Crime Story LA

Robert Durst Stares into the Camera (Durst 6)

This is the sixth in a series of articles about the hearings before the murder trial of Robert Durst. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read Two Hearings: Robert Durst and Armon Nelson, While Robert Durst Flips Through Photos, Robert Durst Fades Away, Robert Durst and the Inequity of Judicial Time, and Robert Durst’s Warrior in Court. It’s mid-morning in Department 81, Airport Courthouse, and Deputy District Attorney John Lewin has me locked in a bearhug. Then again, maybe it’s more of an awkward embrace, a clumsy blend...

Tiny Evil, Rap and Gang Conspiracy

Editor's note: Later this week, the third trial of rapper Drakeo the Ruler on charges of profiting off of a gang conspiracy (California Penal Code § 182.5) begins in Compton. CRIME STORY will be covering that trial, as the nature of this law and its use by California Prosecutors raise significant Constitutional and Due Process questions. In conjunction with that coverage, we will also be publishing essays about the treatment of rap lyrics and culture by law enforcement in LA. Molly Miller's story below tells the story of the...

When Toilet Water Is the Only Relief

Kourtney, a fourteen-year-old inmate at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, didn’t want to go to bed. It was after 9 p.m. on July 1, 2018, and she was refusing orders from the detention service officers, or DSOs, to return to her room. Instead, Kourtney barricaded herself in a bathroom stall. After multiple warnings, supervisor LaCour Harrison ordered his subordinate, Karnesha Marshall, to use her pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum or OC spray. Marshall sprayed Kourtney in the face, and the DSOs carried her back to her room as she screamed in pain. Once she was inside,...

$7000 of Chips Vanished

The house always wins. Jian Qiao Chen had already lost $3,000 playing Baccarat. He was about to lose even more. But not to a card game. Chen was gambling at the Commerce Casino, an establishment that has a church-basement vibe, complete with matted floral carpeting and rickety, red-cushioned chairs. Guests expecting the glitz of the Vegas strip might describe it as “seedy,” but for serious players, it’s a hub of competition. According to their website, the Commerce Casino is California’s # 1 venue for games of skill....

A Joking Matter?

I submit to you a list of professions where humorous banter is an asset: accountant, car salesman, realtor, dentist, personal trainer, construction worker, civil engineer, dog trainer, photographer, microbiologist, professor, chef, waitress, actor, electrician, plumber, marketing director, novelist, tour guide, magician, landscaper, receptionist, librarian, violinist, glass-blower, zoologist, and garbage man. I submit to you a list of professions in which humorous banter is a liability: funeral home director, child oncologist, and criminal courts judge. It’s a Thursday morning and I’m seated in the gallery behind a...

I Hate Men

I fucking hate men. Jogging down the cement steps of the courthouse stairwell, all eleven floors, it’s all I can think. I’m blistering with rage. This is the trial of Stephen Houk, a registered sex offender who is accused of abusing his spouse, Amey, and kidnapping their young children in the couple’s motorhome as he fled the police after Amey called the cops. Houk drove four hours in the RV from LA County to Bakersfield with cops on his heels. He told Amey over the phone “this...

Bodies in Malibu; Hearings in Van Nuys

It was 4:44 a.m on June 22, 2018 in Malibu Creek State Park when 35-year-old Tristan Beaudette was hit by a fatal rifle-shot through the side of his tent. Beaudette was camping with his two and four-year-old daughters who slept by his side, exhausted from a day of outdoor adventuring. He had taken them away so his wife, Erica Wu, could focus on her upcoming medical board exams.  The random horror of Beaudette's murder startled the Malibu community. Fear and paranoia took hold among the area's residents. Soon there emerged several historic reports of...

The Moment when a Trial Has No Judge

If Hollywood is to be believed, a courtroom is a dramatic place. It’s where Jack Nicholson roars at Tom Cruise that he can’t handle the truth, and where Henry Fonda and eleven other men get angry. In reality, though, even the most gruesome trials are subject to mundane delays and bureaucratic inefficiencies that might be shunned by a screenwriter but nevertheless can be strangely compelling in their own right. On August 2, 2019, a fellow Crime Story reporter and I attend one such trial. Jesus Calla, wearing a blue suit with slicked back hair,...

Facing Your Rapist in a Courtroom

It’s silent. It’s been 46 seconds and Kevin hasn’t said a word. He sits at the witness stand, hands in his lap. A teenager, slight in frame, Kevin wears a black turtleneck and moss green pants. His dark hair is spiked in front. It’s trendy in a way that reminds us that he’s still just a kid. And right now he’s staring down the man who sexually abused him. This is Kevin’s victim impact statement, his opportunity to speak during the...

