Authors: Michael Connelly
Ballard pulled the curtain closed after stepping out of the treatment bay and walked over to the nursing station so she would not block traffic in the busy ER. She took out her phone and called the number for the Hollywood Division Gang Enforcement Detail. No one picked up. She then called the inside line in the watch office. Sergeant Kyle Dallas answered and Ballard asked him who was working second twelves from GED.
“That would be Janzen and Cordero,” Dallas said. “And I think Sergeant Davenport is around too.”
“Out or in?” Ballard asked.
“I just saw Cordero in the break room, so I guess they might have all come in now that the witching hour is passed.”
“Okay, if you see them, tell them to stay put. I need to talk to them. I’ll be in soon.”
“You got it.”
Ballard went through the automatic doors to the waiting room and saw Moore and Rodriguez sitting in the corner with the Raffa family in a group interview. Renée was annoyed that Moore had not conducted individual interviews but then she reminded herself that Moore was used to investigating sexual assaults, which usually involved solo interviews of victims. Moore was out of her league here and Rodriguez just didn’t know any better.
Ballard saw that the son was sitting outside the huddle and looking over the shoulders of two of his sisters at Moore. He was young enough to still be in school, which meant he might speak English. Moore should have known this.
She walked up and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Do you speak English?” she whispered.
The boy nodded.
“Come with me, please,” Ballard said.
She led him over to another corner. The waiting room was surprisingly uncrowded. Surprising for any night of the week but particularly for post-midnight on New Year’s Eve. She pointed to a chair for the boy to take and then pulled a second chair away from the wall and positioned it so they could talk face-to-face.
They both sat down.
“What’s your name?” Ballard asked.
“Gabriel,” the boy said.
“You are Javier’s son?”
“I’m sorry for your loss. We are going to find out what happened and who did it. I’m Detective Ballard. You can call me Renée.”
Gabriel eyed her uniform.
“Detective?” he asked.
“We had to be in uniform for New Year’s Eve,” Ballard said. “Everybody out on the street, that sort of thing. How old are you?”
“What school do you go to?”
“And you were at the shop’s tow yard tonight at midnight?”
“Were you with your father?”
“Uh, no, I was … over by the Caddy.”
While at the crime scene, Ballard had seen a rusting old Cadillac parked in the lot. Its trunk was open and there was a beer keg sitting in a bed of ice inside it.
“Were you with anyone by the Caddy?” Ballard asked.
“My girlfriend,” Gabriel said.
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t want to get her in trouble or nothing.”
“She’s not in trouble. We’re just trying to figure out who was there tonight, that’s all.”
“Lara Rosas,” Gabriel finally said.
“Thank you, Gabriel,” Ballard said. “Do you know Lara from school or the neighborhood?”
“And she went home?”
“Yeah, she left when we came here.”
“Did you see what happened to your father?”
“No, I just saw after. Him lying there.”
Gabriel was exhibiting no emotion and Ballard saw no tear lines on his face. She knew this meant nothing. People process and express shock and grief in different ways. Unusual behavior or a lack of obvious emotion should not be considered suspicious.
“Did you see anybody at the party that you thought was strange or didn’t belong?” Ballard asked.
“Not really,” Gabriel said. “There was a guy there at the keg who didn’t look like he belonged. But it was a street party. Who knows.”
“Was he asked to leave?”
“No, he was just there. He got his beer and then I guess he left. I didn’t see him no more.”
“Was he from the neighborhood?”
“I doubt it. I never saw him before.”
“What makes you say that he didn’t look like he belonged?”
“Well, he was a white guy, plus he seemed kind of dirty, you know. His clothes and stuff.”
“You think he was homeless?”
“I don’t know, maybe. That’s what I thought.”
“And this was before the shooting that you saw him?”
“Yeah, before. Definitely. It was before everyone started looking up.”
“You said his clothes were dirty. What was he wearing?”
“A gray hoodie and blue jeans. His pants were dirty.”
“Was it dirt or grease?”
“Like dirt, I think.”
“Was the hoodie up or down? Could you see his hair?”
“It was up. But it kind of looked like he had a shaved head.”
“Okay. What about his shoes, do you remember them?”
“Nah, I don’t know about his shoes.”
Ballard paused and tried to commit the details of the stranger to memory. She was not writing anything down. She thought it would be better to maintain eye contact with Gabriel and not possibly spook him by taking out a notebook and pen.
“Who else did you notice who wasn’t right?” she asked.
“Nobody else,” Gabriel said.
“And you’re not sure if the guy in the hoodie hung around after getting his beer?”
“I didn’t see him again.”
“So, when you last saw him, how long was that before midnight and all the shooting started?”
“I don’t know, a half hour.”
“Did you see anybody like your dad ask him what he was doing there or ask him to leave?”
“No, because it was like a block party. Everybody welcome.”
