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"Bingo! We Hit Pay Dirt!"
Tuesday, June 21, 2005. The summer solstice. June 21 marks the longest day of the year and is officially the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. For most peo ple, the day represents the occasion when the bountiful harvest yields its abundant fruit. This day, in 2005, was also that of June's full moon, sometimes called the Honey Moon, because it's the best time to gather honey from hives.
That night in 2005 started out beautifully with the bright full moon lighting up the city of Los Angeles, California, shining overhead on the well-known HOLLY WOOD sign as the solstice officially made its debut just fourteen minutes before midnight. It was a warm, pleasant evening with the night temperature hovering in the sixties, and patchy low clouds and fog near the Pacific coastline.
But for Detective Nelson Hernandez of the West Traffic Division of the Wilshire police precinct in Los Angeles, who was assigned to investigate traffic accidents, Tuesday, June 21, 2005, was just another night. It was his turn to be on call in the 24/7 business of being a cop.
Nelson was at home, some forty miles from the station when the phone rang in his bedroom, awakening him. It was around one in the morning.
"We have what appears to be a hit-and-run accident. We don't have a license plate of the hit-and-run vehicle. But we have a dead body in the alley, and it appears that a car ran over this person," said the matter-of-fact voice of the dispatcher on the other end of the phone.
As he got dressed, Hernandez called to tell his partner, Officer Brent Johnson, to meet him at the Wilshire police precinct on Venice and La Brea. Just before leaving home, he placed another call to speak with the watch commander to see if there was any update on the incident. There being none, Hernandez proceeded to the station house.
The 51-year-old Hernandez had wanted to be a pi lot as a young boy, but he'd chosen instead to become a uniformed officer nearly a quarter of a century ago when he'd joined the Los Angeles Police Department, working his way up the ranks, first as a sergeant and now as a detective.
With hundreds of arrests under his belt, Hernandez was the kind of cop who, if something didn't look right, had to delve further. As he was driving to his office, Hernandez learned that he had his work cut out for him: There were no witnesses and no license plate numbers for him to check out. He didn't know what else to expect as he headed to the scene in an unmarked detectives' vehicle.
"This being Hollywood, we've been involved with many movie star cases concerning traffic accidents. They run the gamut from A to Z, so I was prepared for anything," he recalled.
Hernandez made the eight-mile trip from the station house to the approach of the alleyway off of Ohio Avenue and Westwood Boulevard behind Bristol Farms, the upscale gourmet emporium, in twelve minutes.
The Westwood area, in the western section of Los Angeles, is best known as the site of the University of California (UCLA). The district is often referred to as Westwood Village because of its cozy small-town atmosphere. It is also home to the Westwood Village Memorial Park cemetery, the final resting place of many of Hollywood's biggest stars. Nearby, located on Santa Monica Boulevard, is the Los Angeles California Temple, the second-largest temple operated by the Church of Latter-day Saints. Major thoroughfares such as Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevards and the San Diego Freeway (I-405) service the Westwood area.
A little more than a quarter of a mile from the center of the affluent and bustling Westwood Village, an innocent bystander, Karen Toshima, a 27-year-old graphic artist, was murdered on January 30, 1988, during a gun battle between rival gangs. It took more than a decade for the perception that the area was riddled with crime to fade. Today, West-wood is again regarded as one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. Or it was, until now.
"One of the first things I observed as I approached the area was that the scene didn't appear to make any sense. We had this guy dead in the alley, and it was dark. There was a bicycle laying there near the victim with the wheels up to the side of the man's body from the edge of the alley. One of the tires had been removed and was on the side of the bike.
"On the surface, it appeared that maybe the victim had been working on the flat tire. That maybe he was riding the bike when he got a flat tire, took the tire off, and was about to repair the tire, when this happened—and he was run over."
One of the first things Hernandez checked was the tire that had been removed, and it was not flat.