It’s Like Turning the TV Off — Mid-Episode

On-again off-again on-again off. In many ways Leione and Gabriel’s relationship was fresh off the CW airwaves. They were young and attractive. Leoine was petite with black hair and glossy auburn highlights. Gabriel was thick chested with a strong jawline and bright smile. The romance was a whirlwind – the kind of young love whose pattern of explosive breakups and steamy make-ups fringed on melodrama. When Leione started working as an exotic dancer at a North Hollywood strip club, Gabriel didn’t approve. When Gabriel bought a gun for protection, Leoine...

The Wobbler

Two white lawyers on the verge of old age sit in a courtroom waiting for their cases to be called. Both are representing young men who got into tussles with the law. One of the attorneys reads the paper. His finely pressed sleeve falls to reveal a gold watch. The other fumbles with folders in a fine leather briefcase. The newspaper man folds the paper in his lap. A thought just struck him. “You know, I feel for these kids. I did tons of stupid shit when I was young.”

Robert Durst and the Inequity of Judicial Time (Durst 4)

This is the fourth in a series of articles about the hearings before the murder trial of Robert Durst. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read Two Hearings: Robert Durst and Armon Nelson, While Robert Durst Flips Through Photos and Robert Durst Fades Away. A video camera operator for Dan Abrams’ website, Law & Crime, is setting up in the Department 81 jury seating area, training his lens on the empty chair across the room where the defendant will sit. The going rate for a video operator is $400 per day. In...

A Word About LA Judges

We’ve noticed something. The more time we spend in the criminal courts building, the more familiar faces have taken on meaning. The elegant “swan woman” is Karen, the Spanish translator. The friendly security guard on the ninth floor is Carlito who writes children’s books. The bespectacled blonde with a massive bag is Terri, the meticulous reporter from City News. And then there are the judges. The bench officers weren’t originally the subjects of particularly intense interest to us. They are the proverbial referees of the courtroom, and we’ve been reporting on...

Update: Graffiti with Molly Miller Reading

According to the arresting officer, at 7 am on June 29, Danny walked down North Avenue 54 wearing gloves and holding a spray paint can. He stopped outside a 7/11, shook the can, and spray painted “HLXP1” on the beige wall above the overloaded dumpsters. Then, he turned down York Street and sprayed “HLXPARK1” on the cracked curb of the 7/11’s parking lot. He nodded at his handiwork. The graffiti was a gang tag, meant to mark Highland Park’s territory and assert the gang’s status in the neighborhood. HLP and...

“I Met the Devil”

“I could feel his evil spirit as soon as I walked into the room with him,” Detective Moses Costillo tells me in the hallway outside of Department 113 of the Criminal Courts Building. “I met the devil.” It was Halloween night, 2016, and Officer Dimitrius Connor had a bowl of candy at the LAPD Rampart Station front desk, expecting trick-or-treaters. But he wasn’t prepared for the horror that came through the door that night. Connor could see him through the station house window, pacing the sidewalk outside. He was Latino. His...

$7.99 Half Rotisserie Chicken

The sign read “Half Rotisserie Chicken — $7.99” On June 1, 2019, 43-year-old Mario Morataya stepped into the Super A Foods while his wife waited outside with their six-month-old baby. Morataya worked a minimum wage job at the recycling center, but it wasn’t nearly enough to pay his family’s bills. His wife was hungry. He was hungry. The rotisserie chicken glistened on its heating tray. According to loss prevention agent Adrian Murphy, Morataya looked to the left and looked to the right, then shoved...

The Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences is that actions always have unanticipated effects. Ms. Roberts, a homeless trans woman, was shaking. Her thin frame stood protectively over her upended shopping cart of belongings. It contained everything she owned in the world. Some people would call it trash, but to her it was her wardrobe, her pantry, and the place where she kept all items of sentimental value. Now it lay scattered on the pavement, mixed with dirt and unsanitary debris. Roberts stared at the ground...

The Truths of Louie Cordero

“You do solemnly state that the testimony you may give in the cause now pending before this court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” This is the oath taken by all witnesses who give testimony before a California court. It is the oath that Louie Cordero took when he was called to the stand.  Cordero is testifying in the trial of his step-brother, Cristian Iraheta, who is charged with attempted murder. Cordero looks small on the stand, slack jawed with...

“Your Honor? I’m Here to Give Myself Up.”

It’s late on a Friday morning in Department 117. The docket has been cleared and court personnel are straightening up their things in preparation for the lunch break. Judge Katherine Mader glances up at the mostly deserted gallery and spots her.  Late 40s. Restless.  And her hand is up in the air, like a student with an answer to a question no one asked. “Yes?” “Your Honor?” A long beat as the woman hesitates at the crossroads, then decides to do what...

