Ed Buck Will Finally Face Trial, but His Conviction Is Far From Guaranteed

Charged with the the deaths of two men who overdosed in his apartment, the former Democratic operative’s path to punishment could be difficult and uncertain

On September 11, a black man whom the authorities are calling “Joe Doe” hurried from a West Hollywood apartment to a nearby gas station and asked the attendant on duty to call 911. A wealthy older man had injected him with crystal meth, Doe said, and then refused to call an ambulance when he began overdosing.

Thus began a chain of events that resulted, at long last, in the arrest of Ed Buck. By then the longtime Democratic Party operative was the target of protest vigils, a wrongful death lawsuit, and a TV news stakeout. Though two black men had been found dead of meth overdoses in his home in a span of 18 months, and several others were telling investigators that Buck had brought them into his residence and injected them with a quantity of the drug that made them lose consciousness, local prosecutors had resisted calls to make an arrest. The 911 emergency of Joe Doe propelled the case suddenly forward out of what seemed, at least to observers, an interminable lapse of inertia. Within days after Doe was discharged from the hospital, Buck was arrested at his home by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies and booked on state charges in connection with Doe’s overdose. In Doe, investigators had a witness who had escaped Buck’s apartment alive, and what he told them gave prosecutors the break they needed to bring long-awaited charges in what was alleged to be one of the most macabre L.A. crime sprees in years. At that point, however, local prosecutors had competition.

Earlier this year, at the invitation of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, a federal drug task force opened an investigation into Buck’s alleged crimes. Where L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey had previously judged the evidence insufficient to charge Buck in the two overdose deaths in his home, the United States attorney in L.A., Nicola Hanna, saw things differently. In a whiplash turn of events over 48 hours, Buck was arrested, charged in state court, and then promptly transferred to federal custody and hit with a new set of charges in the deaths of 26-year-old Gemmel Moore and 55-year-old Timothy Dean.

This summer, the legal drama of Ed Buck enters its improbable third act. The notoriety of Buck, once famous as a well-connected political donor, has long since eclipsed his renown. By the time he was handcuffed and hauled away from West Hollywood in a sheriff’s vehicle, the name Ed Buck had come to represent many things to many people: to local prosecutors, he is a scourge; to black and LGBTQ activists, an avatar of status and privilege; to the right wing, a cudgel with which to bash the Democrats; and, to black gay men working as escorts in West Hollywood, a kind of terrifying urban legend come to life. But while the case against him has progressed, the path to conviction is difficult and uncertain.

The Buck who appeared in court before federal Judge Frederick F. Mumm on October 10 was a shadow of the political phenom who arrived in L.A. three decades ago and became a major player in the local Democratic Party. He stood, looking drawn and anxious in a loose beige prison smock. When Mumm asked how he would plead to charges that he supplied the methamphetamine that killed Moore and Dean, the defendant hesitated for a long moment before responding: “I am working on one hearing aid. Not guilty.”

Family members of Moore and Dean attended the arraignment and assembled outside court afterward. Moore’s mother, LaTisha Nixon, later called Buck a “monster” and dismissed his apparent weakness as an act to gain pity from the court. The families and their activist supporters have long argued that Buck led a double life that protected him from the consequences of his alleged crimes, likening him to a modern-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “This was a really hard case for people in society and politics to wrap their heads around,” says Jasmyne Cannick, an L.A.-based media consultant active in the campaign that called for Buck’s arrest. “Here you have this white man, an animal rights activist who’s run for office and who seems like he’s a decent guy, a good person. It was really a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation.”

It’s not as if Buck hadn’t shown occasional glimpses of a darker side: He has been the subject of several requests for temporary restraining orders. And on at least two
occasions, his vitriolic style convinced deputies at West Hollywood’s City Hall to
escort the targets of his tirades to their cars after public meetings. Still, even to those who had run afoul of Buck’s temper, the depth of his fall from grace is astonishing.

“Here you have this white man, an animal rights activist who’s run for office and who seems like he’s a decent guy. It was really a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation.”

The Ed Buck of the late 1980s was a charismatic gay political celebrity who lead a quixotic crusade that helped bring down Evan Mecham, the rancorous Republican governor of Arizona. The Arizona Republic said Buck was “destined to go down in history as one of Arizona’s most unlikely political figures.” After moving to L.A., Buck acclimated quickly, forging political friendships with area congressmen, members of the state Assembly and the City Council. He fostered golden retrievers, railed against private development, and donated handsomely to scores of Democrats, including all but one of the present members of the West Hollywood City Council. But the same 65-year-old who had grinned in photos with Hillary Clinton and former Governor Jerry Brown was known to homeless men in WeHo’s Plummer Park as “Dr. Kevorkian.”

Buck was being held in early November without bond at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A. An official with the Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to discuss the conditions of his confinement except to say that Buck is not permitted visitors. In state court, where he faces separate charges of operating a drug den and providing the drugs that caused Joe Doe’s hospitalization for a drug overdose, Buck wore a protective blue vest, the kind meant to prevent inmates from killing themselves and protect them from attacks by other prisoners.

The source of Buck’s wealth has always been shrouded in mystery. He claimed he retired in his early 30s on proceeds from the “million-dollar” sale of his business (he owned a service that provided driver’s license information to auto insurers). A former friend told me that more recently Buck has lived frugally off investment gains from the stock market. Local prosecutors put forward a different theory, arguing in a recent filing in state court that Buck “has no known source of income” and “may be funding his lifestyle with narcotics trafficking.”

