Photo courtesy of Leonard John Matthews (Flickr.com).
Police officers by their very nature are some of the most skeptical people on earth. You demand physical evidence and proof. However, in honor of the season, I will ask you to suspend that natural skepticism and listen to my story.
In 1975 Dep. Jimmy Vetrovec and I were assigned to the East Los Angeles Gang Unit. The gang members admired Vetrovec and nicknamed him "Kojak" because he sported a shaved head. But it was really his strength and muscle-bound body they admired. Vetrovec was the gold medal winner in the senior division for power lifting in the Police Olympics for many years.
Not being lazy enough for the ELA early morning shift, he was assigned to partner with me, the "Shit Magnet." I got my nickname because if something bad was going to happen in ELA, it was going to happen near me.
The ELA Gang car and the team of Vetrovec and Valdemar consistently made the most and the biggest drug seizures, the most felony arrests and, as a result, made the most overtime each month at the ELA Patrol Station.
Although this did not necessarily impress our peers, the gang members did take notice.
Driving through the Little Valley Gang area one evening we noticed that our badge numbers had been painted onto the huge gang mural on badges worn by cartoon pigs. This was an honor reserved for cops deemed as worthy opponents of the Little Valley gang, but our favorite worthy opponent gang lived in the hills of ELA.
The Geraghty Loma (Geraghty Hill) gang was the most difficult to work. Their suburban hillside turf had been an exclusive community for Jewish and Russian immigrants in the 1930s and '40s. By the '70s, it had become a rundown community of old Victorian-style and clapboard houses perched precariously on stilts scattered on the hillsides. Confusing, narrow streets crisscrossed the hills, which were choked with overgrown trees and bushes. Street lights were few and far between.
When the Geraghty homeboys hung out, they posted lookouts along the approaches, and gathered on one of the hills called "Chica Loma" (Little Hill). They would build a campfire, then smoke marijuana and drink beer while discussing gang business. At this time, Geraghty was one of the largest and most violent gangs in ELA, and Geraghty was at war with all of the surrounding gangs. They were always armed or in close proximity to their weapons. Their favorite weapon was the .30-caliber carbine, the first American assault rifle.
Sometimes Vetrovec and I would borrow a spotting scope, a camera, and a night-vision scope from Sgt. Richard Arias, who was a reserve in Naval Intelligence. We would sneak up into an observation point and spy on the Geraghty Gang from a distance. We would use a portable radio to relay our observations to the other gang units. This worked especially well in the evening because the drunken homeboys' voices would carry in the hills, and we could clearly hear their plans.
On one cool autumn evening with the breeze rustling the trees and a nearly full moon hanging over the hills, we made our way to our best hidden observation point in Geraghty's area. Vetrovec and I had located an abandoned boarded-up house at the dead end of Buela Circle overlooking Geraghty's meeting place on Chica Loma. Under cover of darkness, we parked our radio car in a hidden spot several blocks away and snuck up the hills to the house on Buela carrying the spy equipment.
Anyone who knew the great hulk of a gang cop Kojak, would tell you that he was a very funny man. Expert at mimicking several ethnic accents and comic voices, he tried to make me laugh. Both of us giggled and stifled our overt laughter while crashing through the brush up the steep hill. This was not good; we were supposed to be in stealth mode. Being discovered by the Geraghty Gang on this mission could be deadly.
We finally slipped into the abandoned house through the boarded up doors we had loosened earlier that day while on our scouting mission. Using light and noise discipline we set up near the southern most windows looking down on Chica Loma. It was perfect; we hardly needed a spotting scope or night vision system, and we could hear their voices clearly. We saw they were in the process of jumping in two new members.
Like excited school boys, we described the fire-light ritual into the radio. The hushed, hollow radio voices seemed strangely out of place in the empty residence. As I watched Vetrovec looking out of the window using his binoculars, I suddenly felt a presence, as if we were being watched ourselves by unseen eyes. I took a small flashlight and again checked the entire house making sure we were alone.
"Rich, are you getting paranoid on me?" Vetrovec asked. "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they are not after us," I replied. I told Vetrovec about my creepy feelings; he was laughing at me, when from the corner of my eye I saw a shadow move across the doorway in the dark living room.
"Did you see that?" I said out loud. "What?" asked Vetrovec. "No joke, Jimmy. I saw something moving in the living room," I answered, a little upset that he doubted me. But staring into the living room's darkness, we saw nothing.
Uneasily we returned to spying on Geraghty. A group of gang members were loading up into an old car, preparing to make a beer run. Vetrovec directed the gang units to intercept the carload of Geraghty gang members over the radio when we heard a rustling and a moaning sound in the living room. "Did you hear that?" Vetrovec asked. "Yep," I said.
We took the chance of being discovered and used our flashlights to check the residence again.
Unknown to us, a nosy neighbor had already become suspicious of our presence. Like the homeboys' voices, our stumbling around and the radio traffic had been carried by the wind. The nosy Buela Circle resident was a mother of one of the young Geraghty initiates. She telephoned "Foot" from Geraghty and told him that someone was in the vacant house on Buela. Foot got his moniker from his bad right foot. He recruited two Geraghty Homeboys and crept up from Geraghty to the Buela house.
Vetrovec and I were at the south window in hyper-vigilance mode, when one of the Geraghty homeboys pulled down the plywood covering the living room door, and the three Geraghty homeboys stepped inside.
The room was charged with static electricity as the homeboys tried to adjust their eyes to the darkness. Kojak and I drew our S&W K-15 .38 revolvers. We were all shocked and frozen by what we saw next.
Drifting about two feet off the ground between us was the figure of an old withered woman. Her head was veiled by a hood and her body draped in a long black robe, which seemed to exaggerate her hunched back. The torn hem of the robe rustled as she floated by revealing that she had neither ankles nor feet. It was a Crone, a witch-like apparition of myth and folklore. The crone crossed the living room and disappeared into the hallway.
As I looked back to the doorway, I saw Foot and the Geraghty Homeboys running full speed ahead into the Buela Street darkness. Vetrovec and I hurriedly pulled all of the spy equipment and ran crashing and falling down the hillside to our radio car.
Funny thing, neither the Geraghty homeboys nor my partner Vetrovec ever wanted to talk about the paranormal experience we all shared. I never again took up an observation point on Geraghty, and we avoided Buela Circle and that vacant home, especially at this time of the year. But it seems to me that we were both saved from a shootout with the Geraghty gang by the Buela Street Crone.