It was after dark by the time Russell Poole arrived at the shooting scene. Cahuenga Boulevard, the main thoroughfare linking downtown Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, was closed off in both directions by yellow police tape and patrol cars with flashing lights. The enclosed area was crawling with brass, captains as well as lieutenants. Poole’s squad leader, Lt. Pat Conmay, his partner, Detective Supervisor Fred Miller, and the members of the LAPD’s Officer Involved Shooting team were all standing in a group. The Internal Affairs investigators, as always, kept to themselves.
Frank Lyga was still at the scene and had been informed that the dead man was a police officer. “Lyga was very confident at that time,” Poole recalled. “He felt certain he had done nothing wrong. I don’t think he realized that the fact Gaines was black was going to be as much of a problem for him as it was.”
The OIS team drove Lyga back to the North Hollywood station to take his statement. Poole was informed that his assignment would be to investigate a possible charge of assault with a deadly weapon against the undercover detective. Poole was collecting spent cartridges and making measurements of the shooting scene when he and Miller received a tip that Gaines, although married, had been living with a girlfriend at an address in the Hollywood Hills. The two detectives drove to the Multiview Avenue address and found themselves at the gated driveway of a mansion belonging to the notorious gangsta rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, CEO of Death Row Records. Gaines’s girlfriend was Knight’s estranged wife, Sharitha.
Sharitha Knight already had been informed of Gaines’s death, and was cried out by the time Poole and Miller interviewed her. Sharitha’s mother, who introduced herself as Mrs. Golden, did most of the talking at first, explaining that her daughter was married to but separated from Suge Knight, and that Kevin was her boyfriend. They had seen Kevin only a few hours earlier, Mrs. Golden told the detectives. He said he was going to the gym and intended to pick up new tires for the Montero on his way home. “Sharitha did say that Kevin had done some ‘security work’ for Death Row, but she gave no details,” Poole recalled.
Sharitha Knight had met Gaines in 1993 at a gas station on La Brea Avenue just south of the Santa Monica Freeway. Gaines (who had been reprimanded repeatedly for attempting to pick up women while on duty) pulled up in his patrol car next to her Mercedes, Sharitha said, and began a casual conversation that grew more animated when she told the officer who she was and described her mansion in the hills above Cahuenga Pass. Gaines bet the woman dinner that she was exaggerating, and the two began dating exclusively after he paid off. Gaines soon took up residence in the mansion, separated by twenty-five miles and two million dollars from the house in Gardena where his wife, Georgia, and their two children lived. Sharitha was working at the time as Snoop Dogg’s manager, and obtained work for Gaines as the rapper’s bodyguard.
Poole and his partner made no protest when Sharitha Knight cut the interview short after less than half an hour. “This was her boyfriend and she was distraught,” Poole explained. “It was a delicate situation.”
As he drove back down Cahuenga Pass toward the LAPD’s North Hollywood station to interview Frank Lyga, Poole recalled, “I thought to myself, ‘This case is going to take me to places I’ve never been.’”
* * *
Poole already had been to places that few people raised in the suburbs ever see. Now a burly forty-year-old with a sunburnt squint and glints of silver in his reddish-blond hair, Poole had been a slim twenty-two-year-old with freckled cheeks and bright green eyes when he accepted his first assignment with the LAPD, as a patrol officer in Southwest Division, working out of a station near The Coliseum. “The department didn’t try to prepare me for what it was to be a white officer in a black neighborhood, because there’s no way to do that,” he recalled. “But you learn real quick. All of a sudden this shy kid from La Mirada is working ten hours a day in South Central Los Angeles. It’s like you’ve been given a front-row seat on life in the inner city.”
At La Mirada High School, situated on the border between Orange and Los Angeles Counties, Poole had been voted most valuable player on a baseball team that won the Suburban League Championship. Pete Rose was his childhood idol, and Poole’s teammates tagged him with Rose’s nickname, “Charlie Hustle.” “I ran everywhere I went, full blast,” he explained. “It was the way I was brought up, to give all you had all the time.”
His father was a twenty-seven-year veteran of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department who had spent much of his career as a supervising sergeant of the detective bureau at Norwalk Station. “I looked up to my dad,” Poole recalled. “He had been in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, and I used to love to look at his medals. We were a very traditional family. My father was the breadwinner, my mom stayed home and took care of us kids. My two sisters shared one bedroom, while my brother, Gary, and I shared another. I thought that was pretty much how everybody lived.” His father never encouraged him to become a cop, and Poole kept his dream of playing baseball in the major leagues alive until a torn rotator cuff during his second season at Cerritos College ended his athletic career. Although he graduated with a degree in criminal justice, the young man went to work in a supermarket and was night manager at an Alpha-Beta store when he married his wife, Megan, in 1979. The two had known each other since they were children, and the bride wondered out loud whether her young husband would be satisfied with a comfortable life in La Mirada. Her question was answered less than a year later, in the autumn of 1980, when Russell Poole entered the Los Angeles Police Academy. “I decided that I needed something more stimulating than the grocery business,” he explained. Fewer than half of those who entered Poole’s Police Academy class would finish with him.
