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His death grabbed the attention of the national media, which noted his leadership of the 2000 janitor’s strike. His funeral drew 3,000 people to the Cathedral of the Lady of the Angels. Contreras and his funeral Mass were name-dropped in the play Water and Power, a discourse on Los Angeles politics performed at the Mark Taper Forum.
The sun had just set last November when officers from the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Division infiltrated a dingy storefront on gritty Florence Avenue in South L.A., not far from the roaring 110 freeway. Technically, the place wasn’t even a storefront, but rather a series of nondescript back rooms, stuck behind a liquor store/video-rental shop and sealed off from the outside by a metal security door.
Posing as johns, the undercover officers from the LAPD’s vice squad entered the business from a side street and asked for a massage. Moments later, 28-year-old Susana Ortega emerged with a condom and asked one of the men to remove his underwear. Her words gave the officers what they needed to hear; they arrested three people — two for prostitution, and a third for serving as a pimp.
The bust was like many in South Los Angeles, where roughly 50 blocks of Figueroa Street make up the most heavily trafficked prostitution corridor in the city. The only difference: This sting operation went down at the same place where, six months earlier, paramedics found the unconscious body of Miguel Contreras, the most renowned union official in California, the man credited with resurrecting the labor movement in Los Angeles.
LAPD Sergeant Dan Hudson confirmed last week that the May 6, 2005, death of the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor prompted police to set up the prostitution sting. Hudson would not elaborate on what it was about Contreras’ death that led police to raid the business, known as Botanica Inca. “I’m not real comfortable going into all that,” Hudson said. “But because of that [death], we started looking at it.”
The demise of the 52-year-old union boss blind-sided the federation’s 800,000 members and sent ripples throughout the region’s political establishment, just 11 days before the contentious 2005 mayoral election. The race pitted embattled incumbent James Hahn — the man Contreras’ organization ostensibly supported — against challenger Antonio Villaraigosa, a rising political star and Contreras friend who had been groomed for the job by the powerful labor boss. Contreras, a farm worker from the Central Valley town of Dinuba, started out with the United Farm Workers and, two decades later, turned L.A.’s County Federation into a powerhouse. After his leadership of the janitors’ strike in the year 2000, unions around the country looked to Los Angeles for models on how to organize, and Contreras became a giant in L.A.’s labor movement.
News of Contreras’ collapse reached the city’s political elite on a Friday night and made its way onto the front pages of four daily newspapers the following day. Some said he died of a heart attack. None mentioned where he died: on an especially forsaken stretch of Florence Avenue, the type of boulevard where even the corner McDonald’s has security bars on the window of its drive-through — on the inside. The newspapers also did not broach the odd circumstances that surrounded his death, on that day or in the ensuing months.
Contreras had been in a self-describedbotanica, a type of business that dispenses alternative medicines. No longer breathing by the time paramedics reached him, Contreras was pronounced dead at Centinela Freeman Memorial Hospital, then known as Daniel Freeman. The police report on his death said the 911 call was made by an unnamed business owner at 4:25 p.m. Asked to identify who found Contreras, police officers wrote: “Unknown.”
Despite his stature, or perhaps because of it, the details of Contreras' death have eluded the public record. Had he been an elected official, or even a low-voltage celebrity, many more questions would have been asked about his final hours. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine such secrets being kept in any other big city, includingNew York, Chicago or London. Was he at a fortune teller or a botanica? A massage parlor or a den of prostitution? Or all of the above?
Throughout his political career, Contreras had been a behind-the-scenes operator — pouring money into campaigns, mobilizing union workers on Election Day and pushing for the passage of prolabor policies, including such massive public-works projects as Staples Center and the now-abandoned $11.5 billion remodeling of Los Angeles International Airport. Contreras was in the background during the 2000 bus strike, brokering a conversation between then-mayor Richard Riordan and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Now, even in death, Contreras has stayed behind the scenes, leaving the public a mystery regarding the circumstances surrounding his demise.
Even if the questions are awkward or unpleasant, they deserve to be asked, if for no other reason than to preserve the record of one of L.A.’s most influential figures at the end of the 20th century. Historians have done the same in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., another powerful figure who spoke on behalf of the downtrodden, seeking to understand the man in totality, by exploring his more private side. And so the question remains, what happened during the final hours of Miguel Contreras’ life? Why is it so hard to track down the woman in the botanica who found him? Who delivered his wallet to the LAPD in the days after his death? And how could his death have triggered a sting operation but not an autopsy?