The mangled body of a young woman was discovered in some bushes near an office building in Southwest Los Angeles. LAPD Detective Sergeant Carlos Aguilar was sent to investigate. The victim turned out to be the accountant at a nearby housing complex that was the sole remaining structure in an area that once contained a neighborhood. Witnesses described two men who carried the victim away from a nearby nightclub parking lot after a barroom fight, but there was no forensic evidence and very few clues for Aguilar to proceed with. Looking at the broader picture, he ruled out gangs, robbers, rapists, and most other common street criminals, as the crime appeared to be a professional hit. A gang contact that he used as a tipster told him that a very evil person, referred to as “El Puma”, from deep in Mexico was in the area terrorizing his and other gangs. Aguilar met the victim’s next of kin at the morgue, where he also met a young reporter from the L.A. Daily Journal, a daily newspaper, who was working his first crime story. Aguilar’s partner didn’t take Jay, the young reporter, seriously; but Aguilar thought that since this case had overtones of a cover up, Jay might actually be of use for them.
Jay discovered that the housing complex where the victim worked was primarily Section Eight and supported by the Federal Government. The assistant manager there explained that some rent money went missing and the government came in to audit. The audit did not determine what happened with the missing money, but it did point to managerial problems leading to the ouster of the owner as manager and the hiring of a consultant to straighten things out. The owner complained to the HUD loan manager that she was being framed for actions taken by others outside her control. She requested to send in her own auditor which the loan manager reluctantly agreed to. The second audit also did not find out about the money, but it did report on a number of financial irregularities, particularly pointing to a certain vendor, the South Bay Neighborhood Association. This discovery gave Aguilar what he needed to pursue officers and managers of the South Bay Neighborhood Association in what he believed was a cover up that the victim knew something about. Then a resident of the complex, a retired gentleman who was helping the owner manage the business, was suddenly murdered in what appeared to be a carjacking gone bad. Witnesses identified the killers as very similar to the ones tacitly involved in the first victim’s murder. This meant to Aguilar that the crimes had to be the work of a serial killer who had some connection to the housing complex.
Aguilar got a break in the case when one of the perpetrators of the barroom fight was arrested for shoplifting. The nightclub’s security videos had this person directly engaged with the first victim in a brawl, but they did not show what transpired in the parking lot where the victim was “rescued” and carried away. The perpetrator was in an auto accident recently and needed roughly $5,000 to get her car fixed. More interrogation got her to give up who it was that gave her the money, and that she was paid to start the fight with the victim. This information lead to the arrest of a key player, the money man, at the South Bay Neighborhood Association, who subsequently made bail and was himself nearly killed as he fled the country. But the killer and his handler were not finished. The tipster inside the complex, the consultant manager of the complex, and one of the partners of South Bay Neighborhood Association were all killed in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to cover up the reason behind all the criminal activity and protect someone at the top. Aguilar knew that to unravel a cover up he must begin on the outside and work his way in with each suspect pointing to the next one. The case drew the attention of the FBI and the California Attorney General, as the money man was wanted for other crimes of fraud. Aguilar knew that he was not the boss at the top of the heap, however. The trail finally led Aguilar to the killer’s handler, who reluctantly tells him where he can find “El Puma”. The money man was tricked into leaving his Bahamian safe house, was apprehended in Mexico, and returned to Los Angeles. He became state’s evidence and explained who it was behind it all. For their efforts, Aguilar was promoted to Lieutenant, and Jay published a book detailing the entire saga.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
It’s drawn from images and experiences I achieved when I first moved to Los Angeles. In addition to my career, I helped out a friend who had some problems with his Section Eight Housing complex.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
No character in any of my stories is exactly like any real person whether I know the person or not. Most of my characters are composites of people I know with various other characteristics added in. Some characters are developed completely from scratch to suit their part in the story.
Sultan Road wandered through mostly empty, dusty fields in a hardscrabble portion of Los Angeles County that was left behind while the area’s abundant real estate growth ventured elsewhere. But it provided the perfect scenario for the largest act of criminal conspiracy and cover-up in Southern California’s history.