The culture of the LAPD back then was “quasi-military,” recalled Poole, who liked it that way. Every day began with a three-mile run that ended with alternating sets of pull-ups and push-ups, followed by wind sprints. “I went into the Academy at a pretty solid 185 pounds and finished at a little over 165,” he recalled. “But you learned pretty fast that physical ability wasn’t the point—character was. They wanted to see whether you would drop out or keep trying. Would you quit if you got cramps while you were running, or would you grind it out, cry it out, gut it out. A lot of the women in the class impressed me in that way.”
Only about a year after Poole graduated, though, a series of lawsuits forced the Academy to make failure all but obsolete. “After that, if you were lousy or wouldn’t try hard enough, they’d pat you on the back and say, ‘It’s okay, we have remedial classes you can take,’” Poole recalled. “They’d get you counseling. They also started lowering the standards on written tests, in order to encourage diversity and avoid controversy.”
Poole didn’t think the department was doing its new recruits any favors. “When you get out on the streets, nobody’s going to baby you there,” he explained. “You are going to be caught in situations where all you can do is survive.”
The more harrowing the circumstance, the more intense the experience of connection to one’s fellow officers, as Poole discovered soon after his assignment to patrol duty in South Central L.A. “What I remember most about those early days was how it felt to stop a car and approach it from the rear,” Poole recalled. “The whole key was to stay alert, but not come on aggressive. On patrol, you had to be ready for anything. You might go through a whole day totally bored, then plunge into an experience of complete terror fifteen minutes before the end of your shift.”
The most feared part of Southwest Division was an area called the Jungle, a collection of apartment buildings along Martin Luther King Boulevard between Crenshaw and LaBrea that was surrounded by huge, droopy eucalyptus trees. All that low-hanging foliage was what made the Jungle so dangerous, along with an unusual layout of buildings that created a lot of places where a suspect could hide until an officer was almost on top of him. “Anytime we went in there, the only color we saw when we looked at each other was the blue of our uniforms,” Poole recalled.
Before crack cocaine, PCP was the street drug of choice in the ghetto, and Poole had never been more frightened than the first time he was attacked by a suspect high on horse tranquilizer. “I had dropped my guard because at first he appeared to be friendly—’Hi, officer, how you doin’?’—but when he got close he grabbed for my throat,” Poole recalled. “My first instinct was to throw out my hands to push his face back, but he caught my left forefinger in his mouth and bit it all the way down to the bone. My partner was trying to hit him upside the head to get him to release, and finally he did, but we went to the ground and the guy was spitting and scratching and punching and kicking. He was shredding our shirts and uniforms, scratching our arms and faces. I had deep cuts all over my face and so did my partner. Blood was everywhere and my finger was dangling, barely attached.
“Pretty soon we were surrounded by this big crowd of people, all black, and this was very scary for me, because I was fairly new and had never been in a situation like that. We didn’t have handheld radios back then, so I looked up at this one older black man and said, ‘Please get on that radio and request help.’ I didn’t want to draw my gun so I took out my sap and hit the guy across the forehead. It didn’t even faze him. So I hit him a second time, as hard as I could, and that split his head open. Right about then I started hearing those faint sirens from far away, gradually getting louder and louder. Nothing ever sounded better to me. And in a couple of minutes there were like twenty LAPD patrol cars on the scene, with cops of all colors, and the crowd was breaking up. I remember thinking, ‘This is what they meant by backing each other up and being there when another officer needs you.’ It made me feel really good to be part of this organization filled with people I could count on, no matter where they came from.”
One of Poole’s first mentors was a black training officer named Richard Lett, “a shy, nice man who had about fifteen years on the job.” During the entire time they worked together, Poole recalled, the two of them never spoke once about communicating across racial lines. “He saw that I take people as they come, and so he really didn’t think it was necessary,” Poole recalled. “I was making friends of all races and I felt this was my education in life. My time as a patrol officer taught me how to connect with people from very different backgrounds, and I learned not to make general assumptions about anyone.”
Back in those days, the LAPD talked about itself as a family, Poole recalled: “We greeted each other with hugs, brother officer, sister officer, civilian employees.” The only discordant note was sounded at roll calls, where black officers invariably sat in a section of the room separate from the white and Hispanic officers, who tended to intermingle. “But nobody ever talked about it,” Poole remembered.