Police Force Expert – Taser Certified (Moorer 2)

This is the second in a series of articles about the murder trial of Andrea Moorer. The first was Strong Female Lead by Molly Miller. Outside of Department 111 at the Criminal Courts Building, a stocky man in his late 60s sits upright and energetic, sticking out amongst those lounging in the hallway. The man is Larry Smith, an ex-cop here today to testify in defense of Andrea Dommique Moorer, who is charged with killing an abusive pimp, Ruffino Anderson. A clean-cut, gray-suited, and similarly energetic man...

Emmy Nominee Jared Harris Reads: Wait, What?: A Closing Statement

Jared Harris, nominated for an Emmy this year for his performance as Valery Legasov in the miniseries Chernobyl, reads excerpts from the idiosyncratic Closing Statement of attorney Vincent Oliver in the rape trial of his client Wyaunte Cousin. This article was first published on August 21, 2019. As I walk into Department 109 of the Criminal Courts Building, I hear the following words and my ears prick up: IT WASN'T UNTIL THE REIGN OF RICHARD THE FIRST, WHO YOU PROBABLY KNOW AS RICHARD THE LIONHEARTED,...

It’s Kind of Like a Heist… Or Dodgeball

It’s kind of like a heist — think Ocean’s Eleven. You assemble a rag-tag team of 12 to 14 professionals to carry out your operation. There’s just one problem: they have no skills. Even if they do, they are expressly forbidden from using their skills during the heist. They can’t research the heist online or talk to reporters about the heist. It’s really best if they don’t know anything about the heist before it begins.  That’s jury duty: a random selection of citizens without specialized legal knowledge who are assembled to...

Lost in Translation: A Morning in the Alhambra Courthouse

What does it mean, exactly, for something to be lost in translation? The answer, it seems, can be demonstrated in a densely packed courtroom in Alhambra. Department 005 of the Alhambra Courthouse is unusually full, but that might just be because the entire left side of the gallery is blocked off by yellow caution tape, as if it were a crime scene. The remaining seating area is mostly occupied by people of Asian descent, though there are also a handful of Latinx folks and a Black man and woman sitting at the dead center...

The Challenges of Defending the Alleged “Hollywood Ripper” (Gargiulo 4)

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles about the trial of Michael Gargiulo. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read “I Buried the Bitch… Just Kidding,” The Witness Following Ashton Kutcher, and An Emotionally Galvanizing Moment. Defense attorney Dale Rubin often jokes around in the Criminal Courts Building, perhaps to keep his mind off of the challenges of defending Michael Gargiulo on two counts of capital murder. One time, he even played around with a mannequin (which was to serve...

An Emotionally Galvanizing Moment (Gargiulo 3)

This is the third in a series of articles about the trial of Michael Gargiulo. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read "I Buried the Bitch… Just Kidding." and The Witness Following Ashton Kutcher. Someone is crying. It is hard to immediately identify the source of the noise. The weeping echoes from the far end of the ninth floor near Department 106, where a group of people huddle closely together. They dote on whoever is crying, consoling her in hushed Spanish while attorneys file past, talking baseball.

The Matter of the Intersex Shooting

Editor’s Note: Out of respect for the privacy of some of the people depicted in this story, the defendant and the victim's names have been changed. All usernames altered. All identifying details erased. Deputy District Attorney Allyson Ostroswki begins her second day of cross-examination. Her tone is casual as she poses her first question, “In addition to having a vagina you also have what you describe as a small penis?” The defendant, Jackson Wilson, looks up from his wheelchair. He nods his head, “Yes.”

Robert Durst Fades Away (Durst 3)

This is the third in a series of articles about the hearings before the murder trial of Robert Durst. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read Two Hearings: Robert Durst and Armon Nelson and While Robert Durst Flips Through Photos. Robert Durst seems to be fading away. In the first hearing in his trial for the murder of Susan Berman observed by our Crime Story reporters, Robert Durst yells about the wardrobe brought for him. In the second, he sits, virtually mute, and only becomes engaged by a series...

Special Docket

“I should just come to work with some alcohol,” the bailiff says, “I really should.” I am the only person left in the gallery and she’s looking right at me, but she is mostly thinking out loud, hoping that one of the other court staffers will commiserate. The judicial assistant picks up the cue: “When I worked downtown, all the old sheriffs came to work with booze in these little flasks,” she reminisces. The court staff today are chatty and candid, though I come to realize that the turn to humor is mainly to offset the stress...