“Did you see any other white people at the party?”
“A few, yeah.”
“But they weren’t suspicious.”
“But this other guy was.”
“Well, it was like a party and he was dirty. And he had the hoodie up, you know?”
“Your father had a work shirt on. Was that usual?”
“ ’Cause it had his name on it. He wanted all the neighbors to know who he was. He always did that.”
Ballard nodded. It was now time to ask more difficult questions and hold this kid to her side as long as she could.
“Did you fire any weapons tonight, Gabriel?” she asked.
“No, no way,” Gabriel said.
“Okay, good. Are you associated with Las Palmas Thirteen?”
“What are you asking me? I’m no gangster. My dad said no way.”
“Don’t get upset. I’m just trying to figure out what’s what.
You’re not associated, that’s good. But your father was, right?”
“He quit that shit a long time ago. He was totally legit.”
“Okay, that’s good to know. But I heard there were guys from Las Palmas in the shop yard for the party. Is that true?”
“I don’t know, maybe. My father grew up with these people. He didn’t just throw them in the trash. But he was legit, his business was legit, he even had a white man as his partner. So don’t go starting no shit about ‘gang related.’ That’s bullshit.”
“Good to know, Gabriel. Can you tell me, was his partner there?”
“I didn’t see him. Are we done here?”
“Not yet, Gabriel. What is the partner’s name?”
“I don’t know. He’s a doctor up in Malibu or some shit. I only seen him once when he came in with a bent frame.”
“A bent frame?”
“His Mercedes. He backed into something and bent the frame.”
“Got it. Okay, I need two more things from you, Gabriel.”
“I need your girlfriend’s phone number and I need you to step outside to my car for a minute.”
“Why should I go with you? I want to see my father.”
“They’re not going to let you see your father, Gabriel. Not till later. I want to help you. I want this to be the last time you have to talk to the police about this. But to do that, I need to wipe your hands to make sure you’re telling the truth.”
“You said you didn’t fire a gun tonight. I wipe your hands with something I have in my car and we’ll know for sure. After that, you’ll only hear from me when I come by to tell you we caught the person who did this to your father.”
Ballard waited while Gabriel considered the options.
“If you won’t do it, I have to assume you lied to me. You don’t want that, do you?”
“All right, whatever, let’s do it.”
Ballard walked over to the group first to ask Moore for the car keys. Moore said they were in the car. She then led Gabriel out to the ambulance bays. Here she pulled a notebook out of her back pocket. After writing down the cell number for Gabriel’s girl, she jotted down his description of the man in the hoodie. She then opened her car’s trunk. She took out a packet of wipe pads for gunshot-residue testing, used separate pads to wipe both Gabriel’s hands, then sealed them in plastic bags to be submitted to the lab.
“See, no gunpowder, right?” Gabriel said.
“The lab will confirm that,” Ballard said. “But I already believe you, Gabriel.”
“So, what do I do now?”
“You go in and be with your mother and your sisters. They’re going to need you to be strong for them.”
Gabriel nodded and his face contorted. It was as though telling him to be strong had kicked his strength out from beneath him.
“You okay?” Ballard asked.
She touched his shoulder.
“You’re going to catch this guy, right?” he said.
“Yeah,” Ballard said. “We’re going to catch him.”
Ballard didn’t get back to the station until almost 3 a.m. She went up the stairs off the back hallway and into the room shared by the Gang and Vice units. It was long and rectangular and usually empty because both units worked the streets. But now the room was crowded. Officers from both squads, in uniform like Ballard, sat behind desks and at worktables going down the length of the room. Most of them were not wearing masks. The large crowd could be explained in a number of ways. First, it was difficult to work vice and gangs in full uniform, as dictated by the department’s tactical alert. This meant the alert, which was supposed to put as many officers on the street as possible during the New Year’s celebration, was having the opposite effect. It could also mean that, because it was beyond the witching hours of midnight to 2 a.m., everyone had returned to the house on break. But Ballard knew that it could also be that this was the new LAPD — officers stripped of the mandate of proactive enforcement and waiting to be reactive, to hit the streets only when it was requested and required, and only then doing the minimum so as not to engender a complaint or controversy.
To Ballard, much of the department had fallen into the pose of a citizen caught in the middle of a bank robbery. Head down,
eyes averted, adhering to the warning: nobody move, and nobody gets hurt.
She spotted Sergeant Rick Davenport at the end of one of the worktables and headed toward him. He looked up from a cell phone to see her coming, and a maskless smile of recognition creased his face. He was mid-forties and had been working gangs in the division for over a decade.
“Ballard,” he said. “I hear El Chopo got it tonight.”
Ballard stopped at the table.
“El Chopo?” she asked.
“That’s what we called Javier back in the day,” Davenport said. “When he was a gangster and using his padre’s place as a chop shop.”
