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By Michael Krikorian
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2013 Michael Krikorian
All rights reserved.
The Monday the reporter got shot was one of those glorious winter days in L.A. that made it easy to understand why countless, clueless masses in the rest of the planet believed the City of Angels deserved its nickname.
Looking north from the third-floor editorial offices of the Los Angeles Times, the view was urbane and civilized. All it took was three floors up to blot out the grime, the homeless, the graffiti, the dealers, and the horns of irate motorists. Directly across First Street was a magenta-and-gold bougainvillea-filled open space that two years earlier was a thriving heroin mart where dope fiends laid on slabs of weedy, broken concrete and numbly stared across the street at the shimmering twenty-eight-story City Hall. A Column One piece by Nora Zamichow had forced the mayor and city council members to look out their windows and clean up the embarrassment in their front yard.
Beyond downtown, just twenty-five minutes away by McLaren P-1, were snowcapped mountains beckoning skiers to call in sick and play Franz Klammer at Mt. Waterman.
In the Times's newsroom, a football field of pods with a core of glassy offices where editors conspired, even veterans were impressed.
"Well, the mountains came out today," bellowed Eric Malnic, a sixty-three-year-old alcoholic who had been a reporter for forty-three years and hadn't had one sneaky gulp of his beloved 100-proof Smirnoff Blue since the Iranian hostage crisis. He didn't notice — or give a damn — that, as usual, no one paid a smidgen of attention to him.
The newsroom, as a whole, paid little attention to anything. Like the Sunday paper delivered to nearly one million people, everyone was wrapped in their own world.
It was a rare occurrence when that world opened and the entire staff was on the same page: September 11, 2001; March 21, 2003 when missiles descended upon Baghdad; April of 2004 when the paper won five Pulitzer prizes; President Obama's 2008 election and 2012 reelection; the 2013 Patriot's Day bombings at the Boston Marathon; and the day reporter Michael Lyons was shot.
At 5:55, fifty-five minutes after the first, seldom-met deadline had passed that Monday, Lyons had been walking on 2nd Street, heading back from the Redwood Saloon. He had taken two hits — upper right chest and right side — but, as the paper's LAPD reporters quickly learned from sources, Lyons was not dead and would not die from the wounds.
Still, in the newsroom there were tears, dismay, and heartache. There was real emotional unity. But even the shock and the poignant outpouring didn't last long. It was replaced by wagering faster than you could say Seabiscuit. The wager? Who finally shot Mike. The reporters put together a betting pool.
The list of potential assassins was deep. He had amassed some serious enemies over his twelve years on the staff.
There were street gangs he had outraged by writing about them, bringing extra scrutiny and harassment from police. Gangs such as the Grape Street Crips from the Jordan Downs Housing Project and the Bounty Hunter Bloods from the Nickerson Gardens Housing Project, both in Watts. The Rollin Sixties Crips in Hyde Park, the Eight Trey Gangster Crips headquartered in St. Andrews Park, Geraghty Loma and Arizona Maravilla in East Los Angeles, and Armenian Power in Hollywood and Glendale.
There were the husbands Lyons had infuriated over the years by entertaining their wives.
The gambling began.
"Okay, okay, okay," said Morty Goldstein, the paper's old-school day cops reporter, a bespectacled, portly ex-Berkeley radical who had developed a taste for USDA prime beef and old Bordeaux. He never hit the streets, never left his desk, but had more cop contacts, more cop cell and home phone numbers than the new chief of police himself.
"Let's see," Goldstein said. "We got all the gangs, the husbands, including that chef. Also that guy that confessed to Michael."
"Krebs," said another reporter within the gathering crowd.
Rex Krebs, who killed two college students, had confessed to Lyons in a jailhouse interview and landed on San Quentin's death row solely because of the interview. At sentencing, in open court, he screamed his biker pals would kill Lyons.
"The Armenian Mafia," said ace general-assignment reporter Carly Engstrom, a foxy, temperamental thirty-five-year-old half-Korean, half-Swede who had been Lyons's pod mate for years. For over a year, Lyons had been trying to expose the Armenian Mafia in all their prey-on-their-own wickedness.
"Right, the Armenian mob," said Goldstein, grabbing a pad off his desk, easily the most cluttered in the newsroom. He started a list as he leaned back in his chair.
Nona Yates, the newsroom's premier researcher, maneuvered to the core of the group of gathered reporters. She grimaced and shook her thick, long auburn mane. "Holy Sonny Barger. Mike's near death and you people are betting on who shot him? I can't believe this shit. Michael was the — Michael is the coolest motherfucker in this whole newsroom."
"Sorry to destroy the image, Nona, but Mike was overrated," said assistant metro editor Ted Doot, who had moseyed to the rim. "You know how many times I had reports from nightside copy editors that they smelled booze on him. He should have been suspended long ago."
