February, 2005 – LAPD Officer Sam Marullo and his homicide training officer Det. John Skaggs are driving past the sprawling U.S. Post Office facility on Central and Florence avenues in South Central Los Angeles.
“You know, Marullo, this is the largest mail facility west of the Mississippi.”
Murullo looks up from a Grape Street murder book he’s been studying and says “Dayum!”
Besides his father Ronnie, who was a homicide detective for the Long Beach Police Department, there was a fictional detective who inspired John Skaggs to go into law enforcement. But, it was not super cool Steve McQueen with his ’68 Mustang 390 GT of “Bullitt” or deadly Clint Eastwood with his .44 magnum of “Dirty Harry”. It was that soft-spoken, kind and – most of all – respectful Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“My favorite TV show as a kid and today was the cop show ‘Andy Griffith’,” said Skaggs, a 30-year veteran of the LAPD who is retiring today. “There was some life lesson learned from every episode about morals and relationships. I have taken away many ideas from that show on how to treat people with respect, and deal with courage and bravery.”
Although Skaggs, 52, grew up in Long Beach around cops – his uncle was a deputy chief for the LAPD who retired in 1986 – he didn’t seriously consider law enforcement as a career until he was about 17.
“I got into some trouble as a kid and decided I needed to get away from some bad influences. Soon after, I developed my desire to be a police officer and joined the police academy and never looked back.”
After graduating, he requested to be sent to either of the city’s two highest crime rate areas.
“I chose 77th Street Division, which covers South-Central, and Southeast Division, which covers Watts. These two were the busiest Divisions, and they had the largest gang problems.”
Skaggs knew from going to high school in Long Beach and witnessing what was happening on inner city streets and in schools that gang enforcement would be where he could have the biggest impact on people's quality of life.
“The main reason I joined LAPD, was because they were the only police department with a true gang unit. Their Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) Unit was devoted to one thing, gang suppression. I joined the LAPD to be a gang officer. I could chase gang members that were responsible for most violent crimes and completely ruined communities with fear and intimidation.”
But, along the wide ride, Skaggs discovered something many cops, journalists and regular folk don’t realize; Gang members are humans, too.
“One thing that stands out is the number of gangsters I built friendly relationships with that were later killed,” Skaggs said. “Many tried to get out of 'hood life. I observed very often that I was the only person in their lives that ever encouraged them to go legit and get an education or job that would lead to a career. So many of them had no positive influence in their lives and no role models.”
Rob Bub, who recently retired from the LAPD after 22 years in homicide, was Skaggs' field training officer.
“If you are a training officer, John was the guy wanted to have,” said retired LAPD homicide detective Rob Bub, who was Skaggs’ training officer.
“John knew what he didn’t know and what he needed to learn,” said Bub
The very first day Bub was training Skaggs, they got a call for a man with a knife in a domestic dispute.
“We roll up on the scene and we go around the back of the house on Figueroa,” explained Bub. “And there was this Hispanic guy with a 12-inch kitchen knife. I’m thinking John’s first shift and we are gonna end up dumping somebody.”
The two took up tactical positions and Bub had an idea. He knew Skaggs was fresh out of the academy where they teach rudimentary Spanish.
“Knock him dead with your Spanish,” Bub told Skaggs. “And John talked him out of it. He dropped the knife. It was refreshing to see someone on their first day who knew what to do.”
Christopher Barling, homicide coordinator of the 77th , met Skaggs 30 years ago at the police academy. They were at CRASH together and partners on and off for five years at Southeast.
“Without a doubt John is one of the best homicide detectives in the LAPD thanks, in large part, to his persistence and stubbornness,” said Barling.“ The characteristics of persistence is not unique among detectives, but John Skaggs has perfected it. "He’s like that old salesman who is about to get shut down and told to leave and at the very last moment, he sticks his foot in front of the closing door.”
