April 2012

Give It to Galindo

In L.A.’s racially charged mid ’50s, a Latino LAPD detective works to clear a black ex-cop—without drawing attention to either of them

JOEL
ENGEL

Galindo, center, went on to investigate such high-profile cases as this re-creation of the Onion Field killings and the Manson murders.

Los Angeles is a sad city. Standing on Hollywood and Gower, pretending not to be a cop, Danny Galindo tries not to notice how sad it truly is. It’s as sad as all the dreams that die here—millions more than come true.

People other places think it’s happy here. They connect sunshine with feeling good, not understanding that you can come to resent it. But you can, especially on those hung-over mornings when the daylight floods too soon through the blinds.

The amount of pain out there is something Danny learned earlier than most, just after that January morning in 1947 when a patrolman barfed up his breakfast before calling in the naked woman’s bisected body in a weed-filled lot in Leimert Park.

It wasn’t the murder, exactly, or even the specific gruesomeness of it, that struck Danny. After all, no imagination is required to appreciate how depraved and cruel some men are. No, what Danny wished he still didn’t know was that ordinary men—men with no connection to the Black Dahlia and no history of ever hurting anyone—had crawled out of the sewers to confess to her murder. Nearly 150, of whom 38 spoke only Spanish. Which was why, only a year after he joined the force, the LAPD promoted its pachuco cop Galindo—the smartest, most elegant, most ambitious of a handful of uniformed “Mexes.” Only detectives can take confessions.

Not in Spanish, not in English, none of these guys had done the deed. Still, policy had to be followed. So the cops heard their stories and asked, “Why did you want to mutilate and murder this beautiful young woman?”

It made Danny feel dead inside to hear answers that were dipsticks measuring the depths of their worthlessness. And when he excused the guys without an arrest, they begged him to believe they had done it, swear to God, cross their hearts, hope to die. Literally.

Imagine wanting to fry for a crime you didn’t even get the pleasure—if that’s the word—of committing. Yet every one was willing to suffer death because being known as the Black Dahlia’s butcher would be as close as they were ever going to get in this life to mattering.

Knowing facts like that about people makes it hard to carry on with anybody who doesn’t know them, too. That’s one reason cops have bad marriages. Danny sees the divorces, the tanking up at cop bars just to get the courage to go home, and sees that it’s better not to get too intimate with civilians.

Chief Parker began recruiting troops, some from the Deep South, and didn’t necessarily insist they holster their prejudices. Maybe he shared them, probably he didn’t.

Why even try? At 35, with wavy black hair and bedroom eyes, he’s handsome enough to be an idol of matinees, if only people his color got to make a living that way in English. No wonder the ladies like him as much as he likes them. But being in love—well, either he’s never been there or he has and can report reliably it isn’t anything to build your life around.

Make no mistake, brown-skinned Danny Galindo doesn’t care that the only way his life could be better is if he were white. Because at least he isn’t black. In mid-’50s L.A., Mexicans have it hard, but Negroes have it hardest. It’s been that way since forever, but it got worse, not better, six years ago, when new chief William H. Parker began trying to transform the LAPD from the country’s most crooked big-city police department to the least.

Just like that, things started getting better for those who took pride in their work. Then Chief Parker began recruiting troops, some from the Deep South, and didn’t necessarily insist they holster their prejudices. Maybe he shared them, probably he didn’t. But he sure as hell didn’t want what the black people were doing on their side of town to spill over. Which means there’s criminal justice and street justice—and if you’re a Negro in Los Angeles, you suffer both.

And so it is inside the department, as Todd Roark learned the hard way. A war hero and a good cop, he got fired for bouncing a check. Poor Roark. The brass claimed he’d kited it, but that was baloney. What they really canned him for was dating a white woman. Once. Someone saw them together at a restaurant and called it in, as if it were a 288 or something.

May as well have been. So says Parker’s unwritten policy. His cops are free to put the fear in some Reggie Johnson for sneezing without permission on Central and 49th, but out of uniform they’d better be moral saints—and in Parker’s LAPD, dating white women makes black cops sinners.

Good thing Danny’s not a patrolman teamed with a white partner who enjoys rousting black people. Good thing he’s a detective, a man who works with his brain. For the most part, the white cops let him be, and some don’t think of him as a Mex. He’s just Danny. Not that he bends over for them. He doesn’t. He just gives off a cool people trust, even cops who can’t see a brown or black man without thinking that the cemeteries aren’t full enough.