“But not anymore?”
“He supposedly went straight after his wife started dropping kids.”
“I was surprised I didn’t see you out at the scene tonight. That why?”
“That and other things. Just doin’ what the people want.”
“Which is staying off the street?”
“It’s pretty clear if they can’t defund us, they want to de-see us, right, Cordo?”
Davenport looked for affirmation to a gang cop named Cordero.
“Right, Sergeant,” Cordero said.
Ballard pulled out the empty chair on Davenport’s right side and sat down. She decided to get to the point.
“So, what can you tell me about Javier?” she asked. “Do you believe he went straight? Would Las Palmas even allow that?”
“The word is that twelve or fifteen years ago, he bought his way out,” Davenport said. “And as far as we know, he’s been clean and legit ever since.”
“Or too smart for you?”
“There’s always that possibility.”
“Well, do you still have a file on the guy? Shake cards, anything?”
“Oh, we’ve got a file. It’s probably a little dusty. Cordo, pull the file on Javier Raffa and bring it to Detective Ballard.”
Cordero got up and walked to the line of four-drawer file cabinets that ran the length of one side of the room.
“That’s how far this guy goes back,” Davenport said. “He’s in the paper files.”
“So definitely not active?” Ballard pressed.
“Nope. And we would have known if he was. We follow some of the OGs. If they were meeting, we would have seen it.”
“How far up was Raffa before he dropped out?”
“Not far. He was a soldier. We never made a case on the guy but we knew he was chopping stolen cars for the team.”
“How did you hear he bought his way out?”
Davenport shook his head like he couldn’t remember.
“Just the grapevine,” he said. “I can’t name you the snitch offhand — it was a long time ago. But that was what was said, and as far as we could tell, it was accurate.”
“How much does something like that cost?” Ballard asked.
“Can’t remember. It might be in the file.”
Cordero returned from the cabinets and handed a file to Davenport instead of Ballard. He in turned handed it to Ballard.
“Knock yourself out,” he said.
“Can I take this?” Ballard asked.
“As long as you bring it back.”
Ballard took the file, got up, and walked out. She had the feeling that several of the men were watching as she left the room.
She was not popular in the office after a year of cajoling and then demanding intel and help in her investigations from people bent on doing as little as possible.
She went down the stairs and into the detective bureau, where she saw Lisa Moore at her desk. She was typing on her computer.
“You’re back,” Ballard said.
“No thanks to you,” Moore said. “You left me with those people and that kid cop.”
“Rodriguez? He probably has five years on the job. He worked Rampart before coming here.”
“Doesn’t matter. He looks like a kid.”
“Did you get anything good from the wife and daughters?”
“No, but I’m writing it up. Where is this going anyway?”
“I’m going to keep it for a bit. Send whatever you’ve got to me.”
“Not to West Bureau?”
“They’re running all teams on a double murder. So I’ll work this until they’re ready to take it.”
“And Dash is okay with that?”
“I talked to him. It’s not a problem.”
“What do you have there?”
She pointed to the file Ballard was carrying.
“And old Gang file on Raffa,” Ballard said. “Davenport said he hasn’t been active in years, that he bought his way out when he started a family.”
“Aw, isn’t that sweet,” Moore said.
The sarcasm was clear in her voice. Ballard had long realized that Moore had lost her empathy. Working sex cases full-time probably did that. Losing empathy for victims was a self-protective measure, but Ballard hoped it never happened to her. Police work could easily hollow you out. But she believed that losing one’s empathy was losing one’s soul.
“Send me your reports when you’re ready to file,” Ballard said.
“Will do,” Moore said.
“And nothing on the Midnight Men, right?”
“Not yet. Maybe they’re lying low tonight.”
“It’s still early. On Thanksgiving we didn’t get the callout till dawn.”
“Wonderful. Can’t wait till dawn.”
The sarcasm again. Ballard ignored it and grabbed an empty desk nearby. Because she worked the late show, she didn’t have an assigned spot. She was expected to borrow a desk in the room whenever she needed one. She looked at a few of the knickknacks on the one shelf in the cubicle where she sat and quickly realized it was the workstation of a dayside Crimes Against Persons detective named Tom Newsome. He loved baseball, and there were several souvenir balls on little pedestals on the shelf. They had been signed by Dodgers players past and present. The gem of the collection was in a small plastic cube to protect it. It wasn’t signed by a player. Instead the signature was from the man who had called Dodgers games on radio and TV for more than fifty years. Vin Scully was revered as the voice of the city because he transcended baseball. Even Ballard knew who he was, and she thought that Newsome was risking the ball getting stolen, even in a police station.