It’s not breaking news that the most difficult part of the murder investigations, especially on the Southside of Los Angeles, is getting witnesses. There is the fear of retaliation. Fear of going to court. Fear of being labeled a snitch. And, coming in first place, the fear of getting shot to death for cooperating with the dreaded enemy; the police.
Barling said Skaggs had and knack for getting people to open-up.
“One of John’s greatest gifts was the ability to get someone on his side. He is going to take care of a witness. He has this talent for building a bond with people. And he is very sincere.”
Skaggs also had the talent for pissing people off, Barling said. His fellow detectives, the younger officers, and even his captains and commanders were fair game..
“As his partner, sometimes John’s stubbornness drove me crazy,” Barling said. “He is so strong willed, so strongly opinionated that sometimes he did not want to listen to anyone.”
And Skaggs was never one to apply a coat of sugar.
“People don’t like to hear they are wrong, but Skaggs had no problem telling people what he thought of them,” said Barling. “Me, I might try and finesse a situation. But, John would just tell them 'You’re wrong'."
“In John’s world, you are either helpful or you are a dumb ass.”
LAPD Chief of Police Charlie Beck lavished praise on Skaggs.
“There is nothing more honorable in policing than detective work,” Beck said via E-mail. “The dogged determination and intelligent pursuit of the truth required are the best of our qualities. John Skaggs was born to be just such a detective. He is relentless and brilliant in his hunt for the worst mankind has to offer. I have depended on him to solve our most important cases.”
In 2009, Beck promoted Skaggs to head the West Bureau Homicide which is currently located at the Olympic Division on Vermont and 11th Street.
“I was proud to promote him so he could pass his skills to those under his command,” Beck said. “I will miss having him to rely on, but his retirement is well earned.”
Skaggs will expand his role as a teacher and consultant for government programs that assist police departments across the country with high homicide rates and low clearances.
Skaggs will likely teach these departments the value of a good CI. A CI, or Confidential Informant, is an essential player for a successful homicide detective. Skaggs had some of the best.
“We would be stuck on a case, and John would go off somewhere and talk to one of his informants,” said Sal LaBarbera. another storied LAPD homicide detective who retired in 2015. “Ten, 20 minutes later, he’d come back with some vital information. I’d say ‘How the hell did you get that?’ Even though I knew.”
One of Skaggs prime CI’s talked about him with the proviso her name would not be used.
“I was arrested for prostituting on Figueroa 19, 20 years ago or so and I told the officer ‘What if I told you about a murder?’ Next thing I knew I was taking to John Skaggs. He told me to trust him and I did. Was one of my best decisions. One thing about John. If he gave you his word, he honored it. His word was his bond.”
The woman, hooked on crack, was later involved with a carjacking and did six years in prison. When she got out, she called on Skaggs.
“He was there for me. He helped me stay sober. I got in a [drug and alcohol] treatment place and John would come visit me.”
She has been clean and sober for six years now.
“Five of those six years John was there to hand me my sobriety cake,” she said. “When life shows up and I need that shoulder to cry on, John is there for me.”
August, 2005 – LAPD Officer Sam Marullo and his homicide training officer Det. John Skaggs are driving by the sprawling U.S. Post Office facility on Central and Florence avenues in South Central Los Angeles.
Marullo’s head is deep into a Mad Swan Bloods vs. Main Street Crip killing.
Skaggs points at the post officer.
“You know, Sam, this is the largest mail facility west of the Mississippi.”
“I didn’t know that. Must be a whole lotta letters up in there.”
LaBarbera said Skaggs solved more of his cases than anyone he knew. “More than me. More than Barling. He had great persistence.”
Skaggs most famous case was detailed in L.A Times reporter Jill Leovy’s outstanding book “Ghettoside”. All of Skaggs talents are revealed as he successfully investigates the killing of Bryant Alexander Tennelle, son of LAPD homicide detective Wallace Tennelle.
