True Crime Story
How the guy who mugged my wife got away with it
By Martin L. Jacobs
There was an impact — the shock of an unanticipated collision. She saw the sky on her way to the ground, not the face of her assailant, then felt the chaotic rhythm of her arms, knees, hips and elbows smacking against concrete.
My wife, Sarah, has been robbed. It’s just before 9 a.m. on April 15, 2015. Tax day.
A moment later, Sarah comes to on the sidewalk in front of the Church of St. Mark in Venice, sees the torn-off handle of her bright green purse lying in the street and concludes that she must have struggled.
“Who would rob someone in front of a church?” she would ask me later in a distraught voice. “And that block has two schools on it.”
Serious crime doesn’t happen here very often, but at the corner of Coeur d’Alene Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard there are often many homeless people biding their time. They are part of the landscape of our city by the sea; strange, often unnerving, but rarely violent.
Sarah is still on the ground when I drive up. The two uniformed LAPD officers are squatting low, taking her statement. The officers’ calm faces tell me that the injuries are not life-threatening. They help me get her up and into the car.
Behind them, two good Samaritans who came to her aid stand quietly with their hands in their pockets. One is a utility worker in blue overalls, the other a passerby who heard Sarah cry for help. Neither of them got a good look at her assailant either.
Later, in the emergency room of UCLA’s Santa Monica Medical Center, Sarah’s injuries become defined: a broken toe, broken finger and possibly a broken rib. An ugly head injury that probably isn’t a concussion. Deep bruises. Abrasions. A shattered sense of security.
Sarah hobbles to the car with a cold pack strapped to her head, anger now becoming the predominant emotion.
Back at the house she will spend the rest of the day alternating between sleep, pain meds and “Orange is the New Black.”
I drive back to the scene for a look around.
THE GIRL IN THE BOX
I ask a few of the homeless whether they saw anything. They give me wary looks and agitated depictions of their own experiences with crime.
Up the alley behind the Lincoln Inn, I see a tall, cloth-draped box up against the fence. It looks like one of those moving pods. As I pass it, I hear a girl’s voice inside, so I ask the box, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” The box answers, “Just a second. I need to finish something.” The voice is young and energetic. Not what I expected.
The occupant pops her head out of a seam and apologizes for the wait. She has a pale round face with short blondish hair and a tattoo of a cross above one eye. She’s the alternative girl you went to college with who knew everything about music. She’s the vintage-savvy girl you saw laughing in the resale shop. She’s a pretty girl living in a box in an alley.
The girl explains that she’s dealing with a litter of cats. I explain that my wife was robbed that morning. She tells me that she heard something — feet running up to a car and the car speeding away. She never looked out. I thank her and wish her good luck.
THE BURGUNDY NISSAN
It’s April 27, now 12 days after the robbery, and we still can’t get a call back from LAPD’s Pacific Division. A friend gives us the cell number of a detective there, and she quickly connects us with the detective assigned to Sarah’s case. The detective shares some good news: the officers who took the incident report noticed video surveillance cameras on several of the houses on the street. The crime was recorded.
In sparkling high-definition video from multiple cameras, it is surveillance Hollywood style. One of the neighbors has edited the footage from the different sources into a single timeline. It’s a tight cut with superimposed captions. Yes, everything’s a TV show in this town.
The footage starts with the image of a burgundy Nissan with a big ding in the top of the hood stalking up and down the street as Sarah sits on a step in front of the church talking on her phone. The thief and his driver appear to be appraising her, and drive slowly past three times. It’s chilling to watch, but also glaringly obvious; how could she not notice them?
As the video continues, the two in the car clearly decide she’s the one. The Nissan pulls to the curb near the St. Mark School entrance and a man gets out; he’s wearing a blue baseball jacket, green canvas shorts and a black hat. The man walks casually up the sidewalk along the school playground, where kids will be out for recess in an hour. He gets to the church. Then, in a burst of speed, he charges at Sarah.
