How a Former LAPD Detective Became the ‘Godfather’ to L.A. Crime Writers

From inspiring elements of Michael Connelly’s Bosch to advising James Ellroy, Detective Rick Jackson has been a force on and off the police force
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After a long and contentious relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department, homicide detective Harry Bosch finally decided to pull the pin. Fed up with the department bureaucracy and the cracks in the justice system, he decided to retire and work as a private detective. Bosch had spent most of his career as a homicide detective; investigating murders was the purpose and passion of his life. As a private detective, he was soon frustrated because he wasn’t getting any new homicides and was only working cases from the past that had plagued him. Bosch discovered that private detectives don’t investigate murders. Only homicide detectives investigate murders.

Bosch’s creator, Michael Connelly, who had written ten crime novels featuring his iconic character, was at a crossroads. Connelly is an assiduous researcher and he takes pride in making his novels as realistic as possible. He didn’t want Harry involved in an unrealistic pursuit and was planning to end the series and create a new protagonist.

Then he met LAPD Detective Rick Jackson.

During a research breakfast in 2004 at the Pacific Dining Car, Connelly discovered that Jackson had retired after 20 years and then returned to the Robbery-Homicide Division’s cold-case unit. “When I heard that, my jaw dropped,” Connelly says. “I thought the LAPD was such a closed society that if you left, you couldn’t come back. But when I talked to Rick, that was the light bulb. So I brought Harry back to work cold cases, just like Rick. And I’m still writing about Harry today because of that breakfast.”

Jackson has been dubbed “the godfather” to Los Angeles crime writers. In addition to Connelly, he has aided and provided research assistance to James Ellroy, Joseph Wambaugh, and a dozen other L.A. crime writers. He works most closely, however, with Connelly, one of the most popular crime novelists in the world. More than 70 million copies of his books have been sold and translated into 40 foreign languages. For the past decade, Jackson has vetted all of Connelly’s manuscripts for inaccuracies and inconsistencies with LAPD policy. Connelly often gleans vivid details and narrative texture from their many conversations, which add the kind of verisimilitude that has contributed to his books’ success. For the first two seasons, Jackson served as a technical advisor to Connelly’s Amazon television series Bosch. In addition, Connelly’s popular podcast, Murder Book, was based on one of Jackson’s cases and he is featured throughout the 14 episodes. Two other LAPD homicide detectives, Tim Marcia and Mitzi Roberts—the inspiration for the character Renee Ballard—also advise Connelly. Because Jackson retired in 2013, after 34 years with the LAPD, Connelly feels it is less intrusive to pepper Jackson with frequent questions than burden working detectives.

“Writing is all about momentum and Rick is a way I can keep that momentum,” Connelly says. “I don’t have to slow down and worry about making mistakes with radio codes, procedure, and things like that because I know Rick will catch them. He’s almost like a researcher. He’ll mark up the manuscripts and catch the errors. But this is the least of what he does. Procedure is important, but it’s window dressing. The character points I get from Rick and a few others are much more important. The cops I gravitate to aren’t the nine-to-fivers. The ones I look for view what they do as a higher calling, a mission. They get emotionally involved, which leads to a fierceness to solve the case. I came up with Harry long before I met Rick, but he and Harry both have this in their DNA.”

“Procedure is important, but it’s window dressing. The character points I get from Rick are much more important.” —Michael Connelly

Jackson, who is burly with a gleaming shaved head and neatly trimmed mustache, looks like a cop, but his personality is antithetical to the suspicious, media-hating, laconic, “just the facts, ma’am,” personality of the stereotypical LAPD detective. Jackson is gregarious, endlessly curious, well read, and well traveled; he was a geography minor in college and has visited more than 30 countries. Writers value his remarkable sense of recall, his ability to tell a compelling story leavened with humor and a coherent and cohesive narrative arc; his sense of knowing what forensic details and investigative arcana will prove helpful to a writer. Jackson plays a small but important part in insuring that the city’s finest crime writers portray the criminals, the cops, and their cases authentically.

