Herbie Gonzalez glanced in his rearview mirror as he turned right from Normandie onto 35th Street. Sick with the flu, he barely noticed the white Dodge Ram lurking in the crosstown traffic behind him.
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Scene of the nightmare: Herbie Gonzalez, back at the strip-mall parking lot where he was kept handcuffed for hours.
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Gonzalez in his bedroom-closet music studio
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Who is this man? Surveillance tape scenes from the day of the murder
The pickup truck followed Gonzalez onto 35th and stalked his blue Nissan Maxima as it headed east. Driving with his fiancée, rap lyricist and composer Blanca Piñon, Gonzalez pulled over to check out a bungalow with a For Sale sign out front, a possible home for the soon-to-be-married couple. The truck made a move to pass, then suddenly swerved and squealed to a stop next to the Maxima, wedged in so close that it blocked Gonzalez from getting out.
Now Herbie was paying full attention.
The longhaired white guy in the pickup leaned across the cab, stuck his head out the passenger-side window and gave Gonzalez a crazy-eyes stare, slurring his words like he was in a hurry: Hey dude, you know what time it is?
The rock & roll look didnt bother Gonzalez, a 26-year-old rapper and law clerk with a receding hairline and a recording deal in the works, but the warp-speed words were all wrong.
When some stranger asks you if you know what time it is in my neighborhood, it usually means youre about to be robbed, he said. Like, time for you to give me your shit.
Gonzalez and Piñon were parked at the geographical heart of a bipolar neighborhood, a residential area defined by its borders, with the University of Southern California to the east and the area formerly known as South-Central to the south. On this day, January 5, 2006, they had good reason to be wary: It was the morning after the now-legendary 2006 Rose Bowl, when Vince Forever Young and his posse of Texas Longhorn all-Americans snatched the National Championship from Matt Sex Machine Leinart, Reggie Pimp my Crib Bush and USC supercoach Pete Carroll with a last-second touchdown. The neighborhood had a nasty hangover a concrete cocktail of disorderly drunks, depressed USC fans and die-hard partiers who refused to let this marathon New Years holiday weekend stagger to a merciful end.
So when the longhaired guy shouted out, Gonzalez kept his window up, his door locked and his mouth shut. But the driver jumped out of the truck and came right at him, screaming something unintelligible but clearly hostile. He was tall and thick, early-to-mid-30s, greasy black hair parted in the middle and spilling down onto broad, buff shoulders. He wore long black basketball shorts that hung down to his knees, high-top black sneakers and a black wife-beater set off by a bunch of jailhouse tats on big, bulging biceps.
He looked like he had just left an all-night rave, Gonzalez recalled, as he stood in the same spot on 35th almost two years later. A lot of times partied-out college students wander into this neighborhood and ask for directions to the 110 or the 405.
Gonzalez was just one block from home, and the last thing he needed this morning was some wacko white stranger asking stupid questions and getting up in his grill. After a week of being sick and eating almost nothing, all he wanted to do was get some chicken soup from his mothers catering truck at the corner of Slauson and McKinley, his original destination.
So he looked hard at the rock & roll guy for a second, shrugged through the window and shifted into first gear.
I dont know what this crazy guy wants, but I know he doesnt really want the time, Gonzalez said. Maybe he wants to rob me to pay for drugs.
Before he hit the gas, Gonzalez took one more look out his side window. Now the guy was waving a gun. A big gun.
It wasnt any old .22 or Saturday-night special, he said. He started banging on the windshield and screaming something about me getting out of the car.
The news spread through Manhattan Beach like a teenagers IM late Monday afternoon, April 11, 2005: Someone has been raped, strangled and burned to death in one of those expensive houses down by the ocean.
The attack happened five minutes away from the Manhattan Beach police station and 30 seconds from the Strand, the thick concrete ribbon that runs parallel to the ocean, overlooks the meticulously groomed beach and serves as a community boardwalk. The murder house was a modest duplex shoehorned into a millionaires row of new-money faux-Mediterranean McMansions.