At Christmas time in East Los Angeles the sheriff's station fields additional marked and unmarked patrol units to combat the increase in criminal activity. Back in December 1975 one of the extra cars included Dep. Jimmy "Kojak" Vetrovec and myself.
Our area of responsibility centered on the famous Whittier Boulevard business district and the Mariana Maravilla gang area north and south of the boulevard. Tasked to burglary suppression, our shift began at 6 a.m. because most of the burglaries in this area occurred in the mornings after Mom and Dad left for work and the children were in school.
Although some gang members make a career of burglary, the great majority of the burglaries in this area were committed by neighborhood heroin addicts. Although many of these East Los Angeles hypes had been gang members at some point in their prior lives, they had long since become unreliable and untrustworthy to their homeboys.
They had become more committed to their addiction to "chiva" than to any gang loyalty. No code of conduct, even the one which governs gang members, could come between an addict and his enslaving drug. Hypes are commonly amoral creatures without a conscience or any vestige of loyalty. The first victims of addicts are usually their own mothers, fathers, and other family members. Addicts, like cockroaches, can be found in many households but nobody really likes them.
On this morning the sad barrio houses were decorated with tinsel and artificial snow sprayed Christmas stencils. Some houses sported perennial Christmas lights and an occasional "Feliz Navidad." A light gray misty fog and morning frost dulled the festive Christmas colors. Older cars warmed up in driveways spouting plumes of exhaust from their tail pipes as working people got ready to drop kids off at school and hurry off to blue collar jobs. A Christmas tree twinkled and sparkled in the window of every home. Even though this was a community plagued by poverty and unemployment, the ELA neighborhood spared nothing to make Christmas wonderful for their children.
Vetrovec complained to me that our extra shifts provided the overtime money we both needed for Christmas, but neither of us had been able to find the time to do any Christmas shopping for our own children. It was our habit to arrive early for our shift so we could brief ourselves about the prior day's criminal activity and allow time for Vetrovec to perform his rituals related to preparing our assigned vehicle. He spent at least 15 minutes just cleaning our windshield.
Jimmy Vetrovec had some of the best police powers of observation I have ever seen. In police work you must look at the activity two or three blocks ahead of your patrol unit. As you pass, you must also look down each alley and cross streets. Jimmy required that all our windows be extraordinarily clean for that reason. We often made a contest of who could observe suspicious activity first. Whoever made the observation first was Sherlock Holmes and the loser was Doctor Watson.
As we began our shift, we passed a residential area in the Mariana Maravillas gang turf. I saw two middle-aged men coming out of a sliding glass door at the side of one residence. The house was on my side (passenger side) of the car and like Santa Claus each man carried a big cloth bag slung over a shoulder. For a nanosecond one of the hype burglars' eyes met mine.
"Burglars!" I yelled, as I leaped from the car. The hypes split and ran in opposite directions. Jimmy quickly gave our location and that "we were in foot pursuit of two burglary suspects" over the car's radio. (No portable radios in those days.)
I hit the four-foot chain link fence in one leap northbound, but the first burglar was running west in the yard and tossed the sack of Christmas gifts as he rolled over the fence west bound. Vetrovec cleared the first fence a few seconds behind me as I jumped over the second fence after the first burglar.
I grew up jumping high fences in Compton and I was in pretty good shape back then, and my partner Vetrovec was a Police Olympics power lifter. Following the tactical teaching of the day, he elected to stay with me rather than splitting up to chase burglar number two.
Fueled by adrenalin, the hype burglar hit fence after fence with me in close pursuit. Although Jimmy was strong and a former distance runner, he had since bulked up and his muscle bound body slowed him down.
I could hear the radio cars roaring and screeching through the residential streets around us. I screamed, "Call the police; tell them where we are!" as we ran past a Hispanic man who had stepped out his door to see what was happening. His mid-sized mutt barked at my heels as I jumped over the dog house and vaulted over the next fence.
I was second guessing myself, wondering if I should have yelled at the resident in Spanish rather than English. As I followed the "Grinch," over the next fence and into the street, I could hear the dog barking at Vetrovec, and I could hear Vetrovec cursing and swearing behind me.
Both Jimmy Vetrovec and I had both recently successfully passed the very rigorous Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB-SWAT) physical agility test, but after several blocks of sprints and fence hurdles, I was running out of gas. The hype Grinch seemed to be having no such problem.
The fleet-footed Grinch hit a six-foot wooden fence and as I came over the top I saw that he had crashed into some rose bushes and was struggling to get back on his feet. I also lost my footing as I crash landed, missing the rose bushes but weakened by the run.
We both stumbled to our feet and began our marathon run again. I was breathing hard and hurting, but I couldn't let this Grinch creep beat me. The 5-foot 7-inch Vetrovic could not make the leap required to get over the wooden fence; he cursed again and pulled the entire fence down with a huge crash! I heard his stubby legs scrambling over the fallen fence on the other side of the yard.
We ran through the maze of several more residential blocks and yards, somehow avoiding the numerous radio cars I knew were searching for us. I no longer could hear Vetrovec behind me and now each stride was labored and painful, but now I could see that the hype Grinch was also hurting.
In an especially large backyard I saw him fall, which was lucky because I suddenly saw the clothes lines in front of me which would have taken me down by the neck. Instead I dropped from pure exhaustion, gasping for breath. I heard the Grinch gasping as well. After several seconds of both of us just lying there, he tried to get up and couldn't. I gulped down one more lungful of oxygen and struggled to my feet.
But now, shaking like he was 100 years old, the Grinch had used his last reserve to get to his feet and continue to "run" away. The foot pursuit continued now in slow motion. Like jackrabbits and many vehicle pursuits, suspects running in a foot pursuit often run in a circular pattern. The Grinch was heading back toward where the pursuit had begun.
I was about 15 feet behind the Grinch as we both stumbled into another yard. The Grinch suddenly grunted in pain as he rounded the corner of the garage when a three-foot pipe wrench swung into him catching him in the solar plexus. Standing over the hype Grinch was the Hispanic man I had yelled at near the beginning of the pursuit. He had not only called and updated the sheriff's station, but armed himself with the pipe wrench and laid in wait for the Grinch.
I literally fell on the hype Grinch and cuffed him. As I lay on the ground next to the wheezing Grinch trying to catch my own breath, Jimmy Vetrovec arrived with the East L.A. Calvary.
Units responding to our foot pursuit had already captured the other hype Grinch burglar. We recovered the sacks of stolen Christmas gifts and returned them to the victim family. The local newspaper later featured a story and a photograph of the several happy children and their recovered Christmas gifts. At least on that Christmas, deputies Vetrovec and Valdemar were heroes in the Mariana Maravilla gang neighborhood.