Looting Hawaiian Gardens
The Last Good Cop
by Ron Russell
Originally published 18 February 1999
in New Times Los Angeles

IF WALTER MCKINNEY had played it by the numbers, an innocent man might well be dead. No one can say for certain, but in gang-infested Hawaiian Gardens, retaliation is the norm for those bold -- or foolhardy -- enough to help the cops put a homeboy behind bars. Especially when the homie is a reputed tax collector for the Mexican Mafia prison gang, facing a three-strikes conviction for firearms possession, which could put him away for life.

And so it was that on an October afternoon in 1996, ex-con Armando Ochoa -- about to be wrestled to the ground in an alley by police -- tossed a silver-handled deringer over a fence into the backyard of a middle-aged aircraft mechanic. In the ensuing moments, then-Hawaiian Gardens police chief McKinney would cross the slippery divide between 17 years of law enforcement professionalism and his conscience. McKinney knocked at the man's door on Clarkesdale Street, on the notorious southwest side of town, and asked permission to retrieve the gun. But because he had a couple of mean guard dogs in the back, the man volunteered to do it himself. It was the kind of deed that under other circumstances wouldn't have merited a second thought. Except for one deceptively small detail. Knowing firsthand the retaliatory viciousness of gang members who've held tiny Hawaiian Gardens in their grip for years, McKinney -- at the man's request -- purposely omitted the homeowner's role from the official retelling of the incident. In the police report, McKinney stated that he -- the chief -- had recovered the gun. He testified similarly at Ochoa's preliminary hearing. The chief hadn't counted on the defendant's procuring a private investigator who, upon visiting the frightened mechanic, discovered the inconsistency. As a point of law, just who had first touched the gun might have made little material difference in the outcome of the felon's case. But the tainted testimony was enough to spook prosecutors to cut a deal with Ochoa, removing his crime from three-strikes consideration and instead sending him back to prison for a mere 16 months.

The shocker, however, was to come. By McKinney's account, the prosecutor assigned to investigate his offense told him not to worry, to let it blow over, and chances were there would be no need for the chief to plead guilty to even a misdemeanor, as someone in the L.A. County District Attorney's office had first suggested. No one connected with the case imagined that the 37-year-old McKinney -- lauded for leading the short-lived Hawaiian Gardens police force after years of perceived community neglect by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department -- would be drummed out of law enforcement. And certainly no one could have predicted that the D.A.'s office, after first approaching the offense as a nickel foul, would belatedly reverse field and pursue not one, but two felony charges against the popular officer. Especially since, by the time the charges were filed on March 31, 1998, a pro-Sheriff's Department faction among Hawaiian Gardens' politicians had succeeded in disbanding the police department, and McKinney had moved on to become police chief in distant Desert Hot Springs.

But astonishingly, to avoid the possibility of being sent to prison, McKinney last December pleaded no contest to one count of filing a false police report. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Nancy Brown, at the prosecutor's urging, chose to treat the offense as a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, as McKinney's lawyer pleaded with her to do. "If ever there could be a factual scenario justifying the court's exercise of discretion to declare a wobbler (an offense that may be treated as either a felony or misdemeanor) to be a misdemeanor...this one must be so," begged Michael P. Stone, the attorney. To bolster his plea, Stone had introduced letters from public officials praising McKinney's accomplishments as police chief of the troubled southeast L.A. County community, in the most glowing terms. "Nothing less than exemplary," wrote Borden Olive of the county Human Relations Commission. "Incredible," added L.A. City Councilman Richard Alatorre. Even the probation officer assigned to the case noted that in arresting Ochoa, McKinney was "effectively doing his job," adding that "it did not appear that he was intentionally trying to be negligent or attempting to create a criminal harm." But the judge wasn't swayed. After giving him a tongue-lashing for failing to uphold his public trust, she sentenced him as a felon. Besides imposing three years of highly restrictive court-supervised probation ordinarily reserved for hardened criminals, Brown ordered McKinney to perform 500 hours of community service, or roughly five times the amount that even child abusers have been known to receive. Professionally ruined and financially devastated, McKinney says he felt the plea arrangement was the best he could muster. The plea and its disposition has shocked the ex-chief's admirers within law enforcement and prompted some prosecutors to privately express dismay. But his is hardly a tale of a good cop gone bad. It more resembles justice run amok -- a combustible combination of local politics, Sheriff's Department resentment, an exceedingly aggressive district attorney's office, and a judicial system that, in the end, chose to punish an exemplary cop's lapse of judgment with its eyes closed. To borrow a term from White House lawyers, the proportionality of McKinney's crime hardly seems to fit the punishment. Indeed, there are those who insist the ex-chief's real offense may have been to antagonize powerful political interests in the community while combating a vicious hate-crime problem the town's leaders -- and the Sheriff's Department -- have tried to pretend doesn't exist. The fudged police report, they say, provided the ammunition to do him in. "This kind of thing isn't supposed to happen to dedicated, decent cops in this country," insists former Hawaiian Gardens police detective Radames Gil. "Anybody who says Walter didn't get railroaded doesn't have his head on straight."