Opening the file in front of her, Ballard was greeted by a booking photo of Javier Raffa as a young man. He had died at age thirty-eight, and the photo was from a 2003 arrest for receiving stolen property. She read the details on the arrest report the photo was clipped to. It said Raffa had been pulled over in a 1977 Ford pickup truck with several used auto parts in the bed. One of these parts — a trans-axle — still had the manufacturing serial number embossed on it, and it was traced to a Mercedes G-wagon reported stolen in the San Fernando Valley the month before.
According to the records in the file, Raffa’s lawyer, listed as Roger Mills, negotiated a disposition that got the twenty-one-year-old Javier probation and community service in exchange for a guilty plea. The case was then expunged from Raffa’s record when he completed probation and 120 hours of community service without issue. The file noted that his community service included painting over gang graffiti on freeway overpasses throughout the city.
It was the one and only arrest record in the file, although there were several field interview cards paper-clipped together there. These were all dated before the arrest and went back to when Raffa was sixteen years old. Most of these came out of basic gang rousts — patrol breaking up parties or Hollywood Boulevard cruise lines. Officers taking down names and associates, tattoos, and other descriptors to be fed into Gang Intel files and databases. As the son of a body shop owner, Raffa was always driving classic and restored cars or low riders that were also described on the shake cards.
From early on in the cards Raffa had the nickname El Chopo ascribed to him. It was an obvious riff on the moniker of one of the biggest cartel kingpins, known as El Chapo, which meant
in Spanish. One note that caught Ballard’s eye and was repeated on the four cards written and filed between 2000 and 2003 was the description of a tattoo on the right side of Raffa’s neck. It depicted a white billiard ball with an orange stripe and the number 13 — a reference to Las Palmas 13 and its association with and deference to la eMe, the prison gang also known as the Mexican Mafia. The 13 was a reference to M, the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.
Ballard thought about the discoloration she had seen on Raffa’s neck. She realized it was laser scarring from when he’d had the tattoo removed.
There was a photocopy of an intel report in the file dated October 25, 2006, that was a bullet-point recounting of multiple nuggets of unsubstantiated bits of gossip and information from a confidential informant identified as LP3. Ballard assumed that the informant was a Las Palmas insider. She scanned through the separate entries and found the one about Raffa.
Ballard had never heard of someone buying their way out of a gang. She had always known of the
blood in, blood out, till death do us part
rule of gang law. She picked up the desk phone. Newsome had taped a station phone directory to it. She called the extension next to GED and asked for Sergeant Davenport. While she waited for him to come on the line, she picked one of the baseballs off its pedestal and tried to make out the signature scribbled on it. She knew little about baseball or Dodgers players past and present. To her, the first name of the signature looked like Mookie but she thought she had to have that wrong.
Davenport came on the line.
“It’s Ballard. Got a question.”
“Humberto Viera of Las Palmas, is he still around?”
“Depends on what you mean by ‘around,’ ” he said. “He’s been up in Pelican Bay for at least eight, ten years. And he isn’t coming back.”
“Your case?” Ballard asked.
“I was part of it, yeah. Got him on a couple of one-eight-sevens of White Fence guys. We flipped the getaway driver, and that was it for Humberto. Bye-bye on him.”
“Okay. Anyone else I could talk to about Javier Raffa buying his way out of the gang?”
“Hmm. I don’t think so. That goes pretty far back, as far as I remember. I mean, there are always OGs around, but they’re original gangsters because they toe the line. But for the most part, these gangs turn over membership every eight or ten years. Nobody’s going to talk to you about Raffa.”
“What about LP-three?”
There was a pause before Davenport answered. And it was clear that earlier, when he had claimed not to remember the snitch, he was lying.
“What do you think you’ll get out of her?”
“So it’s a woman?”
“I didn’t say that. What do you think you’ll get out of him?”
“I don’t know. I’m looking for a reason somebody put a bullet in Javier Raffa’s head.”
“Well, LP-three is long gone. That’s a dead end.”
“You’re sure now?”
“Thanks, Sergeant. I’ll catch you later.”
Ballard put the phone in its cradle. It was clear to her from Davenport’s gaffe that LP3 was a woman and possibly still active as an informant. Otherwise he would not have been so clumsy in trying to cover up his slip of the tongue. Ballard didn’t know what it meant in terms of her case, considering that Raffa had apparently separated from the gang fourteen years earlier. But it was good to know that if the case turned toward the gang, the GED had an insider who could provide insight and information.
“What was that about?” Moore asked.
She was sitting across the aisle from Ballard.
“Gang Enforcement,” Ballard said. “They don’t want me talking to their Las Palmas CI.”
“Figures,” Moore said.
Ballard wasn’t sure what that meant but didn’t respond. She knew Moore was one and done on the late show. Her involvement in the case would end when the sun came up and her shift was over, the tactical alert was ended, and all officers returned to their normal schedules. Moore would be back on dayside, but Ballard would be left alone to work in the dark hours.
It was exactly the way she wanted it.