Everything changed in 1991, though, when the videotaped beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers at the end of a vehicle pursuit was broadcast on local television. Poole was at home ironing a shirt the first time he saw it: “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, shit, I wonder how many times they’re gonna play that?’ I never imagined it would be hundreds and hundreds. That wasn’t the LAPD I knew, but it became the LAPD to the rest of the world, and that was awful to live with. It created terrible tensions within the department. Getting along with both civilians and your fellow officers along racial lines suddenly became a lot more difficult. Even people you thought were friends weren’t saying ‘Hi’ when you passed them in the hallway.”
The riots that followed the acquittal of the four officers accused in the Rodney King beating at their first trial in Simi Valley only increased racial divisions within the LAPD. The department maintained a mobilization plan for such emergencies, but for some reason it wasn’t implemented. Chief Daryl Gates had been relieved of duty (by the first black president of the Los Angeles Police Commission), and then reinstated, but his position was weakened. “Everybody wanted to be the new chief,” Poole recalled. “All these deputy chiefs were practically begging Gates to retire so they could take over, and the early response to the riots was controlled by some of these same people, who really didn’t mind if the LAPD looked bad, because it would make Chief Gates look bad. We had subcommanders pulling units out of the area around Florence and Normandie when they should have been pouring in.”
When Gates, who had been attending a function in Mandeville Canyon, finally arrived at the LAPD Command Post in the bus depot at 54th and Van Ness, he was astonished to find captains and lieutenants standing around in groups. When a black captain approached him carrying a coffee cup, Gates slapped the cup out of the man’s hands and shouted, “What the fuck is happening? Why aren’t my men out there deployed?”
Even before the rioting stopped, word of this incident had spread through the department, “and people of different races were even more uncomfortable with each other,” Poole remembered. By the time Gates was replaced by the LAPD’s first black chief, Willie Williams, an import from Philadelphia, the department had become an institution seething with thinly veiled resentments. White offi-cers did not doubt that Williams had won the job with the color of his skin, while black officers wondered why the position hadn’t gone to the LAPD’s highest-ranking African American, Assistant Chief Bernard Parks.
To a lot of people, and for the longest time, it had looked as if Bernie Parks might be the one man who could reconcile the contradictory legacies that he had inherited from his two most notable predecessors, William H. Parker and Homer Broome. During the 1930s and ’40s, Parker had occupied the unenviable position of a clean cop in a dirty department. The LAPD of that period was almost astonishingly corrupt; Los Angeles’s mayor sold hiring and promotion exams out of his office in City Hall, while vice officers earned the bulk of their income by protecting prostitutes, pimps, and pornographers. At one point, the LAPD’s head of intelligence was sent to San Quentin for bombing the car of an investigator who had been hired by civic reformers to ferret out crooked cops. When Parker was appointed Los Angeles Police Chief in 1950, conditions within the department changed dramatically. Parker’s insistence on integrity was so adamant that he fired officers for the sort of infractions that wouldn’t have resulted in an admonishment a few years earlier. The LAPD’s new chief even demanded that his officers pay for their own coffee. Parker, who coined the phrase “thin blue line,” also made the LAPD over into an ultra-efficient police force renowned for the discipline, mobility, and aggressiveness that allowed it to cover the enormous geographical area of Los Angeles with fewer than one-fifth the number of officers employed by the New York Police Department. By the early 1960s, LAPD officers believed that they belonged to the best police department in the world, and by most measures they were right.
Racial sensitivity was not a theme that resonated particularly well with Chief Parker, however. Parker was no racist, but the mission he gave LAPD officers to “stop crime before it happens” inevitably led to a concentration of police forces in South Central Los Angeles. Then, as now, black males committed a hugely disproportionate amount of crime in Los Angeles and across the country. For the LAPD of William Parker, that was the essential point, and the chief was not particularly interested in complaints against white cops who beat the black suspects they had charged with “contempt of officer.”
The black LAPD officer who most successfully challenged the petty injustices of the period was Commander Homer Broome. He had joined the LAPD in 1954, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the concept of “separate but equal,” and rose steadily through the ranks for the next quarter-century. Broome would be best remembered, however, for his very last appearance in an LAPD uniform. This was at his retirement dinner in the Ambassador Hotel during February of 1979. Los Angeles’s mayor and police chief were in attendance, along with dozens of local politicans, all there to take advantage of an occasion when the observation of one man’s success could be made into a milestone of community progress. Broome was “living proof,” one speaker observed, that color was no obstacle to success in Los Angeles.
The audience naturally was shocked when the guest of honor rode a wave of applause to the microphone and, instead of responding with the thanks that were expected, chose to remind his listeners of some unpleasant facts. Although the LAPD had employed black officers since 1886, Broome began, it was not until 1969, when he was promoted to captain, that one had occupied a command position within the department. Those who knew the LAPD’s history did not want to be reminded that during the 1920s Chief Louis Oaks had been a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan, or that in the years before World War II the department had restricted black officers almost entirely to foot-traffic beats along Alameda Avenue, permitting just a few of them to patrol in jitney cars, and then only between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., when they were not likely to be noticed.