Part Two

In all likelihood, anyone who tried to accomplish what McKinney did in Hawaiian Gardens was bound to face problems. Sandwiched between Lakewood and Long Beach on three sides and pressed against the Orange County town of Cypress on the other, the eight-tenths-of-a-square-mile community, population 14,500, is unlike any other in L.A. County. Many residents (70 percent of the town is Hispanic) have ancestors who've lived there since before World War II, when the town was a rural enclave of immigrant dairy workers. Even the name Hawaiian Gardens has outlaw origins, drawn from a Prohibition-era fruit stand where bootleg whisky was sold under the counter. In a community where many families are blood relations and almost everyone knows everyone else, Hawaiian Gardens also boasts a unique brand of street-gang life. The venerable Barrio Hawaiian Gardens gang traces its roots back four decades. (An HG member incarcerated at Deuel Vocational Institute in the San Joaquin Valley in 1957 was among the 13 founders of the Mexican Mafia.) A 1995 police survey estimated that 700 residents were active gang members -- nearly five percent of the city's population. Unlike in South Central or parts of the San Fernando Valley, where black and Latino gang members have grown accustomed to uneasy coexistence, Hawaiian Gardens' insular barrio boys -- including a younger group of HGs who refer to themselves as Loquitos -- have never had to compete with rival Latino gangs. Mixing intense gang loyalty with a fierce pride of place, their interests -- and influence -- stop at the city limits.

Against this backdrop, the community was ripe to become a hotbed of racial terror once African Americans began to move there in the early 1990s. The pattern of race violence had actually begun in 1989, when a Loquito teenager died after being caught in the cross fire of a drug deal gone awry. The reputed shooter, an out-of-towner, was African American. Racial tensions ramped up dramatically in 1994 after a couple of apartment buildings on the east side of town began accepting so-called Section 8 vouchers -- part of a program in which the federal government subsidizes the rents of qualifying low-income families. Among them were a few dozen blacks.

Then, from 1995 through 1997, there occurred at least three-dozen verifiable hate crimes perpetrated against African Americans in the community, including three murders, numerous physical assaults, and half a dozen fire bombings. No one really knows how the slew of hate violence compared to any previous epoch because, until 1995, no one had ever tried to keep track of such incidents. But one thing is certain: Hawaiian Gardens' political leaders, concerned about the town's image, tried their best to pretend publicly that there was no problem. "I think it's blown out of proportion," said Councilman Don Shultze, in a response typical of city officials when New Times wrote about the hate crimes a year ago. Even Paul Gonzalez, the principal of Fedde Junior High, where police had been called to quell racially motivated fights, described race relations in the town in almost bucolic terms. Similarly, sheriff's Capt. Marvin Cavanaugh of the Lakewood Station, which had long been responsible for policing the community, took the view that the hate crime issue had been overblown. But if Hawaiian Gardens' political leaders thought their new police chief would toe the party line, they were mistaken. Not only did McKinney launch a campaign to vigorously pursue hate crime suspects, but -- to the befuddlement of image-conscious local leaders -- he did something that no sheriff's official had ever done: He spoke out publicly on the issue, goading residents to cooperate with police to help stamp out the scourge. However frustrating it may have seemed to have their police chief drawing public attention to a problem about which City Hall and the Sheriff's Department were in denial, there was little anyone could do to silence him. Especially after the scrappy little police department began making arrests in some of the more egregious hate-crime cases.