Twenty-Four Young Hopeful Faces Went Pale

Deputy District Attorney Chelsea Blatt addresses the jury in her closing argument. Her first words are: “What you saw yesterday was not normal.” I know. I was there. The first abnormality appeared minutes before the trial began. Twenty-four high school students filed into the courtroom at 9:30 am, announced by their well-postured leader as members of UCLA’s mock trial camp. The boys wore sneakers while the girls tottered in their shiny patent leather heels. These brace-faced, bespectacled young adults were a shining example of...

An Appeal for Commutation

Massaging his wrists after having his handcuffs removed, Cedrick Deion Broussard stacks and organizes the slim pile of papers that he brought from holding with him: his SB 1437 petition to have the judge commute his murder conviction. Broussard does not have an attorney present, but he's accompanied by a private investigator who listens quietly by his side. "I’m not going to re-try the case," Judge Curtis B. Rappe repeatedly asserts, "even if one of the witnesses says, 'Yes, I actually lied,' I’m not going to re-try the case." Broussard does not seem fazed...

Charles And Mr. Willy

The following story is inspired by true events. Names, genders and details have been changed. “I wasn’t angry, but I’m not no punk.”  Those words boom from the mouth of Charles Curtis, an animated 68-year-old who’s testimony resembles a man telling his grandkids exaggerated stories from his youth. He’s even dressed in a classic grandpa outfit, layered up enough to keep warm in LA winters, but his socks and sandals remind us that it’s summer. And if it weren’t for the fact that he was robbed of his bike, attacked by...

What Are the Odds?

According to Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore, 50% of all homicides in LA are gang-related. As a result, covering homicide in Los Angeles means covering gang violence. The statistics become their own, seemingly inevitable narrative that hangs like a cloud over the criminal justice system. But this isn’t a story about statistics: it’s a story about coincidence. Officer Oliver Medina takes the stand. He has a broad face adorned with unruly eyebrows. His boyish disposition is disarmingly friendly — a stark contrast to his finely pressed uniform and the imposing...

The McDonald’s Uniform and the Scalded Child with Sean Smith Reading

Editor’s note: Out of respect for the privacy of one of the people depicted in this story, we have changed that person’s name. In the fifth-floor hallway, a middle-aged white guy is speaking into his iPhone. Late 40s, ruddy, he looks like someone you’d stand behind in line for beer at a Dodgers game. “I mistakenly fucked up,” he confides, “so I’m sorry….” Mistake. Fuck up. Sorry. The mea culpas pile up like cars on a fog-shrouded Interstate 5. Apologies are par for the course in the...

Shattered Arguments

Jose Macias, early 20s at most, takes the witness stand for his cross-examination dressed casually in a gray sweatshirt and sneakers. His leaning walk gives off a coolness about him, yet as he sits his eyes pierce through the prosecution with disdain. His chest is out and his voice firm when he speaks. Unfazed. Unintimidated. It’s as if there’s an unspoken beef between him and the prosecution — and in fact, there is. This is Jose’s second trial for domestic violence committed against his girlfriend. Since the first resulted in a mistrial, no love has been lost...

A Chair and a Killing

Think about the least significant piece of furniture in your home: a stool, a hamper, maybe a couch pillow. For me, it’s a cheap Ikea chair, one that’s currently occupied by an uneven stack of mismatched magazines that I mean to read but probably never will. These nomadic elements of home décor are inconsequential to our everyday lives — until they aren’t. Do you remember exactly where your furniture was on July 16, 2018? Donniesha Gregory is the victim in this case, a 32-year-old mother of two. On Monday, July 16, Donte Solomon, Gregory’s...

Strong Female Lead (Moorer 1) with Molly Miller Reading

It’s almost like a gritty, high-octane action flick. The female lead is a young prostitute and this is the climax of her narrative arc. After years of being mentally and physically abused by her pimp, they get into one last altercation outside of a bank. The pimp punches her face, elbows her eye and slams a car door on her head. She fights back — teeth, nails, everything she’s got — and manages to knock him to the ground. Then she gets into the car and looks at her pimp through the windshield....

The Expungement

I’m sitting in Department 103 of the Criminal Courts Building, where Judge Curtis B. Rappe is presiding. After several hearings ranging from robbery to murder, a different kind of case is called to order. There’s a noticeable change in the courtroom when the defendant rises from behind me and approaches the table with his counsel. Almost every other defendant this morning has been an inmate wearing county-issued “blues,” handcuffed and escorted from behind heavy iron gates just outside of the courtroom. (The loud locking and unlocking of the bars is chilling.) But those days are long gone...

