CRAIS: CHASING DARKNESS
On a moonless night three years before Bastilla and
Crimmens came to my office, someone
shattered Yvonne Bennett’s skull in
a Silver Lake parking lot, one block
north of Sunset Boulevard. The night
was warm, though not hot, with the
scent of spider-lilies kissing the
air. The weapon of choice was a tire
Yvonne Bennett was twenty-eight years old when she
died, though everyone I
interviewed--including two former
roommates and three former
boyfriends--believed she was
nineteen. As it was for many in Los
Angeles, her life was a masquerade.
She lied about her age, her past,
her work history, and her
profession. Of the twenty-three
people I interviewed when I tracked
her movements on the night of her
death, three believed she was a
student at UCLA, two believed she
was a student at USC, one believed
she was a graduate student working
toward a doctorate in psychology,
and one or more of the rest believed
she was a production assistant, a
makeup artist, a florist, a clothing
designer, a graphic artist, a
bartender, a waitress, a sales clerk
at Barney’s on Wilshire Boulevard,
or a sous chef who worked for
Wolfgang Puck. Though she had been
arrested for prostitution twice, she
was not and never had been a
streetwalker. She was a bar girl.
She picked up men in bars and
brokered the cash before leaving the
premises. Even with the arrests, she
denied being a prostitute, once
telling a former roommate that,
though she dated men for money, she
never took money for sex. This, too,
was a lie.
There wasn’t much in my files about Yvonne Bennett or
Lionel Byrd because I hadn’t spent
much time on his case, eight days
start to finish. Any moron could
have solved it. No shots fired, no
beatings given or received. The
Batman cape stayed home.
I passed the pages to Pike as I read them.
At the time of his arrest, Lionel Byrd was a legitimate
suspect in the murder. He had been
seen talking to Yvonne Bennett
earlier that evening and he had a
criminal history with
prostitutes—two pops for soliciting
and a misdemeanor assault conviction
eighteen months earlier when he
argued with a prostitute about her
services. Byrd was still on
probation when Crimmens picked him
A twenty-two-year-old coffee-shop barista and aspiring
actor named Angel Tomaso was the
last person to see Yvonne Bennett
alive when she entered the alley
behind his coffee shop at
eleven-forty P.M. Her body was
discovered at twelve-sixteen A.M.
These two times created the
thirty-six minute window during
which Bennett was murdered, and
would prove key to the charges
against Byrd being dropped.
Though the evidence against him was largely
circumstantial, Lionel Byrd
confessed the crime to Crimmens and
his partner at the time, a fellow
Rampart detective named Nicky Munoz.
This sounds more telling than it
was. With the assault prior and the
witnesses who saw them together,
Crimmens convinced Byrd he was
cooked on the murder and promised a
lesser charge if Byrd confessed.
When Levy viewed the confession
tape, it was clear Byrd had no
knowledge of the crime; Crimmens had
fed him the information with leading
questions. Byrd later recanted, but
by then the damage was done. The
confession and its supporting
evidence were enough for a murder
charge to be brought.
Levy convinced me that Byrd was being given the rush
with the jacked-up confession. He
also convinced the judge, who
threatened to toss the confession.
Eight days later I found a
time-coded security video placing
Byrd in the Two Worlds Lounge in
Hollywood at the same time Yvonne
Bennett was being murdered
sixteen-point-two miles away. Levy,
myself, and the bartender on duty
that night met with the prosecutor
in the judges chambers three days
later, where, at the judge’s
suggestion and in hopes of avoiding
a slam-dunk acquittal, the deputy
district attorney dropped the
Nothing in my files made me doubt myself. Nothing there
made me feel wrong. They didn’t need
Sherlock Holmes to put it together.
Pike tamped the pages together.
“How was it you found the tape and not Crimmens and
Munoz? They had the same information
“Crimmens had the confession, so he was lazy. We had a
list of the places Byrd claimed he
was in that night, but he only knew
a few of the bars by name. We had to
figure out where he was by working
off the descriptions.”
“All of the bars checked out except the last one. He
said he stopped for a nightcap at a
place like a tiki bar that had
bamboo. Everyone, including me,
thought it was in Silver Lake.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“We found a bar like that, but not the one he meant. It
was a lesbian bar. It wasn’t a tiki
place, but it was small and dark
with bamboo furniture. This was the
only place that came close to his
description, but the bartenders
denied he was there. That sealed the
deal for Crimmens, but here was the
tell: Byrd told Crimmens he argued
with the bartender because the
bartender wouldn’t let him run a
tab. In the tape, he says, that guy
was a prick.”
“The bartenders were women. All the other bars had
checked out, so him getting it wrong
about the bartender bothered me.
Byrd had an apartment in Hollywood
back then, so I looked for something
closer to home. That’s where I found
it, a little place between Santa
Monica and Sunset. They were trying
to look like the Alaskan wilderness.
They had these fake totem poles
behind the bar, not tiki idols. They
still had the security tape, and
there he was, having his drink. The
time code put him in Hollywood
during the window when Yvonne
Bennett was murdered. The judge
agreed. The DA. Everybody. That’s
why they dropped the charges.”
Maybe I was still trying to convince myself, but I
didn’t see the hole. I didn’t see
how Lionel Byrd could have killed
her, and I didn’t see how Bastilla
could be so certain that he had.
Pike said, “What about the other murders?”
“I was all over this guy’s life for eight days. I had
his priors. I had everything. There
was nothing to suggest he was a
killer or was involved with anyone
Pike put the files aside.
“Only now the police say Byrd did it.”
I got up for a bottle of water and looked for the fire
Pike had seen, but the fire was out.
