Life After Death

More than 700 people were murdered last year in L.A. County. Times blogger Jill Leovy wants to make sure no one is forgotten.

In the opening of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely, a black South Los Angeles bar owner is murdered, and an overworked homicide detective named Nulty catches the case. “Another shine killing,” he tells private detective Philip Marlowe. “No pix, no space, not even four lines in the want-ad section.” More than 60 years later, not much has changed. South L.A. is still the homicide capital of the city; most victims are young black or Latino men, and the media ignore the vast majority of cases.

When Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy took over the police beat in 2001, she discovered that inner-city residents were furious. They believed the violence ravaging their communities should be on the front page every day, yet it often wasn’t mentioned anywhere  in the paper. Leovy, too, came to believe that what she calls “a public health catastrophe” was being overlooked. She decided to write only about homicides; still, she felt she was unable to convey the extent of the carnage. Given the constraints of time and news space, there was no way to memorialize every victim. After a few years on the beat, Leovy had an epiphany: She could use the Web—with its unlimited capacity—to solve a problem that has thwarted crime reporters for decades.

In January 2007, Leovy started the Homicide Report, an blog that chronicles every slaying in the county, giving each victim’s name, often with a picture, and a brief description of how the death occurred. Other newspapers have set up crime Web sites, but Leovy’s is the first one devoted to murders.

The Homicide Report, which receives about 300,000 hits a month, offers a starkly factual form of journalism that is more compelling than elaborate coverage would be. Leovy’s dispatches are not traditional true-crime stories with surprise endings, dramatic tension, and moments of redemption. There is an austere elegance to the daily listing of victims and the numbing litany of ways in which they died: stabbings, bludgeonings, stranglings, drive-bys, walk-ups, car-to-cars, murder-suicides. An interactive graphic provides data on each crime and features a map of the county covered with red dots—one for each slaying. Occasionally she breaks from the police blotter format and posts analyses or interviews with relatives.   “My job as a journalist is to make people see something that isn’t seen,” she says. “You’ve got to follow the suffering—that’s the main rule of homicide reporting…. To do that, you write about the families and you write about the victims. Until you humanize the victims, nothing will ever happen.”

Javon Brister, an 18-year-old black young  man, was shot in the chest by walk-up or  drive-by shooters in the 600 block of West  Century Boulevard near the Harbor Freeway  at about 8:20 p.m.… Brister later died at  a hospital.

Carl Young, 23, a black man, was shot  in front of 2730 W. 94th Street in Inglewood  at about 11:50 p.m. Sunday and died at  12:45 a.m.

Ivan Perez, 14, a Latino teenager, was  shot twice in the head at 1146 E. 58th Place,  and died at 3:20 p.m.

Danny Horn, 20, a young black man,  was shot in the head in a double homicide  that also killed Malone Scales, 20. The two  young black men were found dead in an al ley between 84th Street and 84th Place off Avalon Boulevard.

Leovy’s life is consumed by crime. Six days a week she tracks statistics, looks for street shrines, and chases down detectives. She can be compassionate when speaking with a mother who has lost her son, but unyielding when pressing a recalcitrant watch commander. Leovy will leave a restaurant during an evening out to call busy divisions for updates. A discussion on any topic can evolve into an impassioned murder monologue, so her friends have a rule: no homicide talk during dinner.

One overcast morning, Leovy makes a few police calls from the apartment she shares with several journalists in the Mid Wilshire area. Then she drives down to 41st and Broadway for an old-fashioned and coffee at Super Donuts. Leovy is 41, pale and slender, and has wavy light brown hair. Today she is dressed in khaki pants and a white T-shirt under a gray long-sleeved shirt. She tries to wear soothing colors when meeting with family members and avoids the gang colors red and blue. No agency provides all of the information she needs, so she is always on the phone with law enforcement sources and monitoring her police scanner.

After breakfast, Leovy tools through the city in her dented 2001 Ford Escort. She calls the coroner’s once, the LAPD, the Sherif’s Department, and other agencies. Periodically she pulls over to the side of the road or stops at a police station, plugs her Mac laptop into a cell phone modem, creates a post, and downloads photographs.

People often ask if the work depresses her, a question she finds irritating. “Yes,” she tells them. “I  find it depressing and upsetting. That’s why I do it.”

