LA TIMES OP-ED - Another Killing in Watts

A frustrated detective tweets a photo of a dead body. For good reason.

October 21, 2011

"Dead in a Zip Code that doesn't matter." — A homicide detective in "The Wire."

Knuckles' wife said it was wrong.

"The detective didn't show respect when he put that picture on Twitter," Maria Rios told me. A cellphone photograph of her just-slain husband covered with a blanket on a Watts street was posted last week on the social media site by a veteran Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective.

It wasn't just Rios who was upset. The photo drew the ire of a local blogger who called it callous, and a story on the LA Weekly blog "The Informer" kept the controversy going, launching follow-ups in newspapers and their blogs as far away as London (the Daily Mail), New York (the Daily News) and Washington (the Post).

Oscar "Knuckles" Arevalo, 32, was killed Oct. 11 as he was standing next to a woman known as the "Tamale Lady" on the southwest corner of 106th Street and Wilmington Avenue in the unruly heart of Watts.

When Sal LaBarbera, supervisor of the criminal gang homicide unit in the LAPD's South Bureau, which covers Watts, arrived on the scene, he took a picture of Arevalo's body covered with a white and red blanket and later posted it on his Twitter account (@LA Murder Cop) with the tag "Guess where I'm at??? It never ends." And the hoopla began.

LaBarbera isn't apologizing. On Sunday, one of his Twitter followers asked: "Did you ever think 1 pic would get such attention?" He replied: "I would have done [it] sooner. Stop the violence." He told me he regretted that posting the photo had become the issue: "The real issue is what is happening in Watts, in our city."

And that's the point. Frustration played a major role in LaBarbera's decision. With all due respect to Rios — who has five children with Arevalo and is brokenhearted — sometimes we need to see what's hard to look at.

Within several blocks of where Knuckles (he got his nickname from his boyhood love of fist-fighting, his wife said with a laugh) died, there have been 19 other homicides this year. How much TV airtime and how many newspaper column inches have been written about those killings? Other than a full-page LA Weekly piece in June about a double on Grape Street, the only coverage has been the posts on The Times' homicide blog.

Can you imagine the response to nearly 20 homicides this year in Hancock Park or Beverly Hills? Delta Force maybe?

It's always been this way. I first met LaBarbera in the mid-1990s, when I covered a triple homicide off Hoover Street in South-Central. I wrote about 25 inches; it was published as a brief, 2 inches tops. I called LaBarbera and told him. I don't remember his exact words, but he was disappointed then, so how would he feel now, after another decade and a half of largely unheralded murders.

Some Angelenos seem to be under the twisted impression that a killing in Watts does not matter as much as one in a more tranquil area. South L.A. communities are used to violence, right? It's not news. But that familiarity with tragedy only makes it all the more tragic.

"People, white people, think that this is normal, that murders are supposed to happen here in Watts," said Elvonzo "Red Mann" Cromwell at Monday's Watts Gang Task Force meeting. Cromwell, who knew Arevalo, grew up in Jordan Downs. "But it's not supposed to happen here the same as it's not supposed to happen anywhere."

But, it does happen here with alarming frequency, which is the prime reason LaBarbera posted the photo. Watts, just one 2.1-square-mile community in the LAPD's Southeast Division, accounted for four times the homicides in the entire 17.2-square-mile Hollywood Division and nine times the number in the even larger West Los Angeles Division as of Oct. 1. And that was before Arevalo was killed.

The families of the multiple homicide victims in Arevalo's neighborhood aren't grieving any less than families in Hollywood and West L.A. Heartbroken is heartbroken on Grape Street in Watts, same as it is on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills.

As a fictional LAPD homicide detective, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, says, "Everybody counts or nobody counts."

Was it in good taste to post the photo of Knuckles? Certainly not to Maria Rios. But it needed to be done, and it would be a crying shame not to know why it was done. The fuss should not be about LaBarbera's posting the picture; it should be about what's been lost in the ruckus — the killing of Knuckles.

Michael Krikorian, a former Times reporter, does research for the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.


LA Times Op-Ed - My Improbable Redemption

This was published in December 9, 2012 in the LA Times Op-Ed Section. 

When Big Cat heard of my latest Smirnoff defeat, he sent a letter that inspired me to stay sober.

December 09, 2012 | By Michael Krikorian

In 1985, I shot someone.

It happened outside the Rustic Inn, a bar in an unincorporated section of Los Angeles near Compton, which was where I spent most of my free time back then.