Nona Yates took a moment to size up Doot. He was a reasonably proportioned man of thirty-eight except for his incredibly tiny, shiny, bald head and his equally freakish large buttocks, which she guessed weren't bald. She tried to shake off that image.
"If not for his cousin," the pompous, Oxford-educated Doot continued, "he would never have been hired here. Glorifying gang members is what he did best. Killers. If there is any betting to do, I'll wager he was smashed when they finally shot him."
Doot's stinging appraisal of a wounded reporter was further proof to the reporters that he was not human, but rather a heartless cyborg for the paper's equally heartless editor of California coverage, Harriet Tinder, a hard-working troll with no neck and the personality of dandruff, which she had in vast reserves, like the Kirkurk oil fields. Many people dismissed Doot simply as "Harriet's bitch." But, his timing was off today. The staff, which normally put up with his put-downs, was not in the mood this time.
Carly Engstrom was first to speak. "Ted, the guy just got shot. Can you at least wait till he wakes up to write him up? And I believe the editor of this paper hired Mike, not Greg," referring to Lyons's cousin, Greg Mahtesian, also a Times reporter.
Doot stared at Engstrom, but said nothing, silently calculating his revenge for that young hotshot calling him out in front of everyone. He'd just report her slutty little mouth to Harriet Tinder.
Nona Yates ignored Doot. She'd been sober for twelve years and it was times like this she got nostalgic for her old self: a twenty-eight-year-old Jack Daniel's-slugging, meth-snorting biker chick with keys to Angel clubhouses in Oakland and Ventura. Now, at forty, she had learned to ignore the ignorance. So she just muttered "mother-cunter" and let it alone.
To the relief of several, Doot waddled away.
Nona started to walk away. "Betting on Mike. Shame on you."
"Nona," Goldstein called out, "Greg's at the hospital. Michael's going to be okay. No vital organs were hit. He got lucky. We got lucky. In a weird way, this might be a good thing for Mike. He'll come back stronger than ever and be even more a legend on his streets. In a sick way, I'm almost envious."
"That isn't sick, Morty. That's just stupid." Nona shook her head.
"Nona," Goldstein said. "When Mike hears about this, everyone betting on who shot him, us making a pool. Come on. It'll be newspaper folklore. Lyons is going to love this story."CHAPTER 2
Officers from LAPD's Central Division had responded to the shooting. Central handled calls for service in the downtown area — north past Chinatown and the Dogtown projects to the warehouses near the Pasadena Freeway; south past the Staples Center, home of the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings to the Santa Monica Freeway; east past skid row and the artist's lofts to the railroad tracks and the Los Angeles River; and west from the Figueroa Street high-rises to the Harbor Freeway.
Central Division's main responsibility was keeping a lid on the bubbling cauldron that was skid row, a twenty-block toilet of humans flushing down the drain, most of them going with the flow, only a handful struggling against the mighty, dirty tide. There was no master plan to clean up the area, just contain it, the way you let roaches roam a corner of an East St. Louis tenement hallway after giving up trying to kill them all. Let the bums run amok east of Spring Street, but keep them away from the Biltmore, the grande dame where old money still threw eighty-thousand-dollar weddings, away from the Water Grill and its sesame-crusted ahi tuna tartare and market price Santa Barbara spot prawns, away from Frank Gehry's wavy Disney Concert Hall that drew in the Hancock Park crowd.
But in the last several years, there has been a gradual subduing of the grim and colorful sidewalk culture that defined skid row. Though East Fifth Street and its tentacles still teemed with homeless, most of the cardboard condos were swept away. Long vacant office buildings were turned into lofts occupied by young, employed Caucasians who preferred mixologists to bartenders and Central Coast craft brews to Heinekens. The Varnish, a bar modeled after a speakeasy, set the new standard for cocktails that took a few minutes to concoct, and many others followed. An Ace Hotel was going up on Broadway. Restaurants with high critical ratings, like Baco Mer-cat, Spice Table, and Church and State, were booked solid nightly.
Still, glamour crime was exceptional in Central. Those who died there rarely had funerals. They were just dropped in the East L.A. dirt by four illegals with a backhoe. And though the Times was in Central's jurisdiction, the paper hardly ever wrote about their own backyard. In 2006, there was an excellent series by columnist Steve Lopez about a skid row cellist that was made into a movie, but usually coverage amounted to the annual "Downtown is Booming" story, the goings on at city hall and the occasional celebrity trial at the Criminal Courts Building. That was about it.
Michael Lyons was not source rich in Central. So when officers arrived at the scene of the shooting on 2nd and Broadway, in front of the very building where the LAPD compiles and analyzes its crime statistics, they didn't know the victim. Though he had his license in his wallet along with $227 in cash, including a C-note stashed in a semihidden compartment, and a Times picture ID, they didn't put it together.