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Jackson (second from left) with the cast of ‘Bosch’

Courtesy Rick Jackson

“There’s so much more to being a police officer or detective then what most people see in the media,” Jackson says. “There are a lot of positive things that don’t get much attention, but a writer like Mike will pick up on that and portray it in his books. He’ll show how a detective dealing with a serious case can have a relationship with the victim’s family, how the families know that we really care about finding some justice for them, how we live with the tragedies with them, how we try to right wrongs as much as we can. To have that portrayed to the reader is a big positive for me.”

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The first author Jackson worked with is Ellroy, another renowned L.A. crime writer with a massive international following. After writing a series of acclaimed novels including The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, Ellroy embarked on the ambitious project of investigating his mother’s 1958 murder, which was the focus of his memoir My Dark Places. He enlisted the aid of a retired L.A. County Sheriff’s homicide detective, Bill Stoner, who had worked with Jackson in the past during a joint-agency investigation. In 1995, Ellroy asked Stoner to set up a meeting with Jackson because he wanted to investigate some old LAPD homicides that he believed might be connected to his mother’s murder.

“The whole investigation that formed the basis of the book was a total clusterfuck,” Ellroy recalls. “All those files of other murders were very interesting shit to pour through, but there wasn’t anything to be had that was useful. Still, as a result of the files that Rick procured, I was able to capture the warp and the weave of the 1950s in the book.”

That initial dinner led to dozens of other dinners—always at the Pacific Dining Car—with Jackson, sometimes just the two of them, sometimes with a coterie of other Ellroy pals. They shared a fascination and an encyclopedic knowledge of historic L.A. crimes. “We’d do crime tours and visit the sites of old L.A. murders,” Jackson says. “Ellroy took me to the site of the Black Dahlia murder. I’d take him to the sites of some of my old murders. Occasionally, when I was doing a search warrant at a crime scene, I’d call him and tell him I saw one of his books on the suspect’s book shelf.” Jackson laughs and says, “Ellroy would always respond: ‘Not guilty by special dispensation of the Reverend Ellroy’”

Their bond was both personal and professional. Ellroy wrote a few nonfiction crime pieces for GQ magazine and Jackson provided assistance and expertise. In “Grave Doubts,” Jackson assisted Ellroy in investigating the case against Gary Lee Graham, who was sentenced to death at the age of 17 for a murder in Houston. They pored over documents, investigative reports, trials transcripts, and traveled to death row in Huntsville, Texas, to interview Graham, who was convicted on the testimony of a single witness, without any physical evidence, and was hamstrung by an ineffectual defense attorney. Although both Ellroy and Jackson “leaned” toward the belief that Graham was guilty, they contended the case against him was weak and he did not deserve the death penalty. In the article Ellroy wrote: “Rick loved crime. Rick loved crime past his vocation. Rick loved the riddle of motive and lives in duress. Rick loved crime as social history. Rick loved crime with the guilelessness of a kid discovering sex. Rick cosigned the death penalty. Rick sent two men to death row. One man fried. One man killed himself.”

In “Stephanie,” another GQ article, Ellroy and Jackson reinvestigated the 1965 murder of 16-year-old Stephanie Gorman who was sexually assaulted and murdered in her Cheviot Hills home, a case that haunted both men. These stories and others were anthologized in Ellroy’s book Destination: Morgue. Also in the book, Ellroy included three novellas—“Hollywood Fuck Pad,” “Hot-Prowl Rape-O,” and “Jungletown Jihad”— that featured “Rhino” Rick Jenson. The character mirrored Jackson’s career path—Hollywood patrol to Hollywood Homicide to Robbery-Homicide Division— and his close relationship to his former supervisor, Russ Kuster. The outrageous, over-the-top actions of Rhino, however, bore little resemblance to the by-the-book career of Jackson. When Jackson read the stories, he was amused by the character’s antics, but horrified to see that Ellroy used his real name. He knew the LAPD brass would not be happy to learn that one of their detectives was featured in a story called “Hollywood Fuckpad.” Ellroy agreed to change Jackson’s name—slightly.

