CHAPTER ONE

LOS ANGELES, 1963

 

The siren on the Harley-Davidson police motorcycle screamed its shrill, high-pitched wailing notes into the rider’s helmet at about 100 decibels, but Pete Felix didn’t hear it. His mind and body were totally focused on the speeding car and the traffic ahead of him. The motorcycle’s engine roared as Pete shifted down to second gear to slow for the approaching intersection. His mind kept telling him to grab the radio microphone and broadcast his direction of travel to communications so other cops could follow his pursuit and assist him in capturing his suspects. But every time he tried to take his hands from the handlebar to reach for the mike, a car pulled out in front of him or the next intersection would be speeding toward him.

Bam! The Harley bottomed out as it bounced over the dips on both sides of the gutters. Pete’s mind was operating at top speed to keep up with all the events that were happening to him. Sixty miles an hour in a district of Los Angeles designated for twenty-five-mile-an-hour traffic. He knew a crash at that speed would mean almost certain death or, at best, some life-threatening injuries. He gritted his teeth, put his head down, and hung on as he twisted the throttle on the right handlebar wide open.

Little rivers of sweat rolled down the nose of Cleophus Johnson as his hands clutched the steering wheel of the 1961 Buick. He and his partner, Robert Davis, skidded the fleeing vehicle through the intersection of Vermont and Vernon Avenues, running the red light. They had just missed a southbound vehicle by inches as they ran the red light at about sixty miles per hour. The Buick bounced a couple of feet in the air with sparks and gray rubber smoke coming from under the car.

“Shit, man,” yelled Robert, “cool it or you’ll kill us for sure!”

“Fuck you, man. I ain’t goin’ back to the joint behind no chicken shit grand theft auto.” Cleophus had been out of San Quentin only thirty days; and if he was going back to prison, it had to be for something worthwhile like robbery, his usual means of support, or at least burglary, his secondary means of support.

Both men had long criminal records dating back to their early childhood. They knew the LAPD well from many personal contacts with them. They knew all the ways the Los Angeles cops operated and how to con them. Cleophus also knew how to keep his parole officer happy and had stayed out of jail longer than the last time he was out. But this was a motorcycle cop on their tail. They were unpredictable. Cleophus had met some who were very friendly. The kind you could con. But others were different. Most of them seemed older and more streetwise, and they didn’t take any shit from ex-cons. Anyway, he wasn’t about to stop and find out how this motor cop was going to react to two ex-cons in a stolen car and who were leading him on a dangerous chase through the darkened streets of south central Los Angeles.

Sweat was also blowing off Pete’s nose. The wind whistling over the plastic windshield of the police motorcycle distorted the cheeks of the officer. He finally grabbed the microphone from its clip on the handlebar.

“Thirteen Mary Thirty-two is still westbound on Vernon, just passed Vermont in pursuit of a 1961 Buick convertible, red in color, driven by two male Negro suspects. The vehicle is wanted for speed and possible GTA.”

Pete tried to control the volume of his voice as he spoke into the mike. It was hard to do because he couldn’t hear his own voice over the roar of the big Harley engine. If he yelled into the mike too loudly, the distortion might muffle his voice so badly that his location might not be audible. At a time like this, he wanted everyone to know where he was, especially his partner, who was somewhere behind him in the darkness. Pete couldn’t take the time to look in his rearview mirrors to see if he was there or not. He hoped he was.

The chase had gone on for what seemed like ten minutes. Actually, it had been only about five minutes since Pete and his partner had seen the red Buick convertible speeding north on Central Avenue from Santa Barbara Boulevard. As the motor cops turned on the red lights on the front of their motorcycles to stop the car for a ticket, they noticed the two men in the front seat talking rapidly to each other, as if deciding what to do. Pete and his partner Ron Byron knew what that meant. The speeders were deciding whether or not to “rabbit,” as cops called it. They rabbited.

Pete knew as soon as a pursuit was announced on the police radio, all other activities were suspended, and the chase became priority for Communications Division, who operated from the Police Facilities Building (PAB) downtown. That was a comforting feeling to the field officers, but didn’t ensure that the pursuit would come to a successful ending. Most police pursuits ended in a traffic accident involving the suspect, the officer, or an innocent party who gets in the way.

Like most cops, Pete hated pursuits. When pursuing in a police car, officers had the protection of the surrounding metal automobile and the seat belts to improve their chances of survival should a crash occur during a pursuit. Motor cops didn’t enjoy that protection. A fiberglass helmet, a pair of high-top leather boots, and a leather jacket were Pete’s only protection. His main source of safety was his brain, his riding capabilities, and his experience.

