A City Owned - Murder By Increments Book One
The criminal case dating from the late seventies which is the subject of this text is well-known, arguably even notorious. The perpetrators are familiar faces from the serial killer hall of fame. Nonetheless, I have deliberately omitted direct mention of them, or the popular name of the landmark case with which they are associated, until well into the narrative.
The reason for this will become clear to the reader in time. The celebrity of the murderers concerned should not detract from the fact that many significant details of the case are unknown, or have been forgotten—and recalling those facts from the vantage point of the present casts our understanding of the events in a rather new light. Indeed, journeying through this tale without any assumptions may deliver an experience far more contemporary and familiar than one otherwise might be expecting.
I wrote Murder by Increments after coming across some of the more obscure details of the case during studies for my criminology accreditation. At the time, I was stunned by the fact that—despite thinking I already knew what the case was about—I actually knew very little, and the facts I was learning brought to mind many of the horrors and sufferings that seem to be occurring with greater frequency in our present world.
As vile as the actions of the perpetrators were, almost as shocking were many of the responses of the police, the courts, and the psychiatrists to whom justice was entrusted. The criminal figures at the center of the story, in my view, are not its most arresting feature; instead, they were catalysts that through their actions revealed the frailties of human nature, and the outlines of a society tormented by itself. The suffering continues.
This story begins in a vast and pulsing metropolis, the central districts of which are today noted for cleanliness, even blandness. It is a world of high-rise glass and steel, of functional if dull design. With its collection of music stores, the Rock Walk featuring concrete handprints of rock 'n' roll luminaries, and the historic Sunset Grill made famous by the Don Henley song of the same name, it presents a thoroughly digestible version of hip to the many tourists who flock to the city every year. The principle attractions are dining, shopping and scanning the surrounds for a celebrity or a dog in a tote bag. Nobody worries about visiting at night. It does not have time for crime, or squalor. This is no stomping ground for the marginal and deviant. Those folk have mostly moved on—to somewhere, anywhere, some other place; it doesn't matter.
Twenty odd years ago, Hugh Grant was very publicly arrested after receiving a blowjob from streetwalker Divine Brown in the front of his BMW. That was just before the big clean-up: large swathes of Hollywood were commercialized and purged of “undesirables”. But native Los Angelenos who have lived in the city their whole lives will tell you the late seventies and eighties gave us Hollywood at its grotty worst.
Back then, the entire stretch of Sunset between Gardner and Western Avenue was a teeming sexual marketplace. Hollywood's east side thronged with pushers, panderers, bums and runaways. A porn cinema stood on the site of every old theatre. The detritus of the failed counterculture, drug casualties in bandannas and flared denim, migrated south from Haight Ashbury, their ideals dying gracelessly in the salty marinade of sex and drugs for profit. It was an interstitial time and place; the glamor and the production houses had gone elsewhere, the future and its juggernaut of cleansing commercial interests had not yet arrived, and in the empty space garbage collected in a steamy pile.
Hollywood circa 1977, when this story begins, was home of the desperate and damned. Any night or day of the week, cars would cruise the Boulevard, just slow enough for their occupants to size up the human wares lining the grubby pavements. The war between the cops and prostitutes simmered night after night, occasionally boiling over, then cooling off again. Right next to the Rocky and Bullwinkle statue on Sunset the city line dividing West Hollywood from the City of Los Angeles runs right through the strip. If a Hollywood cop car passed through, the women would move over to the West Hollywood side; if it was a sheriff's car they saw, they would move to the LA side. Most women preferred that side. The sheriffs were known to line the girls up against their vehicles and have them place their hands on the hood, then rap them over the knuckles with their metal flashlights.
Hollywood girls made dodging the cops into an art form. Most knew, for instance, that vice officers had Sunday and Monday off, so those were good nights to work. Some were known to call in at the station and if there was no answer, out they went on the job.
Sometimes though, no matter how clever you were, what precautions you took, you were going to get got.
The cops could go undercover, and pretend to be johns offering a job. Then, to make matters more confusing, civilian men posing as undercover police officers was oddly not an unusual situation.
Maybe it was just a sign of the times, the perversity of the modern world, but there was another kind of craze in town apart from disco dancing. In its basic form it appeared as guys screeching down Sunset, fake sirens attached to their vehicles, screaming abuse at the hussies. Scratching the surface there was something larger and more complex going on; something approximating a subculture. The visibility of trade in fake police paraphernalia and the numbers of men who drove cars made deliberately to look like cop vehicles pointed to the existence of a class of police buffs of various shades. Markets and swap meets sold fake badges, sirens, handcuffs, cop-style ID wallets and batons. There was also a black trade in the “real” things that had been misappropriated from the force, which could be acquired for a much higher price.