“I was having fun with these stories, but they were also homage to Rick Jackson, the man,” Ellroy says. “It was a tribute. He’s a guy who loves the psychology and the science of crime. He’s intensely interested in other human beings, which is an attribute of a great detective, which Rick is.”

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Jackson was at his desk when he picked up the ringing phone and the caller said: “Hi, Rick. Joe Wambaugh here.” Jackson was thrilled to talk to Wambaugh, an LAPD legend. He spent 14 years as a patrol officer and detective sergeant and parlayed his experiences on the street into a successful writing career. Cops loved his gritty novels because they believed he portrayed their work lives, personal lives, battles with the brass and the public authentically. When Jackson was in college studying criminal justice, he read Wambaugh’s first novel, The New Centurions. When he was in the police academy, instructors frequently referred to Wambaugh’s book The Onion Field—he chronicled the kidnapping of two plainclothes LAPD officers and the murder of one of them—to stress lessons about officer safety. After writing best-selling novels centered on the LAPD, Wambaugh extended his range and wrote a number of books with different settings and themes.

Ellroy, a friend of Wambaugh’s, frequently implored him to return to his LAPD roots. Wambaugh finally acquiesced. He decided to write an LAPD novel and Ellroy suggested he call Rick Jackson. When Wambaugh asked for help, Jackson replied, “It would be an honor.” Wambaugh’s research entails interviewing at least 50 people before he sits down to write. He began his project by asking Jackson to set up two dinners, one with a group of male detectives, then a group of female officers.

Jackson found an interesting and eclectic group of female cops. The next night Jackson gathered a group of his fellow RHD detectives and they met Wambaugh for a three-hour dinner. They talked about cases; they told stories; they shared humorous anecdotes; they discussed the changes in LAPD politics and procedures. “Rick later answered a million questions I had,” Wambaugh says. “While Rick’s a really good storyteller, a lot of cops are shy when it comes to that sort of thing. They don’t have an instinct for what plays. It can be flat and they inadvertently leave out the juice that makes things come alive. Rick, on the other hand, can do it. Oh yeah. A lot of stuff Rick gave me I could almost use it whole. I just changed the names to protect the guilty.”

Wambaugh’s relationship with Jackson, their dinners, and his subsequent research bore immediate fruit. His first novel based on these experiences, Hollywood Station, was published in 2006. He eventually wrote four more novels to complete his Hollywood quintet.

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When Jackson was growing up in Lakewood, he was always intrigued by crime stories. He read all the Hardy Boys books, and he wrote to the FBI for a middle school career project. During high school, he avidly followed the 1967 case of Deputy District Attorney Jack Kirschke, who was arrested for the murder of his wife and her lover in Long Beach. Jackson was fascinated by the detectives as he scrutinized all the lurid newspaper stories. He knew he wanted to be a detective so he enrolled at San Jose State University, one of the first schools in the state to offer a major in criminal justice. Jackson eventually joined the LAPD, spent four years in patrol, and was promoted to robbery detective trainee in Hollywood. The homicide unit at the time was overwhelmed during a murderous year and Jackson was drafted to help out. Russ Kuster, the head of Hollywood Homicide, was known for his scrupulous attention to detail and exacting standards. A savvy talent scout, Kuster saw that Jackson was hardworking, bright, detail-oriented, and had an instinct for investigation. In 1983, he recruited him. After five years at Hollywood Homicide, Jackson was selected to join the elite Robbery-Homicide Division and eventually joined the Homicide Special unit.