When the LAPD appointed its first two black watch commanders in 1940, Broome recalled, the move was heralded as a huge leap forward, but the backsliding began almost immediately. To prevent the two new lieutenants from commanding white personnel, an all-black morning watch was established. And department administrators soon decided that two black lieutenants were one too many. After learning of his demotion from an article in the Evening Herald, Earl Broady needed another three years just to regain the rank of sergeant. When he failed repeatedly to win a second promotion to lieutenant, Broady resigned from the department and enrolled in law school. Eventually he became a Superior Court judge of Los Angeles County. His experience was repeated again and again; the LAPD’s refusal to promote black officers to command rank had resulted in the resignations or early retirements of men who had become city councilmen, municipal court judges, Los Angeles Port warden, and the city’s first black mayor, Tom Bradley.
It was Bradley who had made the first attempt to integrate the LAPD. In 1960 Bradley, only the third black lieutenant in the department’s history, found three white officers who were willing to share a single patrol car with black partners in separate shifts. When word leaked out, however, the white officers began to absorb a barrage of abuse from their cohorts, and each of the three eventually explained to Bradley that he would have to withdraw from the “experiment.” William Parker would, to his credit, issue an order to fully integrate the LAPD in 1963, but by then Tom Bradley was gone, having submitted his resignation one year earlier.
The indignities and abuses that had become a fundamental condition of relations between white police officers and black citizens in Los Angeles would explode during the late summer of 1965 into the most destructive display of civil disobedience in modern U.S. history. It began when a black teenager was arrested for drunk driving by a white motorcycle officer on the evening of August 11. By the time it was over, battles between police and more than 10,000 black civilians had raged for six days across an area of 46.5 square miles, leaving 34 persons dead, 1,032 injured, and more than 600 buildings burned and looted.
Homer Broome was promoted to lieutenant one year later, replacing Tom Bradley as the LAPD’s single black watch commander. Over the next ten years, twelve more blacks were promoted to lieutenant, with five rising to captain and two to commander. There were mutterings, however, that LAPD administrators had chosen only the most compliant of black officers, and were moving them from job to job, so that they could boast about breaking the race barrier in this position or that one. The sole black commander who achieved exemption from such complaints was Bernard Parks. His ability to win the trust and admiration of white superiors without being labeled a lackey by black peers was what made Parks’s advance through the ranks of the LAPD so remarkable.
Parks had been negotiating such difficult passages since his senior year in high school, when he was elected president of a nearly all-white class. As a young LAPD officer, he was singled out for special attention by Chief Ed Davis, who made Parks first his driver then his prot”g”. Daryl Gates, despite a reputation as a man who was not particularly fond of people with dark complexions, had promoted Parks from lieutenant to captain to commander to deputy chief to assistant chief, making him the number-two man in the department. Parks, though, was devastated when the Los Angeles City Council chose Willie Williams as the LAPD’s first black chief.
The job of police chief in Los Angeles was not quite what it had once been, of course. In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, a commission headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had created the office of a civilian “Inspector General” to oversee the police department, while LAPD chiefs were limited to five-year terms. It did not help that Willie Williams became, by virtually every account, the worst LAPD chief of the modern era.
Labeled a bungler within a few months of taking the job, Williams destroyed any hope for political survival when he demoted Bernie Parks to deputy chief. Williams’s decision to advise the news media of the demotion before personally informing Parks made him look especially despicable. Only through the intervention of the City Council did Parks obtain the plum assignment of Operations Bureau, a job that gave him control over the most politically powerful division of the LAPD, Internal Affairs. Embittered, Parks dug in until he became the immovable object that blocked the eminently resistable force of Willie Williams, who would spend his last three years in Los Angeles as, essentially, the lame duck chief of a police department that many felt was falling apart all around him. Senior police officials soon began to complain openly that departmental standards had virtually collapsed, and that the Los Angeles City Council’s cure for the LAPD’s racial ills might be worse than the disease itself. The written examinations that long had been the great equalizer for LAPD officers seeking promotion were steadily discounted because black candidates, in general, did far more poorly on them than did white candidates. Background checks became increasingly cursory, while minor crimes or a juvenile record no longer barred applicants from gaining admission to the Los Angeles Police Academy, because liberals had successfully argued that this limited the number of blacks and Hispanics who could join the LAPD. Behavior by a police officer that would have resulted in immediate dismissal only a decade earlier now was either overlooked or met with requests that the offending officer seek counseling.