At the Paradise Cove nightclub, about midway down Sultan Road near Sepulveda Boulevard on the Thursday night before Memorial Day weekend, a slender Asian woman on her way to the ladies room accidentally brushed past a much larger Latina. The larger woman turned around quickly. A few words were exchanged, and then the Asian woman continued toward the ladies’ room, only to be shoved from behind onto the floor by the larger woman. The Asian woman got back up and stared at the Latina. A few more words were exchanged, and then the larger woman grabbed her, punched her, and pushed her into a nearby table. The fight continued with another Latina joining in, grabbing the Asian woman and pinning her arms behind her.
Within seconds, all eyes in the nightclub were focused on the women as they slugged it out. Then the crowd surrounding the combatants spontaneously surged toward the side door exit that led to the parking lot. The lopsided fight continued with the hapless Asian woman beaten to the ground and kicked repeatedly. Suddenly, two men stepped into the middle of the fracas and pushed the assailants out of the way. One of the men announced that the victim was seriously hurt and needed to go to the hospital. In the middle of jeering and cursing by the two Latinas—along with some of the crowd— the two men carefully picked up the Asian woman and carried her to a pickup truck. They placed her gingerly in the truck’s bay before driving off.
Just before eight o’clock the next morning, an office worker parked her car in the lot of the multi-story office building where she worked. She noticed a shoe protruding from underneath a branch of some bushes. As the shoe seemed out of place, she decided to take a closer look. When she reached down to pick it up, she let out a loud scream. The shoe was attached to the foot of a young Asian woman.
One of her office colleagues, who was on his way into the building, dashed over to see what had happened. She pointed to the shoe. Barely visible beyond the branch lay the mangled remains of a human body. Much of the female victim’s torso had been smashed and crushed into a bloody mess. Only half of the victim’s head appeared to be intact. The initial shock was unnerving to the woman. Even worse was the terrified look on the victim’s face as if she had been abused or tortured before being bludgeoned to death. The colleague called 911, and the two remained at the scene until the police arrived.
The first responders cordoned off the area as a potential crime scene. A short while later, Detective Sergeant Carlos Aguilar of the LAPD Harbor Gateway Division arrived with his partner, Officer Harry Lee. Although standing only five feet ten inches tall, Aguilar had a rugged and sturdy build. An eighteen-year veteran of the police force, he had worked homicide for the last eleven years. Even all he encountered during that time (plus five years of boxing as a middleweight) couldn’t prepare him for what he saw. As he stared at the victim’s remains, his mind was actively churning.
“It doesn’t appear that the victim put up much of a struggle,” Aguilar said, while Officer Lee stood nearby.
The office building was six stories high and had a layer of bushes that surrounded the ground floor interrupted by an occasional palm tree. Officer Lee made a careful search of the immediate area for a purse, wallet, or some other item that might identify the victim. Afterward he said, “I don’t see anything around here that could be helpful in identifying her.” “The question now is whether or not this is the crime scene,” Aguilar said. “Or is this just where the body got
Harry paused for a moment. At six feet, he was slightly taller than Aguilar. He was an immigrant from South Korea who had been in the LAPD for seven years. His given name was Lee Har-won which he changed to Harry Lee. He had been in apprentice mode for a year and a half, as Aguilar’s job included mentoring him. “I don’t see any blood other than the spot where the victim’s body rests,” Harry said.
“Look under that car,” Aguilar said as he walked over to a parking spot a few feet away. Harry could see some red spots that were barely visible under the front bumper.
“Go inside the office building and find out whose car that is,” Aguilar said. “If we can get it moved, we won’t need to have traffic division come out and tow it.”
As Harry went inside to look for the car’s owner, Aguilar crawled back into the bushes and examined the corpse. The victim was fully clothed although her top was mangled along with her torso. Aguilar noticed that the zipper to her slacks was partially pulled down.
A short time later Harry returned with the car’s owner, who promptly moved his car. Several spots of blood were revealed in the vacated parking space.
“We’ll need to call CSI to get samples of that blood,” Aguilar said. “They’ll also remove the woman’s remains without damaging any other forensic evidence. I want you to search the other side of this building to see if you can find anything that might be evidence as to who the victim was and how she got here. Whoever did this might have tossed her handbag into the trash or thrown it away somewhere.”