Some of these “buffs” were just young guys who liked to acquire an old police vehicle for its speed and good handling. Others took things more seriously. These were men who liked to stalk crime scenes and pretend they had some legitimate business being there. They would install scanners in their cars and listen in on police calls. They might enjoy stopping motorists and hassling them about their inappropriate driving. Or they enjoyed harassing and intimidating prostitutes, pretending to offer a job and then flipping a badge just to see the look on the lady's face.
Their motivations varied. Some just did it for a laugh. Some were embittered police rejects. Some felt somehow impotent in their lives and enjoyed the feeling of authority that passing themselves off as a cop gave them.
The problem was you couldn't tell who was who. Many were perfectly harmless; some were dangerous beyond a woman's darkest imagining.
* * *
Tall, black and leggy, Yolanda took in as much as three-hundred dollars a night—in seventies money, a small fortune. After dropping out of high school she had spent a while waiting tables and washing dishes, doing what she was supposed to, respectable work for those with limited prospects. She barely made enough money to feed herself and her kid. Some of Yolanda's friends were hooking. She tried it, and handed in her notice at the restaurant shortly after. Fuck that.
Yolanda loved the money she was making on the game. She was a young woman in the prime of life, who enjoyed fashion and took pride in the way she dressed. She liked the things the good money she was making on the streets bought her: fine, sexy clothes. Nice jewelry, like her turquoise ring, set in a silver leaf clasp. She was no slob. She looked high end, more like an escort than a streetwalker.
It was just a job. She didn't plan to stay in it forever—a temporary situation, she told herself. It felt good to have enough money coming in to buy what she wanted for herself and her kid. But the job had a major downside—and there were a few, like the fact that she had already been booked for soliciting and had a criminal record at twenty-two. Gradually her whole lifestyle changed, she started using and moved in with a local pusher, and then the kid went to live with her grandmother. So she had become separated from her daughter, who had been the reason for going on the game in the first place.
On the night of 17 October 1977 these things were playing on her mind as she stepped out and headed to her beat. She wasn't feeling it and she missed her kid. In no kind of mood, she just wanted to get out there, do it, get her money and go home again.
She met her pimp along Sunset and he must have picked up her lack of enthusiasm, because he told her to haul ass and get out there before he got mad. He watched her walk off eastbound towards the intersection of Sunset and Detroit.
Ronald LaMieux ran an organ retailer in the music district of Sunset, near that same intersection. On the evening of 17 October, he and a colleague stayed late working to deadline on some auditing. At some point he was distracted by the sounds of shouting outside. He looked out the windows and saw what appeared to be a vice arrest of a tall, black prostitute happening on the street right out the front of his store. A man with dark hair and a mustache was waving a badge at the young lady and yelling.
LaMieux saw the man handcuff the woman and put her in the back of the vehicle. There was another man sitting in front in the driver's seat. Vice arrests of streetwalkers were common in that area of Sunset, and LaMieux didn't think much of it, except that the arresting officer seemed to have an unnecessarily aggressive manner.
Yolanda, sitting in handcuffs in the back of the car, was cursing her luck. Getting written up again was the last thing she needed. The cop who had arrested her, a young guy with a mustache and acne scars on his neck, told her they were going to take her down to the station, and then he had gotten into the backseat and was sitting next to her, which she thought was a bit odd. But it wasn't until she stared a little harder at the man driving the vehicle that she first sensed that something weird was going on.
She realized she knew the driver, or at least, she had met him before. He was older than the other one, with a big, hooked nose and bushy black hair, streaked with grey. Rather ugly, really. But there was something about him, Yolanda thought. She had thought so that day she first saw him. She couldn't make out his whole face, only his profile, but she was positive this was the same guy.
A few weeks earlier she had gone with her friend Deborah on an errand to see this man at his shop on Colorado Street in Glendale. He was an auto upholsterer. The place was full of foam and reels of thread and there was a sewing machine at a workbench. There were some very flash cars parked in the garage, a Merc and a Cadillac limo. The man had boasted that Frank Sinatra was one of his clients.
A face kind of like oily old leather, and that big nose—and yet Yolanda had felt strangely drawn to him. He had spoken with a soft voice, smiled in a barely-there way that just crinkled the corners of his eyes, and exuded an aura of unforced confidence. During their conversation she found herself mentioning that she could usually be found on Sunset around Highland.