Gary Woodford and his buddies left tiny Girard in northern Ohio for the City of Angels 30 years ago, chasing the California dream. Woodford, a well-liked, athletic, curly-haired young man, had just learned that he was color-blind and wouldn't be able to follow his chosen career as a pilot.
But he was buoyed by the idea of making his name in L.A.'s aviation industry. His mom, Irene Woodford, recalls how Gary, radiating youthful ambition, told an interviewer at C&S Propeller in Glendale he'd be "the best employee he'd ever had."
Then, about 10 years ago, things went sour. Woodford hurt his back and had trouble finding work. He told his family in Ohio that he was getting by on "odds and ends" but still loved California. Protective of his mother, who had lost a son and husband, and whose third son was left severely disabled after a car struck him, Woodford never told his mom he had an alcohol problem and lived on the streets of North Hollywood.
Now Woodford, 55, is dead — mowed down three months ago on Vineland Avenue by a city-owned Prius driven by Manuel "Manny" Figueras, longtime field deputy to City Councilman Richard Alarcon.
Yet for two and a half months after the March 14 fatality, an unofficial — and rare — information blackout kept the tragedy out of the news.
Had the story come out in March, it likely would have created headlines. Alarcon was engaged in a tough primary campaign for state Assembly, and his handling of a tragedy involving a top aide would have been subject to media scrutiny. Among possible areas of interest to the L.A. public: Eyewitnesses tell the Weekly that Figueras called 911 after striking Woodford but did not try to help the badly bleeding man.
After the fatal crash, odd things began to happen. A draft press release, written by an LAPD traffic captain hours after the fatality, was never made public. A City Hall reporter for the Los Angeles Times did know about it soon after it happened, Alarcon says. The Times asked if Alarcon had been driving. He had not — and the paper ran no story. Yet LAPD's top press officers, Andy Neiman and Andrew Smith, say they had no clue that a City Hall official had killed a pedestrian — until the Weekly called in mid-June.
Gary's mom in Ohio, Irene Woodford, and his sister, Susan, in Cleveland, never heard from Alarcon or his office, and they're desperate to understand what happened.
Alarcon, who years ago lost a son in a traffic accident, never divulged the fatality.
He says he planned to decide whether to hold a press availability after LAPD wrapped up its investigation. He believes the news blackout was a fluke, saying, "I don't know how you'd keep it under wraps, such a horrible tragedy."
He didn't contact the Woodfords, he says, because "the police indicated the man was possibly a homeless person. I never heard back from the police there was any family."
When Alarcon saw Valley Traffic Division captain Ivan Minsal at public events, he asked when the crash investigation would be done, but says he never learned that Woodford's family had been located.
Told by the Weekly that the LAPD found Woodford's mother right after the man's death, Alarcon said he was "very disappointed" he wasn't informed, and plans to send the family condolences.
Woodford's mother and sister in Ohio and friends in the San Fernando Valley — who speak well of the affable homeless man — want answers. "There wasn't [a press release]? Oh my!" his mother exclaims to the Weekly. "All we're looking for is answers," says Susan Woodford.
An autopsy revealed that Woodford died following extensive internal injuries caused by the impact from Figueras' Prius, and that Woodford had a very high level of alcohol in his system. The Los Angeles Daily News broke the story on May 31, identifying Figueras as the driver of the city car and quoting Alarcon about the tragedy, but not addressing the time lag.*
Eyewitness Norberto Correa, who sometimes bought meals for Woodford, says the fatal accident was obviously news, and of public interest. He says Figueras' car was traveling "real fast" and swerved from the middle lane on Vineland, striking Woodford as he neared the curb, throwing him onto the Prius' windshield and then to the street.
"The car swung from the middle lane and hit Gary," says Correa, who lives nearby with his daughter. "He wasn't trying to stop, either." Correa says Figueras called authorities but failed to help the bleeding Woodford. Figueras went back and forth to his car and fumbled with something near the dashboard, Correa says.
Another eyewitness, Woodford's best friend, Jacko, who called Woodford "Papa," stood near where Woodford died, explaining how he was helping his friend cross five-lane Vineland when Figueras swerved at him. "I had looked both ways," Jacko said between sobs. "I had ahold of his forearm, because he's old. I get him all the way across and I'm stepping on the curb."
Woodford was two steps from the curb when "this car comes flying from the middle lane and hits him. I was holding him. He was gasping, 'Help me.'
"I was holding him, and I told him, 'Papa, you're going to die. I said a prayer for him — and that was it."
When paramedics arrived, Jacko says, Figueras pulled out his card. "He acted like he was in charge of the fire department," he says "He was walking around like the foreman at a building site. He didn't give a fuck. I was so pissed. I knew it was all wrong."
Figueras referred questions to Alarcon's chief of staff, Becca Doten.
Normally, LAPD would have issued a press release detailing the incident — a city official driving a city car involved in a fatal crash — says Lt. Andy Neiman, who's in charge of LAPD media relations. "We don't always release the name of the driver, but if it's a city vehicle involved, we'd typically admit that," he says. "That's not something we need to keep from the public."
But Neiman and his boss, Cmdr. Andrew Smith, were out of the loop. "I'm really surprised I didn't hear about it," Neiman says. "You'd think people would be talking about it."
Neiman described Figueras as "very active with LAPD" due to his job as a field deputy for Alarcon. Valley Traffic Division's Minsal, who recognized Figueras at the scene of the fatality — the two have worked together on community projects — insists that his office sent a draft press release to LAPD press headquarters on March 15 at 4:47 a.m., nine hours after the accident. Minsal showed a copy of it to the Weekly.
Neiman can't find that document in the LAPD computer system. He found only an internal alert to LAPD's command staff, which did not mention Figueras.
Minsal's draft press release failed to identify Figueras as a city employee driving a city car. Minsal says Figueras' job at City Hall isn't relevant, asking: "What part of that would have any bearing on the fact a man was killed?"
Susan Woodford has an attorney looking into her brother's death, saying of the ongoing LAPD investigation, "We couldn't imagine why it was taking so long." She says Valley Traffic Det. James Deaton told her he plans to seek a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge against Figueras.
Today, Irene Woodford thinks about how she got word of her son's death, in a call from Jacko. She thought it was a sick prank — after all, another of her sons was permanently disabled after a car hit him in Florida.
When Jacko began to cry, she knew it was true.
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Later, she says, an LAPD investigator told her "it was negligence on the part of the driver. He said it was dusk and possibly the lighting wasn't the best. ... I remember my remark, 'My goodness, that's no excuse. You have lights on the car and that's what you should use them for.' "
On March 22, Irene Woodford received a condolence letter from Minsal.
But until she was contacted by the Weekly, one piece of information was consistently left out: that an L.A. city official was the person who struck and killed her son.
*Details have been added to clarify the contents of the Daily News story.