, recovered the victim and attempted to resuscitate him.
The victim was then transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Crime Scene Investigation
The sheriff’s department has jurisdiction for three nautical miles from shore before the Coast Guard assumes the responsibility of enforcement, in most cases. My boat ride was less than two miles out. Though it was a cold evening and the water was choppy, the ride was enjoyable.
I found myself secretly envying the job of these uniquely skilled sheriff’s deputies.
The boat quickly settled into the water when we powered down, and then it drifted while I watched carefully over the sides and back, looking for my crime scene. There was nothing to see other than the deep blue sea.
I looked at the deputies who were smiling at the sight of a man unaccustomed to the ways of the sea. “Where’s my crime scene?”
“Down there,” one of them said.
I looked again and shrugged. I had expected to see something. Maybe part of the boat above the water, or the whole boat not far beneath the surface. But there was nothing to see.
I said, “So, what now? Does someone bring the boat out, or does it stay down there, or what?”
They stopped grinning finally and explained that the boat would be recovered, but not on that day; there wasn’t enough daylight to begin such an endeavor. Just as I began wondering why I was there—other than that it was way cooler to be out on a sheriff’s boat than sitting at the desk—one of the deputies said, “Would you like to see a video of the rescue attempt?”
“The dive was recorded. We have underwater video cameras to record our dives. You can see the man tied to the boat, the bullet holes, everything. You’ll see us cut him loose and bring him up.”
Now we were talking!
With a review of the video, I was able to see how the man had tied himself to the hull of the boat. I could see the bullet holes at his feet, indicating a downward trajectory. It hadn’t been a sail-by shooting after all.
I also learned that the victim had made a call to his daughter to say his goodbyes shortly before the incident. It was a definite case of suicide.
Suicide is Strange
Ironically, it turns out the yacht did not belong to the man who killed himself; he had borrowed it from a friend. (This is why we can’t have nice things.)
I left the Marina that evening with a broadened—if not renewed—sense of pride in my department and its members. Law enforcement in Los Angeles County is a multifaceted endeavor. The vast and varied talents of the approximately 10,000 sworn sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles County cannot be overstated.
I apologize to the harbor patrol for exposing the fact you have one of the coolest jobs in law enforcement. At least I didn’t mention the summer days and bikini-clad sea-goers.
A Nice Tribute
Deputy Jerry Ortiz was shot and killed in the line of duty on June 24, 2005, in Hawaiian Gardens. He was a gang detective investigating a shooting at the time of his death. The featured photo in this blog is that of a boat named in Deputy Jerry Ortiz’s memory.
Here are some interesting details about the Marina Station and all of its duties and functions.
* * *