While impressive, the arrests were only part of the equation. Living in fear of retaliation, ordinary citizens in Hawaiian Gardens have long remained silent rather than help prosecute the town's racist gang-bangers. McKinney's cops sought to change that by relentlessly campaigning for prospective witnesses to come forward, and pledging to protect them. To that end, the HG cops scored a coup in 1996 after 27-year-old Martin Hammonds, an African American and a former local high school football star, was gunned down assassination-style while walking along busy Norwalk Boulevard in mid-afternoon. The officer first to arrive at the scene estimated there were two-dozen potential witnesses there. But when he attempted to collect names, they all scattered, even as Hammonds lay dying. During the next three weeks, HG police went house-to-house and store-to-store in the area, pleading and cajoling for someone -- anyone -- to come forward. They distributed hundreds of leaflets. They recruited merchants and other respected community members to intercede on their behalf. Nearly a month to the day after the murder, the effort paid off. A lone conscience-stricken eyewitness, agreeing to testify in exchange for entering a witness-protection program, contacted police. On the strength of the witness' testimony, the shooter, Rudy Villa Jr., was convicted and sentenced to 65 years to life in prison.

HG cops were similarly successful in making arrests in the two other hate-crime murders. In one, 29-year-old clothing salesman Demario Young was removing dresses from his van in front of an apartment building when a young Latino who had earlier taunted him with racial slurs hopped out of a car and pumped a bullet into his chest at close range. In the other killing -- the most vicious of all -- 24-year-old Virgil Henry, waiting at a bus stop on busy Carson Boulevard, was chased by an epithet-yelling mob of 10 to 14 young Latinos into a shopping center parking lot. After he tripped and fell, several of the pursuers -- allegedly including one female -- took turns beating his brains out with a baseball bat.

After going 3-for-3 in solving the hate murders, McKinney and the police department enjoyed widespread approval in the community, even as elected officials chafed at his constantly contradicting them for pooh-poohing the hate-crime problem. But for all his success, McKinney may have pushed his luck when he ticked off the person who arguably exerts more power than any other in Hawaiian Gardens: investor and physician Irving Moskowitz. The 70-year-old Miami Beach millionaire has for years funneled proceeds from his hugely successful Hawaiian Gardens bingo hall to a charitable foundation that, in turn, is a lifeline to right-wing Israeli causes. The first sign of trouble for McKinney was when Moskowitz backed a 1996 recall of two city councilmembers who had supported the police department's investigation of voter fraud and other alleged abuses by City Hall employees reputedly on his payroll. (McKinney had had the temerity to actually arrest one of Moskowitz's people.) When the Moskowitz foundation -- which had kept the cash-starved city afloat by infusing $200,000 a month into the city's coffers -- prevented its funds from being used to subsidize the police, it was sayonara for HG's brief, and successful, police experiment. "I can tell you, the glee on the part of the Sheriff's Department in getting the Hawaiian Gardens contract back was almost palpable," says Roger Chandler, a 24-year sheriff's veteran and now a private consultant. As for McKinney, whom Chandler calls "the best law-enforcement officer Hawaiian Gardens will ever see," there would be a personal price to pay "because he made them [the Sheriff's Department] look bad...and when he slipped up, they made him pay." "This kind of thing isn't supposed to happen to dedicated, decent cops in this country," insists former Hawaiian Gardens Detective Radames Gil.

At first, Gil, the Hawaiian Gardens detective, thought it was his imagination. While driving a patrol car on Carson Boulevard that October Thursday in 1996, he noticed a man walking alone on the north side of the street who looked strikingly similar to Armando Ochoa. "Nah, it couldn't be," the detective recalls thinking as he took a second and then a third look. Ochoa stared straight ahead, as if not to notice the squad car. Only a few days earlier, FBI agents had come to Hawaiian Gardens hoping to question Ochoa in connection with a series of drug-related murders in which the Mexican Mafia had been implicated. They left disappointed after being told by police that the five-time convicted felon had not been seen around town in a long time. Could this be him? Gil took a last look, this time through his rearview mirror, and instinctively made a U-turn. Ochoa began to run, disappearing into the neighborhood south of the boulevard. Gil gave chase, even as he got on the radio to call for help.

That McKinney should respond as his backup wasn't unusual. Being chief of a department with only 21 people on the payroll was more than a desk job. When McKinney caught up with the chase, Gil was out of his car and closing in on Ochoa in the alley. A moment later, Gil subdued him. But before either of the officers could get close enough to place handcuffs on him, they saw the suspect reach into his pocket and toss a gun over the fence. McKinney peeked through the fence and spotted it on some concrete next to a pickup truck.