Moments before the shooting, I had been in a barroom brawl. My friend George and I were drinking Heinekens and taking sips off a half-pint of Seagram's VO we'd stashed atop a rickety wooden beam at the beer-only bar's side-porch entrance.

Three guys walked in and began staring at us. George, a big guy quick to unleash his fists, asked them — in Comptonese — what they were looking at. It was on.

I'm not a great brawler, but I'm a good friend, and I couldn't let George go one-on-three. The fight moved two steps down from the bar where two pool tables sat — five men punching, kicking, gouging, ducking, yelling, swinging pool sticks, hurling pool balls. My most vivid memory of the fight is an orange-and-white pool ball whizzing by my face and — amid all that chaos — thinking to myself, "That's the 13."

George and I got the upper hand and the three guys ran outside, one of them yelling, "Get the gun." That was chilling, even to a drunk.

It just so happened I had an AK-47 in my trunk that night.

Come on now? Really? It "just so happened"?

It did. Two days earlier, my cousin Lynn told me her husband did not want me to stash "that machine gun" at their Torrance house anymore. I picked it up and put it in my trunk.

As the three guys got to their car, I popped that trunk. I fired 17 rounds, I later discovered. I tell myself I fired to scare them off, not to hit or kill. But one 7.62-mm bullet hit a leg. Another busted a window and went into the wall of a room where two people were lying. I could have killed them both.

Witnesses led detectives to me. I was arrested for several crimes, including attempted murder. I faced 15 to life. I remember hoping, wishing, even praying I would only get six years in prison and do three.

But because my father paid $5,000 for a lawyer, because of a "them or me" argument, a plea deal, and because I'm Caucasian, I got 30 days in the county jail. Thirty days! If I was black and had a public defender, no doubt I'd have been Folsom-bound.

I quit drinking after that. In the 1990s, I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering Watts and South Central. I've often said a political reporter should know something about politics, a medical writer should know about medicine, and a crime reporter — well, you get the idea. I became friends with gang members. When they went to prison, I'd write to them, and sometimes enclose a $20 money order or a book.

They wrote back. They were not forgotten. They appreciated it. Some shouldn't have been in prison. Others, like me, should have.

Never one to analyze my actions too closely, it wasn't until a couple of years ago that it struck me that one reason I wrote those letters was because it could've been me in there. It wasn't that I felt guilty. I was guilty.

It could have been me thinking, "I'm gone and forgotten." How good it would have been to get a letter, to get 20 bucks, to get a book that would take me outside the prison walls for 300 pages.

My sobriety lasted years. Then I decided I could handle a beer, a glass or two of red wine, and still stop. Surprise! I couldn't. So, after a few months of drinking, I'd quit again for month or two. This went on for years. I never intended to quit for good. I was just "on the wagon" and looking forward to tumbling off.

But earlier this year, I went on a wretched binge. Two 750s of Smirnoff ruined my balance. I tripped and cracked open the back of my head on the bedroom dresser. Blood spurted onto three walls. My girlfriend was out of town, but my sister, warned by worried friends, came to the house that day. She walked into that horrific scene. She got me to an emergency room. Twelve staples in my head.

That was eight months ago. I quit drinking. Again. But now I no longer say I'm on the wagon. I say, "After a long and storied career, I have retired."

Early on, I went to a few AA meetings. I don't like them. Maybe I hit the wrong meetings, but they seem to focus on backsliding, and how you can come back from it. I don't want to hear that.

I know I can't drink anymore. I also know that maybe I will. I can't even say with certainty that I won't be drunk when I read this in the paper. But don't bet on it.

I bring all this up because those letters I sent to prisons paid off recently. I heard from an inmate, Kevin "Big Cat" Doucette, a legendary shot caller for one of L.A.'s most notorious street gangs, the Rolling 60s Crips. Many years ago, police described him as one who "instills fear in the neighborhood."

He's also my friend. I've known him for 17 years. Somehow, Cat heard of my latest, inglorious Smirnoff defeat and sent a letter that inspired me to stay sober more than any AA testimony group session.

After two paragraphs describing life in federal prison, he switched his tone. Here's what he wrote, as he wrote it:

"My dude, you and drinking, yall dont go together at all.... Anything that you cant control that controls you; that aint tha set, Mike! I've got love for you, so when I speak as I do, know that I mean nothing but good: find you another high in life. A positive one ... try life itself. My Man, we both know that life is to short as it is for us to be twisted on anything, fo real it is."

I keep that letter in my wallet. It reminds me of drinking. It reminds me of prison. It reminds me of two people lying in a room my bullets invaded.