It wasn't until homicide detectives were called in that the significance of the shooting became clear. Most of the city's homicide dicks, many of whom rolled on all shootings even if they weren't life-threatening, knew of Lyons.
He had done gang stories like no one before and most of the homicides in the city were gang related. Those stories had won him admiration to the point where the police would tell others in their division, "Lyons got a gang thing today," and they would actually read it. And often they would respond by cracking down on the gang. Bigger the story, harder the crack. It was always curious how Lyons could get gang members to go on the record, knowing it would be brutal for them in the days following publication. To the police, it just reinforced the stupidity of gang members.
Those stories never glamorized gang life, but they probed deeper into the "why" of it all, the ultimate futility, the almost certain sad conclusions. But, more than anything else, they brought a human element to even the most notorious killer. Lyons's stories brought to life people whose entire biography in most other reporter's articles were simply summed up in two words, "gang member."
So, when detectives showed up, they knew this was big local news. And they knew the case would be taken away from them. Detective Megan Tropea of Central Division called the head of LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division, which handles high-profile cases.
"Jimmy T, Tropea here. Got a good one for you."
On the phone, at his Mission Viejo home, forty miles away, Captain James Tatreau waited, heard nothing. "All right, Megan. I'm waiting. Or do I have to guess. Is this Jeopardy!? Who got it?"
"Well, Jim, actually on Jeopardy! you are given the answer first and then you answer by asking the appropriate question."
"Megan, who the fuck got shot?"
"No shit? Dead?"
"Not yet. Hit pretty bad from what I hear. He's at County USC. Got it near the Redwood."
"Damn. He gonna make it?"
"Two in the torso."
"Fuck. TV's gonna be all over this. They like that crazy nut. Actually, so do I. We're taking it."
"That's why I called."
"Stay there till I get some guys over."
Jimmy Tatreau hung up. Went to his closet. He had his own, separate from his wife's and just as packed. As head of the elite Robbery-Homicide unit, Tatreau often took high-paying security consultant jobs on the side. With that money, he put most of it into his passion — clothes. He would need to dress well for this one. This was gonna be a natural for the press. One of their own. Maybe even national press. Jimmy T chose his favorite and most expensive Italian suit, a charcoal Kiton he had had made for him in Naples a year ago. With it, a $270 Paul Stuart sky-blue dress shirt he picked up on Madison Avenue during a recent homicide conference in New York. Slipped on some black New & Lingwood Stamford loafers. As Jimmy T began calling detectives, he pondered which Hermes tie to wear. He might be on the Today show by morning.
On 2nd, a narrow, busy street that led to the freeways, Detective Tropea had officers tape off the block. By the time the crime-scene tape was up, the television media were already there.CHAPTER 3
Dr. Charles Wang was only thirty-one, but he had already seen more than a thousand gunshot wounds, from distant grazes to intimate sawed-off blasts. He was the head of trauma surgery at Los Angeles-USC Medical Center in Lincoln Heights, the busiest hospital for violent crimes in California.
So when Wang saw Lyons's wounds and the striking amount of crimson staining the front of his muscular body, the doctor wasn't particularly concerned. In fact, he took a ten-second look, wiggled some body parts, and surmised that Lyons would not only survive, he would not sustain permanent damage. Wang knew from the patient's color and the extent of blood flow that no artery had been hit.
One of Lyons's wounds was a through-and-through to his extreme right side just beneath his rib cage. If you had to get shot near the greater stomach area, this would be the ideal place. You couldn't plan it any better. The more serious wound hit just inside his right armpit, three inches below his collarbone. Lyons would be in severe pain. He'd have some impressive scars. But, thought Wang, Lyons was one lucky reporter.
The doctor knew the reporter. Lyons had interviewed him for a long, mesmerizing profile of a fifteen-year-old gang member, a Fruit Town Brim who had been shot two different times in the head, once with a .45, and survived. Wang had saved the kid's life both times. By the end of the story, the kid had gone back to gangbanging.
Michael Lyons was semiconscious as he was wheeled into surgery. "Mr. Lyons, Michael. It's Dr. Wang, Dr. Charles Wang. Can you hear me? You've been shot, Michael, but you are going to make it. Can you understand me? You are going to be all right. Do you understand? Try to relax and we'll get you through this in good shape."
Michael looked up at the doctor as two orderlies pushed the blood-and-sweat slimed gurney. Dr. Wang walked alongside and kept talking gently. As he walked, he had his hand on Mike's forehead, comforting him.
Excerpted from Southside by Michael Krikorian. Copyright © 2013 Michael Krikorian. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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