Monday, November 12, 2012

"L.A. '56" by Joel Engel (2012)

This book has it all. Los Angeles in the 1950’s was not a great place to be black, or Mexican. It was the City of the Angels, caught in the Devils Grip. Danny Galindo was a Hispanic Detective working for the LAPD at the time. He was only a handful of blacks and Mexicans on the force, which was known for its racism and brutality. Still, Danny Galindo was no ordinary man, and as the old saying goes, the cream always rises to the top. So it went with Danny Galindo.

This is also one of those stories that almost escaped being written down. The author, Joel Engel, became sidetracked with many other projects over the years, but this story always hung in the back of his mind. He began to write it all up in 1990, but then became sidetracked again when he was called upon to work; pro-bono; on a rape case in which the man was innocent, and Mr. Engel, along with a team of lawyers, worked successfully to free him. During that time, he became aware of the many similarities in the mishandling of the latter case to that of the earlier one from 1956. This was the catalyst which moved Mr. Engel to finish writing this book. That case almost sent an innocent man to his death for crimes he did not commit. That the man was a former police officer was no help to him at all in 1956. He escaped the ultimate penalty only through the hard work of Detective Galindo at a time when minority officers were mere tokens.
In the summer of 1956 there was someone roaming the lover’s lanes of the Los Angeles area impersonating a police officer. He was a big man, and black. His usual way of operating involved a phony police badge and a flashlight, which he used as props to separate young couples he found necking in cars. Posing as a police officer he would order the young man to get in his car; an old Desoto; and then drive him a distance away before letting him out. He would then return to the woman and rape her.

The attacks escalated and soon came to involve a handgun as one of the props. The rapist, Willie Fields, bought the gun from a friend who was a World War Two combat veteran and had taken the German luger pistol from a dead Nazi. It was clear to Detective Galindo that the criminal was becoming more bold and daring in his crimes, and that only a short time existed before he graduated to murdering his victims.
Detective Danny Galindo was an unusual man for the LAPD in the 1950’s. As a Mexican-American he was tolerated by his colleagues, but never encouraged. In spite of that he continued to move forward in his career, even helping Jack Webb with the television series “Dragnet.” If you are a fan of the original TV show then you will recall that many times Joe Friday was always telling someone to give certain cases to another Detective, sating, “Give it to Galindo.”  This was an inside joke between the two men who had formed an unlikely friendship. That their friendship would help to solve this case was probably the furthest thing from Detective Galindo’s mind as he struggled with the crimes.

Complicating matters is the fact that former Police Officer Todd Roark is charged with the crimes committed by Willie Fields. And as far as the top brass are concerned, they have their man. So, unless the rapist strikes again, Todd Roark is going to take the fall for these crimes.
Meantime, Danny Galindo has met with the victim of Willie’s first attempted rape, a young white woman named Margie. From her he is able to draw the strength he needs to close this case. But, at the same time, he is falling in love with her; and she with him. If this were to become apparent to anybody in the Department; or even out of it; Danny’s career would be ruined.
The incident which brought Willie Fields to justice was a sting operation involving 12 units of two officers apiece perking in lover’s lanes waiting to be attacked. With the help of the Universal Studios make up department, half of the officers are outfitted as women and sent to various parts of the city to wait an attack. They didn’t have to wait too long.

After about 10 days of stakeouts, and at about the time when even Detective Galindo is ready to call it quits, Willie Fields attempts to attack Galindo and the woman officer he is parked with. A chase ensues and the suspect gets way. But, as worked up as he is, he cannot go home and almost immediately attacks another decoy officer nearby. He is finally captured and sent to prison.
The author has taken the time show how justice isn’t always justice, by following up on what happened to the main characters in the investigation. Willie Fields, the rapist, ended up serving two years for multiple rapes, robberies and assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon. While in jail he took carpentry lessons and was gainfully employed as a carpenter until his death. He married and had a family.

Todd Roark, on the other hand, was the victim of not only Willie Fields and a corrupt, racist justice system; he was also the victim of his former wife, who never told his daughter that he was cleared of the rape charges against him. She did not learn the truth until her father had already passed away, with his daughter never forgiving him for something he hadn’t done in the first place.
Danny Galindo was the real winner in the whole story. He went on to work the Manson case, and also married Margie and together they raised a family. This is a quickly read book which calls attention to our perceptions versus reality, as well as the way times have changed since the events depicted in the narrative. I can’t wait to see this one made into a movie.

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