Part Three

While Gil detained Ochoa, McKinney went to the front of the house to tell the man who lived there what had happened and to ask to enter the backyard. When the man explained about the dogs and volunteered to get the gun, McKinney didn't object. He wasn't concerned about preserving fingerprints. (Two police officers having observed the parolee toss the weapon was more than sufficient to make a possession case.) After handing it over, the homeowner, almost as an afterthought, asked a favor that any cop in Hawaiian Gardens could understand: that his name be kept out of the matter. McKinney assured him it would be.

It's dangerous enough in Hawaiian Gardens to antagonize gang members, but Ochoa was no garden-variety street tough. Department of Corrections investigators had already informed local police that Ochoa was suspected of working directly for the Mexican Mafia, or la Eme (the Spanish pronunciation for "M"), as it is known. His reputed role: collecting a percentage of drug-trafficking proceeds from local gang members on la Eme's behalf. Ticking off the Mexican Mafia is something one doesn't do, especially in an entrenched, decades-old mafia stronghold such as Hawaiian Gardens. McKinney knew that if word got out the man had helped to put away someone integral to la Eme's local operation, some mafia boss in prison might well issue an assassination order that local gang hoods, eager to win brownie points, would carry out.

After all, revenge and retaliation are a way of life in the community. As chief, McKinney had witnessed it countless times, often involving crimes as simple as burglary and car theft. He had seen both witnesses and victims targeted for retaliation by gang members as soon as word leaked out they had provided help to police -- or, heaven forbid -- had agreed to testify in court. Ordinary hardworking citizens had been subjected to assaults, firebombings, death threats -- you name it -- sometimes only days before they were to appear in court. The targets had included one of McKinney's own police officers, gunned down and left paralyzed during an assassination-style assault at his home, which also left the officer's teenage son seriously wounded. That attack had come barely a month before the officer had been scheduled to testify in the Hammonds hate-crime murder.

"By leaving the homeowner's name out of the report," Stone, the ex-chief's lawyer, argued, "[McKinney] believed he was doing the community a greater good, and was not trying to pervert or obstruct the justice system." In fact, by trying to protect the homeowner, McKinney had placed himself in the awkward position of having to testify at Ochoa's preliminary hearing. It wasn't a prospect he relished. But neither did he believe, at the time, that he would ever be asked to testify. With a federal racketeering prosecution of the alleged Mexican Mafia murders imminent, it seemed a good bet that authorities would not need to press charges against Ochoa for the parole violation. That is, until the feds announced their suspects. Ochoa wasn't among them.

If Ochoa appeared confident upon being brought into Norwalk Superior Court to stand trial in August 1997, it was for good reason. As someone who had already been in and out of prison three times before the state's three-strikes law was enacted, the 48-year-old convict had been a model student of criminal law, if not a model prisoner. His self-taught prison research was about to pay off handsomely. He had become skilled at writing legal briefs, and, as quickly became evident, a master at leaving no investigatory stone unturned. Eschewing legal advice, he had persuaded a judge to allow him to represent himself in a case that, if he lost, could result in his being sent back to prison for life. McKinney knew that if word got out the man had helped put away someone integral to the Mexican Mafia's local operation, an assassination order might well be put out.

It was something to behold -- a reputed tax collector for la Eme representing himself pro per, in such a high-stakes case. Even John Lynch, the supervising attorney who heads the Norwalk DA's office, dropped into the courtroom to take a look. But the trial would end abruptly.

Unknown to Lynch, but known to the deputy prosecutor who had elected to go forward with the case, Ochoa had earlier obtained the services of a court-appointed investigator who had visited the man on Clarkesdale Street and come away with a fortuitous piece of information: McKinney hadn't recovered the gun.

The discovery had occurred after McKinney had been the sole witness at Ochoa's preliminary hearing in March 1997. At the hearing, McKinney, referring to his police report, testified that the property owner had given him permission to go in the backyard and that he had found the gun there. Once confronted with the investigator's discovery, McKinney had subsequently set the record straight about the particulars, including explaining why he had taken liberties with the police report. Nonetheless, the deputy district attorney assigned to the Ochoa case, Craig Omura, had chosen to go forward with McKinney as a witness at trial. The plan was to lay out the whole story for the jury, including the chief's rationale for fuzzing the details.