Leovy grew up in Kenmore, a bland strip-mall suburb of Seattle. She attended the University of Washington, where she majored in chemistry for a year. Then she walked into the student newspaper office and realized she knew what she wanted to do with her life. Leovy worked for a few dailies in Washington before she joined the Times in 1993. Having studied Spanish in school, she dreamed of becoming a Mexico City correspondent. After she spent a few weeks in New York covering 9/11, her plans changed. “I started thinking about trauma and the disconnect between how we talk about violence and how people experience it and how you could write about what’s in between,” she says. “I kept hearing people say, ‘I’m at a loss for words. I can’t explain.’ The kind of things they’re dealing with is the natural opponent of language. It planted the idea of writing about violence.”   When Leovy returned home, she asked to cover the LAPD. She soon began to specialize in homicide stories and was distressed at how invisible most victims were and how difficult it was to write about even a fraction of them. Although not particularly tech minded, Leovy came to realize that the paper’s Web operation might provide an opportunity. She proposed her idea to an editor, who gave her the go-ahead partly because her initial concept was so modest: run a weekly list of the county’s homicide victims—simply “to represent,” she says.   The Homicide Report is “one of our most popular blogs,” says Aaron Curtiss, the Times’s deputy innovation editor. “What’s interesting is that people spend a lot more time on it than they do on most other sites—about six and a half minutes, average. That tells us they’re really digging down into it.”

Leovy had expected that most of her readers would be minorities who live south of the Santa Monica Freeway. She was gratified to see posts from Westsiders who were surprised and angry to learn that 15 to 20 people, most of them black or Latino, were being killed each week.

L.A. is extremely segregated, in part because its sprawling geography allows different cultures and classes to keep their distance from each other. Traditional crime coverage further skews the public’s view of homicide. “The report seeks to reverse an age-old paradox of big-city crime reporting,” she wrote on her site, “which dictates that only the most unusual and statistically marginal homicide cases receive press coverage, while those cases at the very eye of the storm—those which best expose the true statistical dimensions of the problems of deadly violence—remain hidden. We know the press takes little notice of these deaths. Immense private heartbreak… are thus rendered footnotes.”

The murder of Karen Toshima in 1988 highlighted this disparity. The 27-year-old Asian American graphic artist was killed by gang crossfire on a Saturday night in West-wood. While scant attention was paid to the hundreds of black and Latino youths slain in South and East L.A. each year, Toshima’s death prompted extensive newspaper and television coverage and an unprecedented response by law enforcement. Cases involving the rich and famous—O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, and Phil Spector—also attract front-page  headlines. “There’s all this coverage of white people and celebrities who’re murdered, but they’re the flukes,” says Leovy. “I think one of the strengths of the site is that no one is bigger than anyone else: I use the same size type for every case. The rest of the world gives them different weight, but the way I write it up they’re the same. And whether the victim is prominent or transient, if you’re dead, you make the Homicide Report.”

While press coverage is spotty, Leovy says, Hollywood presents an even more distorted view. “Every movie and television show lies about what’s going on,” she says. “They tell a familiar narrative that’s comforting: the hero who triumphs against violence.… But homicide is about the victims and what happens to them.”

“The real story,” says Leovy,  is the shooting victim’s mother who staggers into the intensive care unit and cannot see her son’s face through his ventilator, yet manages to spot a tear in the corner of his eye.

The Times usually does not identify crime suspects and victims by race. Leovy does because, she says, “race is essential in any discussions of the problem. It’s the most im“You’ve got to follow the suffering,”Leovy says.“To do that, you writeabout the families and you writeabout the victims. Until you humanizethe victims, nothing willever happen.” portant fact about homicide in the U.S. It’s the  showstopper. If you don’t list race, it makes the victims more invisible.”

While the county’s murder rate remains high—more than 700 people died last year—it has steadily dropped in the past 15 years. One element, however, has remained the same: Young black and Latino men are dying at alarmingly high rates.

Some readers who post comments assume that almost everyone who is killed is a gangbanger and, as a result, deserves his fate. Leovy does cover gangster shootings, but she also tells of day laborers robbed and killed on their way home from work, children struck by errant bullets, women killed by jealous men and men killed by jealous women, college students slain on street corners, liquor store clerks murdered during holdups, men stabbed at parties, women shot in front of their children.