While waiting for CSI, Aguilar took a statement from the woman who had discovered the body. After finishing his fruitless search, Harry used his cell phone to make a few pictures of the victim. When CSI arrived and began their work, the two detectives returned to their office at the Harbor Community Police Station in nearby San Pedro.
Logging in to his computer, Aguilar opened up the e-form that was used for filing a police report. A lot of routine details were required, and the two detectives filled most of them in. The exact location of the discovery of the body fell just outside of the LAPD’s jurisdiction as the building and parking lot were actually just a few yards into the city of Torrance. To be sure about jurisdiction, Aguilar asked a colleague to verify if the spot was, in fact, outside of the neighborhood of Harbor Gateway.
“We found the body in a parking lot on the corner of Western and Carson streets,” Aguilar said. “It was in the bushes, about one hundred feet west of the main entrance to an office building. Since the body was badly mauled and no sign of a struggle was visible, we believe that the crime was committed somewhere else and the body was just dumped there.”
“Well it’s definitely on the border with Torrance,” the senior detective said as he looked at a computerized map of the area. “But if the crime scene was elsewhere and LAPD answered the call, you should mark it on the form that it’s in our jurisdiction. By the way, you said the victim was female. Any pictures of what the remains look like?”
“Harry took some pictures, but he’s not here right now,” Aguilar said. “I can tell you that the victim was a female Asian. She was beaten into a bloody mess.”
“The reason I asked is that we got a call about a big fight between two women last night at a bar called Paradise Cove down on Sepulveda. You should check with the bartender at that place. One of them might have been Asian.”
Following up on the senior detective’s tip, Aguilar and Lee visited the Paradise Cove nightclub just as it opened for the evening. Paradise Cove had its own building that was located in another large parking lot behind a much taller office building. The nightclub was set back from the street, making it less noticeable to passersby. The heavyset bartender with a short beard, who had placed the call to the police, explained that the fight started when an Asian girl walked past a couple of Mexican girls and brushed against one of them.
“It started out innocently enough,” the bartender told them, “but words were exchanged and it escalated into pushing and shoving. I tried to get around from behind the bar to break it up. Before I could, some bystanders had pushed the whole mob out into the parking lot.”
Harry furnished a picture of the murder victim. “Did one of the participants look like this?” he said. The picture showed barely enough of the victim’s face intact to be recognizable.
The bartender looked at the picture and grimaced. Then he said, “I think so. I really didn’t get that good a look at her. We have security cameras, and you can probably identify her from them.”
Then Aguilar said, “What happened out in the parking lot?”
“I couldn’t tell. Everyone moved outside so quickly. That’s when I called the police. But our assistant manager might have gotten a look at what happened. I saw him go out the door following the mob.”
The youthful assistant manager was available, and the two detectives interviewed him as well. “I got outside right behind the big group of patrons who followed the three women into the parking lot,” he said. “They all stood around and watched these two Latina girls pummel the poor Asian girl senseless. I started pushing my way through the crowd to try to break it up. Before I could get to the front, two other guys picked up the Asian girl off of the ground. They carried her away shouting to somebody in the crowd that they were going to take her to the hospital.”
“Did you get a look at the two, ah, good Samaritans?” Aguilar said.
“I could only tell that they were two Latinos,” the assistant manager said. “One was taller and had a ponytail.”
“Did you get a look at the car they put her in?” Aguilar said.
“I couldn’t tell. At that point, the crowd started to get rowdy. Some of the Asian and Mexican patrons were shouting, pushing, and shoving each other around. I had to devote my energy to restoring order until the police arrived.”
At this point in the interview, a bar patron who overheard the conversation spoke up. “They beat the loving shit out of that little Asian girl,” he said.
“Did you follow the fight outside?” Harry said.
“Sure did,” the patron, a crusty looking white male of about age sixty, said. “Like I said, they pounded the Asian girl down to the ground and then started kicking her.”
“Did you see the two men who took her away?” Aguilar said.
“One was a fairly tall Mexican, and the other one was shorter. The shorter guy didn’t look like he was from around here. I mean, he didn’t seem like your average, local Mexican.”