“I don’t think Willie Williams was personally corrupt,” Russell Poole said, “but his command staff definitely was, and a lot of the best captains and lieutenants in the LAPD either retired or refused to seek promotions while he was chief. They didn’t want to be part of what was going on in Parker Center. And meanwhile, Chief Williams made enemies of people who were in positions where they could hurt him.”
Williams’s appointment as LAPD chief produced at least some improvement in relations between the department’s black and white officers, “but then along came the O.J. Simpson case,” Poole recalled, “and suddenly racial tensions were inflamed again. A lot of the black officers said they thought Simpson was innocent, and that was just an outrage to the rest of us, because it was so obvious that he was guilty. So suddenly you not only had black officers angry at white officers, but also white officers angry at black officers. That situation got a lot worse when the Mark Fuhrman tapes came out, and people heard this white detective saying nigger-this and nigger-that. Fuhrman was just an arrogant fool shooting off his mouth to impress a woman, but he did so much damage.” So did the subsequent spectacle of black citizens in the streets of Los Angeles cheering the acquittal of a man who had gotten away with murder.
By early 1997, most LAPD officers knew that Willie Williams would not be rehired as chief when his five-year term expired that August. A huge majority of the department’s rank-and-file officers endorsed the appointment of Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker as Williams’s replacement, but the powers that be seemed to be leaning toward the man favored by the LAPD’s black cops, Bernie Parks.
“So we had this atmosphere where any case involving racial issues was overshadowed by the politicians,” Poole explained. “Everybody on the department was afraid to make a mistake, or even to do the right thing if it exposed them to criticism.”
Poole could claim more immunity to charges of racial insensitivity than nearly any other white officer in the department. During his sixteen-and-a-half years on the job, he had been partnered with a series of black officers who uniformly praised his ability to deal with the citizens of South Central Los Angeles. At South Bureau Homicide, he regularly sat in on meetings of the black officers’ organization, the Oscar Joel Bryant Association. And as a patrol officer in Southwest Division, Poole had been widely admired for insisting that if the LAPD was going to bust black gangbangers for spraying freeway underpasses with graffiti, then it had to do the same when it caught the fraternity boys from USC painting city streets with their insignia. Poole became a minor celebrity within the department when he arrested the white starting quarterback of USC’s football team.
As Poole soon would discover, however, neither his sterling reputation nor Frank Lyga’s persuasive story of self-defense would be enough to protect them in a maze where corpses collected in cul-de-sacs, and criminals with badges blocked the exits.
From Sharitha Knight’s house, Poole and Det. Supervisor Miller drove to the LAPD’s North Hollywood Station to interview Frank Lyga. The detectives already knew that Lyga had started his day with a practice session at the LAPD shooting range, scoring 100 percent with both a 12-gauge shotgun and the same Beretta pistol that had killed Kevin Gaines. Lyga then joined seven other undercover officers in a surveillance operation that ended shortly before 4 p.m., when the group was ordered to return to its office. During the drive back to Hollywood, the other members of the team drove both ahead of and behind Lyga in separate vehicles.
Lyga said had no idea what set Gaines off initially, describing his fellow officer as “a full-on gangbanger.” For one thing, the guy was driving a green SUV, which had become the vehicle of choice for both Crips and Bloods. And he had recognized those hand gestures Gaines made as West Coast gang signs, Lyga said. Describing his verbal exchange with Gaines and the subsequent car chase, Lyga sounded genuinely frightened. As he saw Gaines pursuing him south on Cahuenga Boulevard, Lyga said, he activated the concealed radio in his car with his left foot and spoke into the microphone hidden behind a visor at the top of his windshield, using Tactical Frequency 2 to advise the other members of his team that he needed assistance with a black guy in a green Jeep who was acting crazy and possibly had a gun.
When he was stopped by the red light at Regal Place and looked in his rearview mirror to see Gaines’s vehicle closing fast, Lyga said, he drew his own pistol and placed it on his lap. Gaines was shouting at the top of his lungs when he braked to a stop in the far left lane, Lyga said, screaming, “I’ll cap you, motherfucker!” as he raised a pistol and pointed it through his open passenger-side window. He knew “cap” was street slang for kill, and fired his own weapon first because he believed he was about to be shot. He had never seen Kevin Gaines before and did not realize the mess he was in, Lyga said, until his supervisor Dennis Zeuner arrived on the scene and told him, “You’re gonna have to suck this one up, Frank. The guy was a policeman.”