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Conducting a crime scene at a 1987 murder while working the LAPD’s Hollywood Homicide Unit

Courtesy Rick Jackson

On call one night, he was awakened by a lieutenant who informed him that a detective from Hollywood had been killed and Jackson was dispatched to the restaurant. It was Russ Kuster. Jackson’s voice cracks as he describes the call and recounts driving to the scene. Kuster had been off duty, drinking at a Hungarian restaurant’s bar, when a belligerent customer brandished a pistol and flashed its laser-beam sights at patrons. Kuster identified himself as a police officer and attempted to convince the man to drop the weapon, but he opened fire. Wounded in the knees and chest, Kuster fired seven shots before he died and killed the gunman.

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After 20 years with the LAPD, Jackson retired. His wife was fed up with L.A., wanted a different kind of life, and was adamant about leaving Southern California. In the mid-1990s, he moved with his family to a small town in Maine and began investigating theft for an airborne delivery company. After clearing numerous complex murders at Homicide Special, he found the new job less than challenging. Jackson and his wife eventually divorced, and he returned to Homicide Special in 1999, the event that reinvigorated Harry Bosch’s career.

“Four people benefited financially from my divorce,” Jackson jokes. “My wife, her attorney, my attorney, and Michael Connelly.”

I met Jackson when I was researching my nonfiction book, Homicide Special. I spent more than a year in the squad room and tailed him on a number of cases. I discovered he was an effective detective in part because he had the ability to talk to people from all strata of society—from a double-murderer to the owner of a trendy Studio City restaurant—and convince them to open up to him. His down-to-earth manner and sense of humor enabled him to glean important details from suspects in the interview room. I was impressed that Jackson cared so much about the victims that he posted photos of some of them on his desk to remind him to continue investigating his unsolved cases and not give up hope. When I was writing my first crime novel, Kind of Blue, Jackson provided great insight, in particular helping me get into the mindset of a detective at a homicide: the rush of anticipation; the importance of not having preconceived notions; viewing the crime scene with an open mind; avoiding tunnel vision; and not formulating a theory or focusing on a single suspect too quickly.

In 2001, when Detective David Lambkin was given permission to form the LAPD’s cold-case unit he was allowed to hire five D-1s, the most inexperienced detective rank. Lambkin made one more request: he wanted Rick Jackson to be the assistant officer in charge. Lambkin, who is now retired, says that he requested Jackson because of his “incredible sense of L.A. crime history and his great memory, which is crucial for cold cases…and he’s very methodical and goal-oriented, another key for these kinds of cases.”

A few years later, Jackson’s partner in the unit, Tim Marcia, mentioned that he received an email from a mystery writer by the name of Michael Connelly. Marcia’s mother was at his book signing in Arizona and mentioned that her son was an LAPD detective. Connelly told her he’d like to talk to him and she provided his email. Jackson convinced Marcia to respond and the three of them had that fateful breakfast. Jackson later encountered the police chief at the time, William Bratton, and informed him that Connelly wanted to bring Bosch back to the LAPD. “I got this call out of the blue,” Connelly recalls. “It was from Bratton. He says, ‘I hear you want Harry Bosch to return. I want him to come back. What do you need?’ He ended up faxing me the application cops need to fill out in order to return to the department after leaving.”

After struggling as a P.I. in Lost Light and The Narrows, Harry Bosch returns to the LAPD in The Closers. In the novel and a number of others, Connelly often briefly inserts Jackson and Marcia in the storyline—using their real names—either bantering with Harry or assisting him on investigations. He dedicated The Drop to them, writing they “know what Harry Bosch knows.”