Since 2005 Buck has donated more than a half-million dollars to political candidates and causes in Los Angeles. Though he was once a registered Republican in Arizona, nearly all of his donations have been linked to Democrats since he moved to West Hollywood in 1991. He has cut checks for 40 officeholders in California, including several in L.A. City Hall, the California Assembly, and Congress, the Los Angeles Times has reported. Some of those politicos have returned the money or redirected it to charitable causes after Buck’s arrest. Lacey returned the $100 donation that Buck made to her 2012 campaign for district attorney. She has said that she doesn’t know Buck and his modest largesse played no role in the decision about whether to prosecute him.

Whatever its source, Buck’s fortune seems depleted. Seymour Amster, the attorney who began representing Buck after the death of Moore, is not listed as his attorney in the federal case. Facing a possible life sentence in federal prison, Buck has elected to be represented by a public defender, at a cost of $500 a month, according to a court filing. Amster has spoken for Buck in the press, saying that Moore’s death was “a tragedy, not a crime,” which he attributed to Buck’s having “opened his home to an individual who was troubled.” He referred to the activist campaign against Buck as “a race war.” Amster appeared at Buck’s side in state court, but that case is on hold until the federal case is completed, says a spokesman for the DA’s office. Amster, who previously defended the serial killer known as the Grim Sleeper, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

When Moore was found dead in Buck’s apartment in 2017, the initial investigation by the Sheriff’s Department and coroner’s office treated the overdose as an accident. A law enforcement source told Los Angeles that this erroneous assumption contributed to errors that investigators committed at the scene. A year later, when Lacey decided not to prosecute Buck in Moore’s death, prosecutors listed “inadmissible search and seizure” as one of the reasons. Lacey later told a meeting of the Stonewall Democratic Club that investigators had illegally seized around two grams of methamphetamine from a toolbox in Buck’s apartment. Federal prosecutors later charged Buck with intentionally distributing the drugs that killed Moore and Dean and three counts of drug distribution. They must prove that the drugs provided by Buck were the drugs that entered into the victims. Court documents in the federal case make no mention of an illegal search.

Nearly three weeks after Moore’s death the Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation as a possible homicide. It happened after Moore’s mother and a young man who had worked as an escort for Buck aired their suspicion that Buck had supplied and injected Moore with the drugs that killed him. Nixon told a local reporter: “[Buck] would have my son … go out to … Santa Monica Boulevard looking for young gay black guys so he could inject them with drugs, see their reaction and how [they] would react and take pictures of them.” The reporter, Ryan Gierach, had known Buck for 14 years and knew of his meth use. “I needed no convincing,” Gierach said. “Over 13 or 14 years I’ve seen a man, a vital, vigorous, incredible intellect, descend into a monster.”

Buck had once been a political mentor of sorts to Gierach, opening doors and giving him inside information until the two had a falling out in 2015 after Buck refused to lend him money. Gierach incorporated Nixon’s lurid allegations into a news feature that delved into Buck’s prominence in the Democratic Party and included a recent photo of Buck with Clinton. The Drudge Report promoted the story. The London tabloid The Daily Mail ran its version under the headline: “Male prostitute, 26, dies of meth overdose at Hollywood home of high-profile Democrat donor.” Fox News seemed to embrace the story as a chance to attack multiple foes at once: Democrats, the Clintons, and Hollywood. (On the night Buck was arrested, Tucker Carlson reported the story with a photo showing Buck with Hillary Clinton: “Turns out when Buck wasn’t donating to the Democrats, he liked to inject young men with narcotics in his living room.”)

“I’ve seen a man, a vital, vigorous, incredible intellect, descend into a monster.”

Entries from Moore’s personal journal were published in various news outlets in which he blamed Buck for getting him addicted to crystal meth. Moore wrote in a December 2016 entry that Buck “gave me my first injection of chrystal [sic] meth it was very painful, but after all the troubles, I became addicted to the pain and fetish/fantasy.”

Eighteen months after Moore’s death, Timothy Dean, a fashion consultant for Saks Fifth Avenue who had performed in adult films, died of a meth overdose in Buck’s living room. Nine months later Joe Doe fled Buck’s apartment and ended up being treated at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a drug overdose.

Federal prosecutors have the ability to charge Buck in the two deaths without having to prove that killing them was his intent. The same statute is being used to prosecute the men who sold the fentanyl-laced painkillers that killed rap star Mac Miller. Lacey said in a statement that “there is no comparable statute in California criminal law that my office could have used to charge defendant Buck in either of the deaths.”

Investigators eventually gathered testimony from at least nine men who said that Buck had brought them to his home and insisted that they take drugs he gave them as compensation for sexual services. Two of them reported that he had injected drugs into their bodies while they were asleep. One of those two men is Joe Doe.

With the exception of Doe, local and federal prosecutors have differed over the credibility of witnesses. Many have puzzled over how Buck had avoided so much as a drug charge in the case. Nixon’s attorneys in a wrongful death lawsuit against Buck have suggested that local prosecutors were influenced by the fact that many of the alleged victims were homeless, black, and sex workers. The federal trial of Ed Buck was originally scheduled to begin November 26, but has been moved to next summer.

RELATED: Federal Complaint Filed Against Ed Buck Contains Disturbing Details

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.