“If you read the book,”. Leovy said, “It might seem like John is a caricature of a homicide detective, But, in reality, I downplayed him. He really cares deeply about the cases. He has this laser focus. By the way, he thought “Ghettoside” was a book about the [Tennelle] case and everything else in it was just filler.”
Two men were convicted of Tennelle’s murder and both are in prison.
Of, course, all the murders weren’t solved. One of them was the 2006 Watts killing of 25-year-old Anthony Wayne Owens, Jr. shot to death at Imperial Courts housing project.
But, mention Skaggs to Anthony’s mother and she passionately praises him.
“That there is a good man,” says Cynthia Mendenhall, much better known in Watts as community activist Sista Soulja. When she is told Skaggs is retiring, Sista gets silent for several seconds before saying “For real? You’re gonna make me cry.”
“John Skaggs treated me and my family like we were his family,” said Sista, a former PJ Crip who turned peacemaker and community activist more 20 years ago. “John was hurt he couldn’t solve Tony’s murder. But, he just couldn’t get what he wanted from the people that knew. He took it personally. He is, I guess now was, a great detective. He wasn’t there for the check. He was there for the people. It was like he was on a mission to catch killers before another innocent life was lost”
Lashell Lewis is mother whose son’s murder was solved by Skaggs.
In March, 2004, Edwin Johnson, 18, was visiting friends at 97th and Hickory in the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts. A car of rival drove by and Edwin was shot five times.
The mom said that though her son was born in L.A. , he was raised in Big Bear which did not prepare him for the mean streets.
“My son, not being raised in Watts, didn’t know how to dodge bullets,” said Lewis. “I was devastated. I put my faith in John.”
Eight months later, Skaggs having pulled out his main tools – perseverance, charm, trust, sincerity and respect – solved the case.
“John treated me as a human person with love, kindness and respect,’ said Lewis. “He assured me he would not give up. He treated me, ya know, with love. I think of him not so much as a friend, but more like a big cousin or an uncle.”
March, 2006 – LAPD Officer Sam Marullo and his homicide training officer Det. John Skaggs are driving by the sprawling U.S. Post Office facility on Central and Florence avenues in South Central Los Angeles.
Marullo’s preparing himself to give a “notification” to mother whose 17-year-old son has been killed near Nickerson Gardens.
Skaggs points at the post office.
“You know, Sammy, this is the largest mail facility west of the Mississippi.”
Marullo doesn’t even look up and just says “They must have stamps for days.”
Marullo, who formally became a homicide detective in February, 2014, is grateful for Skaggs’ mentorship. Still, he enjoys chiding Skaggs about the mail facility.
“Every single time we passed that place he would say that. ‘This is the largest mail facility west of the Mississippi.” And most every time I would act as though I hadn’t already heard that.
When it came Marullo’s time to train officers, he followed his mentor’s tradition of telling them about the mail facility.
“I would then say, ‘Did I already tell you that?’ and they would say “Yeah, about three times.’ Millennials. I guess I came from a different era because each of the 15 times John told me that, I act as though it was the first time I heard that useless fact.”
Marullo said Skaggs had high expectations of him and that made him work harder and smarter.
“I find myself placing those same expectations on the trainees with whom I've worked.”
Marullo went on.
“John was dedicated to working murders. He sacrificed half of his life to chasing killers. He always left a positive impression on the victims' families and always followed through with his promise to do all that he could to find the person who killed their loved one. He is not only a mentor, but a friend.”
This morning, shortly after 9 a.m., Skaggs landed at LAX after a week in Memphis and headed for his last shift.
“I’m leaving with a ton of great memories and a few bad ones after 30 years of service,” said Skaggs. “It was an awesome ride.”
Maybe if Frank Bullitt and Dirty Harry Callahan were real, they coulda learned a few things from John Skaggs, the big city detective with the small town heart. Check out the photo below. That’s a real homicide detective. Ain’t nothing Hollywood about it.