Aguilar stopped for a moment to size up not only the speaker but also the comment. He didn’t want to discuss being socially correct, but he did need a better description of one of the participants. “You mean he didn’t look like a ‘cholo’?” he finally said.
The bar patron looked back at Aguilar and then said, “Yeah, he didn’t look like a cholo.”
“Did you see where they took the woman?” Harry said.
“They put her in the back of a gray pickup truck and drove off.”
“Where was the truck parked?” Harry said.
The bar patron looked at Harry as if he were dumb. “Down at the far end of the parking lot,” he said.
Then Aguilar said, “When you were in the bar, did you hear anything said by any of the other bar patrons about what lead to the fight?”
“No. But when the shoving began somebody said, ‘Watch out, Lisa’.”
“One of them was named, Lisa,” Aguilar said. “Do you know which one?”
While the two officers were talking to the bar patron, the assistant manager brought out a compact disk of the security video sequences. Harry then said, “Did either of you notice if anyone made a cell phone video of the fight?” He had realized that the security video wouldn’t show what had happened in the parking lot.
The assistant manager shook his head.
The bar patron said, “No.”
Both detectives then walked outside to take a look around the parking lot. “I wonder if there was any forensic evidence,” Harry said. “This looks very cleaned up.”
“I don’t see anything,” Aguilar said. “Somebody must have hosed the parking lot down afterward.”
“I wonder why there were no cell phones anywhere making a video or taking pictures,” Harry said.
“This place is on the border of some rival gangs— Mexican on one side and Asian on the other,” Aguilar said. “If anybody had made a cell phone video of a gang-related fight, they might face retaliation.”
“Do you think this was a gang-related fight?” Harry said.
“No, I don’t,” Aguilar said. “This doesn’t have the characteristics of a gang fight. But if the bystanders thought that it was, they wouldn’t have taken any pictures at all.”
“This doesn’t look like an ordinary bar fight,” Harry said. “I mean, with the crowd pushing it so quickly out the door and into the parking lot where the security cameras won’t see it. Two guys with a truck conveniently parked nearby step in and take the victim away. The crowd blocks the club assistant manager from getting a good view of events. All that seems like it was planned.”
“Good point. But what you’ve just recapped is not what usually happens in a gang fight.”
“If it wasn’t gangs, then what was it?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m concerned that maybe it was a professional hit.”
“If it was a hit, then why did an apparently innocent young woman get beaten senseless?”
“To answer that, we need to first find out who the victim was,” Aguilar said.
It was after the holiday weekend when the morgue called Sergeant Aguilar to tell him that the victim from the nightclub fight had been identified and the autopsy completed. There was little in the way of evidence to go on. But using fingerprints, blood type, dental records, and the portion of the face that was still intact, the medical examiner identified the victim as Lisa Nguyen. The breakthrough after a long weekend of work came when the victim’s sister filed a missing person’s report that included a recent picture. Aguilar picked up the missing person’s report and called the sister, Rachel Nguyen Tran.
“Mrs. Tran,” Aguilar said, after introducing himself, “I’m following up on the missing person’s report you filed about your sister, Lisa Nguyen.”
“Yes, please tell me. Have you found her?”
Aguilar always spoke in a low-key monotone despite the circumstances. Because he was often in deep thought, he rarely let himself get excited over what he knew or had discovered. For this communication, a deadpan approach better served its purpose. “There’s no easy way to say this,” he said, “but we believe your sister was killed as a result of some type of criminal activity.”
“Oh! Oh no! This can’t be true,” Mrs. Tran said, and Aguilar heard her crying. After a moment, she gathered herself together and said, “Lisa would never do anything illegal.”
“We don’t believe that she did anything wrong,” Aguilar said. “We don’t know for sure how she died, either. But our lab technicians have a body in the morgue and they believe it matches up to your report.”
“Oh, my God! Please don’t let it be so.” She continued sobbing.
After another pause, Aguilar said, “We will need you to meet us down at the morgue so you can confirm that it is your sister. And I want to say that I’m sorry for your loss.”