"That was another thing that didn't make any sense. Why would the victim take the tire off if it wasn't flat? The other thing that didn't make sense was that if he was going to repair a flat tire, you are not going to do it in the dark alley when, if he went just a few feet away to the front of the grocery store, he would have had the use of the street lights."
Hernandez took a closer look at the guy in the alley. He didn't look like he had been living on the dark side of Los Angeles, on skid row, domain of thousands of homeless. "Those that hang out in the alleys for the most part are transients—they're homeless—but this guy was clean. I'm talking about, other than grease from the undercarriage of the car, he appeared to have clean clothes. His socks were clean, his shoes were clean, and his hands were clean. The part of his pants that didn't have grease from the under-carriage were clean. Transients' hair usually hasn't been washed for months, but this guy's hair didn't appear dirty.
"Here was a clean-looking guy, but he was in the alley, the victim of a hit-and-run."
Hernandez suspected the victim wasn't homeless—the profile didn't fit. Besides, the detective theorized, if the guy had been riding his bike for the exercise—and a lot of people do that in Los Angeles—why would he be doing it in the alley? "So that didn't jibe either."
When the coroner got to the scene, he went through the man's pockets. Other than a California ID, with his name, address, and picture, and a credit card, there was nothing else on him.
"The victim's name was Kenneth McDavid, and I can't remember whether he had a Visa or MasterCard. But he had no money, no coins, no wallet, and no piece of paper. It was as if someone had just planted those two ID documents on this guy, and wanted him to be identified, so we would know who he was.
"We knew the scene didn't look right, that something was wrong, but we couldn't get a handle on it. This guy is clean, but he's in the alley. This guy appears to be working on this bike, but the tires aren't flat. And if you have a flat tire, you're not going to be fixing it in the dark. You are going to be working on it in the main street where there is light. So there was just a series of things that just didn't add up, and made the situation suspicious."
To compound this scenario, Hernandez now had the job of making the notiflcation of death to McDavid's next of kin. "My partner and I followed the coroner to the 1843 North Cherokee Avenue address we had found on his ID card to see if he had any family.
"When we pulled up to the four-story beige building, it was rather nondescript. The building was probably built in the 'twenties and had never been restored. It had obviously sustained some serious damage from earlier earthquakes, because of the many visible plugs that could be seen on the outside throughout the building that was used to reinforce the damaged brick."
As he walked into the Palm Court Apartments, Hernandez noticed that the landlord had spruced up the place by adding a water fountain, and planting some palm trees and yellow daffodils to give the building some charm.
"We knocked on the door of resident manager Danielli Cosgrove and asked whether there was an individual in the building by the name of Kenneth McDavid," Hernandez said.
"Yeah, I know who you are talking about. He lived up-stairs in apartment four-ten," she replied.
According to her, McDavid had appeared to be home-less. "The apartment was rented for him on September first, 2002, by a Helen Golay," she said.
"This lady appeared to be well-to-do. She didn't seem to be the same type of person that he was, not in the same economic class as him, you know what I mean?"
Cosgrove described the unit Helen was renting for Mc-David as a 550-square-foot studio apartment. Aside from the living area, there were no separate bedrooms, although there was a kitchen and bathroom facility. Initially the apartment had rented for $875 a month, but that was later raised to $900, and rent was paid monthly, on time, by Helen, who mailed the check to the building owner.
"But then, in November or December 2004, Kenny apparently had a problem in that he began to bring other people into the apartment, and that's the first time I actually met up with Olga." She said she did not know Olga's last name, as Cosgrove had never been formally introduced to her by Helen.
Cosgrove went on to tell the detective and coroner a bizarre story about McDavid. "The only issue was, as I started to tell you . . . that at some point Kenny started bringing these friends to the apartment. There were several people living there, and I don't know their names. I only knew one person's name was Patrick. There were probably, at some point, maybe five individuals were living in this studio apartment.
"It was around that time that I saw some people coming and going. I didn't go into the apartment until Olga came by one day and said to me that I need to get rid of them. That was around November or December of 2004. I believe Olga came to me first, because Olga always spoke for Helen.
"And she said to me, ‘You need to get rid of those people.'
"Olga was very aggressive with me, just like, You need to do this. You need to get rid of them. You need to call the police. You need to do something.
"And I said, ‘Well, there is nothing I can do.'
"I told Olga that it was not in my power, unless—I would have to evict Helen to get them out, because they were her subtenants.
"Olga just went ballistic. She demanded that I get them out of the apartment, and I said, ‘I'm not the police. I'm not, you know . . . I can't get them out. Try the police.' So I believe she called the police. The police came to me, and it became a back-and-forth thing.
"And I said to Olga, ‘Well, the only solution I have is to evict Helen. And I don't think you want that.' "
In the beginning, Cosgrove said, she'd dealt with the eviction problem only with Olga, but then Helen got involved. Eventually, the two women kicked out McDavid's friends, and they changed the locks to the apartment.
It didn't make any sense to Hernandez. "Why would this lady, who didn't live in the apartment and who didn't seem to be in the same economic class as McDavid, why would she allow him to stay in her apartment?"
What was really bizarre was, why would this lady pay McDavid's rent for nearly two years, and then throw him out?
Cosgrove said that the last time she'd seen McDavid was in December 2004 at a fast-food place, a Jack in the Box on Cahuenga and Sunset, less than a mile from the apartment. "He wasn't riding a bike, but was using a bike as a carrier for his homeless stuff," she said.
As Hernandez left the Cherokee address, he had to admit that he still didn't know what he had.
"After we talked to the house manager, that same day we went back to the scene where we found the body, and waited until daybreak . . . before we started knocking on doors and canvassing the area for witnesses," he recalled.
"We started by talking to the businesses around the alley. There's a Ross discount dress shop and a Bristol Farms convenience store on Westwood Boulevard. In the alley-way, behind these stores, we had found a security camera at one of the businesses. The problem was that they had not adjusted the lenses of their camera, so what we saw was out of focus and we couldn't see very much. The photos were too dark to distinguish anything clearly. It shows the alley in the southbound direction. But we could make out the lights of cars going through.
"We backed up the videotape from the security camera to the time when this accident had occurred and we could see taillights of a vehicle that goes right through the alley. So we knew that that particular car was not involved in the accident.
"All we could see is two red lights, the taillights of a car. But then we see another pair of lights a few minutes later, going southbound down the alley, and you could see the brake lights come on as the lights get brighter, and then the car lights go off.
"There is a counter on the security camera so you can see the time that is elapsing. Five minutes go by with the lights out on the car. After five minutes, the lights came back on again and the car disappears."
It was at that point that Hernandez realized that something had happened with that car.
"I couldn't see it because it was dark. The whole picture is dark except for those taillights. To my mind, that didn't make any sense. Why would this car drive down an alley and stop for almost five minutes?"
The detective said it was interesting to see what the next pair of taillights d id as it went down the alley. " They stopped midway, you could see the brake lights come on, and then you can see the reverse lights come on when you put the car in reverse, and you can see this particular car going back north on the alley—in other words, backing up. The next set of lights after that that came down the alley was the ambulance."
Even though the detective and his team couldn't actually see what was going on, they were able to figure out what the vehicular traffic was doing.
Hernandez was confident that when the first car had gone by in the alley, there was no obstruction, because there was nothing there—there was no body. When the second car went by, the detective was sure that "Something happened. That car stopped for five minutes. Why? Yet when the third car came by, something blocked the roadway in the alley, because that car did not, or could not go through. Obviously because there was a guy apparently lying in the middle of the alley. That driver wasn't going to run him over, so he put the car in reverse and backed up his car to the street and took another route in a different direction. The third vehicle to come down the alley was when the paramedics arrived.
"That means that the second car that stopped for five minutes is the killing machine, the murder weapon. It's the car that ran over Kenneth McDavid," Hernandez explained. "And if you were to accidentally run over someone, there's no reason for you to turn the lights off. Any way I looked at it, there were more questions than answers to solving the case of who killed McDavid."
Hernandez and Brent Johnson spent the next several weeks investigating the case. McDavid's body was taken to the coroner's office, where an autopsy was conducted. A few days later, a woman named Helen Golay showed up at the coroner's office, claimed she was a relative, identified the body, and had it cremated.
Meanwhile, it was futile attempting to locate the mysterious Olga without a last name, but the detective did try to find any relatives of McDavid by consulting and checking missing persons files and other state records.
The case remained inactive for almost three months because Hernandez and the others on his team were still thinking McDavid's death was the result of a hit-and-run traffic accident—until mid-September when Hernandez got a phone call from Ed Webster, an investigator with MONY (Mutual of New York) Life Insurance.
"I just want you to know that there are a couple of ladies in your jurisdiction that took out some insurance on a Kenneth McDavid that adds up to a million dollars or more," Webster informed him.
That news was like a jolt of strong black coffee.
By Monday morning, the two men were busy talking and exchanging notes for the first time. Hernandez realized, as he later put it, that "something really doesn't add up. The kind of policy that these women took out on Mc-David's life indicated he was, like, the brains of a business, and that if he had died, the whole business would have collapsed. It's called keyman insurance. It's when a business takes out insurance to compensate that business for finan cial losses that would result from the death or extended incapacity of that person of the business."
In a nutshell, a keyman can be anyone associated with that business whose loss can cause financial strain.
Webster had already run a background check, he said, and learned that at some point in his life, McDavid had been a custodian or janitor at Universal Studios. So he didn't appear to be the brains of any operation.
Webster shared with Hernandez a mother lode of other investigatory information, including addresses and telephone numbers of both Helen Golay and Olga Rutter-schmidt, the women named on the policies.
After talking with Webster, Hernandez went back to his desk and began poring over the new information. "[Detective] Lee Willmon sits in front of me in the office, and I was just talking out loud to myself and he's listening to me rambling on about the McDavid case I had caught that was frustrating me."
Willmon had wanted to be a Coast Guard officer, but because he was planning to get married, instead took the test and became a police officer twenty years ago. At 45, he had worked as a detective for the last ten years, investigating "important people around Tinsel Town—you know, actors, actresses, and those in the poilitical arena." Ever the gentleman, he declined outing those he has arrested. "Be assured, you know the names. This town is juicy even on a dull day," he said with a smile.
Both detectives like talking about their cases, and Hernandez started to unload to Willmon about the McDavid hit-and-run. "You know, Lee, this just doesn't make any sense. There has got to be more than this. I'm going over everything I observed and noted during the preliminary investigation at the scene."
As Hernandez spoke, Willmon thought back to a case he'd had in 1999—that of Paul Vados—"because I got soaking wet investigating the case, and his death didn't make sense to me," Willmon said.
It wasn't until Hernandez started talking about his case that Willmon learned about McDavid's life insurance policy.
"And Lee just looked at me with a puzzled look on his face as I rambled on and on. I'm talking about the incident, and the name Olga, and Helen, and now I've got this insurance policy guy calling me, and I find out about these women in their seventies who are taking out insurance policies on this man. And I came to the conclusion, ‘This is not a traffic accident.' A pattern began to emerge. ‘This looks like a homicide.' "
"Boy," Willmon interrupted Hernandez, "you know, I had something like that a few years ago, something similar. Wait a minute. I have these two old ladies . . .
"It was a guy in the alley, and there were a couple of old ladies who had insurance policies on this old guy that appeared to be homeless . . ."
Excerpted from Signed in Blood by Jeanne King.
Copyright 2009 by Jeanne King.
Published in July 2009 by St. Martin s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.