Check Out Crime Story LA (Day 11)

I would like to call your attention to some of the stories that are in our Crime Story LA section. These stories exemplify the tone and approach of our reporting here at Crime Story. We want our pieces to be both accessible and illuminating; thoughtful and emotional; unexpected and satisfying. Sean Smith’s Slouching towards Babel introduces to the world of the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles, and his Two Hearings piece juxtaposes the massive defense posse representing multi-millionaire Robert Durst in a pretrial hearing with the valiant efforts of an Alternate Public Defender representing a young indigent man in...

Anatomy of Doubt (Martinez 2)

Jim Moss’s job is to save lives. A 29-year veteran of the LA County Sheriff’s Department, Moss has spent 14 of those years serving as a rescue paramedic for the Special Weapons (SWAT) Team. His primary duty, he says, “is to provide advanced life support on SWAT operations.” But on May 23, 2019, Moss has a different job. His duty today is to testify for the People of the State of California in their prosecution of David Martinez for the murder of SWAT officer Shaun Diamond. Moss takes the stand wearing the LASD uniform...

The Bullet and the Door (Martinez 1) with Molly Miller Reading

My mother always said there are two sides to every story. In this story, there are two sides to the same door. It’s the wooden front door of the Martinez two-bedroom, one-story residence in Montebello, California. On one side of the door, a shot was fired. On the other side, a man was killed. Outside of the door, on the evening of October 28, 2014, 45-year-old Pomona Police Officer Shaun Diamond was called to take part in a SWAT operation. His team was tasked with serving a search warrant to...

A Homicide Report

I am at the Criminal Court Building to watch arraignments and pretrial hearings. As Sean Smith wrote in Slouching to Babel, these hearings can offer a good deal of drama and detail about the dynamics of the LA justice system in a relatively short period of time. But on this day, the pace in arraignments is slow, so I wander up to the legendary ninth floor. This area requires additional security clearance to enter, as it is home to the most serious and high profile criminal trials. OJ Simpson was tried on this same floor. So was Richard...

While Robert Durst Flips Through Photos (Durst 2)

From the looks of it, Robert Durst’s legal team has expanded a bit since the first hearing that Crime Story reported on here. It’s 9:45 am, 15 minutes before the hearing is scheduled to begin, and the bloat on the defense’s side of the courtroom concerns Robin Armstrong, the clerk. With the calmness and firmness of a middle-school teacher, she requests that some attorneys sit in the gallery. They oblige, relegated to the gallery’s front row, their knees bumping up against the partition. Durst’s jury trial is scheduled for September, which is quite a...

The Witness Following Ashton Kutcher (Gargiulo 2)

This is the second in a series of articles about the trial of Michael Gargiulo. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read "I Buried the Bitch… Just Kidding." It’s crowded at the Criminal Courts Building on Wednesday morning, May 29. Normally, a small procession of jurors, attorneys, witnesses, and others funnel through one of two entrances on either side of the building, both complete with a security crew and metal-detectors, which creates moderate congestion in the early hours when court is in session. But today, the line to...

Two Hearings: Robert Durst and Armon Nelson (Durst 1)

Even through the closed door of the witness interview room, the voices are loud, ratcheting up the tension in the courtroom. An unseen female insists: “I brought the white shirt… and the blue jacket!” The reply is lost as the court reporter raps on the door, leans in, and warns the people in the room that they can be heard. There’s a long beat, and then a middle-aged, blonde woman emerges from the room, looking flustered. She takes a seat immediately behind the defense team. “He cut his hair again,” she announces, perturbed. The...

Slouching towards Babel

Genesis 11 tells a story of thwarted civic ambitions. The people of Shinar shared a single common language and flaunted this gift by constructing a massive tower, tall enough to reach the heavens. This monument to mutual understanding was to be the hallmark of a great city called Babel. The Lord, perceiving the tower as prideful and idolatrous, responded severely. He descended upon Shinar, scrambled its language – “so that they will not understand one another’s speech” – and scattered its denizens “over the face of all the earth.” Babel the monolingual dream city was no more....

“I Buried the Bitch… Just Kidding.” (Gargiulo 1)

At 12:30 pm on May 14, a parade of suits marches out of the Criminal Courts Building and down to the adjacent Grand Park for lunch. There, greasy food trucks line a sitting area, parked in the shadow of the looming 20-story steel ingot, a foreboding eyesore. Today is another sunny spring day in LA, and those who leave the building, choosing the trucks over the one-note cafeteria, are wise to shed their jackets and roll up their sleeves. Among those in the park is Anthony DiLorenzo, a lean, heavily tanned Italian-American approaching middle...

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