Part Four

But Lynch, upon learning these things, would have nothing of it. Walking into the courtroom out of curiosity about Ochoa's self-representation, Lynch listened during an early recess as Omura nonchalantly filled him in on the background of the case and explained the prosecutor's strategy. When Omura got to the point about the tainted testimony, the Norwalk supervisor quickly hit the stop button. That same day, Lynch pulled the plug on the trial, and, in short order, negotiated a reduced plea with Ochoa. As part of the plea arrangement, Ochoa filed an affidavit in which he admitted to possessing the firearm illegally and described how he had attempted to get rid of it that day by tossing it over the fence, where McKinney -- with the property owner's help -- had recovered it. Ochoa returned to jail. McKinney went about his business as Hawaiian Gardens' police chief, but with a difference. He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

In mid-October 1997, just two weeks before the Hawaiian Gardens Police Department ceased to exist, Deputy District Attorney Jim Cosper, with the DA's special investigations unit, came to visit McKinney at the police station. By McKinney's account, the visit was cordial, with Cosper telling him he was authorized to dispose of the case, and the way he foresaw it playing out was for McKinney to agree to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of filing a false police report. "I told him I was willing to do that, and if that's how they wanted to handle it, I was ready to cooperate," McKinney says. The next day Cosper called with even more comforting news. According to McKinney, Cosper told him that in all likelihood it wouldn't be necessary for him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor after all. "It was one of those 'don't lose any sleep over this' type calls," recalls the ex-chief. In fact, McKinney viewed the phone call as a gesture of kindness. Cosper had learned the day before that McKinney hadn't yet contacted a lawyer and, McKinney says, "the clear impression was that he didn't think I should bother. His message was I shouldn't worry about the situation because no one cared to pursue it. They were just going to let it gather dust."

Nothing could have prepared McKinney for the phone call he received from another deputy DA on March 31 last year. By then, he was chief of police in Desert Hot Springs, near Palm Springs, and five months removed from Hawaiian Gardens. He recalls the first words from the unfamiliar voice on the phone as, "I'm sorry to be the one to have to tell you this." So much for not worrying. The DA's office had filed two felony charges, one for issuing the false report and another for perjury, stemming from his testimony at the preliminary hearing. In disbelief, McKinney put in a call to Cosper. But when the deputy DA who had earlier reassured him offered his condolences, McKinney realized the worst: Someone in the DA's office, for some reason, had decided to throw the book at him. Within an hour, a sheriff's deputy friend called to offer comfort of his own. McKinney had spoken with no one about his situation since getting off the phone with the DA's office. So how had his friend, the deputy, found out? He had seen an electronic memo, issued quickly, from the Lakewood Sheriff's Station -- whose personnel ostensibly had no role in the McKinney investigation and presumably had no reason, other than through contacts with the DA's office, to even know what the district attorney had done. The memo informed Sheriff's Department personnel that the ex-chief of Hawaiian Gardens had been charged with felonies.

That the Sheriff's Department should exult over the ex-chief's misfortune was hardly a surprise. After all, sheriff's officials had done little to hide their contempt for the Hawaiian Gardens Police Department. Not only were deputies prone to deride HG officers as "keystone cops" and "parking lot guards" behind their backs, but they even dissed them to their faces, according to several former HG officers. (The ill will had become so strong that when the HG police force disbanded, its criminal files were turned over to police in next-door Cypress, rather than to the sheriffs.) It hadn't helped that several weeks before the Sheriff's Department resumed its role as the city's law enforcement agency, McKinney rejected Lakewood Station Capt. Cavanaugh's idea to stage a massive joint Sheriff's-HG police roundup of suspected gang members. McKinney let it be known he thought it was a dumb idea that would only antagonize the community.

But an even more potent reason for the resentment was the very success of the Hawaiian Gardens police experiment. In the two short years of its existence, the tiny police force had achieved something heretofore unheard of during the many years sheriff's deputies had patrolled the community: enthusiastic and widespread praise. "The rule was always call the sheriffs, and you could wait maybe two hours if they bothered to come at all," says former mayor and longtime resident Kathy Navejas. Or, as another longtime resident puts it, "The sheriffs have always been like an occupying force. The police department acted like it cared." Beyond the rave reviews for HG police, the Sheriff's Department was hopping mad on principle since Hawaiian Gardens had chosen to break away and form its own police force. "They viewed it as they always do when these small cities who contract with them [for law enforcement] contemplate forming their own police force: as a virtual act of treason," says Chandler, the former sheriff's lieutenant, who is now Mayor Pro Tem of Arcadia in the San Gabriel Valley.

