Daryl Gates: The Story the L.A. Times Didn’t Tell

HOLLYBLOG: The paper’s obit missed the parts about spying, abuse of power and its own deaf ear

Last Updated: September 17, 2010 @ 5:54 PM

(This article was excerpted from a longer piece that appeared on LA Observed. Read the article in full.)

When Daryl Gates, who died on Friday,  ran the LAPD from 1978 to 1992 he also ran a worldwide political spying operation. And he lavished time on it, sometimes several hours each day, including all the dossiers and reports he got on the lawful activities of L.A. leaders, elected and not, as well as political and religious groups he suspected were up to no good.

On Page 231 of "Chief: My Life in the LAPD," Gates recounts how he knew every time Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA, the big movie and record company, got on an airplane to Las Vegas. He says when he told Wasserman about this the mogul was astonished and wanted to know why. Because, Gates explained, you're important.

Locally, people of interest had their homes, offices and cars burglarized. Some were tailed, sometimes quite openly to intimidate them, to make sure they knew they were being watched. None of that is in the generally solid obituary of Gates in the L.A. Times Friday.

But there was much more to the story.

There were no limits to what Gates would do to feed his insatiable need for secret information.

There were undercover officers assigned to sleep with women to gather political information that went to Gates, who spent 45 minutes to several hours each week on his spy files. That last detail Gates admitted to under oath and was reported by an L.A. Times colleague and me in late 1982.

One of these undercover officers admitted under oath to sleeping with a woman as part of his spying. He also, after a recess in his testimony, tried to soften it by saying he thought he really was her boyfriend.

I reported this in the Los Angeles Times in a story that told how the May Day 1982 violence between Revolutionary Communist Party marchers and the LAPD began when an undercover officer posing as one of the communists gave a signal for people to run. That gave the police a pretext to attack.

No one would have known this except that the officer was inadvertently captured on videotape.

My piece on how LAPD instigated the May Day riot was virtually the last story I wrote before the paper shut me down and moved on to a new narrative — that the political spying bad guy was a single sergeant who lived in a trailer, rather than the carefully directed work of Chief Gates.

This narrative got big play in the paper, but there was no explanation of why all these secret files were created, who was identified in them and why they ended up in the hands of a secretive group associated with an Army general. The general, who once commanded American forces in South Korea, saw communists and conspiracies everywhere, a view Gates shared.

Gates had more than 200 officers as analysts and supervisors in the Public Disorder Intelligence Division, or PDID.

When Zev Yaroslavsky, then on the City Council, finally worked up the nerve to ask at a hearing how many undercover political officers the LAPD had, and how much they cost, the response was not subtle. A deputy chief told the councilmen that if he did that and any undercover officer turned up dead, the council members would all become murder suspects.

That was all it took to stop the questioning from continuing: a silly assertion and politicians unwilling to call Gates' bluff. Gates felt invincible.

My intersection with Daryl Gates began in late 1979 or early 1980 when David Rosenzweig, later Metro editor, asked me to cover a police commission meeting. Soon he was sending the regular reporter, a writer of beautiful features, on assignments out of town and having me fill in until the story was all mine.

Like everyone who had covered these things, I knew that during the Vietnam War big city police departments built up their intelligence units. I was skeptical, even dismissive, of assertions by people associated with the ACLU that the LAPD was engaged in massive political spying.

Then one evening in fall 1980 it all changed.

Gates was at a social event and I walked over. After a bit he signaled everyone to go away. Gates was smart in this way, like Henry Kissinger. He always talked to me, knowing it was better to get his oar in and know what was coming than to be surprised.

He asked me, in the crude language of cops, if I liked women with red hair and large bosoms. Sure, I said, what guy doesn't?

What in the world, I thought, prompted that question?

Immediately, Gates began recounting to me a blind date I had been on a few nights before, down to the details of what we ordered at LA Nicola on Sunset near East Hollywood. He even critiqued the champagne I shared with the woman who has been my wife now for almost 28 years.

Gates went on and on. As he spoke I realized that he had to tell me this. I realized that someone had seen us and knew Gates would want a full report and that Gates had this pathological need to make sure I knew what he knew.

When he had run dry I smiled and, in the sometimes crude language of reporters, told Daryl, which is what I called him, that I did not care if he knew with whom I was intimate.

We each got the other's message. His was that he was watching me. Mine was that I am not afraid of anything or anybody and cannot be intimidated.

I realized right then that the rumors and claims about political spying had real substance, and that I needed to just investigate to learn just how far it went. That night I thought about strategy since this would be a hard story to prove, a hard story to persuade the cautious editors of the LATimes to even touch and how crucial it would be to never make a mistake because one slip would end it for sure.

Gates was very media savvy. He knew how to speak in sound bytes and code. No matter how angry Gates got over the facts I put in the paper, the chief always talked to me.