Maybe that’s part of what makes Danny good at his job, which is to stop murderers and rapists. Or maybe that has nothing to do with it. But he is good. And he’d better be, because business is booming.

In the last 12 months, major crime is up more than 40 percent and L.A.’s on target for more than 100 murders this year—the most since, well, 1947. Must be all those broken dreams. Danny wonders if the city is in for another Black Dahlia scene, like a steam valve someone will turn to release the pressure.

*****

Black people don’t all look alike to Danny Galindo, so he can’t understand how some make that mistake. But a mistake it is, even if this newest rape victim and her scared young man telling the same story about “a huge Negro” with a badge and flashlight and knife doing what he did to them in their car on a lovers’ lane both picked out Todd Roark in the lineup, with maybe a little coaching from Det. Carpenter.

The girl was crying—sobbing—but you could tell if she had a razor blade and five seconds of opportunity, Roark would be missing his cojones and have had four seconds to think about living without them before she slit his throat. Danny isn’t sure Carpenter wouldn’t have given her the blade.

For Carpenter, it’s a small step from dating white women to raping them. With these latest IDs, he knows beyond a shadow of doubt Roark’s their man for the gas chamber and, with no reason to think different, believes Danny’s with him. For now, Danny wants him to think that. If he says anything about how the real bad guy is still out there before he can prove it, Carpenter might decide “tacos and shines” stick up for each other on principle and get Danny pulled from the case.

So, not only does he have to stop this bad guy who’s still out there from ruining any more lives than the dozen or so he already has, Danny needs to somehow exonerate the jailed Todd Roark—and do both by himself on the QT, while keeping secret that he’s fallen hard for one of the rapist’s attempted victims. If anyone found out about him and Margie, within hours he’d be an ex-cop.

*****

Once the guard lets you onto the Universal-International lot, you can pretty much wander where you like, if you like that sort of thing. And Danny does.

If he says anything about how the real bad guy is still out there before he can prove it, Carpenter might decide “tacos and shines” stick up for each other on principle and get Danny pulled from the case.

When Jack Webb moved Dragnet from radio to TV in ’51, Chief Parker cooperated on the condition that his boys in blue looked like everything flag-waving Americans expect their police to be. Webb based his series on real crimes solved by real cops—the good ones, anyway. And once or twice a season, Danny pitches stories he’s lived and heard.

In fact, Danny’s one of Webb’s favorites, always welcome to show up on set and say hello. Webb, as Sgt. Joe Friday, uses the cops’ real names, and there’s a running gag with a character telling Friday he’s got a homicide, and Friday saying, “Give it to Galindo.”

Danny takes the long way around to the offices of Mark VII Limited, Webb’s production company, a couple hundred yards from the soundstage. The show knocks off for lunch at 12:30, and he doesn’t want to disturb Webb on set, so he’ll kill time with a little stargazing. Sometimes there’s nothing to see, and sometimes there is. Today’s not bad. He sees that fat director who’s on TV with scary shows getting into a limousine. He sees Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall walking and tries not to stare at Bacall, but it’s hard.

Webb’s not at all stiff, the way he is as Joe Friday. He welcomes Danny like an old friend into his office with a couch bigger than Danny’s living room and asks him to lunch in the commissary. Danny says thanks but he has to get back to work, and what that work is, exactly, “depends on what you tell me” when he begs a favor. He’s positive Webb will say yes. Anything good for L.A. and the LAPD is good for Webb. “Let’s hear it,” Webb says, leaning forward across his desk.

Danny lays out the whole tale, even hinting at his budding romance with a young lady who narrowly escaped being one of the first victims. But Danny focuses on the shattered girls who aren’t so lucky and the innocent black man sitting in a jail cell, the man the cops want to believe has a date with the gas chamber. “That’s a hell of a story,” Webb says. “And you know what? Hitchcock is shooting something like that.”

“I just saw him,” Danny says.

“It’s about an innocent man who police think is guilty, and the more he tries to prove he’s innocent, the more guilty they think he is. He goes all the way to trial and prison. True story. I read it in Life.”

“I did, too,” Danny says. “Doesn’t end well.”

This is the best setup line Webb’s had all day. “We’ll have to have a happy ending here,” he says. “Whatever I can do.”

Danny tells him what he can do. He can make a phone call. To the makeup department...

Adapted from L.A. ’56: A Devil in the City of Angels, a true story by Joel Engel about the investigation of a series of rapes. Due out this month by Thomas Dunne. Copyright 2012, all rights reserved.

JOEL ENGEL has authored more than 15 books. He actually applauded the first time Danny Galindo told him this story.