A second later she’s on the ground. It’s a sickening, brutal robbery by force.
With Sarah’s bright green purse tucked in his arm like a football, her assailant runs east toward Lincoln, cutting left into the alley, then into the passenger side of the Nissan. Another angle shows the Nissan speeding away, past the girl living in the box in the alley. The license plate number is captured by several cameras, but the face of the thief and the driver are hard to discern.
THE CREDIT CARD TRAIL
It seems like a done deal: look up the plate, find the address, go get the bad guy. The problem is that cars don’t rob people. The owner of the car has to be linked to or witnessed at the crime scene (and no one has managed to get a good look at him). It’s everyday stuff that cops, attorneys and crime writers know inside out. And then a twist: the registration is years-lapsed, the addresses are old. Now it’s hard work. Now it’s the slog the police do every day.
When closing all the credit card and checking accounts, I notice three unauthorized card transactions on the day of the robbery — two at a Taco Bell on South Crenshaw Boulevard, and one at a Winchell’s Donuts on South Florence Avenue a short time later.
I drive to the Taco Bell, and in his cramped office the manager runs the security camera footage from that day. The bank transaction record shows two card swipes, one at 2:52 p.m. for $1.06, and the second at 2:56 p.m. for $10.08. The bad guy probably tried the card on a cheap item, then encouraged by success buys more four minutes later. It’s significant because there are a lot of transactions going on at both the drive-thru and the multiple registers inside. The bank time stamp only records the time of transaction down to the minute, and in that one minute there are something like 18 transactions at the busy restaurant. But the double swipe sets it apart.
I narrow it down to a white SUV in the drive-thru. When I call the detective and tell him about the video, I can feel the eye roll over the phone; thanks for your help, we couldn’t have done it without you. Days later when the detective sees the footage he concludes that it is of little use; the faces aren’t readable. For all the grousing about the preponderance of surveillance cameras, it doesn’t take much more than a hood or a baseball cap to render them useless.
THE GOTCHA MOMENT
The first week of May, the purse handle comes up in a conversation with another detective. The purse handle that was ripped off and found in the street. It was never collected as evidence. Heads shake. We give it to them in a Ziploc bag, but it hasn’t been handled properly. They can look for latent prints or trace DNA. The detective tells me they will stop by and collect DNA samples from us, but they never do.
By the end of May we’ve told the story a hundred times. In the six weeks since the robbery, Sarah has milked Netflix and made 37 orders on Amazon Prime, but she’s healed. She goes back to work. Things are returning to normal.
I’m driving back from work one night and the detective calls; they’re making an arrest. It’s the gotcha moment. The owner of the car gave a statement that puts the suspect, her boyfriend, at that location at the time of the robbery. The man is found and arrested on June 12.
THE MAN IN CHAINS
Sarah’s first court appearance is Oct.1. It’s a busy morning in Dept. W83 of the Airport Courthouse in Westchester. They’re all busy mornings. The cases are lined up like the 747s coming into LAX outside: a fire set by a homeless man on a sidewalk, a man on probation charged for having burglar tools in his possession. It’s a preliminary hearing, where the judge decides if there is sufficient evidence to try the case. The deputy district attorney (DDA) discusses the process with Sarah while I listen to the judge admonish another DDA for his slack case preparation.
The accused is ushered into the courtroom. He’s in the classic orange jumpsuit and his hands are shackled in front of him. The courtroom is quiet, and the chains make a jangle like tiny bells as he walks to the desk on the right. Twelve feet away, he glances back at Sarah briefly as he sits; it’s an emotional explosion only she can hear: anger, fear, panic, her heartbeat pounding in her ears.
He’s in his 20s, fit, short cropped hair and a compact frame. His face belies his lack of an ethical core. He has two previous convictions, one of them for a violent crime. This would be his third strike, which brings the prospect of a long stretch. The accused’s own parole officer tells Sarah the man should be in prison.
Sarah is sworn in and takes the stand. She recounts the morning of April 15, 2015. She explains the extent of her injuries. She reiterates that she cannot identify the accused as the man who robbed her, and that the impact and fall are all she can remember.