At public events he would sometimes point me out in the audience and tell people not to believe what I wrote because he did not say what I quoted him as saying. I would stand up, holding my tape recorder for all to see, and smile politely.

At the Los Angeles Breakfast Club, Gates gave his Jeremiah talk as if he was an Old Testament prophet warning the people of corruption and decay. Afterward people came up and asked me why I made up quotes. I pointed to the tape recorder and told them every word that appeared under my byline as a quote from Gates was on a tape. Still, they persisted, why did I make up the quotes? It was an early lesson it what we see today in the bizarre fact-free views of some Fox News fans.

Then there were the burglaries.

I had my cars broken into seven times, once when my Fiat Spyder was parked in the underground garage at Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters. All were smooth jobs – no broken windows or pry marks.

All of these burglaries had a common feature: every scrap of paper was taken, including twin 70-pound trunks of Grantsmanship Center training manuals that my wife used to teach grant writing and which I would take to and from LAX every few weeks when I dropped her off and picked her up. Anyone tailing me must have wondered what was in these trunks.

What was never taken was the money. A nonsmoker, I left several dollars of change in the open ashtrays of my sports car and my Corolla sedan. After the first break-in, I left a gold ring, too. Strange, the burglar who cleans out a car's papers, leaving only registration, insurance card, coins and a gold ring.

Finally, in 1982, I complained to Reva Tooley, then the Police Commission chairman. At her insistence (and over the fearsome objections of some L.A. Times editors) I told my story to two Internal Affairs detectives, who sat stone-faced but listened and asked few, but smart, questions.

After I spoke to Internal Affairs, and Gates obviously got a detailed report of what I said, the car burglaries stopped.

Gates shifted to making claims that I did not have my facts right. In one case a report – written on plain bond but sent by the chief to higher ups at the paper – asserted I was taking material from a communist newspaper. I literally laughed when I read the report. It was so obviously nonsense. The editors did not take it the same way.

I had never seen the communist paper articles, but more significantly my reports described as disputed issues what the communists called matters of fact. So I wrote a 4,000-word memo to my bosses making a point-by-point rebuttal demolishing every word in the report the LAPD had prepared, but made sure had no LAPD markings on it.

Daryl Gates ruled the Los Angeles Police Department as if he were God, accountable to no one for 14 years because virtually alone among big-city police chiefs in America he had civil service status under the City Charter. And the city charter from 1922 and until after the Rodney King riots gave police officers a property interest in their jobs, a legal right of immense value.

Gates never took a dime. I am sure of that. But there are three ways to corrupt people: through their wallet, their zipper or their ego. Gates's dishonesty was all in his head.

The stories that Gates knew I was working on before the L.A. Times shut me down had to alarm him.

There were safe houses and secret cash funds and contracts issued to relatives of high-ranking officers, once of which played a central role in the failure of what at the time was the most costly and difficult drug investigation the department had ever undertaken.

There were also dead bodies, including a most inconvenient witness to a fatal fight in which one of the undercover officers took part and who soon mysteriously turned up dead, his body recovered from that gargantuan concrete gutter known as the Los Angeles River.

When Gates knew I had the goods on his having officers overseas he grew determined to stop me.

I had found out about the undercover spy who was sworn in the back seat of a car at a beach parking lot and spent two decades spying for the LAPD, which built up its intelligence in good part because J. Edgar Hoover did not trust Gates' mentor, Chief William H. Parker. I even knew how the LAPD tried to get him made a sergeant without taking the civil service exam, a tactic that failed.

Gates somehow managed to cow the owners and editors of the Times, keeping out of print any word about his global spying operation and the fact that one officer was undercover for nearly two decades gathering information on American communists. I know some of what he had on some of them so I understand this cowardice.

I interviewed the undercover spy, who died not long after. Years later I interviewed his brother, who also did intelligence, about this story that was too hot for the L.A. Times. It is a remarkable tale of courage, dedication and intrigues, filled with revealing history about how government spies on its citizen's lawful political, labor and religious activities.

Gates also had a powerful bias against gays, despite his carefully nuanced public statements.

When I wanted to see what crazy thing Gates would say I would don a particular set of clothes and go see him: white cotton suit, socks and shoes, a pink shirt, a pink and teal tie, and a Panama hat with a pink hat band. Gates got so distracted that he made what even for Gates were amazing statements, amazing for their honesty and candor.

Once he asked me why I wrote that outfit. "I dunno, Daryl, because I like it," I said.

Gates was, for once, speechless.

(This article was excerpted from a longer piece that appeared on LA Observed. Read the article in full.)

David Cay Johnston covered the LAPD for the Los Angeles Times from 1980-83. In 2001, while reporting for the New York Times, he won a Pulitzer Prize for what the judges called "his penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms."