Sal LaBarbera sees dead bodies.
Driving from Watts to USC — up Central Avenue, west over on 83rd, up Figueroa — the LAPD homicide detective can envision the slain bodies of his cases. Hundreds of them. Hell, no, thousands of them.
"There is not a street, not a corner, from the Nickerson Gardens to the Sports Arena [where] I haven't been part of a homicide investigation," LaBarbera said as he drove that route recently. "I don't remember all the names. How could I? But I remember the bodies."
Detective Sal LaBarbera's days of seeing dead bodies are winding down. After 33 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, 27 of those investigating homicides, he is retiring. On Jan. 31 he will be, as police say, "KMA367." End of watch.
He'll leave a legacy as one of the best homicide cops in the history of LAPD, meaning one of the best anywhere — built on a foundation of loyalty to his peers but, even more, to the victims and their families.
"The level of compassion and the commitment he has are unsurpassed by any detective," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who has worked with LaBarbera his entire career. "We're really going to miss him. Not just because he's a great detective but because he's a great friend."
LaBarbera said the best part of being a detective is "driving Code 3 in reverse around LAX chasing somebody." The worst? "Statistics are bullshit. One murder is one too many."
LaBarbera, 55, was raised in New York's Westchester County by his detective father and homemaker mother. He played semipro baseball in New York as an outfielder.
But his grandparents lived in the San Fernando Valley, and when he visited them he would sit outside the LAPD Van Nuys station and watch the officers come and go. "I was so impressed by their size, their professionalism and that sharp uniform," he said. "They were unlike what I was used to seeing in New York."
He graduated from the Los Angeles Police Academy in 1981 and fairly quickly was assigned to the wild 77th Street station, becoming a detective trainee. By 1990, he was working homicide at South Bureau amidst the era's gang bloodbaths.
"It's the most rewarding and demanding job. Thirty-six-hour shifts were normal," he said. "My goal was always to catch the bad guy before the victim's funeral. To get suspects to cop out, that's so rewarding. I have a half-dozen assholes on Death Row."
The worst thing about being a homicide detective: "Seeing the carnage left behind." The best: "A little bit of closure for families."
LaBarbera's boss, Lt. Jeff Nolte, said the detective is "going to be impossible to replace."
"There's more art to homicide than science," Nolte said. "It's a feeling. It's about tension. It's about having relationships. There is no one like Sal when it comes to naturally building a relationship. When a witness senses that feeling, they become comfortable, and that's when they come forward. Sal is unwavering in his oath to make things right."
Thirty-one years ago, at Manchester Avenue and St. Andrews Place, LaBarbera was on patrol when a man got shot, his femoral artery taking a potentially fatal hit. But the detective reached his fingers into the victim's leg and pinched off the artery, saving him.
The best thing about his job, LaBarbera said: community contact. The worst: "Department bullshit."
Det. Chris Barling, supervisor of the 77th Street homicide unit, has known LaBarbera for 27 years and calls him "Hollywood Jack," a nod to the detective's frequent press conferences and oft-stated desire to "go Hollywood" after he retires.
When Barling heard L.A. Weekly was profiling the detective, he asked, "How much is he paying you?"
But then Barling got serious. "Sal's compassion and caring about people both on the force and on the street, the victims, the families, is second to none. He is a compassionate and a passionate advocate for victim's families."
Det. Tim Marcia of the Robbery-Homicide division explained that the detective taps into something deep in these families, then turns it into a tool that propels him forward.
"He's carried the loss of a victim close to his heart, and he used the pain and anguish that violent crime brings to a family as motivation to do the job right," Marcia said. "Sal was a real murder cop, and the city of L.A. is a better place because of him."
It's not difficult to tap into compliments from co-workers. What's unique about LaBarbera is that he gets compliments from "the other side."
Infamous 89 Family Swans gang member Cleamon "Big Evil" Johnson lauded LaBarbera for his "come at you as a man" straightforwardness.
Johnson is incarcerated at Men's Central Jail, awaiting his retrial for two murders for which he served 13 years on death row. In 2011, the California Supreme Court overturned his conviction, finding that a juror leaning toward acquittal was wrongly excused by the trial judge. A few months ago, asked by a reporter about the guest list for his "homecoming party" if he wins at retrial, Johnson said, "Hey, you gotta invite Sal. Just tell him to leave the badge at home."
Homicide detectives who listen to Johnson's jailhouse phone conversations gave LaBarbera a full ration of shit for that.
Betty Day, the mother of Wayne "Honcho" Day, a former Grape Street Crip whom the FBI once labeled the "Godfather of Watts," also praised LaBarbera
"That Italian is retiring, and I'm just now hearing about it?" Day said. "He knows my son, and he was after him, but Sal was and is always fair. A good cop. He better invite me to his party."
Donny Joubert, a respected Nickerson Gardens peacemaker who convinced the project's Bounty Hunter Bloods not to retaliate against a rival gang — and to instead let LaBarbera do his job — remembered, "Sal sat down with me, and I could feel his determination, his concern for my family."
"Sal got the killer," Joubert said. "We have nothing but respect for Sal in Watts."
LaBarbera said his best moments include "hijacking an ice cream truck and treating the neighborhood." His worst: "The nightmares, the not sleeping."
LaBarbera's dedication to families of the murdered came at a cost to his own family. He recalled "getting yelled at for almost not being there for my own child's birth," even as he celebrated the fact that he delivered "three babies over the years."
When asked if her father ever left a special occasion to rush to a crime scene, LaBarbera's oldest daughter, Marissa, 21, replied with a laugh, "Which special occasion would you like me to start with? Easter, Christmas, my birthday?
"My dad would get home from a 12-plus-hours workday, sit down at the dinner table, ask us girls how school was, and all of a sudden his cellphone is ringing and he is out on the porch, smoking his cigarette, with his work face on. His demeanor would stiffen, his tone would become more stern. And I would watch through the window and realize my dad is going back to work."
Younger daughter Emily, 18, said she has some of his traits.
"I don't want to be a cop, but what I will do, to follow his footsteps, is to be a wolf, not a sheep. Meaning, I'm going to be a leader; I'm going to help others, and I won't be afraid of anything."
For LaBarbera, the worst part of the job has been "someone dying in your arms."
The best: "Being there with prayers and kind words for someone dying in your arms."
This story was edited by Jill Stewart.