As the next intersection approached, Pete peered into the darkness ahead of his headlight to see the color of the signal light at Western Avenue. The light was green for westbound traffic. The red Buick made a left turn and sped south on Western. Pete swore as the light went amber. By the time he got there, it would be red for him. He knew he would have to slow down before going through the intersection, even though he had his red lights and siren on. Experience had taught him that the siren on a police vehicle is usually not heard by approaching traffic, especially when many people have their radios blasting while they drive. Pete’s right boot hit the brake pedal at the same time he squeezed the front hand brake. The heavy motorcycle slowed, but only a little. Pete frantically increased pressure on the foot brake until he thought he would push the pedal through the footboard, and still, the bike only slowed slightly. The brake shoes were hot and fading fast. This can’t go on much longer, he thought. I’m going to have to stop them or pull out of the chase. That meant he would lose, and the suspects would probably get away. “Shit!” he said out loud.

The chase continued to Slauson Avenue and turned west. Pete remembered the long stretch of straight street that went uphill toward the boundary between Los Angeles City and Los Angeles County at Overhill Street. He’d make his move there. Now all he had to figure out was what that move would be. He couldn’t shoot at them since there had been no direct assault on him or anyone else from the time Pete and Ron had tried to stop them.

The car had been verified as a “77th Division stolen” by communications during the pursuit, but that was still not enough to use deadly force. Had Pete’s life and other lives been endangered by the suspects’ failure to stop? Sure, but that wasn’t enough reason to kill the bastards, according to the courts. All these thoughts flashed through Pete’s mind as the pursuit was coming to its climax.

Now they were westbound on Slauson, starting up the long hill toward the city limits. Pete saw his chance. He twisted the throttle wide open and gained on the Buick, which was by now smoking badly and overheating. Pete pulled up about fifty feet behind the fleeing vehicle. He could see the heads of the two occupants swiveling around as they realized the cops had caught up to them and the car they were driving was about to blow up.

“Fuck this shit,” Pete muttered as he twisted the spark advance handle of the Harley’s left handlebar and then cut the ignition switch on the bike. He then held the throttle open for two or three seconds to allow more gasoline to flow into the hot carburetor. Then he turned the ignition back on.

Pow! The backfire from the Harley’s exhaust pipe shot a spout of flame at least a foot out of the muffler. The sound was deafening, like a cannon shot. Both men in the fleeing car ducked as the “shot” echoed between the apartment buildings that lined this part of the street.

“Motherfucker, he shootin’ at us!” screamed Robert to his partner. By this time, Cleophus had decided that going back to the joint was better than being shot up by some crazy motor cop. Bam! Another “shot” rang out. Cleophus and Robert saw the motor cop pull up on the left side of their car with a pistol in his hand, and it was pointed at them.

“He gonna shoot us, man! Stop the motherfuckin’ car, man!” yelled Robert. Cleophus slammed on the brakes, and the Buick started to skid.

Pete’s brakes were now so hot that they had ceased to exist. As the Buick skidded and slowed, he was unable to stop and rode right on by the suspect’s vehicle, pointing his revolver at the car as he passed by. He thought how dangerous it could be if the suspects were armed, and also how stupid he must look. There he was in front of the suspect’s vehicle, totally exposed.

Fortunately, the two suspects were not about to raise their heads above the door level and get their heads shot off by some crazy motor cop. Ron Byron pulled up behind the suspect’s vehicle and jumped off his motorcycle, gun in hand.

“Okay, you assholes, get your hands up and come out of that car!”

“Please don’ shoot, man! We gives up!”

Both suspects were out of the car and handcuffed when the rest of the cavalry arrived a few minutes later. As the suspects were about to be loaded into the police car to be transported to jail, Cleophus’s pride couldn’t take it anymore. “Man, you pigs would never caught me if that crazy motherfucker hadn’t shot at us. You ain’ s’posed to be shootin’ at auto thieves, is you?”

“I didn’t fire a shot, asshole. I just backfired my motorcycle, and you dudes just pulled over.”

“Shit!” whined Robert. “You mean you didn’t shoot at us?”

Pete smiled that smile criminals hate to see when a cop is sending them back where they belong: to prison.

“You don’t think I would do anything to endanger the lives of any of our good citizens, now do you, sir?”

“You all nothin’ but pigs,” snarled Cleophus as the door of the car slammed shut. “Yeah, but when I go home take off this uniform I look just like everyone else. You’ll always be an asshole.”