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
Ortega’s public defender, Ninaz Saffari, said Ortega is fluent in English, a fact that makes her somewhat less likely to be the one who called 911. Saffari said she was unaware that a death had occurred at Ortega’s massage parlor. “I would probably advise her not to talk to you, because her case is not completely over with,” Saffari added. “She is still on probation. She still is under obligation to the court, and anything could be used against her in a probation violation hearing.”
Miguel Contreras was pronounced dead at Centinela Freeman Memorial Hospital. The hospital was a straight shot from the botanica, and could be reached by driving east down Florence Avenue right into Inglewood.
The waiting room of Centinela Freeman quickly filled with grief-stricken politicians and labor leaders. Then-councilman Antonio Villaraigosa was among the first to arrive at the emergency room, as was then-councilman Martin Ludlow — who had served at Contreras’ side as the federation’s political director only a few years earlier.
As more politicos arrived, hospital administrators opened up Centinela’s Medical Education Conference Center, a series of meeting rooms where mourners could get bottled water. For a brief moment, the shock of Contreras’ death brought the breakneck mayoral campaign to a halt. But the divisions created by the battle for power were apparent, according to sources who were there. Villaraigosa, Ludlow and Durazo were ushered into a smaller room, Conference Room C, while Hahn and his aides sat outside with the ever-growing crowd. “By the time I got there, there were probably 20 to 25 people,” said Tyrone Freeman, who heads Service Employees International Union Local 434B, which represents in-home health-care workers. “But it just grew to a larger and larger number. There were people outside, inside, everywhere.”
State Senator Gil Cedillo, who had broken with Villaraigosa by endorsing Hahn, made his way inside the smaller room that housed Villaraigosa and Durazo. The door to Conference Room C was closed for much of the night, except for the times that Ludlow paced in and out, talking on his cell phone and becoming increasingly agitated. One City Hall veteran said Ludlow sounded like he was engaged in a “shouting match.” He later learned what provoked the confrontation: issues surrounding the coroner’s investigative process, and the most expeditious way to avoid an autopsy.
“It was over the doctor’s death note. He wanted it issued there. He wanted it issued at the hospital,” said a mourner who showed up at Centinela Freeman.
Without a doctor’s signature, it would be likely that the county’s medical examiner would conduct a full autopsy on Contreras. Once Contreras was pronounced dead, Ludlow — the man who would succeed Contreras weeks later — had begun calling administrators at Kaiser Permanente, searching for a doctor who could sign the death certificate, according to two sources who refused to be named. Ludlow contacted Kaiser’s West Los Angeles office, a facility located in his district, asking them to track down Contreras’ doctor. That office tried without success to locate Contreras’ physician that night.
Nelson, the deputy coroner, signed off on Contreras’ death certificate, noting in her report that the labor leader had been under the care of two Kaiser physicians. Both refused to sign the death certificate. Nelson said Kaiser is notorious for refusing to sign the paperwork after a patient death as an extra precaution to prevent malpractice lawsuits. She also pointed out that the body had been harvested — its organs donated for other patients — before her office viewed it.
One Kaiser official in Los Angeles County, who asked to remain anonymous, said the health-care organization contacted Contreras’ family physician shortly after his death and learned that Contreras had not seen him in two years. “You’re not supposed to sign off on the death if you think the death is unexpected,” the official added. Two of the main players that night, Ludlow and Villaraigosa, would not comment after being contacted by the Weekly.
Kaiser spokesman Jim Anderson said patient confidentiality laws prevent him from discussing any specific case. But he also argued that it is “certainly not the case” that his company automatically refuses to sign death certificates. Anderson also pointed out that a family physician is not the only medical expert authorized to sign death certificates. “If it’s pretty clear to an E.R. doctor what the cause of death is, they probably could sign it,” Anderson said. “But it depends on the circumstances.”
Dr. Takashi Oshita, the man who pronounced Contreras dead at 5:21 p.m. at Centinela Freeman, said this week that he could not comment about the man he treated. But he argued that emergency-room doctors never sign a death certificate; only the physician of the deceased is allowed to do so. Asked whether the evening was unusual, he referred all additional questions to hospital administrators, who said they could not broach the issue without permission from Contreras’ family.
If L.A.’s power brokers were in pursuit of details about the circumstances of Contreras’ death, they did it under the radar.Mike Garcia, the head of Service Employees International Union Local 1877, returned to L.A. the day after Contreras died. He wasn’t told about the botanica, and said he relied on the vague accounts of others. “I just know what I heard and read in the paper, that he was in his car and that he pulled over, and had whatever problem that he endured,” said Garcia.
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