As the consultant whom Hawaiian Gardens officials chose to help organize the HG force in 1995, Chandler had a bird's-eye view of the animosity exhibited by the Sheriff's Department toward the fledgling police department. "[The late Sheriff] Sherman Block took it almost personally that [Hawaiian Gardens] pulled away," he says. As always, he says, the sheriff was concerned that any revolt would inspire insurrections elsewhere among the 40-plus cities in the county that contract with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement. And, sure enough, not long after Hawaiian Gardens bolted, nearby Santa Fe Springs followed suit, turning to the city of Whittier to provide its policing. Another town, Artesia, came close to dumping the Sheriff's Department and contracting with Hawaiian Gardens. As the titular head of the HG police, McKinney, in essence, had made the Sheriff's Department look bad by winning the kind of public approval that had long eluded Block and his deputies. "He was a marked man," Chandler says. "Look, no one will ever prove it, and certainly no one will ever admit it, but there's no question in my mind that the Sheriff's Department played a role in Walter's undoing."

Indeed, it seems unlikely that had the matter been resolved by the DA's Norwalk office, McKinney would have walked the plank. "My take on it was that it was a great price for a small crime," says Lynch, the Norwalk DA supervisor. "This was not one of those deals where you think we've really caught a bad guy, and society is better off for it. This was more sad and pathetic than anything else." While Lynch asserts that what McKinney did was serious and merited serious punishment, he also confirms that he did not take the initiative personally to prosecute the ex-chief as a felon. Rather, in keeping with his responsibility, he referred the matter to the DA's special investigations unit, which is where Cosper entered the picture.

Cosper at first expressed willingness to discuss the case, provided he had the approval of Nicholas Koumjian, the deputy district attorney who ultimately was assigned to press charges against the ex-chief. But when approached about the matter, Koumjian abruptly refused to comment. "You're not going to goad me into saying anything about that one," he says. Had district attorney Gil Garcetti personally interceded in the McKinney case? Typically, Garcetti declined to be interviewed for this article, but through office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons, he denied the Sheriff's Department played any role. Gibbons said that while Garcetti was "always kept informed" about the case, "He was not the shot-caller." As for McKinney's recollection of his early dealings with Cosper, Gibbons said that Cosper "does not recall the conversations that way."

As for Hawaiian Gardens, denial continues to be the order of the day. "It's very peaceful here now," proclaims Mayor Ralph Cesena. Never mind that prosecutors have had to dismiss charges against two suspected hate-crime murderers and then re-file them, after fearful witnesses refused to get involved. Authorities are hopeful, but by no means assured, that people will step forward in each case as they move toward trial a second -- and final -- time. Like the mayor, Lakewood sheriff's Capt. Cavanaugh is also ebullient. "We've gotten rid of the hate-crime problem," he insists, "through a lot of dedicated effort and teamwork from Hawaiian Gardens' officials." The captain says that in all of 1998, there were only three reported hate crimes and that the last one occurred in June.

But when informed of the Sheriff's Department's hate-crime assessment, others in the community laugh.

"Three hate crimes last year?," asks Michael Bennett, 44, an African American, incredulously. "I've been the victim of three hate crimes myself just since October." Bennett, the uncle of murder victim Hammonds, says that about a dozen Loquitos chased him and threw beer bottles last October, and that several weeks later, gang members yelling racial slurs attacked him, knocking several of his teeth out. He reported each incident to deputies, he says, "but I wasn't able to identify anybody so I don't think they followed up."

Cavanaugh also attributes the improvement to his department's working closely with a citizens group called Hawaiian Gardens for Unity, which meets once a month at a local food bank, sponsored by Moskowitz, the philanthropist. But even there, others paint a different picture. "We had to beg the Sheriff's Department for months to send a representative to the meetings," says volunteer Diane Wright. Keith Hamilton, an African-American father of two teenagers, who has stuck it out through the tough times of recent years, offers a similar view. "There's really nothing going on to address the problem," he says. "If hate crime has diminished, it's because some of the baddest apples [among HG gang members] just happen to be behind bars at the moment." Adds Borden Olive, of the county Human Relations Commission, "The bottom line is that most blacks have packed up and left...You can't have a crime without a victim."

Meanwhile, McKinney, whose once-promising law enforcement career is history, is trying to pick up the pieces of his life. Facing $25,000 in legal fees, the father of a 20-year-old daughter who is in college and an 11-year-old son

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