By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Under state law, a coroner must conduct an inquiry and determine the cause of “violent, sudden or unusual deaths.” Medical examiners must also respond if the person who dies is unattended — that is, does not have a doctor with him at the time or has not seen a doctor in the previous 20 days. Three other people who died on May 6, 2005 — and whose death certificates were viewed by the L.A. Weekly — had a signature from a doctor. A fourth death certificate was signed by a coroner, and resulted in an autopsy.
The issue has been whispered about to such an extent that Supervisor Mike Antonovich, certainly not a politician aligned with the federation, sent a one-sentence letter on October 19 asking if Contreras received an autopsy and if not, why not. This week, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office responded in a one-page letter that it concluded that the 52-year-old union activist had diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension — not to mention two brothers who went through heart surgery themselves. “His cause of death was based on history and external examination, consistent with other Coroner’s cases of similar circumstances,” wrote Dr. Christopher Rogers, the coroner’s chief of forensic medicine. “The history is that he collapsed suddenly while having his fortune read.”
Rogers also said investigators took a tissue sample from Contreras’ heart, saying that it showed that the labor leader had already experienced smaller heart attacks. A coroner’s spokesman said the department relied on police and Contreras’ son for other information.
Deputy Coroner Barbara L. Nelson, the official who signed Contreras’ death certificate, said no one ever informed her about the location of the death, or the sting operation. Asked about the new information, Nelson said she still would make the same decision today, forgoing an autopsy in favor of interviews and an external examination of the body. Yet Nelson conceded that a botanicacan prescribe cures with harmful side effects. And she noted that coroners are often at the mercy of grieving family and friends when compiling information on the deceased.
“There’s nothing there that would change my mind and have brought him in,” Nelson said. “I would have handled it the same way. And him being somebody of prominence, it wouldn’t have made a difference either.”
Contreras’ widow, Maria Elena Durazo, provided a one-paragraph statement this week, saying she is content with the official review of her husband’s death. “Our family continues to grieve, which is why we would appreciate the media allowing Miguel to rest in peace, as we are fully satisfied with the information involving his passing.”
The woman who dialed 911 from 647½ West Florence Avenue nearly 18 months ago initially sounds calm as she describes her discovery of Contreras, according to the nine-minute recording of her call, a copy of which was obtained by the L.A. Weekly. In a voice that sounded soft, feminine and slightly high pitched, the caller tells the 911 operator in Spanish that a gentleman had come to her for a “consulta de baraja” — Spanish for card reading. She tells the operator that her visitor took a seat, then experienced an attack. “Como un embolio?” the operator responds, asking her if it was like a stroke.
The woman then tells the operator that Contreras’ chest is not moving, that he appears pale. As the operator asks his questions, the unnamed caller checks with another person as she answers. As she is guided through the basics of CPR, the caller sounds increasingly distraught. “No está respirando,” she says in a hushed voice, after checking to see if Contreras’ airway had been obstructed. The call is silent for roughly a minute. By the time the paramedics arrive, she sounds as though she is on the verge of tears.
Asked who placed the call, fire department spokesman Ron Myers said his agency would not know unless it was on the 911 tape. Paramedics do not request the names of witnesses when they respond to an emergency, focusing instead on the needs of the patient, Myers said. “We dispatch between 1,200 and 1,500 runs every 24 hours,” he said. “We don’t worry about who it is that’s calling necessarily, because we would be inundated with information.”
The incident was categorized by the authorities as a “VIP death,” a sign that it was different from the many others that occur in South Los Angeles.
Nearly 18 months after that call, the sign for Botanica Inca has been removed. The building has been cleaned out and the exterior has been whitewashed. The woman now living in the rear rental space is Maryanne Gutierrez, the daughter of the landlords. Gutierrez moved into the apartment earlier this summer. After she settled in, she noticed that strange men knocked on her door, uninvited, nearly every day.
Gutierrez said she had been told by her parents that some or all of the workers were deported after the bust, which caused Botanica Inca to be evicted. But her mother, Irma Logan Gutierrez, refused to say who had been renting the space at the time of the arrests.
Once the LAPD completed its sting, the City Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute two of the three people they arrested — Edwardo Ramirez, who had been arrested on suspicion of pimping, and Wilma Robles, who had been arrested on suspicion of prostitution. The third, Susana Ortega, was a first-time offender who saw the prostitution charge dropped in favor of a lesser one — failure to obtain a license for a massage parlor. Ortega agreed to an HIV test and was sentenced to perform Caltrans duty.
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