At some point during her testimony, I realize that the accused’s family is in the gallery too; a middle-aged man and woman, a younger woman and a child who looks about five years old. When the suspect glanced back, that’s who he was looking for. He has a family, people who care about him, people who will cheer when he isn’t convicted.
THE BIG NEW PROBLEM
Sarah finishes her testimony and is dismissed. Later the DDA explains the Big New Problem: the girlfriend won’t testify. She’s changed her story and promptly disappeared.
The investigators find her once by staking out her kids, who go to school in Venice, but she won’t make the mistake of picking them up again. We don’t understand why she wasn’t arrested to begin with, or at least made to testify in front of a grand jury. She was driving the car, how could she not be complicit? No one provides an answer to that question.
The girlfriend’s statement, the only strong evidence linking the accused to the crime scene, states that she dropped him off to get a coffee. The three trips past Sarah talking on her phone? Perhaps she was just looking for the perfect parking spot. And what about the fact that she waits in the alley for him to return?
The public defender also knows that the case turns on the girlfriend. Rules of evidence won’t allow the statement to be used in a criminal trial unless she is present to testify and be cross-examined. So, all she really needs to do is be gone; a simple but effective way to thwart the case. There’s no warrant for her arrest, so if she isn’t served then she never has to appear in court.
THE MISSING GIRLFRIEND
The months churn by, with Sarah’s subpoenas appearing in the mail as often as Verizon special offers. After a few court appearances it’s clear that it is all a fruitless exercise. Soon the case is on its third DDA. We discover that they pass these cases back and forth like Pokémon trading cards.
Sarah’s case is all about the missing girlfriend. The DDAs vamp through extensions, but the judge calls it; we are not going to trial. They hold the accused, who cannot post bail, while the case is re-filed.
“There has got to be a way to find this woman,” Sarah tells the latest DDA. The response is a shrug.
It doesn’t seem that hard to us. Have they traced her spending, or where her checks are cashed? She has to see her kids sometime, doesn’t she? It’s been months. We wonder how hard the DA’s investigators are trying. Our conclusion: It’s just not that big a deal to the County of Los Angeles. It’s $40 cash and some bruises. We just don’t rank.
We are on our eighth DDA as we ring in 2016. Still no girlfriend, and the clock is running down. Word is that the court will only hear the case twice.
My wife takes a day off work to make one more court appearance on Jan. 3, but it’s quickly apparent that she doesn’t need to be there. The DDA du jour explains that nothing is going to happen.
“Why couldn’t you call me and tell me that?” Sarah asks.
“Yes, someone should have called you,” the DDA answers her.
The seven DDAs before her said the same thing every time she came to court.
THE LAST PHONE CALL
We discuss the possibility of a civil case against the accused, where the burden of proof is not so stringent. Perhaps with the case dismissed, the girlfriend can be found.
The torn purse handle is discussed; it can be tested for trace amounts of DNA. It has probably been touched by four or five people. I ask the detective if we can get it back. It was never officially entered into evidence. He writes back and explains that his analysis of the video shows that the purse handle wouldn’t have been touched by the accused. He never had it tested. I disagree, but who am I? A writer who over-invests in long-shots, apparently.
We’ll never know, because the next email tells me the purse handle has been misplaced or thrown out.
The suspect is released on Monday, Jan. 11. They call Sarah for that. They ran out of options, continuances. The six months he spent in jail will have to be enough. Sarah is infuriated. She storms up to the DA’s office at the courthouse and asks to speak with the DDA. She is told he can’t see her, but the secretary will call her back.
We leave the battle, but in Dept. W83 the cases never stop coming; ordinary crimes against ordinary people, lined-up like those planes coming in from the east, as far as the eye can see.
Martin L. Jacobs is a sound designer for the film and theme park industries by day and a writer of crime fiction on nights and weekends. He recently completed his first novel, “White Sky.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.