Because so few murders receive any other coverage, victims’ family members use the Homicide Report as a memorial wall on which they can etch online eulogies. After Leovy reported the death of a Long Beach man in his thirties, she received one brief response: “He was my father.” After scrolling through the listing of victims, another reader wrote, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

“If you just brush away the high homicide rate in South L.A. as the city’s dirty little secret, I don’t think we’ll ever make the commitment or allocate the resources necessary to change it,” says Charlie Beck, deputy chief of the LAPD’s South Bureau. “Equal justice and coverage of everyone—that’s the reason I think she does the blog, and I agree with that.”

“He was not just an anonymous man,  he was and is Carl Young Jr.… His spirit is  present and will be with us always. RIP  nephew.”

“I was his girlfriend!… A beautiful person  with a heart of gold was brutally killed.”

“I was one of Brittany’s cousins and we  are very much in mourning.… We love you  and I know you are somewhere up there  smiling down on every one of us.” 

In 1987, when Gwen Presley was pregnant with her son, her husband was murdered. Last summer, her son—Michael Lynn Presley II—was talking to a young woman on the street when three men drove up. Two of them climbed out of the car and shot him to death. Neither his nor his father’s case has been solved.   Leovy heads to South L.A. to meet Presley, an auditor who lives on a street lined with well-tended homes and lawns. Photos of her son and his younger sister fill Presley’s living room. When talking with relatives, Leovy will offer condolences, but she is not effusive because she believes it sounds false. She lets people wander off topic—she never knows what important details may be revealed.

“A lot of times these stories get swept under the rug,” Leovy tells Presley. “I’m trying to convey to people who the individual was.”   Presley seems to appreciate that a reporter cares enough to interview her and welcomes the opportunity to share memories of her son.

“I’d like to start with what Michael looked like,” Leovy says. “Let’s say I’m going to a movie theater—how would I find him?”

“He was tall—six foot four and a half—and good-looking,” Presley says. “He was light skinned with French braids.”

Leovy gently guides Presley through her family history and her son’s accomplishments. A graduate of Daniel Murphy Catholic High School, he was a student at Cal State Northridge. “Do you feel you can talk about the day of your son’s murder?”  Presley nods.

“If things get too hard, we can stop. Don’t think you’re being rude.”

Presley describes how Michael was talking to the young woman and her mother on West Martin Luther King Boulevard, how the mother called her after the shooting, and how she and her daughter drove to the scene, where she ran to the stretcher and murmured, “Mommy’s here.”

She stares at her hands for a moment and says, “My baby’s not even 20. He’s just a statistic now.”

“I do this partly because people don’t know what’s going on,” Leovy replies. “I want to exploit your grief and pain so people will wake up and pay attention to this problem that’s not going away.”

Leovy returns to her car and sinks into the seat with a sigh. Presley handled the interview with equanimity, but Leovy knows her ordeal has just begun. For many people, depression will intensify a few months after a loved one is murdered. The family is often a forgotten part of the story. That’s why Leovy follows up with mothers and provides updates on their struggles.

Later that afternoon, Leovy cruises east on Vernon and makes yet another call to an LAPD division: “Hello, this is Jill from the Times. Was there a shooting last night?” The officers invariably are cooperative because the blog is a helpful resource, and her eff orts to report on solved cases can be a morale boost for overworked, underappreciated detectives.

“It happens to be a good tool for us,” says Sal LaBarbera, a detective supervisor at South Bureau homicide. “She stays on it, so it’s really up-to-date. It may take us a day to get information from agencies in surrounding neighborhoods of the county. She’ll post the information within a few hours. If we see something related, we’re more apt to get ahold of the detectives on the case and compare information.”

Leovy parks on 54th Street. She was told about a murder the previous night and is looking for a shrine, which might provide information about the victim as well as a photo. On the porch of a weathered bungalow a shirtless young black man is giving another man a haircut. Striding up to them, she identifies herself and asks if there has been a shooting nearby. One of the men says he heard there was a shrine at the McDonald’s, but Leovy can’t find it.

Her work is so draining and time consuming that Leovy does not know if she will continue the blog for a second year. At night, after she returns home, the violence that circumscribes her days can take its toll. During her first few years covering crime, Leovy had a recurring nightmare. In Kenmore, where she was raised, white women in their thirties and forties are being murdered, but no one is paying attention. At first, the victims are people Leovy does not know. Then a waitress at a local diner and a girl from down the street are killed. Soon, friends of Leovy’s are being targeted. Finally, Leovy is murdered.

Whenever she shares her dream with young black men, they nod knowingly and say, “Exactly.”

Illustration by BRIAN STAUFFER