Poole returned to the shooting scene from the North Hollywood Station and did not get home until almost 3 a.m. He caught four hours sleep, then awoke the next morning to the first of many “Cop Kills Cop” headlines that would be published worldwide. This was followed shortly by the news that as many as a dozen off-duty black police officers had begun to canvas the neighborhood surrounding the shooting scene, looking for witnesses who would “dirty up Lyga.” The first to complain was an employee of the coffee importing company whose offices were directly across from the intersection where Gaines had been shot. Five black men wearing civilian clothes showed up at her place of business that day, the woman said, told her they were police officers, and began to question her in a manner she found “intimidating.” When the man who did most of the talking began “trying to get me to change my story,” the woman said, she demanded proof that he was a police officer. The man showed her his badge, the woman explained, and she wrote down the name and serial number. He was Derwin Henderson, a close friend and former partner of Gaines. Several other witnesses told LAPD investigators that the black officers who visited them had tried to put words in their mouths, and that they had been shaken by the experience.
Lyga’s version of events was supported by every bit of available evidence, however. Several members of his undercover team, as well as a clerk assigned to monitor tactical frequency radio calls at the LAPD’s West Bureau Narcotics Unit, had heard the detective turn on his radio shortly before the shooting and announce in an excited voice, “I’ve got a problem. There’s a black guy in a green Jeep on my ass. I need you guys.” “I think he’s got a gun,” they heard Lyga call in an even louder voice a few moments after that. “Where are you guys?” Approximately thirty seconds later, the members of Lyga’s team heard him shout, “I just shot somebody! I need help!”
Witnesses to the shooting gave statements that agreed with Lyga’s account in every detail. On the floor of the Montero next to Kevin Gaines’s body, the two CHP officers on the scene had found a Smith and Wesson 9mm semiautomatic pistol with a hollow-point round in the chamber and eleven more bullets like it in the magazine. The gun was registered to Gaines.
Pressure on Frank Lyga, though, continued to mount. Even as media trucks laid siege to the detective’s home, rumors spread that Lyga was part of a white supremacist group that had “targeted” Gaines as a warning to uppity black cops, or that Lyga had killed Gaines to cover up his part in a drug deal gone bad, or that Lyga had a history of armed attacks on black people and the LAPD was covering it up.
Detectives involved in the investigation of the shooting, however, already knew that the bad cop in this case was Kevin Gaines. Within forty-eight hours of Gaines’s death, Poole and Miller learned that the dead officer had been involved in at least four other off-duty “roadway incidents” in which he had threatened motorists with violence. One of these drivers was retired LAPD Detective Sig Schien, who reported that during the later summer of 1996 Gaines had used a dark green Mitsubishi Montero to cut him off as he turned out of the Valley Credit Union parking lot on Sherman Way. He responded by flipping the Montero’s driver off, Schien admitted. Gaines became so enraged that he attempted to run Schien’s car off the road, then began motioning to pull over. When he did exactly that, Schien said, Gaines braked to a stop, jumped out of his SUV, and began shouting, “Hey, motherfucker, you going around giving people the finger? I ought to cap you. I ought to blow your motherfucking head off.” Only when he told Gaines, “You’d better be a faster shot than me,” then began repeating the Montero’s license plate number out loud, Schien said, did a “flustered” Gaines climb back into his vehicle and burn rubber as he sped from the scene.
A civilian named Alex Szlay reported that just two weeks before his death, Gaines, accompanied by an attractive black woman, had swerved the green Montero in front of him so sharply that he was forced to change lanes to avoid a collision. When he became infuriated, Szlay said, Gaines shouted at him through his open window, “Do you have a problem? Because we can settle this quick.” He asked what that meant, Szlay said, and Gaines replied, “I have this and this,” then held up a pistol and an LAPD badge. Gaines and his female passenger were laughing hysterically, Szlay said, as they peeled away.
A Pacific Bell repairman told investigators that he had been on Laurel Canyon Boulevard just north of the Hollywood Freeway when Gaines pulled up alongside his truck in an SUV and began shouting that “he was going to put a cap up my ass.” He wasn’t sure what he had done to offend the driver of the SUV, the repairman said, and didn’t know how seriously to take the threat, since the “nice-looking black female” in the passenger seat was laughing and grinning. Suddenly, though, the driver pulled up right next to the truck’s open passenger-side window and pointed a gun at him, the repairman recalled. Fortunately, instead of firing, the driver made an abrupt U-turn and entered a Hollywood Freeway on-ramp.
Gaines’s commander in Pacific Division, Captain David Doan, advised Poole that Gaines had been accused repeatedly of “discourtesy” and “unnecessary force” in his dealings with white, Hispanic, and Asian suspects. Doan described Gaines as a “mediocre” officer, and said the man had a history of domestic violence; his wife Georgia twice had called the police to complain that Gaines was beating her, but both times recanted.