The fire fighters had moved in hard
and killed it. That’s the best way
to stop these things. Kill them
before they grow.
I returned to my desk.
“Listen, take off for Ray’s without me. I’m going to
“I can wait.”
I scrolled through my Palm for Levy’s number, and put
in the call. I had not called or
spoken with Alan Levy in almost
three years, but his assistant
immediately recognized my name.
“Alan’s in court, but he told me to find him. He might
not be able to talk, but I know it’s
important. Can you hold while I
Pike hadn’t moved, so I covered the mouthpiece.
“You don’t have to wait. I’m going to be here a while.”
Pike still didn’t move. Then Levy came on, speaking
quickly in a low voice.
“Have you heard about Lionel Byrd?”
“Two detectives just told me Byrd was good for seven
murders, including Yvonne Bennett.
Is this for real?”
“I got a call this morning from Leslie Pinckert in
Major Crimes—did Pinckert talk to
“A detective named Bastilla was here. Crimmens was with
her. They told me they have
something that puts Byrd with the
murders, but wouldn’t say what.”
“Wait, hang on—“
Muffled voices and court sounds whispered in the
background, then he returned.
“Byrd had pictures of the victims in some kind of
album. That’s all she would tell me.
They don’t want this thing out of
the bag until they’ve gone public.”
“That asshole Crimmens tells me I got two of those
women killed, and they’re playing it
tight? I need more than that, Alan.”
“Just settle down.”
“They wanted my files.”
“I know. Did you give them anything?”
“Not until I spoke with you. I thought there might be a
“Are you in possession of anything that wasn’t copied
“Just a few notes I didn’t bother typing up in the
“Okay. Get everything together, and we’ll make time
tomorrow. I want to cooperate with
these people, but I have to review
the material first.”
“Did Byrd have a picture of Bennett? Did Pinckert tell
you that much?”
Levy hesitated, and suddenly the sounds of justice
behind him were loud.
Pinckert promised to call this evening when she has
more leeway to talk. We’ll discuss
The line went dead.
Pike was still watching me.
“What did he say?”
“He thinks they’re keeping it buried until they know
how to spin it.”
“Hollywood Station covers the canyon. If a body was
found up in Laurel, Poitras should
Lou Poitras was the detective-lieutenant in charge of
the homicide bureau at Hollywood
Station. He was also a friend. If a
body dead from suspicious
circumstances was found up in Laurel
Canyon, Lou’s detectives would have
rolled to the scene before Bastilla
and her task force were involved.
I immediately called his office, and got a sergeant
named Griggs on the line. I had
known Griggs almost as long as
“Homicide. Lt. Poitras’s office.”
“It’s me. Is he in?”
“Yes, he’s in. Some of us work for a living.”
“That’s right, Griggs. And the rest of us are cops.”
Griggs hung up.
I redialed the number, but this time Poitras answered.
“Are you harassing my sergeant again?”
“Did your people roll on a DB suicide up in Laurel by
the name of Lionel Byrd?”
The easy banter in his tone hardened as if I had
flipped a switch.
“How did you hear about this?”
“A cop named Connie Bastilla just left my office. She
told me something was found with his
body that puts Byrd with seven
“Why would Bastilla tell you about this?”
“Byrd was up for the murder of a woman named Yvonne
Bennett. I was on the defense side.
I found the evidence that freed
Poitras took even longer to answer this time.
“What do they have?”
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Does that mean you won’t tell me?”
“It means I don’t know what they have. You know Bobby
Bobby McQue was a senior detective on Lou’s squad.
“Yeah, I know Bobby.”
“Bobby had it, but downtown rolled in when they saw we
had a possible serial. They cut us
“So what did McQue find before you were out? C’mon,
Lou, I need to know if this is real,
man. Right now, it feels like a
Poitras didn’t respond.
Behind me, Pike spoke loud enough for Poitras to hear.
“Tell Poitras to man-up.”
“Was that Pike?”
“Yeah. He was here when Bastilla showed up.”
Poitras hated Pike. Most L.A. police officers hated
Pike. He was once one of them.
Poitras finally sighed.
“Okay, listen. The chief running the task force wants a
tour before they go public, so I
gotta go up there later. You want,
you can meet me up there now. We’ll
walk you through the scene.”
Poitras gave me the address.
“We won’t have much time, so get up there right now.”
Poitras hung up.
“He’s going to let me see Byrd’s house.”
Pike said, “Poitras won’t want me up there.”
“I’m just going to see what they have. You don’t need
Pike moved for the first time since Crimmens and
Bastilla left. Maybe I had stood a
little too quickly. Maybe my voice
was a little too high. Pike touched
“Were you right three years ago?”
“Then you’re still right. You didn’t get those two
women killed. Even if the police
have something, you didn’t kill
I tried to give him a confident smile.
“Say hi to Ray. If it’s bad, I’ll give you a call.”
Pike left, but I did not leave with him. Instead, I
went out onto the balcony and let
the bone-dry heat swallow me. The
glare made me squint. The nuclear
sun crinkled my skin.
Picture the detective at work in his office, fourth
floor, Hollywood, as the Devil’s
Wind freight-trains down from the
desert. Though dry and brutally
harsh, the desert wind is clean. It
pushes the smog south to the sea and
scrubs the sky to a crystalline
blue. The air, jittery from the
heat, rises in swaying tendrils like
kelp from the sea bed, making the
city shimmer. We are never more
beautiful than when we are burning.
Knock, knock, thought you’d like to know, after you
cleared that guy he murdered two
more women, it should be hitting the
news about now, their families
should be crying about now.
I locked my office and went to see what they had.
The phone rang again as I went out the door, but I did
not return to answer it.
© 2008 by Robert Crais