Mike Griffin was my first patrol training officer at Firestone Station. In the first three months, he and I would handle half a dozen murders and assist on many others.
The first happened in broad daylight on a populated sidewalk of Florence Avenue in South Los Angeles. The call came out as a 245 (assault with a deadly weapon) stabbing victim. Griff grabbed the mic and quickly acknowledged the call with an excitement I hadn’t previously seen from him. He flipped the lights and sirens on and shouted over the wind that rushed through our windows, “This will be your first murder.”
I would later ask about his prediction that it would be my first murder case. He said gunshot victims often survived, but when people were stabbed, they were often killed.
He was Right
We arrived to find Virginia Gonzalez lying on the sidewalk, her white medical clinic uniform stained red from head to toe. Her neck was sliced from one side to other, so severely it appeared as if her head was nearly detached from her body. Virginia’s estranged boyfriend had decided that if he couldn’t have her, nobody would.
The next day when I arrived at the station, Mike pointed out a man in the booking cage who appeared as the everyday illegal we would encounter in the area: he was dressed as a cowboy, had gold and silver teeth when he smiled—yes, he actually smiled the day after nearly decapitating his girlfriend—and western clothing. He had a slight beer belly and was of short stature. There was nothing impressive or threatening about him.
“That’s the killer,” Griffin told me. “That man right there is the one who stabbed and carved up that young lady on the sidewalk yesterday. Take a good long look at him. You wouldn’t ever think he was a killer, would you?” I shook my head. “That’s why this place is so dangerous.”
A Lesson that Stayed with Me
Griff walked away. I remained for a long moment, studying the unlikely face of a stone-cold killer.
The next week we handled the murder of a black man who had been shot in the head and left in the gutter. He had apparently been shot while seated in a car and then discarded like trash. We were unable to locate any witnesses, and there was virtually no workable information. Since I never received a subpoena to testify in court, I’d have to assume the man’s killing remains unsolved to this day.
Alfred Mixon, Jr. was his name. As was the case with Virginia Gonzalez, some of the names would always stay with me. Some of the names, all of the images.
There were others
A man killed in the front yard of his girlfriend’s house who had been “caught slipping” (a gangster’s way of explaining that someone was anywhere they shouldn’t have been). An elderly man who was beaten to death with a claw hammer by a younger female tenant of his home, likely a crackhead. A shaken and battered baby. Several occasions of gangsters killed in drive-by shootings, or the innocent bystanders who died in their places.
At one of the many scenes, Griff watched me closely as he asked, “How are you doing, man?”
“Fine, sir. Why?”
“You’ve seen a lot of death in a short period of time. Just wondered how you’re hanging.”
I assured him I was fine. But I guess it’s good to check, some may not have been.
Griff and I made a lot of gun arrests. Whatever it was about him (a term often used was “shit magnet”), had rubbed off on me. I would go on to continue Griff’s tradition of taking more guns off the street than the average deputy. And that’s measuring by Firestone’s standards; I can’t imagine how our gun arrest statistics might have stacked up against those from other jurisdictions.
Blue Diamond Almonds
“A gun a night,” Griff would say, “that’s all we ask,” paraphrasing the Blue Diamond Almonds commercial. Some nights we would make several gun arrests in a single shift.
The first time he allowed me to drive, we were traveling north on Compton Avenue when Griffin yelled, “Gun!” I stopped, and he told me to turn around, directing me to the street we had just passed. We came around the corner to see a man with a gun chasing another man down the street.
We jumped out of our car and, pointed our guns at the armed man, and yelled all of that magical police shit: “Stop. Freeze. Drop the gun!” The suspect chose the latter, and then he started to run. We captured him and recovered his gun, which turned out to have been stolen.
A Close Encounter
Another afternoon we had received a call of shots fired and rolled into the back lot of an auto repair shop where a drunk Hispanic man was shooting his gun in the air. We repeated the magical phrases to no avail. Griffin, fluent in Spanish, translated these commands into the man’s native tongue. He stared at us through bloodshot eyes while waving a pistol around like a drunken pirate.
We were within twenty feet of him. I was squeezing my trigger, slowly. Mike was yelling at the top of his lungs, the Spanish rolling off of his tongue as we literally found ourselves in a deadly Mexican standoff. I increased the pressure on my trigger while keeping the front sight of my Smith & Wesson Model 14, six-inch .38 caliber revolver trained on his chest. The ten-ring. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the drunken idiot reached over and placed his gun on a 55-gallon drum next to him. As we approached, he smiled and said, “Es problemo?”
Mike would later tell me I used great restraint in not shooting. He had also been close to pulling the trigger, something he had had to do before. None of us ever wanted to kill anyone if it could be avoided. In this case, we both had sensed that the man had meant us no harm; he was just a drunken idiot with a gun.
These situations stay with you.
There would be many more such encounters during the course of my career. More than some, not as many as others.
Fortunately, I survived to write about them.
* * *
A GOOD BUNCH OF MEN
DOOR TO A DARK ROOM