Aguilar and Lee went to the morgue, that was located in downtown Los Angeles, to speak to the examiner.
“She has twelve broken bones and several internal injuries, including a portion of her lung that spilled out through her rib cage,” the examiner said. “One side of the skull was partially crushed. She lost at least a quarter of her blood supply. Her ribs were crushed where her heart was located, and her heart and coronary arteries were mangled.”
“Is it possible to determine which blow was the fatal one?” Aguilar said, as they looked at the cleaned-up body.
“You can take your pick,” the examiner said.
“Her injuries are a lot worse than someone just beaten in a fist fight,” Harry said. “Was a weapon used?”
“There’s evidence of blunt force trauma especially to the head and torso,” the examiner said. “Just what was used I couldn’t be sure, but it was likely some kind of club.”
“She was carried away after the fight,” Aguilar said. “It looks like somebody tried to finish her off. Do you think that she was dead before she was carried away?”
“It’s impossible to tell,” the examiner said. “She might have received the fatal blow afterward. I just don’t know.”
“And you say she lost a quarter of her blood?” Harry said.
“At least that much,” the examiner said.
“I wonder where all that blood went,” Harry said. “We didn’t see very much where we found the body, and there wasn’t any at the nightclub parking lot.”
During this interview, a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal entered the morgue and introduced himself as Jason Phillips. At age thirty, he was young for a crime reporter. In physical appearance he was also quite a contrast to the two detectives—tall at six foot four, slim, blond, with a beach going tan. He was wearing cargo shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt with a large print of a surfboard across the front. His hair looked like someone had set off a tiny bomb in it and blew it up in all different directions. In contrast, the two detectives were neat and trim with business casual clothes and their badges hanging around their necks.
He was polite—just as Aguilar and Lee were polite—and he explained that it was his first assignment for a major crime story. He extended his hand to each officer saying, “You can call me Jay.”
Aguilar was unimpressed with what he saw. But Harry looked Jay over more carefully as he didn’t understand why the newspaper would assign such an inexperienced reporter to cover a grisly murder.
“Please tell me how the victim was killed,” Jay said. He withdrew a notepad and pen from his backpack.
“We were just discussing that,” Aguilar said. He gave Jay a summary of what had transpired thus far in the case as they waited for the victim’s sister to show up.
“Can I have a look at the body?” Jay said.
“Be my guest,” Aguilar said. He led Jay over to the examiner’s table and pulled the shroud away.
“Oh my God!” Jay said. “That is just, like…awful.” He stared for a few minutes and then started looking a little queasy. “Thanks. I’ve seen enough for now,” he said.
Aguilar covered his mouth with his fist to stifle a laugh. Harry cracked a smile. “Are you…OK?” Aguilar finally said.
“Yeah, yeah, sure. I guess so,” Jay said. “I mean, I was, like, getting a little weak at the knees. I sure hope all the dead bodies I see on this job won’t look that bad.”
“Some will be worse,” Aguilar said with a small grin.
It was a short time later when Rachel Tran and her husband arrived. They were greeted first by the examiner, who led them over to the table where Rachel’s sister lay.
“I must tell you that your sister was traumatized and badly mangled when she died,” the examiner said. “It will not be a pretty sight.”
Rachel looked at her husband and took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s go ahead with it,” she said.
The examiner pulled the shroud away. Rachel seized up when she saw her sister’s body. She held her hands to her to her cheeks and staggered backwards. Her husband grabbed her shoulders and turned her away from the table. He pressed her body close to his. She gradually regained her composure and took another brief look. “Yes, that’s Lisa,” she finally said.
Rachel’s husband led her over to a nearby bench to sit her down and help her recuperate. Aguilar went over to them and said, “I’m Sergeant Carlos Aguilar from the LAPD. I’m very sorry to meet you under these circumstances. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions about your sister.”
Rachel looked at her husband. With his nodding approval, she then turned toward Aguilar and said, “OK.”
Harry and Jay stood a few steps away but still within earshot. Aguilar began by explaining that Lisa was seen in a fight at the Paradise Cove nightclub.