Jackson has reviewed more than a dozen Connelly manuscripts since then and the two have become friends, sharing many meals and a few vacations. In 2017, they were finishing dinner at Osteria Mozza on Melrose Avenue and Jackson mentioned that he was going to walk to an old Hollywood crime scene after dinner because the trial was coming up and he wanted to refresh his memory. Connelly asked if he could tag along. Connelly was immediately intrigued by the unique nature of the case. In 1987, Pierre Romain, a Rolling 60s Crip gang member, was the primary suspect in a 1987 carjacking murder in Hollywood. Jackson believed he had a good case, but it fell apart because the one witness to the homicide had been hypnotized—without telling detectives—and was disqualified from testifying. For the next few years, Jackson monitored Romain, hoping he’d get caught with the murder weapon, or a suspect in another case might provide new evidence. Jackson eventually forgot about the case after he retired. Sixteen years after the murder, Jackson received a call from a San Francisco Police Department officer conducting a background check on a candidate who had recently applied. His name was Pierre Romain. “Spend a day with me and I’ll open up my homicide files and you’ll see why he’ll never be a cop,” Jackson says. The officer asked Jackson if he knew where Romain was currently employed. Jackson did not. “Well,” the San Francisco cop says, “He’s a federal law enforcement officer.” Romain was sergeant at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, a Pentagon research facility.

Jackson knew that before the victim, Jade Clark, died he managed to fire off a shot and wound the suspect and the bullet, which was recovered at the scene, was still in evidence. DNA testing, which wasn’t available at the time of the murder, could now be the key. He sent the bullet to a private lab and a few months later received the news—the tissue remnants on the bullet were a match with Romain. At the time Jackson was elated. Romain was arrested, but remained out on bail and avoided trial for the next 14 years as he cleverly stalled by changing attorneys numerous times, engaging in prolonged plea bargain negotiations, and then pulling out at the last minute. Finally, the case went to trial and Romain was convicted. Connelly’s podcast chronicled the case and the trial and included numerous interviews with Jackson and Marcia and Mitzi Roberts, who worked the case after Jackson retired.

At the sentencing, after Romain was convicted of first degree murder, the victim’s mother held up a prom photo of her son and tearfully lauded Jackson, who was with her in court. Thirty-two years ago, she said, “Detective Jackson looked into my eyes and promised me, however long it takes, he would never give up and he would find the person responsible…I will always be grateful and thankful for his hard work and dedication, which demonstrates that families can see that it’s never too late for justice.”

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Best-selling crime novelist Robert Ellis is grateful to Jackson not just for the general insight he provided into the life of a detective, but also the specific details that animated his narratives. Some of the LAPD and investigative esoterica he learned from Jackson that he included in his books include: Under UV lights at a sexual assault crime scene, Coke and semen stains look identical; how touch DNA is employed; and the techniques suspects use to beat a polygraph exam.

One a recent morning, Jackson is ensconced in his small, cluttered, windowless office at the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department talking to the son of a woman who had been murdered in 1979. After retiring in 2013, Jackson married a woman he knew in high school and moved to the Bay Area where she lived. Two years ago he realized he missed the satisfaction of clearing cases, so he now works two days a week tackling the county’s massive backlog of cold cases. Jackson and his partner, another retired detective who also works part time, call the case “the June Cleaver Murder,” because Roann Schweitzer was a devoted mother and wife and had a wonderful family. The Modesto woman, who was visiting her daughters in San Francisco, walked to dinner with them, but during the meal one daughter felt sick. Schweitzer decided to get her car that was parked a few blocks away. She never returned. The next day her body was found in a remote area of San Mateo County. She had been murdered and sexually assaulted.

Jackson talks to Schweitzer’s son in a soothing tone and tells him he feels bad that while he has solved the case—through DNA evidence—he regrets that the killer died a few years ago. The son thanks Jackson for not giving up on the investigation. “At least you gave us answers. I know it will help our family.”

Jackson and Harry Bosch both retired from the LAPD, returned, and joined RHD’s cold-case unit. And both Jackson and Bosch, after their second retirements, decided they missed the challenge of the chase. During the last few Connelly novels, Harry parallels Rick Jackson’s career path once again: He is investigating cold cases part-time for a police department in the Valley.


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