Internal Affairs investigators confirmed reports that Gaines had been detained by LAPD officers on three separate occasions while off duty. The first incident had occurred on Sunset Boulevard when Gaines stuck his head through the moonroof of a passing limousine and shouted at some passing cops, “Fuck the police!” When they pulled the limousine over, officers said, Gaines did his best to provoke a physical confrontation before finally identifying himself as an LAPD officer. Gaines also had been investigated by the LAPD for stealing another officer’s customized handcuffs and scratching out his initials. Gaines should have been fired for that offense, but Internal Affairs claimed to have misplaced the file.
All these reports of the slain officer’s misbehavior had been compiled during the investigation of an even more bizarre incident involving Gaines. On the afternoon of August 16, 1996, two separate patrol cars from the LAPD’s North Hollywood Division responded to a report that an assault with a deadly weapon had just taken place at a home on Multiview Avenue belonging to Sharitha Knight. Shots had been fired, an anonymous caller told the 911 operator, and there was a possible victim down by the pool area. When four LAPD officers arrived at the address, they were confronted by Kevin Gaines. Gaines answered the first few questions they asked, the officers agreed, but then became uncooperative, refusing them access to the residence. At one point, Gaines threw his shoulder into Officer Pedy Gonzalez, and was placed in handcuffs. “I’m a Police Officer III just like you, motherfucker,” Gaines told him, according to Gonzalez. “I work at Pacific and you motherfuckers are not coming in. Tell these motherfuckin’ assholes to take the cuffs off me, motherfucker.” Gaines also said he hated “fucking cops,” Gonzalez recalled. What made the incident really strange, though, was that when LAPD officers listened to the tape of the 911 call (made from a pay phone near Sharitha Knight’s home) reporting that someone had been shot at the Multiview mansion, they unanimously agreed that the voice of the caller belonged to Kevin Gaines. Perhaps oddest of all, Gaines had described himself as the suspect: a black male with a muscular build, 5’10”, 200 pounds, thirty years old.
Poole would conclude that Gaines’s intention in making the call had been to produce an incident that might provide grounds for a lawsuit. And this Gaines had accomplished, persuading former Rodney King attorney Milton Grimes to file a multimillion dollar court claim against the city of Los Angeles, alleging that the incident had damaged the “emotional and psychological well-being” of a “competent African-American adult.”
“Attempting to profit financially is what elevates a fraudulent 911 call from a misdemeanor to a felony,” Poole explained, “and I can guarantee that any civilian who did what Gaines did would have faced prison time.” Yet Kevin Gaines was never charged with any crime at all. The investigation of his conduct was handed over to Internal Affairs, which proceeded to build its case for Gaines’s dismissal from the department with such deliberation that from outside it looked like a stall.
“I was completely shocked when I read the LAPD reports about Gaines’s criminal behavior,” Poole recalled, “because both Willie Williams and especially Chief Parks had to have known about this stuff for months. Yet they both showed up at Gaines’s funeral and stood there nodding as Gaines was praised as this great police officer and fine family man. They knew what he was, but neither of them said a word. And meanwhile Frank Lyga is just hanging out there, getting crucified in the media.”
Lyga’s media crucifixion was orchestrated mainly by O.J. Simpson’s attorney Johnnie Cochran, who had filed a $25 million lawsuit against the city on behalf of Kevin Gaines’s family. “As soon as Cochran got involved in this case the race card was being played,” Lyga recalled. “Suddenly I saw myself being described in the media as ‘a racist, out of control cop with a history.’” A week after the funeral, nearly a dozen television cameras were positioned inside the First African Methodist Church, where nearly forty black police officers, most of them members of the Oscar Joel Bryant Association, joined Gaines’s family in venting their outrage over the shooting in North Hollywood. The Inglewood City Council presented the Gaines family with a plaque that recognized the dead man as an “honorable and fine police officer” who was “killed in the line of duty.” Spokespersons for the activist group Police Watch said they believed the shooting had been racially motivated. Online postings described Gaines as a target of LAPD harrassment and insisted that “physical evidence points to a cover-up.” The Los Angeles Watts Times and Louis Farrakhan’s The Final Call published articles that all but portrayed Frank Lyga as a cold-blooded killer.
After his transfer from the undercover unit to an office assignment, Lyga was not only shunned by many fellow officers, but also subjected to a series of anonymous death threats. Even though it had been reported by the media (and was unchallenged by even a single witness) that Frank Lyga and Kevin Gaines had never met before the day of the shooting, the president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Association, LAPD Sergeant Leonard Ross, told the Los Angeles Daily News that a number of white officers had envied Gaines’s “lifestyle.” “I’ll say it,” Ross told the newspaper. “There were a number of officers, who weren’t black, who were jealous of his ability and resources.”