“She was carried away by two unknown men from the parking lot, and her body was found in the bushes of an office building not far away,” Aguilar said. “We are treating this as a homicide. But we wonder how she came to be in the nightclub, and why she would get into a fight in the parking lot there.”
“I don’t know,” was Rachel’s response. She held her head in her hands as she sat next to her husband. “Lisa would occasionally go out clubbing, but she almost never went alone. The last thing in the world she would do is get into a physical fight with somebody.”
“Can we have her address?”
“Yes, of course.” Rachel recited Lisa’s address as Harry and Jay both took it down.
“Did she have any children or a husband?” Aguilar said.
“No. She was never married.”
“How about her job?”
“She worked at Renaissance Estates on Sultan Road, north of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She was the building’s accountant.”
“Did she have any problems such as angry or jealous boyfriends, drugs, gambling debts, large sums of money owed, or other similar issues?”
Rachel knew that the police were simply doing their job. But she became visibly upset by the idea that her sister might have been complicit in her own death. This pulled her out of her slump and she said, “Lisa was a kind, quiet, person who did not have a steady boyfriend. She was always careful with money, and certainly didn’t gamble or do drugs. She kept to her job and to herself mostly.”
“I see,” Aguilar said. “Did she have a group of friends that she hung around with?”
“Yes,” Rachel said. Her tired-looking eyes showed that she was worn out by the ordeal even though it was only late morning.
“I would like to get a list of her friends’ names and phone numbers,” Aguilar said. He gave her his business card. “You can email it to me when you have some time.”
“OK, I can do that.”
The examiner returned Lisa’s body to the storage drawer. Then he took the sister and her husband to the office to complete the paperwork to claim it.
On their way back to the parking garage, Aguilar turned to Jay and said, “Well, Newsboy, now you know all that we know about this case.”
“Thanks, Sergeant Aguilar. By the way, can I get one of those business cards of yours?”
Aguilar gave him one. “Now, don’t forget to use this,” he said. “Let me know anything you find out about this case no matter how trivial. Little things could turn out to be very important.”
“Oh, totally. I’m good at staying in touch. I, ah, like, don’t have my own business cards.” Jay wrote down his cell phone number and email address onto his notepad. He tore off the page and handed it to Aguilar. “That’s my cell number. You can reach me anytime—I always have it with me.”
“It would help matters if you would tell one of us when your stories hit the papers,” Harry said.
“Sure, I can do that.”
When they walked through the door of the building that led to the parking garage, Aguilar said, “Uh, Newsboy, just one question.”
“Yes?” Jay said as he turned back around.
“What is that thing sticking out of your backpack?” Aguilar said. He thought he already knew the answer.
Jay was momentarily puzzled. He had to figure out what it was that Aguilar saw. “Oh, you mean my skateboard,” he finally said.
“Your…skateboard,” Aguilar said.
“Hey, it’s, like, the way I get around a lot,” Jay said. “It’s faster than walking, and easier than running. See you soon, guys.” As they had entered the parking garage, he pulled the skateboard out and began skating down to the end of the level where his van was parked.
Aguilar and Lee watched as Jay skated away. “So, the Daily Journal has sent us a bright, young, kid with a skateboard who is working on his first crime story,” Aguilar said.
“Do you think his youth will cause us some problems?” Harry said.
Aguilar thought for a moment and said, “No, we won’t let that happen. Besides, it’s his first time with reporting on a crime like this. He might dig up information about this ugly case that will be useful to us. People will sometimes say things to a reporter that they would never tell the police.”
Harry continued to watch Jay skate away. “I hope you’re right,” he said.
David attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and California State University, Los Angeles receiving degrees in Economics, Business Administration, and Computer Information Systems. He is now retired, living in Orange County, California after a career as an IT consultant.
In addition, David is a private investor, a major sports fan, a jazz aficionado, and a fledgling art collector.
David’s publishing credits include Sultan Road, the quest for land in Southern California leads to murder; The Florida Caper, an adventure yarn set in South Florida involving stolen jewelry that carries a curse; Galvez Stadium, a unique piece of fiction about the endeavors of building a football stadium during a revolution in Santiago, Chile; and Woodruff’s Firebase, reflecting the great intensity of the conflict in Vietnam.
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