Two years after writing about LAPD Det. Ector Garcia, I finally located a copy of his book, “Portraits of Crime,” which arrived in the mail from the U.K. while I was on vacation. No one will ever mistake this book for great literature. The editing is weak (as in “Leo” LaBianca) but the rough, raw writing gives “Portraits” a freshness and immediacy that might be missing in a more polished work.
Written by LAPD artist Garcia (d. 1987) and Charles E. Pike, “Portraits” consists of composite sketches and brief summaries of 29 cases from the 1950s to the 1970s. Aside from the Tate-LaBianca and Son of Sam murders, most of the subjects are obscure killings, kidnappings and rapes that could easily be the raw material for several seasons of TV crime shows.
An LAPD officer with a background in commercial art, Garcia made a career for himself as a police artist after being shot in the head by a murder suspect who killed his partner, Det. Jose Castellanos. As a victim of violence, Garcia brings particular empathy to the people in his stories. He was apparently skilled in interviewing witnesses and victims, patiently bringing out details for his composite drawings.
The chapters are brief, workmanlike accounts of the facts: A rapist who attacked young, single women living alone near USC; two rather dim kidnappers who drove an unfortunate man cross-country on the obviously mistaken assumption that he could be ransomed for a lot of money; and “Jack the Stripper,” a robber who forced service station attendants to take off their clothes to keep them from chasing him. Garcia also has an account of his role in investigating the supposed kidnapping of Marie “The Body” McDonald.
“Portraits” is a worthwhile addition to the Los Angeles crime bookshelf at the Daily Mirror HQ. It is far more compassionate than better-known books like Jack Webb’s “The Badge” and speaks with the voice of an experienced police officer. The book is a bit difficult to find, but worth the effort. It is also listed on WorldCat.
Here’s the opening of the book, as rendered by the OCR software of my new scanner:
WANTED: 187 PC (Murder), Male, Latin, identified as George J. Arevalo, 42, 6',190 pounds, black hair, brown eyes, dark complexion, thin mustache. Suspect wearing gray trousers, sport shirt, windbreaker jacket. At approximately 8 p.m. this date suspect shot and wounded female owner of East Ninth Street Cafe and shot and killed customer. Suspect is armed and considered extremely dangerous. He is believed to be intoxicated.
"Oh my God, I'm dead … I must be dead … I'm drifting in air … when am I going to fall? … Goddamn, the pain … that lousy son-of-a-bitch … where's my gun?"
The thoughts flashed through Detective Ector Garcia's mind in an instant. They were the thoughts of a man who had just been shot in the side of the head, his body falling to the ground slowly, like a collapsing building, section-by-section. Everything around him moved in slow, fuzzy motion. He heard a scream, gun shots, felt the cold grip of his revolver as two shots exploded into the night, and saw the blurry glow of a porch light as it faded into darkness.
On March 5, 1959, as Jose Castellanos was checking his gun to make sure it was in firing condition, George J. Arevalo was getting drunk just a few miles away. Arevalo was drunk a lot of the time. In fact, his wife of 15 years would tell the police that she and her husband had separated almost a year earlier because of Arevalo's excessive drinking.
"He would go crazy every time he drank," Mrs. Arevalo said.
Arevalo was drunk when he entered the East Ninth Street Cafe about 8 p.m. He ate at the cafe often because its owner, Mrs. Mary Loera, was a family friend. On this particular night, however, Mrs. Loera was in no mood to have a drunk disturbing her other customers.
"He was drunk," she told police. "I told him to get out. He left, but returned in a few minutes with a gun. He aimed it at me and said, `This is the gun I'm going to kill you with'."