Frank Lyga received almost no support from the LAPD brass until Russell Poole presented them with a piece of evidence that ultimately vindicated the undercover officer. This was a videotape shot from a surveillance camera aimed out the front door of the am-pm mini-mart where Kevin Gaines had died. The tape clearly showed Lyga’s Buick being chased by Gaines’s Montero, then recorded the sound of two gunshots (fired two seconds apart, in a “controlled pattern,” just as Lyga had claimed) shortly after the Montero passed out of the camera’s range. The Montero reentered the picture thirteen seconds later, as it coasted into the mini-mart’s parking lot.
“I’m glad I got that tape when I did,” Poole recalled, “because the very next day Johnnie Cochran’s people showed up at the market and tried to buy it. The owner called me up and said, ‘I need my tape back.’ I said, ‘Sorry, pal, it’s evidence.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna get my attorney and sue.’ I said, ‘See you in court.’ When I saw what was on the tape, I was awfully happy I kept it.”
Cochran’s incursion into the case changed everything for the LAPD detectives in charge of the investigation. “As soon as Cochran gets involved, the brass is too,” Poole recalled. “They’re all putting their heads together and figuring out how to control this thing. And then we had Farrakhan’s people following the case. It was almost like the racial aspect of this thing was taking on a life of its own.” Two days after the shooting, Captain Doan of Pacific Division reported to Internal Affairs that he sensed a growing “divisiveness among his officers along racial lines.”
“Pretty soon after that we’re getting reports from all over the city about debates between black police officers and all other police officers about who is at fault here,” Poole recalled. “We were told that a group of officers almost came to blows at a gas pump. But nobody really knew the truth about Gaines. If they had, I think most of the black officers would have backed off.”
Frank Lyga knew that Det. Poole was his hope for vindication. “I filled him in about Gaines’s past bad conduct, and Lyga needed to hear that, because nobody was on his side and the media was pounding him relentlessly,” Poole said. “I told him to hang tough, but I also had to tell him that the brass didn’t seem to want to make any of this information public. I said, ‘Frank, it’s out of my control, but I’m getting a funny feeling. They don’t want me to investigate Gaines’s background.’ He said, ‘You’re kidding.’ I said, ‘Sorry, that’s the orders. But I want you to know that any information I collect I am writing down and passing along. And I’m convinced that the truth will come out eventually.’ What worried me, though, was that everything seemed to be funneled into Internal Affairs Division. I’m beginning to understand that this is how they control an investigation, and limit what comes out in the media. I see how each report that the IA investigators file is a little more watered down than the one before it. But even then, I was shocked when I saw the final Internal Affairs report, because of how much they left out. It was amazingly incomplete. And Chief Parks was in charge of that.”
Deputy Chief Parks and his Internal Affairs investigators also were in charge of investigating the complaints made by witnesses about the bullying tactics of Derwin Henderson and the other off-duty black officers who had questioned them. After interviewing the woman who worked at the coffee company, Poole and Miller reported that they believed Henderson’s conduct had crossed the line into felony intimidation of a witness. One day later, an order came down from the upper echelon of Internal Affairs Division that Henderson was to be served with a “stay away” order, then placed under surveillance by a team of IA investigators. That surveillance lasted only one day, however. When the IA investigators reported that they had followed Henderson to “three locations they suspected might be bookmaking locations,” they immediately were advised that “surveillance of Henderson is discontinued pending further direction.” Even when Henderson showed up at the LAPD’s Scientific Investigation Division to take personal possession of the green Montero, no order to resume surveillance was issued. “Henderson already had committed what would have been considered a serious crime if a civilian did it,” Poole said, “but it was becoming obvious no charges would be filed.”
Internal Affairs also made little effort to identify the other officers who accompanied Henderson when he questioned witnesses to the Gaines-Lyga shooting. The coffee company employee, who by now was so worried about her personal safety that she requested LAPD protection, refused to identify two black Pacific Division officers, Bruce Stallworth and Darrel Mathews, as members of the group that had been with Henderson when he showed up at her office. (On the night of the shooting, Stallworth had been paged by Sharitha Knight in the presence of Captain Doan, and Mathews was Stallworth’s closest companion.) The next time the LAPD detectives contacted the woman from the coffee company, she informed them that she had quit her job and was moving to Arizona. “That’s how scared she was by the publicity and by Henderson’s aggression,” Poole recalled. “But when she left the state, IA used this as an excuse to drop the criminal investigation, and make the case an internal investigation.” In the end, Henderson would receive a slap-on-the-wrist suspension, while none of the other officers involved were even identified, let alone disciplined.
“I’d been on the department for almost seventeen years and I’d never seen anything like this,” Poole recalled. “But I was new to Robbery-Homicide and had never worked out of Parker Center before. So I kept my mouth shut and told myself they did things differently downtown. At the same time, though, I promised myself that I would not let the politics of this case control my investigation. I figured if I did everything by the book, I was covered. That shows you how little I knew.”